Fear of the Lord

The idea of “fear” in relation to God is often downplayed as consisting in merely reverence or awe, especially in the New Testament. But while these are no doubt part of it fear, they are inadequate accounts of it on their own. Scripture routinely pairs fear of God with terrifying things and people’s trembling at them, which is not necessarily the case with reverence. And it often connects fear of God with an active response, whereas being in awe of something is mostly (if not entirely) passive. In this post, I want to give a more nuanced analysis of fear and explore its outworkings in passages drawn from both the Old and New Testaments, in order to arrive at a deeper and more biblical account of it.

Fear is when (1) we are aware of a possibility that (2) we take to be painful or bad in some way. It’s not that we believe this thing will happen, only that we are aware of its possibility. If, on the other hand, we thought it would happen then that would be dread.[1] The object of our fear can be the active imposition of some bad thing, such as a violent attack, or it can be the loss of something good, such as the loss of our savings. We could say that there are two “kinds” of fear, distinguished by the response they motivate in us. On the one hand, if the object is entirely set on the imposition of something bad, then fear will drive us to rid ourselves of it, through destroying it or fleeing it. On the other hand, if the object is something good we may lose, then fear draws us towards it rather than drives away from it, to cling to and safeguard rather than destroy or flee.

Let us now consider some passages in scripture that mention the fear of God.

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid [shaking] and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex 20:18–21)

This is one of the more intriguing passages on the fear of the Lord. At first glance, Moses’s words seem to be almost contradictory, but we can understand what’s going on here in terms of the two kinds of fear we have mentioned: Moses is urging the people not to have a fear of God that causes them to flee from him, but rather to have a fear of God that draws near and remains faithful to him. This aligns well with the surrounding narrative, but also with the juxtaposition of how the people stand far off while Moses draws near. God had chosen Israel to be his treasured possession among all the nations, that they could maintain this “holy zone” within the world where God could be accessed once again (Ex 19:1–6). But God is powerful and hates sin, making him dangerous to a people prone to sinning and turning away to other gods (Ex 20:22; 32). Thus, turning away from God in disobedience would result in both the loss of something great (life with the creator himself) and the imposition of a great pain (punishment by the creator himself). A double reason to fear God and cling to him rather than make oneself an enemy of him. We see these ideas borne out explicitly in Deuteronomy:

It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth. (Deut 6:10–15)

The question here is not whether or not the people fear, but who they fear. The typical practice in the Ancient Near East was for invading tribes to take on the gods of the people they conquered, including them in their pantheon. But God distinguishes himself from these other gods by being jealous—he alone is to be feared, not alongside these other gods. He alone is the supreme creator over everything, who can wipe the people out completely if they go against him—the possibility of pain which grounds the fear his people are to have of him.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? …  For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome [fearful] God, who is not partial and takes no bribe… You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying [fearful] things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. (Deut 10:12–22)

English translations tend to use different words to translate the Hebrew words which share the same root as “fear”, which has the unfortunate effect of obscuring the connection between the command to fear God and the basis for this in his dealings with Israel. Something we see from this passage is that fear of God is not the only motivating force for the people of God. It may at first seem strange or even manipulative to combine fear with love, but as Whitney explains in his excellent essay on the topic, it is only when these two work together that they can have a truly beneficial effect on us:

The Scripture evidently regards love, toward God or man, as the highest motive of its list, but it expects, in a multitude of cases, to be able to commit man to the guidance and tutelage of love only after he has been caught and conquered by fear… it is, indeed, true that fear alone does degrade. It is also true, and it is a truth that often needs much more to be insisted on, that love alone softens men into weakness or lets their passions grow strong for rebellion by-and-by. But fear, wrapped about by love… makes the tender and obedient and yet strong Christian man.[2]

Whitney notes that fear plays a role alongside other motives in all social settings, whether they be familial, social, or civil. It is most important where reason or some other higher motive is not enough to curb all pathological behaviors, as anyone who has needed to supervise a young child for more than a short time will tell you. Perhaps we make the mistake of thinking the same is true even of adults and even in the case of religion, for in many respects we maintain our self- and other-destructive tendencies and our disregard for the goodness of God.

Now then, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the LORD our God, or partiality or taking bribes. (2 Chr 19:7)

These are the words Jehoshaphat said to the judges he had appointed, and they are of interest because they show that the reason God is to be feared not because he is fickle or unjust, but because he is just. The fear of God is quite unlike the fear of men, who are proud, corrupt, or cruel. In these cases, we might do all the right things and yet still be “punished” for our actions, but with God we are to fear precisely because he is not like this. The punishment of men might be averted through bribery or favoritism, but not with God. There is no recourse or court of appeals as there are in our error-prone judicial systems, for he does not make mistakes and he will not subvert justice.

O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. (Neh 1:11)

At first glance it may seem somewhat paradoxical to delight in fearing God, since we have said that fear has to do with pain and loss. There are two ways of understanding what is meant by Nehemiah’s statement. In the first place, we might take him to be speaking metonymically, where “fear of God” is used to refer to all aspects of obedience and proper living with God that we saw listed earlier. In this case, Nehemiah is simply referring to those who take pleasure in living in harmony with God. Another way to take him is as speaking in relation to the effect of the fear of God, rather than the experience of fear itself. That is, while the object of fear is something bad, the purpose of fear is to draw us towards God and safeguard our life with him. So, we take pleasure in the fear of God knowing that it will keep us on the straight and narrow, protecting us both from the negative influence of others and from ourselves. This is no doubt what the Psalmist has in mind when he says that God’s rod and staff comfort him (Ps 23:4). In the metaphor of God as shepherd and us as sheep, his rod is a tool for discipline whereas his staff is a tool for softer guidance. These both comfort us because these are both means by which God keeps us on the path that is truly beneficial, even when our passions would have us mistakenly believe otherwise.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Pr 1:7)

Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices. For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster. (Pr 1:29–33)

… if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Pr 2:3–6)

Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Pr 3:7–8)

I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. (Pr 8:12–14)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Pr 9:10)

The fear of the Lord is a regular motif within Proverbs. Above I have selected just the explicit mentions of it within the opening prologue of the book (chs. 1–9), although even here there are still more implicit mentions. Throughout this prologue we see the repeated refrain for the reader to listen to the guidance of their parents, of wisdom itself, and ultimately of God. While going the way of the scoffers, the sluggards, and the fools might at first seem appealing, it will really lead to their destruction. By contrast the wisdom gained from humbly listening to others will protect the attentive listener and help them to flourish in life. It’s within this context that the fear of the Lord Proverbs speaks of is to be understood. The author no doubt has in mind the law of Moses, given the mention of the covenant with God (2:17) and prolonging their time in the land (2:21–22). But there also seems to be a broader focus to his warnings: the object of fear is not only God’s judgment for rejecting him, but also the natural consequences of living without regard to God’s instruction. God has created the world to function in a particular way, and disregarding his guidance will corrupt ourselves, be ultimately unfulfilling, and perhaps even lead to our eventual downfall. The fear of this is the fear of loss, loss of the good life we could have within a well-functioning society if only we followed God’s instruction.

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Eccl 3:14–15)

Ecclesiastes is in basic agreement with Proverbs, but the approach is somewhat different, leading to a different nuance of the fear of God. A major aspect of Qohelet’s aim in Ecclesiastes is negative, arguing against prevailing sentiment about how we should achieve happiness—or “the good life”, or how we should live “under the sun”. Rather than grasp happiness by our own power through folly, or in wisdom, or as the outcome of wisdom we should instead find it in the toil God has already given each of us to be busy with. God “has made everything beautiful in its time… there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” (Eccl 3:11–13) He is not only giving one option among others, however, but argues that this is the only viable option. The reason for this is expressed in the quoted passage above: God has designed reality to work like this, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Any attempt to seek happiness by our own power apart from this radical reliance on God will hit up against hevel—a Hebrew word literally meaning “vapor”, but used by Qohelet to convey the inevitable failure of such pursuits.[3] Thus, the fear of God Qohelet considers here is not necessarily based on punishment (although this does come up immediately after this), but on the inevitable squandering of happiness by going against his design. In this regard it is similar to Proverbs, in that it sees this loss as issuing from the natural consequences of our actions rather than some externally-imposed punishment. But because these natural consequences are the result of God’s design, Qohelet can conclude that true happiness is found only in the joyful toil in the fear of God.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:14–15)

Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. (Rom. 11:19–22)

As we come to the New Testament, the tendency is to suppose that Jesus did away with the fear of God. We might attempt to justify this mistaken idea by pointing to passages which clearly say we are not to fear, as Paul does in the first passage above. But we have seen from our brief survey of some Old Testament passages that such statements are perfectly compatible with, and sometimes even implied by, the fear of God. As the quotes above show, this is true in Romans as well. The fear in chapter 8 arises from falling back into slavery to sin, for as long as we continue in this state we await God’s wrath as his enemies. Such a fear is of course no longer applicable now that we have adoption through Christ. However, this does not exclude fear tout court, for the judgment of God remains a live possibility so long as we are at risk of abandoning him, and with this will now also come the loss of this new and glorious life we have been brought into. Thus we have Paul’s warning against presumption of grace in chapter 11.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13)

The exhortation to work out our salvation in fear and trembling is a consequence drawn both from God’s work through Christ (2:1–11) and from God’s work in us (2:13). At first glance, neither of these things seem like they would instill fear in us. Again, we might be tempted to paper over this by saying that the fear in view here is simply a sort of reverence, but this would both ignore the biblical context we have been considering so far and ignore the pairing of fear with trembling in this particular passage. Paul must have judgment in mind to some extent, as he proceeds to urge the Philippians to be blameless, innocent, and without blemish (2:15). Yet we still need to explain the connections he explicitly draws between fear and the work of God. One way to understand this is that God’s work makes plain how seriously he takes the matter of whether we live in accordance with him. If God had left us to our own devices, then it could be taken as an indication of his ultimate indifference to us. But if Christ humbles himself to the point of death and God transforms us internally into a people who live according to his good pleasure, then we can be sure that God is anything but indifferent. We best not squander these great gifts, then, for God will surely hold us more accountable the more grace of his we reject.[4] So, then, rather than remove the fear of God, the grace given to us in Christ strengthens it!

[1] We have discussed these in some detail before: https://thinkingthoughtout.com/2016/11/30/faith-and-hope/

[2] Henry M. Whitney, “The Place of Fear Among the Motives of Religion”, Bibliotheca Sacra Vol 63 Iss 250 (1906).

[3] This word is variously (but unhelpfully) translated as “vanity” or “meaninglessness” or “futility”. I think it best to think of the word as a term of art, coined by Qohelet in his discourse, just as Aristotle used the Greek word hyle for “matter”, even though it literally means “wood”. If pressed for a single-word translation, I like “intractability”, but this is admittedly not a particularly common word. A friend of mine has defended the translation “illusive”, which is better.

[4] This is the flip side of a principle commonly used to explain how God treats the unevangelized: God will hold us accountable in proportion to the knowledge we have been given and our power to properly respond to it.

Potentiality, diversity, and limitation

Over on my post introducing potentiality from first principles, a reader raises some important questions that I thought would be worth answering in a separate post. If you haven’t read that post yet, I would encourage you to before continuing here.

This idea of “relative non-being” is the best explanation I have come across of the idea that potency “limits” act, though I still do not quite understand it. It seems to me that “relative non-being” really presupposes diversity in being rather than explaining that diversity; if so, it would be better just to take the diversity as primitive.

We could say that relative non-being is intrinsically differentiated, since whenever something is not X it is therefore something other than X.[1] Thus, another way of talking about relative non-being is in terms of otherness. This does not presuppose the diversity of being, however, because relative non-being is something outside of being—it influences being without making any positive contribution of being. Perhaps this would be clearer if we noted that by “being” we really mean non-relative being, and that likewise by “non-being” we really mean non-relative non-being. So, non-relative being is, non-relative non-being is not, and relative non-being is not X (for some X). We posit relative non-being in order to account for how it can be the case that more than one thing is. If there is only what is (being) and what is not (non-being), then nothing can diversify “isness” into this and that. On the other hand, if isness is composed with is-not-Xness then this opens up the possibility of isness also being composed with is-Xness (ie. is-not-Y for all Y other than X, more on this later). Since no one thing can be both X and not-X at the same time in the same sense, this gives us diversity of being.

What does it mean for being to compose with relative non-being? At this point, all we can say is that it involves mutual influence: being provides the positive contribution by virtue of which something is, whereas relative non-being provides the limits by virtue of which something is not X, or Y, or Z, etc. Neither exists in this influenced form prior to the composition, meaning that the relative non-being has no existence whatsoever apart from its composition with being, and being has no multiplication to this or that instance apart from its composition with relative non-being.

Maybe another way to put that would be: relative non-being can only account for multiplicity/diversity in being if there is diversity in relative non-being. But Parmenides could just reply that there can’t be diversity in relative non-being either: it couldn’t be differentiated by being (because that presupposes diversity in being, which relative non-being is supposed to account for); it couldn’t be differentiated by non-being (because that is nothing); and it couldn’t be differentiated by relative non-being (because any two things with relative non-being have that in common).

The first sentence here is spot on: relative non-being accounts for the diversity in being by virtue of the diversity that is present in relative non-being. But this diversity is not added to something that is otherwise one, but is an intrinsic feature of relative non-being. The relativity of relative non-being means that there is no such thing as relative non-being simpliciter, that is relative non-being without some qualification. This is because relative non-being is defined in terms of what it is relative to—the X in “is not X”—so that if we take this away then all we are left with is non-relative non-being, which is something else entirely.

Given this, Parmenides’s supposed reply doesn’t work: there can be diversity in relative non-being because there can be diversity in its qualifications. Suppose we have something that is not X, nor Y, nor anything else except Z, and we have something that is not X, nor Z, nor anything else except Y. Despite these both having relative non-being, they must be distinct from one another because the way in which they have relative non-being is different: each is qualified in a different way.

This is analogous to other determinables, such as location. You and I each have a location, but these locations themselves are distinct from one another.

At least as far as I understand Parmenides argument against multiplicity, he could give the same justification against multiplicity in relative non-being as against multiplicity in being – though I’m also not sure I understand Parmenides very well.

Parmenides’ argument seems to be:

(1) For there to be more than one being, they must be differentiated either by being or non-being.

(2) They can’t be differentiated by non-being, since that is nothing.

(3) They can’t be differentiated by being, since they have that in common.

Thus, there cannot be more than one being.

The Thomistic response seems to be to deny premise (1) and postulate relative non-being as a third option. But I don’t see why we cannot deny premise (3) instead and just say that yes, while they have “being” in common in the sense that they both exist, they also exist differently (e.g., by being of different kinds, or different individuals of the same kind). In other words, postulate diversity in being as a primitive principle. “Relative non-being” appears to me to be parasitic on this primitive diversity, and therefore superfluous as a response to Parmenides.

This reconstruction is somewhat accurate, but misses a crucial nuance. The problem in (3) is not simply that they have being in common (as they might have relative non-being, or locatedness in common), but that in both cases being is doing the same thing, namely grounding their isness. If all we can say about X is that it is and all that we can say about Y is that it is, then there is no distinction between them, because there is no sense in which Y is not X or vice versa.

I also don’t quite see how it follows that these two ways of conceiving of potentiality (relative non-being vs. capacity for actuality) are equivalent: in arguing that they are equivalent you describe both conceptions in two different ways and those different ways don’t seem equivalent to me.

Looking back, I certainly could have described the relevant moves in more detail. The basic idea is that we can show that the two accounts of potentiality are equivalent by starting from each one and showing how it can be understood in terms of the other.

Let’s start with relative non-being, which we have said limits being by excluding certain options within some domain. It cannot exclude everything in the domain, however, for then it would just be non-relative non-being. So, it must leave certain options “open.” Suppose we are considering a simple feature which can be one of three states, X, Y, or Z, and our relative non-being excludes X and Z. In this case, it leaves Y open. But remember that relative non-being makes no positive contribution of being itself. So, it grounds a certain openness to being without causing something to be or not—it limits what a thing is, but does not determine whether it is or not. But this is precisely what we said it means to be the passive capacity for act.

A similar series of moves can be applied in the opposite direction. Suppose we have some capacity for being Y. Then this capacity excludes being X and being Z, since when this capacity is realized then the thing is not X or Z. But this is just what relative non-being does.

In both cases, because the capacity is for a specific act and because the non-being is relative to a specific range of options, we can invert this range and get the other. We see that these two accounts are two sides of the same coin. While non-being excludes everything and being includes anything, relative non-being and the passive capacity for act restrict their scope, and therefore allow us to consider that scope in two ways—what is in or what is out. The passive capacity for act focuses on the former while relative non-being focuses on the latter, but in reality they are the same thing viewed from different perspectives.

[1] Throughout this post I refer to relative non-being in terms of being not-X. When not specified, the X should be understood to include one or many options within some domain. Considering colors, for instance, X could be a specific color or any collection thereof.

Potentiality underlying change

In my previous post I explained how we arrive at the notion of potentiality from reflection on two different phenomena, resulting in two equivalent accounts of potentiality: potentiality is relative non-being as well as the passive capacity for act. The second of these accounts arises from considerations of causation and change, but it doesn’t actually end up telling us how potentiality functions within change—it simply posits potentiality as a necessary condition for change. In this post, then, I’d like to develop the picture further, and specifically discuss the special sorts of potentials that underlie the process of change.

When something changes from one state to another—from being green to being red, from being uneducated to being educated, from being a disorganized pile of material to being a house, and so on—there are three elements. First there’s the starting state, which is called the privation because in this state the thing is potentially in the final state but not actually so.[1] When the thing is green, it is potentially red but actually not-red. Second there’s the end or target state, which we can call the form because it is the state in terms of which we understand the change. Regardless of which color the thing actually is, we understand it as becoming red from some non-red color, whatever color this happened to be. Finally, there’s the underlying thing, which is what we get when we consider the subject of the change in abstraction from both the privation and the form. It is in virtue of the privation and the form that there is mutability in change, and it is in virtue of the underlying thing that there is persistence. In order to achieve this, the underlying thing must be some mixture of actuality and potentiality. After all, in order to account for persistence the thing must actually be the same thing throughout the change, but in order for the change to not destroy it it must be indeterminate between the privation and the form, which is to say it must have the potential for both.

Again, all of this merely clarifies the pre-conditions for change, and says nothing about the process of change. That is, we have outlined what the nature of a changing thing needs to include, but we have not said what this thing looks like when it is busy changing. Famously, Aristotle gives the following account of the process of change:

Now that we have distinguished between potentiality and actuality in each category, we can see that change is the actuality of that which exists in potentiality, in so far as it is potentially this actuality. (Physics III.1, 201a9)

Every change is the actualization of a potential, but not every actualization of a potential is a change. This is because a potential can be actualized in order to keep something in the same state: I actualize the cup’s potential to be above the ground while I move it to the table (change), but the table also actualizes this same potential once I’m done (state/non-change). This is why Aristotle does not finish his account at “the actuality of that which exists in potentiality” (ie. the actualization of a potential), but proceeds to add the qualification “in so far as it is potentially this actuality.” We can interpret this qualification in at least two ways, depending ultimately on which potentiality we think is being actualized during the change.

According to one interpretation, what is relevant is the potential for being in the final state that results from the change, what we called the “form” of the change above. We can illustrate this with Aristotle’s example of a block of bronze that can be shaped into a statue: the bronze has the potential for being a statue by virtue of its malleability and other physical properties, and this potential comes to be fully actualized at the end of the process of sculpting by an artist. But, we may ask, when this process of change is underway this potential is unactualized, but in what sense is it being actualized? It seems that this potential is in no way connected to the actualization. As far as I can tell, the only option we have available to us is to say that the potential is being actualized insofar as it is contained in the ends of the agent which is effecting the change, such as the intentions of a sculptor. Apart from this, the final state has no actual reality (partially or completely) prior to being actualized.

The potential in question in this interpretation is the potential for being in the final state, but we can also speak about a potential for becoming the final state as well—that is, the potential for changing into the final state. As I have explained elsewhere, however, this latter notion is more accurately called a “pseudo-potential”, since it is in fact a combination of an actuality and a potential: (a) the real potential for being in the final state and (b) the actuality of being in any other state.[2]

This brings us to the second interpretation, which posits a separate (non-pseudo) potential for becoming alongside the potential for being. The underlying thing is not simply indeterminate between being in various states (grounding each potential for being), but it is also indeterminate between different paths through these various states (grounding potentials for becoming). That is, these states are not simply discrete or disconnected points in a space of potentials, but points along a continuum of states that can be moved through without resting. The points correspond to potentials for being in states while the paths correspond to potentials for transitioning between states. What this allows us to say is that the potential underlying change is one of these “path potentials” from the starting state to the final state of the change.

Now, if we reflect on what it could possibly mean to actualize a path potential, we will see that it corresponds exactly to the process of change. The path as a whole, or any extended part of it, cannot be actualized all at once since this would require the actualization of multiple incompatible states, such as the bronze being a sphere and being a cube. Furthermore, there can be no non-zero span of time during the actualization of the path in which the underlying thing remains in the same state throughout, for this would indicate that the path potential has finished being actualized and some point potential has begun to be actualized instead. Thus, the actualization of the path potential must occur by successive actualization of continuous points therein without ever resting at any of them, but instead passing through each of them.[3] This is precisely the process of change. Sentesy gives the following description of this sort of interpretation of Aristotle’s account:

There is being-complete [for our purposes, being-in-act] specifically of beings-in-potency, and change occurs only when these are being-complete. If buildable planks exist, then their buildability refers to something, or something makes them buildable. A house is not what makes them buildable, because when they are part of the house, the capability they are exercising is different: they are complete doing something else. Since being a buildable thing means to get built, building is what completes (entelecheia) buildable things. Building is a change; therefore, change admits of being. Building stops when the entelecheia is not there, that is, when the builder stops building, not when the capacity is used up.[4]

This rejection at the end contrasts the second interpretation with the first: in the first interpretation, the “pseudo-potential” is used up when the underlying thing is finally actualized in its final state. In the second interpretation, change is not construed in terms of this final state, but the passing through states. Of course, in changes that have a final state, the change will stop once the underlying thing has passed through all the intermediate states, but Sentesy’s point is that this is not necessarily or primarily a result of the capacity for change being used up, but rather of the agent stopping the change. In this regard, then, there is something similar between the two interpretations, namely that both place the final state of the change in the agent in some sense. But in the second interpretation this is subsequent to the reality of change itself.

In the past, the first of these interpretations seemed like the “obvious” one to me, but I have since come to recognize the second as superior, both as an interpretation of Aristotle and as an account of change in its own right. I will list three brief reasons for thinking this, but for anyone interested in going deeper into these issues I recommend getting your own copy of Sentesy’s book quoted earlier.

For starters, the second interpretation can more readily accommodate infinite motion. Aristotle believed that the celestial bodies undergo constant circular motion, which would be an instance of infinite motion. And because of inertia, rectilinear motion in the absence of gravity would be an instance of non-circular infinite motion. It’s difficult to see how the first interpretation could make sense of these sorts of motion, since neither has a final point potential in order to ground the change. The second interpretation, by contrast, does not need a final point potential to ground the change, but only the potentials along the path.

Next, the first interpretation runs into the problem that the actuality that supposedly grounds the change only obtains once the change has ended, since it is the actuality of the final state. Really, it is more accurate to say that the actuality that grounds the change is a means to the actuality of the final state.

Finally, the second interpretation is rich enough to account for the difference between passing through points as opposed to visiting them one by one. This is important because this difference is ultimately what Aristotle uses to respond to Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. If there were only point potentials, then it would seem that in order to arrive at the final state we must first arrive at each intermediate state, of which there are infinitely many.[5] We cannot respond that the underlying thing only potentially arrives at each intermediate state but not actually, for this is just what it means to pass through these states, and only the second interpretation is ostensibly able to ground this in reality.

[1] For an informative discussion on privation from a Thomistic perspective, see David Oderberg, “The Metaphysics of Privation”.

[2] I first discussed this interpretation in my post “Why it’s called ‘motion’”, but more recently in my response to Oppy and Schmid in my post “The indifference of potentials and the non-indifference of pseudo-potentials”.

[3] Caleb M Cohoe, “Why Continuous Motion Cannot Be Composed of Sub-motions: Aristotle on Change, Rest, and Actual and Potential Middles”.

[4] Mark Sentesy, Aristotle’s Ontology of Change, 62 (Amazon).

[5] See Cohoe’s “Why Continuous Motion Cannot Be Composed of Sub-motions,” section A for a discussions of Aristotle’s initial and ultimate responses to Zeno.

Potentiality from first principles

In his gigantic post on existential inertia (section 7.13), Joe Schmid gives an argument against the act-potency distinction which can be roughly summarized as follows: the act-potency distinction commits us to pluralism about being, but pluralism about being is false, therefore we should reject the act-potency distinction. I had not heard of pluralism about being before, but Schmid quotes Merricks (a recent critic of the view) giving the following general idea:

Monism about being (monism for short) says that everything enjoys the same way of being. So monism implies, for example, that if there are pure sets and if there are mountains, then pure sets exist in just the way that mountains do. Monism can be contrasted with pluralism about being (pluralism for short). Pluralism says that some entities enjoy one way of being but others enjoy another way, or other ways, of being.[1]

Schmid’s ultimate target is the Thomistic view of existence as articulated by Aquinas in On Being and Essence, but he gets at it through the more general act-potency distinction. On the Thomistic view, God and creatures exist in different ways, since in creatures there is a real distinction between essence and being (essence is in potency to the act of being), whereas in God there is no such distinction—he is being itself, pure act. While this is true so far as it goes, it is not obvious that the “ways of being” in the Thomistic sense corresponds to the “ways of being” in Merrick’s sense, and my aim here is to show that it in fact does not.

Schmid’s argument

Now, I’ll admit that the overall structure of Schmid’s argument is somewhat confusing to me. He actually takes aim at something he calls act-potency pluralism—the view that there are two ways of being (in Merrick’s sense), namely being-in-potency and being-in-act. His discussion ends once he establishes the conclusion that we should not accept act-potency pluralism, but he doesn’t show that the Thomistic view of existence commits us to such a view in the first place.[2] As best I can tell, he assumes that the Thomistic view of existence requires the act-potency distinction and that the act-potency distinction entails (or is equivalent to) act-potency pluralism.[3] Thus, an argument against act-potency pluralism amounts to an argument against the Thomistic view of existence. On the contrary, I do not think the act-potency distinction commits us to act-potency pluralism, and that therefore the conclusion of Schmid’s argument is irrelevant to the Thomistic view of existence.

In order to show this, we must clarify what pluralism means when it speaks of “different ways of being”. If we look at premises (18) and (19) in Schmid’s argument, we can see what he takes to be the salient feature of pluralism that makes it problematic:

18. Act-potency pluralists should not accept generic existence.

19. If act-potency pluralists do not accept generic existence, then they cannot—by their own lights—state that everything is thus and so.

To “generically exist” means “to exist, or to have being, or to be something”.[4] This is the only sort of existence the monist thinks there is, while the pluralist could in principle accept that there is this sort of existence in addition to others. Nevertheless, as Schmid points out when defending (18), the motivations for pluralism militate against the acceptance of generic existence. This is all the more true of the Thomistic understanding of act and potency, since we take this distinction to be exhaustive.

This brings us to (19). If there is no generic being alongside being-in-potency and being-in-act, then there is no X such that we can say simply that everything is X, since everything a thing is is in virtue of its being, and there is no way of being that applies to everything. At best we can say something is(-in-potency) X or is(-in-act) X. As Schmid’s argument goes on to say, this is a problem for act-potency pluralism because it is the position about what everything simply is, and is therefore self-undercutting (see his post for more detail).

This implication of pluralism helps us to better understand what it means for there to be different “ways of being” in Merrick’s sense. If being is divided in this way, then there is no sense in which a thing simply is anything because there is no sense in which a thing can simply be anything—it must either be-in-potency or be-in-act.

The thing is, this isn’t how Thomists understand the act-potency distinction. For us, act just is the generic being, in virtue of which everything exists. Potency, or more specifically potentiality (a difference we’ll unpack later), is not strictly speaking being or a way of being, but something else. But, we may wonder, what could it be if not some other way of being? There are two answers we can give, which we’ll introduce each separately before showing that they are in fact equivalent.

Potentiality as relative nonbeing

The first account arises in response to the problem of the one and the many, motivated by Parmenides’ against multiplicity.[5] In order for one thing to be distinct from another, it needs to have some differentiating feature that the other doesn’t. On the one hand, it can’t be being, since this is something that both things already have. On the other, it can’t be nonbeing, since nonbeing is nothing and if nothing differentiates the things then they are not differentiated. For Parmenides, the conclusion we should draw from this is something we could call “Parmenidean collapse”—that there is no multiplicity of being, all is one and any diversity in being is merely an illusion.

But surely our experience of multiplicity in being is more evident to us than the premises of this argument![6] In particular, while it is initially plausible to think that being and nonbeing are exhaustive, perhaps there is some third option that enables us to avoid the Parmenidean collapse. This third thing, whatever it is, must have some influence over being (similar to being) but without contributing any being of itself (similar to nonbeing). But if it makes no positive contribution to being (as being does) then its influence must be negative, demarcating what being is not. And if it is to avoid completely excluding being (as nonbeing does), then this demarcation cannot be absolute. Thus, this third thing must be what we could call relative nonbeing, a midpoint between absolute nonbeing and absolute being.

Relative nonbeing, then, is that whereby being is multiplied, it is the otherness by which something is other than other things. Alice is not Bob because there is a principle within Alice by virtue of which she is not Bob, Charlie, Eve, or anything else—that is, relative to all these other things, Alice is not. We call the principle of relative nonbeing potentiality, and we call the principle of being actuality (or act). Both actuality and potentiality must be real principles of things lest they not be able to play the role they do in the multiplicity of being. Furthermore, they need to be really distinct from one another because their functions are in some sense opposed to one another, with actuality providing being and potentiality limiting or constraining it.

We may worry that there is an implicit (and unjustified) assumption lurking somewhere in the background here, of the principle of identity of indiscernibles. Why do we need some feature of a being to explain its distinction from other beings? Why not simply assume that such a distinction is primitive? In an important sense, we do take it to be primitive—relative nonbeing is postulated as an ontological primitive that isn’t analyzable into any more fundamental principles. We are not suggesting that the distinction between beings is accounted for by some property they have, since the properties themselves are part of being’s diversity which we seek to explain. What we don’t do is consider distinction to be theoretically primitive, in the sense that our theory simply assumes it without looking for its basis in reality. If we are faced with two theories, one of which is able to explain a phenomenon and the other of which simply refuses to explain it, the former is preferable when our entire aim is to give an account of reality.

Potentiality as the passive capacity for act

The second account of potentiality arises from the analyses of causation and change. Suppose Alice teaches something to Bob, which is to say that she causes him to change from being uneducated to being educated. Again, we say that act (or actuality) is the principle of being, so Bob’s change would be from being actually uneducated to being actually educated.

Now, throughout this process Bob must have the capacity for being educated—if we considered him apart from his educatedness, we would find that nothing determines it one way or the other. This is in contrast to what we find in the case of a tree or a squirrel, where the nature of each excludes the possibility of them being educated. Bob must continue having the capacity for being educated once Alice has educated him, because his being educated just is the fulfillment of this capacity—take away the capacity and he stops being able to be educated! Just as a water jar retains its capacity for holding water whether it is empty or full, so too does Bob retain his capacity whether he is uneducated or educated.

Similarly, Alice must have a “productive” capacity for realizing Bob’s “receptive” capacity. If we considered her apart from Bob’s being or becoming educated, we would find that nothing determines one way or the other about Bob. After all, Alice has this capacity before and after Bob’s being educated, and it exists even if something gets in the way of Bob being able to learn (lack of attention, distraction, misunderstanding, etc.).[7]

Generalizing this example, a potency is a capacity for some act, and we can distinguish between two types. The capacity for producing some act in another is called an active potency, which today is more commonly called a power;[8] and the capacity for receiving some act into one’s being is called a passive potency, or a potentiality. So, in our example, Bob has the potential for being educated while Alice has the power to educate him—to actualize this potential of his. An important difference between potentiality and power is that the former involves an indeterminacy within the thing that has it whereas the latter does not. This is a consequence of how we arrived at each concept: a capacity is conceived in abstraction from its act, so that if the act is within something (as in the case of potentiality) then the capacity corresponds to a non-actuality (and therefore indeterminacy) within it, but if the act is outside of something (as in the case of power) then the capacity corresponds to how it actually is (and is therefore determinate).[9]

While this is all worth exploring in more detail, here we are concerned solely with what this means for potentiality. From the perspective of causation and change, potentiality is a capacity of a thing that makes it “open” to some act without determining one way or the other whether it is in fact actual in that way.

What these accounts mean for act-potency pluralism

So, then, we have two accounts of potentiality arising from two different observations about reality, and it is relatively easy to see that they are equivalent. Indeterminacy regarding some actuality (passive potency) is equivalent to making no positive contribution of being (relative nonbeing), and being contrary to Y, Z, and so on for all options other than X (relative nonbeing) is equivalent to being for X (passive potency). Thus, these two accounts just give us two complementary perspectives on the same fundamental principle, potentiality.

We can now return to the question of whether this distinction between actuality and potentiality entails (or is equivalent to) a pluralism about being in Merrick’s sense. Do our reasons for positing potentiality as a real principle of things motivate a denial of generic existence? Or does potentiality amount to some second kind of existence alongside actuality? Hopefully our discussion up until this point will have made it clear that the answer to both of these questions is no. Both act and potentiality are real and distinct principles of things, but there is only one “generic existence”, and that’s act—when we say things are thus and so we mean that they are actual. Potentiality is not another way of being (in Merrick’s sense), it is relative nonbeing and of itself is indifferent to what is actually the case.

This remains true even when what we affirm a potentiality to be thus and so, because potentiality only ever exists in virtue of actuality, either through composition with some act (its actualization) or as the second potentiality of some act. Composition is what obtains when potentiality comes to limit or circumscribe act, as we needed to posit in order to avoid the Parmenidean collapse. In this case, act supplies being while potentiality limits it to this being rather than that being. It is in virtue of the actuality, then, that the potentiality can be operative as a principle of limitation since without it there would be no positive being to limit. Second potentialities are the more intuitive way in which potentials are said to exist. These occur when the actualization of a potentiality leaves some residual indeterminacy, thereby constituting a further potentiality. Once Alice actualizes her potential to be able to read (by learning how), this results in the further potentiality to actually learn from this or that book.[10] Or, using other Aristotelian categories, Bob exists by virtue of his substantial form actualizing his underlying prime matter, which results in further potentials for having different heights, skills, knowledge, and so on. It’s second potentialities which accounts for things being in potency to various things, ie. to have the unactualized potential for being something. A second potential can exist without being actualized because it is grounded in a lower-level actuality, on account of which we say that the potential is thus and so.

So, then, I don’t think Schmid’s argument holds much weight against the Thomistic view of existence or the act-potency distinction more generally. Even if we accept premises (18) and (19), we should reject the implicit assumption that the act-potency distinction commits us to act-potency pluralism. In Merrick’s sense, the Thomist thinks there is only one way of being, namely by act. Potentiality is not another way of being, but relative nonbeing and the capacity for act.

[1] Trenton Merricks, “The Only Way to Be.”, 593, quoted by Schmid.

[2] He does note that his argument is “applied to act-potency pluralism, but it applies mutatis mutandis to the De Ente argument—simply replace ‘a-existence’ and ‘p-existence’ with ‘d-existence’ and ‘c-existence’ (representing ‘divine existence’ and ‘creaturely existence’, respectively).” However, he doesn’t explain why such a translation would leave the justifications for the relevant premises unaffected. After all, c-existence is not the same as p-existence.

[3] In footnote 25, he suggests that act-potency pluralism encapsulates the first of the 24 Thomistic Theses. However, this thesis does not say that act and potency are two ways of being, but rather that everything which exists is either purely actual things or an act-potency composite. As we shall see, this does not require that act and potency be two ways of being in Merrick’s sense.

[4] Merricks, 599, quoted by Schmid.

[5] For a very detailed discussion of Aquinas’s account in response to Parmenides, as well as the discussion of the notion of relative nonbeing, see John Wippel’s The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

[6] Modern readers will recognize this as a Moorean shift, but it is also a consequence of the methodology outlined by Aristotle in Physics I. We do not have direct access to the principles of things, but only the composites of which they are principles. Thus, we are justified in believing some purported system of principles only insofar as it accounts for those things which are more manifest to us. Parmenides’ argument is rejected, therefore, because it proposes a system of principles that fails to account for the manifest multiplicity of being.

[7] These two kinds of capacity correspond to the two senses of potentia discussed by Aquinas in De Potentia I Q1.

[8] We should note that Aquinas tends to use the word “power” as equivalent to “potency”, so that for him there are active powers and passive powers. In modern times, we tend to think of powers as exclusively active.

[9] We connect non-actuality with indeterminacy because if something is neither actually X nor actually ~X, then it is indeterminate between X and ~X.

[10] Of course, there is also an active potency at play here, but we are interested in the passive potency which is realized when Alice gains knowledge from her reading.

God causes evil actions without causing the evil in actions

On a recent episode of Unbelievable?, William Lane Craig and James White discussed whether Molinism or Calvinism provide the better approach to God’s providence in light of the reality of evil. Craig is a proponent of Molinism, which seeks to reconcile libertarian freedom with divine providence by positing a special kind of knowledge in God called middle knowledge. White, on the other hand, is a proponent of the compatibilist model of providence common among Reformed theologians, which posits that divine determinism is compatible with human freedom because the latter doesn’t require alternate choice.[1] In the course of this discussion, Craig presents an argument for thinking that the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) are part of God’s middle knowledge. These CCFs are propositions about what free creatures would freely choose when put in various circumstances. Both Craig and White agree that such propositions are contingently true, but they disagree on whether they are decided by God or are true logically prior to God deciding anything. Craig’s argument, which he presents here, can be formulated as follows:

  1. The CCFs are either true logically prior to the divine decree, or they are true only posterior to the divine decree.
  2. If the CCFs are true only logically posterior to the divine creative decree, then God is the author of evil.
  3. God is not the author of evil.
  4. Therefore, the CCFs are true logically prior to the divine decree.

My interest in this post is to evaluate this argument from the perspective of the Thomistic model of omni-instrumentality I have explained in previous posts (see here).

A major feature that differentiates omni-instrumentality from Molinism and compatibilism is that it doesn’t treat human choices as an atomic reality. While Molinism and compatibilism may grant that there are various psychological and other parts that make up a human choice, when it comes to explaining how God can exert control over these choices these parts do not play an explanatory role. When considering a creature’s choice of X, for instance, the Molinist focuses on the circumstances of the choice (as captured by the relevant CCFs) while the compatibilist focuses on God’s ability to make the creature choose X, both of which are factors external to the details of the choice itself. Even if we consider the underlying models of concurrence, which analyze the components of the choice, we see the same thing. The Molinist holds to the view of simultaneous concurrence, wherein God provides the indeterminate being of the choice and the creature provides the details that determine it to this or that particular choice, and so the atomicity of the details of the choice remains. The compatibilist holds that God causes the whole choice, details and all, and so there is just no need to decompose the choice any further in the account.

By contrast, the omni-instrumental view requires that we analyze the details of the choice in terms of what aspects of it originate from God and the creature. I discussed this in some detail in the third post on the view, but to summarize the point briefly: the goodness of the choice—its proper ordering toward an end truly worth pursuing—arises from God as the primary cause, whereas the evil of the choice—its failure to fully realize this goodness—arises from the creature as a limited secondary cause. Any choice is a result of one or both  of these factors coming together in some way. A purely good choice is one in which the creature introduces no privation of the goodness originating from God, whereas a choice is said to be evil precisely insofar as such a privation is present.[2] The upshot of this is that God causes evil actions without causing the evil in actions.

This conclusion helps us to see that there is an important ambiguity in Craig’s argument: when it speaks of “evil” in (2) and (3), is it speaking of evil actions or the evil in actions? This ambiguity is not relevant to Craig or White because their respective positions treat actions as atomic. But for the omni-instrumental position, it affects which of the two premises we should reject.

If what the argument has in mind is evil actions, then we should deny (3). God is the author of evil actions in the sense that he is the primary cause of these actions. This does not mean, however, that he is the cause of evil as such, because God the evil of these actions does not arise from him, but from the creature.

If, on the other hand, the argument has in mind the evil in actions, then we should deny (2). The CCFs concern the actions taken by creatures, whether good or evil. These are logically posterior to the divine decree because in causing creatures to act freely as they do, God thereby determines how they would act in various circumstances. However, as we have said, this occurs without God thereby causing the evil in the actions, and therefore (2) is false.

So, then, as far as the omni-instrumental position is concerned, Craig’s argument fails to establish its conclusion. But the exact reason why depends on how we nuance the reference to “evil” in the argument, in light of the distinction between causing evil actions and causing the evil in actions.

[1] I have discussed both views in my posts “Omni-instrumentality 4: Contrasting Views” and “God’s control and our free will.” As mentioned in the former post, the word “compatibilism” admits of multiple senses. Here we take it in its most common sense (in the context of this debate) or soft determinism, which rejects the libertarian view of human freedom in order to justify divine determinism as the mechanism of providence.

[2] There is no such thing as a purely evil action in the sense of there being no good whatsoever, since evil is the privation of good and therefore parasitic upon it. Nevertheless, there are purely evil actions in the colloquial sense of an action being so significant that there is no way for it to be morally justified by the good within it.

Leviticus in Light of Christ

My paper “Leviticus in light of Christ” has been published in Themelios 46.3. The entire issue is available online and in PDF, and the paper itself is separately available online. The abstract is:

Christians have long wrestled with how to read the Law in light of the work of Christ. Focusing on Leviticus, this article defends a proposal for its structure and leverages this as a starting point for reading its laws in light of Christ. The resulting approach considers laws in terms of (1) the purpose of the overarching section to which they belong and (2) how they are expressed in terms of old covenant realities. This provides the tools for nuanced consideration of the degree and manner of how these laws continue to be relevant to daily life in Christ.

The paper will be linked on my page on Leviticus.

Happiness as a common good

Suppose you’re wandering through a desert wasteland, outside of the borders of any political community, and you come across another person. Why should you care about their well-being rather than attack them or forcibly take their possessions for yourself? The aim of this post is to briefly outline an Aristotelian approach to this question.[1]

As Aristotle explains in the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics (NE), everything we do is done ultimately in pursuit of happiness. At the outset, “happiness” is simply the label for something we don’t yet understand, but which we know enough to reason about. Pretty quickly, Aristotle establishes that (1) it is the chief or final good, something desirable for its own sake and never for the sake of something else; (2) it is self-sufficient, such that when isolated it makes life worth living and lacking in nothing; and (3) via the function argument that it is about living life in accordance with complete virtue, rather than in simply having something or being in some passive state. For the most part, Aristotle spends NE exploring the different aspects of these ideas, like how we develop the virtues, what virtues there are, the role and nature of friendship, how virtue relates to pleasure, and so on. Throughout all of this, it is clear that Aristotle sees human life as something lived in community with others, but as far as I’m aware there is no explicit discussion about this until the closing section of the book, which serves as a transition to the Politics. Then, early in the first book of the Politics, he makes the following point:

We thus see that the city exists by nature and that it is prior to the individual. For if the individual is not self-sufficient when he is isolated he will stand in the same relation to the whole as other parts do to their wholes. (Politics I.2)

His reasoning here presupposes the foundation laid in the NE. We said that humans by nature pursue happiness, and that whatever happiness is it is self-sufficient and an activity of life. So, if individual humans are not self-sufficient, then whatever happiness is it cannot be limited to an individual life alone—that is, it cannot be something which individuals have in isolation from one another. Rather, it must be that happiness is a common good rather than a private good.

Generally speaking, a common good is a good of a community. But when we say that happiness is a common good rather than a private good we have something more specific in mind. To see this, we need to distinguish between different kinds of common goods. First, there is what we could call a cumulative good, which is a sum of goods belonging to the members within the community. This is opposed to a singular good, which is the good of just one member of the community. My wealth is my singular good, but the wealth of the entire country is a cumulative good made up of the wealth of all the individuals therein. Second, there is what we could call a communal good, which is a good that belongs to the community rather than to the members of that community. This is opposed to an individual good. With communal goods, the community is a sort of quasi-individual, so that a good either belongs to the community or to one of the individuals, but not both. Public parks or government buildings are communal goods, whereas private property is an individual good. When we say that happiness is a common good, we have neither the cumulative nor the communal senses in mind. Rather, what we mean is that happiness is a communicable good, something which is shared by the members of a community without thereby being diminished. This is opposed to a private good, which is something which either cannot be shared or something that is diminished when shared. A public radio broadcast, justice, and victory in a sports match are communicable goods, whereas particular food or my own health are private goods. So, when we say that happiness is a common good, we do not deny that it is an individual good. Rather, it is something enjoyed by each of the individuals in the community without having to be carved up and apportioned to those members.[2]

Happiness must be a common good because it must be self-sufficient, and individual humans lack self-sufficiency in all sorts of ways. Let’s briefly summarize the areas in which we lack self-sufficiency. First, we depend on others for both the acquisition and maintenance of the resources we need to live a happy life, including external goods, bodily goods, and goods of the soul such as the virtues. Second, we depend on others in the proper exercise of the virtues: the complexities of life and our own limitations all make it difficult to figure out how best to act in any given situation (prudence), and even when we know what to do it is difficult to distance ourselves from our passions, in order to critically evaluate them so that we might regulate our desires (temperance) and our responses to obstacles (fortitude).[3] Such reasoning and distancing, which is required for living in accordance with the virtues, can only be done reliably in cooperation with others. Third, MacIntyre suggests that our own conception of self depends on others knowing us, and is necessary if we are to imagine possible futures for ourselves that guide our daily choices toward virtuous lives.[4] And fourth, we are vulnerable to various impairments throughout our lives, which hinder our ability to live in accordance with complete virtue. We start out impaired as children, totally dependent upon those around us to develop us into responsible practical reasoners. As adults we remain vulnerable to illness, injury, disability, old age, extortion and manipulation by others, and unfortunate or unexpected outcomes.[5]

Once we understand the ways in which individual humans lack self-sufficiency, we can draw conclusions about what a community must be like in order for its common good to constitute happiness. For one, the common life of this community must be governed by a principle we can call “distributive reciprocity.”[6] By reciprocity we mean that the community forms a network of givers and receivers, from which we benefit as receivers and to which we contribute by giving of ourselves for the sake of others. It is by virtue of such a network that the community as a whole can move beyond the limitations of its individual members. This reciprocity is distributive rather than commutative, because it is not based on repaying this or that person for something we have received from them, but rather based on what benefits others and our ability to help them, especially in times of need. Often those to whom we give will be other than those from whom we have received, and rarely will we be required to give exactly what we received, or even something commensurable with it. The point of distributive reciprocity is not to “balance my books” with those around me (as it would be in commutative reciprocity), but to participate in a community of unconditional giving and humble receiving, so that we may together overcome our individual lack of self-sufficiency.

Commutative reciprocity certainly has a place in such a community (it will be important for any trading context, for instance) but it cannot be the sort of reciprocity that governs the community at a fundamental level, for two reasons. First, in a community governed by commutative reciprocity each member must give or receive for the sake of their own private good, which we’ve seen is not self-sufficient enough to constitute happiness. Second, in a community governed by commutative reciprocity, receiving from someone is conditioned on the ability to give to them, which does not produce the sort of stability necessary for happiness. We start out impaired as children, reliant on our parents and teachers to train us up to be independent adults. This benefit is received without us first paying our parents something, and indeed many of us will never be able to pay our parents back for the goods they have secured for us. Beyond this, there is no guarantee about when we will succumb to our vulnerabilities, and so no guarantee that we would be able to give to those people enough to justify us receiving their help. Thus, we are left just as vulnerable as we were as an individual—if not more, because of the possibility of people taking advantage of us when we’re in need.

So, then, happiness is the common (communicable) good of a community achieved in a shared life governed by a principle of distributive reciprocity. This is why Aristotle concludes from our lack of self-sufficiency that the individual is naturally like a part to a whole. This whole goes by various names: Aristotle calls it the city or state, we could call it the political community, or we might call it the complete community in contrast to the many incomplete communities to which we belong. The completeness of a community refers to the range of the human good that the community encompasses. In the complete community the members participate as humans and the common good of the community is therefore human happiness itself, which is the complete human good. But in incomplete communities the members participate in more limited capacities—as a father, as a worker, as a team player, as a student, etc.—and so the common goods of these communities do not extend to the full scope of the human good for its members, but only to scopes that correspond to these limited capacities. The complete community comes into existence when the various overlapping incomplete communities are organized in order to achieve happiness, since otherwise there would be some human goods outside of the purview of the complete community, which would undermine its completeness.

Returning to the question that we posed at the beginning: why should you care about the well-being of the person you encounter in the desert wasteland rather than attack them or forcibly take their possessions? All other things being equal, it’s because as humans you are both ordered towards happiness and happiness is a common good of the shared life of a complete community. Thus, you should work together as the start of such a community. On the other hand, if they start attacking you or show themselves to be untrustworthy, then the wise thing to do would be to avoid them or defend yourself rather than pursuing such a community with them. Or maybe they are trustworthy but not generally virtuous, in which case you can work with them on a utility basis while at the same time trying to reduce their negative influence on you—after all, even in the complete community there are relationships governed only by utility. Of course, there is more to consider, but we can start to see how the Aristotelian framework helps us to evaluate the factors at play, explaining both why seeking the well-being of others is worthwhile but at the same time helping us reason about when it is inappropriate.

[1] I have been thinking about this sort of question on and off over the last few years, but until recently have struggled to make any progress in answering it. It started when I wrote a post on the good of others, and then later came across James Chastek’s post on two reasons for forming political associations. After reading Chastek, I realized I had missed something important in my original post, but I wasn’t entirely clear on what it was. Over the years I have explored various parts of the underlying Aristotelian theory, but was unable to come to any satisfactory conclusions. That is, until at the suggestion of others I began reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, particularly his book Dependent Rational Animals, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in these sorts of questions.

[2] For more on common goods, see Charles De Koninck’s “On the Primacy of the Common Good” and Jeffery Nicholas’s “The Common Good, Rights, and Catholic Social Thought.”

[3] We mention only the cardinal virtues here since these cover all the other virtues. We have left out justice (the fourth cardinal virtue) because it presupposes that we are ordered toward living in community with others, which is what we’re trying to establish. See David Oderberg, “On the Cardinality of the Cardinal Virtues” and Aquinas’s ST II-I, Q 61, A 2 and II-II, QQ 47–170.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, p. 94–6. The gist of his argument is that any person’s awareness of their own identity is direct and ungrounded by deeper criteria which could be used to form a concept of self, while other people’s awareness of that person’s identity are necessarily criteria-grounded. A person’s own concept of self arises, then, by their recognition of the coincidence of these two ascriptions, allowing them to adopt a generally reliable conception of self through knowledge of them by others.

[5] See MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals, pp. 63–128 for a lengthy discussion of all of this.

[6] This is the name I have given to the version of reciprocity discussed but left unnamed by MacIntyre in Dependent Rational Animals, pp. 99–101. He later introduces the name “just generosity” to describe the virtue that is necessary to achieve this sort of reciprocity within a community (pp. 126–8).

Judgement according to works in Romans 2

In Romans 2, Paul says the following:

[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Rom. 2:6–11)

On the face of it, this is about as clear as someone can get when saying that everyone—including believers—will be judged according to their works. The trouble is that this is part of an argument Paul is making for the conclusion that people are justified by faith apart from works. As he says in chapter 4:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works… (Rom. 4:2–6, emphasis added)

Out of a desire to preserve the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone, some have suggested that we understand Paul to be speaking in hypotheticals when he says that God will give eternal life “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality.” According to this “hypothetical reading,” Paul is reasoning as follows: if someone were perfectly good then they would earn eternal life, and conversely if they didn’t then they would earn wrath and fury. Since everyone has sinned (3:9), it follows that the first option is not available to anyone, and therefore we all stand condemned (3:19–20). Thus, the only way for us to be right with God is for him to introduce a third option, whereby we are justified by faith wholly apart from works.

There are two problems with this proposal. First, it undermines Paul’s entire point in Rom. 2:6–11. By positing some third option, it is saying that for some people God will not render to them according to their works, which is exactly what Paul is denying. He raises his point in opposition to the position of some of his fellow Jews, that God would treat them favorably not on account of their works but on account of them having the law and circumcision (2:13, 25). Paul’s counterpoint here is that such a scheme would make God partial, and since both parties agree that this would contradict God’s justice, it follows that there cannot be some third option. Thus, God renders to everyone according to their works, both Jew and Gentile.[1] It makes no sense, then, to suggest that Paul eventually goes on to suggest a third option of his own!

The second problem with the hypothetical reading is that it is motivated by things that Paul doesn’t actually say. Paul does not say that those who seek honor and glory and immortality will earn eternal life, only that God will give it to them. And Paul does not say that God will only give it to them if they do so perfectly.

So, then, we should reject the hypothetical reading, and accept that Paul sees no contradiction between justification by faith and judgement according to works. What remains to be done, then, is to explain what judgement according to works is about if it isn’t about earning eternal life through perfect obedience.

Schreiner offers the following suggestion:

Human works cannot be the basis of right standing with God since all sin and all fall short of the glory of God. The saving righteousness of God given to us in Jesus Christ is the foundation and basis of our right standing with God. But if works aren’t the basis, what are they? They are surely necessary, for one is not saved without them. But they can’t be the necessary basis since God demands perfection and all fall short of what God requires (Rom. 3:23). It seems legitimate to say that works are the necessary evidence and fruit of a right relation with God. They demonstrate, although imperfectly, that one is truly trusting in Jesus Christ. (Emphasis original)[2]

Piper also suggests something similar:

“According to works” means God will take the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and the “good deeds” by which we let the light of our faith shine (Matthew 5:16), and he will accept them as corroborating evidence of our faith. His sentence of acquittal will not be because we are not guilty. It will be because Christ bore our guilt. The place of our works at the judgment is to serve as corroborating evidence that we did indeed put our trust in Christ. Therefore when we are acquitted and welcomed into the kingdom it will not be earned by works but it will be according to works. There will be an “accord” or an agreement between our salvation and our works.[3]

This suggestion seems good to me, so long as we don’t lean too heavily on the notion of “evidence.” Evidence is a way we come to know about reality, but works are more closely related to faith than this. To see what I mean, consider the analogy of a tree and its fruit, which is used in connection with this question (Matt. 7:15–20; 12:33–37; Luke 3:9; 13:6–9). The fruit that a tree produces is not merely evidence for the kind tree it is, but something that characterizes the tree. That is, it doesn’t merely help us to know about the tree, but is part of what determines the kind of tree it is. This characterization happens independently of anyone knowing anything about the tree. Likewise, then, works do not merely provide evidence for our faith (although they also do that), but they characterize it. They are part of what determines the kind of faith we have, and therefore whether the faith we have is something that can justify us.

Another reason not to lean too heavily on the notion of evidence is that it’s difficult to see why God would need evidence in the first place. Evidence is necessary in human affairs because we don’t know how things really are in themselves. But God knows reality exactly as it is, and searches our hearts directly (Luke 16:15, Rom. 2:15–16). This same concern does not apply to the suggestion that works characterize our faith, since this characterization is part of the reality known by God rather than something extra needed by God to know the reality.

In fact, it’s not only faith that is characterized by our works, but any orientation of our heart. If we hate God, or see him as someone to manipulate, or use him to look good in front of others, or whatever, the orientation of our heart will reveal itself in the way we live our lives. In general, then, our works characterize our hearts. The upshot of this is symmetry (or impartiality) in God’s judgment: God renders to each according to their works, because their works characterize their fundamental orientation to life with God. In order to make eternal life our own (Phil. 3:12), we must not only have faith in God, but this faith must be of the right kind, determined by our works.

Now, I recognize that it may sound a little strange to say that there are different “kinds” of faith, but this is an idea found throughout the New Testament. Jesus speaks of people who trust in him as Lord and even prophecy in his name, but who are rejected because they are “workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:21–23; 25:31–46). Elsewhere, he assumes that proper faith in him will have good works alongside it (John 5:24–29).[4] James contrasts a faith that has works with a faith that doesn’t, and says that only by the former will anyone be saved (Jas. 2:14–26). Paul says that if you have faith but not love then that faith is nothing (1 Cor. 13:2), and elsewhere that what counts is faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). So, there are different ways we can have faith, and not all ways are equally capable of making us right with God.

So, then, in the final judgement we are justified by faith, but whether or not we have the kind of faith that justifies is determined by the way it manifests itself in our works. It is not that we need to do this or that particular thing, accumulate enough good points, or even live a perfect life in order to be right with God. Nor do we earn our salvation by our works—we are justified by faith as a gift from God. Nevertheless, the faith that justifies is characterized by love, so that if the love isn’t there then neither is the proper kind of faith—there might still be some other kind of faith, but not the kind that Paul has in mind when he talks about justification. In this way, then, God can judge us according to works while at the same time justify us by faith.

The practical outworking of this is found throughout Paul’s letters, and indeed all of scripture: don’t grow weary in doing good, because in due season you will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:9; cf. 2 Thess. 3:13). Continue to work out your salvation until the very end (Phil. 2:12). Practice self-control, to ensure that you are not disqualified from the race (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 2 Tim. 2:3–6). Pursue righteousness that you might take hold of eternal life (1 Tim. 6:11–16, Phil. 3:12). The wording varies, but the underlying point  remains the same: make every effort to ensure that your faith is characterized by good works, because you can’t be saved through any other kind of faith. At the same time, we are encouraged by the fact that God works in us by the Holy Spirit to both believe and do good works. Again, there are various ways this is articulated: walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8). God has poured love into our hearts by his Spirit (Rom. 5:5). God has prepared good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). And God works in us to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).

As with justification by faith and judgement according to works, it’s tempting to cling to one of these and ignore the other, but this will inevitably skew the biblical teaching. Those who ignore God’s role will fail to be properly encouraged to rely on him, while those who ignore our role will fail to be properly motivated by the warnings and exhortations to do good works.

Returning to Paul’s words in Romans 2, we see that there is no need to resort to a hypothetical reading in order to make sense of them. In the first option, he describes those who do not grow weary in doing good (“by patience in well-doing”) as they pursue a life pleasing to God (“seek for glory and honor”) that they might live with him (“he will give eternal life”). In what follows, Paul does not argue that sin has made this first option impossible, leading God to introduce some third option. Rather, he explains that God has made this first option accessible even to sinners, by justifying all who have faith in Jesus. Thus, so long as our patience in well-doing proceeds from faith, then our pursuit of life with God will not be in vain.

(Edited 29 Aug 2021: Added final paragraph.)

[1] Note that 2:6–11 is a chiasm, with the point about God being impartial matching up with the point about him rendering each according to their works.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Justification Apart From And By Works: At The Final Judgment Works Will Confirm Justification,” in The Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), ed. Alan P. Stanley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).

[3] John Piper, “Final Judgment According to Works.”

[4] In this passage, Jesus says that those who do good will not come into judgment. Clearly, he is using the word “judgment” in a negative sense, rather than the neutral sense that we’re using in this post. The fact that these people’s good works factor into their receiving eternal life means that they’re being judged in the sense that we’re using it here.

God’s act of choosing

Classical theism holds that God is absolutely simple, which is to say that there is no absolute distinction within him, sometimes summarized by the phrase “all that is in God just is God.” For Thomists, this entails that God must be purely actual, which is to say that there is no mixture of potentiality and actuality in him as there are in his creatures—everything in God is one act. But if everything is one act, then how could he have acted otherwise? I have discussed this in the past, where I criticized the reasoning behind this question, so here I want to delve a bit more into the positive account of how I think about God’s freedom.

The basic problem is that the following statements seem incompatible with one another:

  1. God engages in the same act in every possible world.
  2. This act of God occurs in the same circumstance in every possible world.
  3. God determines which possible world is actualized.
  4. A different possible world could have been actualized.

It might not be clear why (2) is necessary, but if it weren’t then we could easily explain how the same act results in different possible worlds with reference to the difference in circumstances in which the act occurs. Such a move is not open to the Thomist, however, because if the circumstance of God’s choice differed between possible worlds then it would be contingent, and we hold that God is the cause of all contingent truths. Denying (3) amounts to denying that God is the creator and denying (4) amounts to a modal collapse, both of which are problematic. In my opinion, the answer isn’t to be found in denying any of these statements, but in clarifying what is involved in this single act of God.

The one act of God involves many things that for us obtain in different acts: by this one act, God knows, and chooses, and causes, and loves, and so on. These things are diversified in us because they result from the actualization of diverse potentials, but in God there is no potentiality and therefore no such diversification. Since the one act of God involves various such aspects, one aspect might help us to understand something about this act that another does not. In particular, if we consider the act in terms of free choice, then I think we can understand how the above four statements are compatible with one another.

Something that is often discussed in the context of free choice is the ability to choose otherwise. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think we should elevate this to a universal requirement of free choice, but it does apply in many cases. Regardless, we should certainly say that it applies in the case of God’s choice of which possible world to actualize. In cases where it does apply, we say that an agent in circumstance C freely chooses A only if they could have chosen something other than A in the same circumstance. The “circumstance,” here, is taken to include the entire state of affairs causally prior to the choice by the agent, including the agent’s own psychological state. Understandably, then, one objection that is sometimes leveled against such views is that it seems impossible to explain why the agent chose as they did rather than the alternative.

It seems to me that we can give an explanation that aligns well with our intuitions about our own choices. If we suppose that a reason for preferring one option over another results in a corresponding power for choosing that option rather than the alternative, then the fact that we can have reasons for various options means we will have the corresponding powers for choosing between those options. Imagine that Alice is choosing between two incompatible options, A and B. Then the circumstance C prior to her choice will include reason RA for choosing A over B and reason RB for choosing B over A. In this case, RA will result in a power in Alice to choose A rather than B, and RB will result in a power in Alice to choose B rather than A. Assuming that Alice in fact chooses A rather than B then RA will explain her choice, and conversely if she chooses B rather than A then RB will do the explaining. In either case, then, C has the sufficient resources to explain the choice that Alice makes, even though she could have made a different choice.

However, there needs to be more in the picture if we are to fully account for Alice’s choice. After all, if Alice had all these reasons but then something external forced her to choose one way or the other, then we wouldn’t say that she freely chose anything. Because of this, we need to include an additional condition, to the effect that a free choice is something that arises from the agent themselves rather than being externally imposed upon them. From an Aristotelian perspective, this means that a free choice must result from an act within Alice, in which the agent moves themselves from being impressed by reasons for her different options to pursuing one of those options rather than the others. More generally, this “act of choosing” or “act of arbitration” is one in which the agent comprehends all the reasons for the various options, arbitrates between them, and exercises the relevant power for choice that is grounded by the relevant reasons.

Now, this act of choosing will be the same regardless of which option ends up being chosen. We can retroactively qualify in terms of the particular choice that was made—as the act of choosing A or the act of choosing B—but this will just be a world-relative way of thinking about an act which in itself is unqualified and the same in each world—the act of choosing between A and B. After all, the act of choosing is part of the explanation which is supposed to be compatible with either choice. And if there were distinct acts of choosing A and of choosing B, then neither would be compatible with the contrary choice.

So, in the case of human choice, we can distinguish between three stages. In the first stage we understand something as worthy of pursuit for some reason, which includes it among the options of our choice and constitutes a power for us to pursue it. In the second stage, we apply the act of choosing, whereby we comprehend the options, arbitrate between them, and exercise one of these powers. This transitions us to the third stage, wherein we actually pursue the option we chose in the second. We may speculate that in some choices (such as the choice to believe something) there is really no third stage. But at least in most cases, the third stage is necessary in humans because we will need to move or change ourselves in some way in order to pursue anything.

Human choice is broken up into stages like this because everything we do is achieved through the successive actualizations of various potentials. By contrast, in God there are no potentials, and therefore no need for such a succession. God does not need to discover anything, or deliberate over the options by considering one feature and then the next. Instead, in his one act he knows the options immediately and altogether. As such, both first and second stages of the above process occur together: God comprehends the options and arbitrates between them all at once. Furthermore, God does not need to change himself in order to pursue the option he chooses. He doesn’t need to get his body in position or start thinking about something else before he can do something, but immediately causes his choice. So either we should say that there just is no third stage with God, or that it occurs along with the first two.

The upshot of this is that God’s one act involves an act of choosing, and an act of choosing is something which allows for alternate outcomes. So, while it’s true that God does the same thing in every possible world, the thing he does involves choosing which world to actualize, and is therefore compatible with any number of worlds resulting from it.

A simpler argument about essentially ordered series

In the previous post I explained what an essentially ordered series is and gave an argument to the effect that every such series must have a first member. While I still think the argument works, discussions about the post with others have led me to realize that we can give a considerably simpler argument for the same conclusion.

Start with a case of one thing causally influencing another, say Alice picking up her mug from the table. The thing doing the causing (Alice) is the agent and the thing being influenced (the mug) is the patient. Both the agent and the patient contribute something that enables the causation to occur, namely the actuality in the agent and the potential in the patient,[1] and the causation itself consists in these contributions coming together in such a way that the potential can be actualized by the actuality.

A causal series is a series of successive causations. When this occurs, the members of the series fall into one of three categories: the first member (if there is one) is an agent without being a patient; the last member is a patient without being an agent; and each intermediate member is in some sense both an agent and a patient. For any intermediate member, its agency and its patiency will coincide either accidentally or essentially. They coincide accidentally when the actuality whereby the member is an agent is to some extent distinct from the potential whereby it is a patient. For instance, when Bob lifts Charlie so that he can grab an item off the top shelf, Charlie has the potential to be lifted and the actuality of grabbing, where the latter is distinct from the former.[2] An intermediate member’s agency and patiency coincide essentially when the actuality whereby it is an agent just is the actualization of the potential whereby it is a patient. For instance, when Alice moves a stone in a shape on the ground using a stick, the actuality in the stick whereby it moves the stone just is the actualization of its potential to be moved in that way.

This essential coincidence of agency and patiency captures a unique middle ground between the “pure” agent and patient that we started with, and for this reason we introduce a third term to describe this sort of member: instrument. Similar to an agent, an instrument has an actuality in virtue of which it actualizes the potential of something else. Unlike an agent, this actuality is something the instrument receives from another as part of the functioning of the causal series rather than something that it contributes itself. Similar to a patient, then, the only thing the instrument contributes to the series is the potential. But unlike a patient, the potential contributed by the instrument is the potential for actualizing a potential in the next member of the series.

By contrast, the accidental coincidence of agency and patiency does not require us to introduce another sort of member, since in this case the intermediate member is separately a patient of the member preceding it and an agent of the member succeeding it.

We are now in a position to introduce the distinction between two types of causal series. An accidentally ordered series is a causal series in which the agency and patiency of every intermediate member coincide accidentally, whereas an essentially ordered series is one in which they coincide essentially. In other words, none of the intermediate members in an accidentally ordered series are instruments, while in an essentially ordered series all of them are instruments.[3]

Given this distinction, we can see quite easily that every essentially ordered series must have a first member. After all, if any such series didn’t have a first member, then the only members in the series would be the instruments and the patient. But instruments and patients only contribute potentials to the series, and therefore this series would not have any actuality in it. But without any actuality, no potentials can be actualized to bring about any effect. And therefore, this series wouldn’t in fact cause anything at all.

[1] More technically, a contribution of a member M to a causal series S is some intrinsic feature of M which makes it possible for S to obtain and which it does not receive as part of S obtaining.

[2] There can still be some overlap or dependency and still be considered distinct, so long as the actualization of the potential is not identical to the actuality.

[3] We are restricting ourselves to causal series where there is at least one intermediate member so that we can give succinct versions of these definitions.