EpistemologyMetaphysicsTheology & Spirituality

On God and Hypotheticals: Further Thoughts


“I do not think that we can possibly deny that there is some other way than the one we have spoken of, on the supposition that God can do what human reason cannot comprehend.” -Anselm of Canterbury

“Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” – Jesus of Nazareth

I recently read with great interest Wesley Walker’s article entitled “The God of What-if.” Not only is the topic a matter of personal interest for me, it raises what I think is a very important issue that resides at the heart of the theological task: namely discerning the nature of creaturely discourse. In short, Wesley’s concern has mainly to do with the doctrine of God. His arguments, however, seem to me to miss something significant about the nature of creaturely theology. Let’s see if I can make a case.

The Argument Against the Use of Hypotheticals for Reflection on God

Wesley’s succinct argument: we cannot, or at least must carefully, use hypotheticals to talk about God “for three reasons: immutability, being, and nature. God cannot change. He is pure being and, therefore, is actuality instead of potentiality. He cannot act apart from his nature. Arbitrariness implies options: if I arbitrarily pick film to watch, it means I chose it over option y for no particular reason. This is a feature of creaturehood. God acts according to his unchanging essence.” The qualification “or at least must carefully” means that I really cannot disagree with his point. However, in the remainder of his piece he leans much more toward “cannot” than “must carefully.” It is with that leaning that I will here take issue.

The very significant test case Wesley uses to think through God and hypotheticals is creation. Could God have refrained from creating? A very important question, and it seems to me, the right question to ask at this point. Yet, his answer leaves one with some wondering still to do. He affirms that creation is totally dependent upon God’s gratuitous gift of existence. There is no “mutuality” between God and creation, as if creation in some way imposes a necessity upon God for its existence (“God is not externally compelled to create anything at all,” he says). Still, he concludes, “A god who has to choose between multiple options is another being stuck within a causal chain.” Wesley’s point, echoing some radical orthodox thinkers if I’m not mistaken, seems to be that a god who chooses between creating or not creating is by that choice himself rendered contingent, and thus not God. “When, for example, we theologize about the God who may or may not have created, created humanity differently, or redeemed the world [sic], we are dealing with something other than the God that exists.”

This leaves one wondering, I say, because on my reckoning this conclusion can be taken in a couple different ways. First, the conclusion could be taken to mean that because God cannot choose between creating and not creating (for so to do would render him contingent) and because he has in fact created, we therefore know that it must have been impossible for him not to create; that is, it is necessary that he create. So, on this take, Wesley is arguing that God necessarily creates.

Or, secondly, Wesley’s conclusion could mean that the category of “choice” is improper to apply to God, and so we simply cannot entertain the question of whether God can choose between alternative options because we oughtn’t apply the category of choice to God at all.

Some of Wesley’s argument makes me think he is leaning toward the first option: creation is necessary (specifically his appeal to divine immutability and pure being to argue against the use of hypotheticals in speech about God’s acts ad extra.)[1] But the overall tendency of the piece makes me think that he is really aiming mostly at the latter: “choice” is improperly applied to God. So, the second possible interpretation, then, is where I want to camp.

The Nature of Creaturely Theological Reflection

The first and obvious place to begin is to say that Sacred Scripture is replete with testimony that God “chooses” (Luke 9:35; Acts 13:17; 15:7; 1 Cor. 1:27-28; Eph. 1:4, James 2:4, to cite a few). It seems to me, then, that the question ought not be whether human creatures can say God chooses, but how they ought to say it; or perhaps better, what it properly means when it is said.

Another article (and much more besides) could be written on what is meant by “improper” application, or attribution, to God. For brevity, I’ll simply note that “improper attribution” in the Christian tradition does not mean “useless category.” Rather, it means something more like: “take care and nuance correctly.” Put another way, to say that something is not properly attributed to God does not mean it cannot be attributed in any sense. It means that the concept at issue, because it is mixed with elements that do not map onto God in any sense, needs to be purified of those elements in the judgment of the one applying to God.

Take the notion of choice, for example. The notion of “choice,” carefully attended to, has elements that do not map onto God. For example, as Wesley correctly notes, in saying that God chooses, we do not wish to imply that God is “stuck within a causal chain,” just another finite agent within the bounds of the created order. Nor do we wish to imply that God’s “thoughts” or “will” is temporally ordered in God, that he “comes to” a decision, or acts “after” a decision. Nor do we wish to imply that he gathers data from without, which are the source and make up the content of his choice. Nor do we wish to imply that God stands with unrealized potential towards the created order so that when he acts in that order, he himself becomes something more, he has now realized a potential latent within himself. Etc. As we understand the concept of “choice,” both as act and event, from the creaturely analogue, there are many elements of finitude that are mixed in it and must not be attributed to God.

But there are other elements of the concept, even as taken from the creaturely analogue, that we do wish to imply. For example, and pertinent to this discussion, that God has the ability to do more or otherwise than he has done in the (actual) created order. When I, a human creature, make a genuine choice between two alternatives, I am deciding between two actions that are within my power to do. Choice, as a concept, carries within it an implication about me as an agent, that my power, or abilities, extend beyond what I actually do.

And just this element of the concept of choice becomes very fruitful in thinking about God’s omnipotence and freedom. God’s almightiness in Scripture not only extends to what he has wrought in the created order, but to many other potentialities besides. “All things are possible for you,” Jesus prayed, “take this cup from me.” The cup was not taken from Jesus; but Jesus still believed it possible for the Father so to do. God’s omnipotence ought to be considered not simply as his ability to do all that he wills—true enough, insofar as stated, but a characterization that leaves out too much. Rather, as the Lombard has it, omnipotence is God’s ability to do all that if he were to will it, he could.

Here, then, is what I take to be the heart of the matter. Wesley says, “While counterfactual hypotheticals have their place in creaturely affairs, they are not applicable to the Creator.” Hypotheticals do have a place in theological reflection, he states, but only as “something which can be deconstructed that points us to a truth about God.” They are “foils” against which we may come to know “how God actually is.”

I want to affirm with Wesley that God is not contingent nor beholden to created, contingent reality. But there seems to be some confusion here. It seems to me that precisely because hypotheticals have their place in creaturely affairs, they have their place in creaturely thoughts about God, for creaturely theology is included in “creaturely affairs.” And that means, with proper qualifications guiding the way, hypotheticals serve an important purpose in creaturely thoughts and discourse about God. Not only do they help us distinguish between what God has really done in the world and thus who God really is, as Wesley puts it, but also and importantly they help us press into the mystery that He is always “more” than what he does in the world. Indeed, this acknowledgement gets a little closer to the God who is, or so at least it seems to me. Failing to acknowledge this collapses, to use modern categories, the immanent trinity into the economic.

 Wesley charges: “The idea that there are counterfactuals about God assumes he exists somehow within the cosmos and is working his way through a decision tree.” One does often come across the use of hypotheticals in theological discourse that on the surface raise this sort of suspicion. I’m sympathetic. Yet, properly understood, the use of hypotheticals in creaturely reflection on and speech about God serves the opposite effect: it helps us to search out the mystery that God is beyond the created order, that his power extends over not only to the actual but also the possible (indeed, grounds the possible), that he graciously acts in this created order, this created order that could have been otherwise. Not because he can be otherwise, but because this finite realm cannot exhaust the inexhaustible greatness of the God who is.

 “But divine goodness is an end which improportionately exceeds creates things. So divine wisdom is not determined to any particular order, such that it is not possible that from his wisdom another course of events could have flown. Therefore it must be said, speaking absolutely, that God is able to do other than he has in fact done.” (Aquinas, ST, I, q. 25, a. 5, resp.)



[1] This type of argument has historical precedent. Perhaps most famously in the medieval period was Abelard, who argued that on account of God’s rational and good nature, what he wills or nills is willed or nilled of necessity. Thus, God’s willing or nilling is not a choice as between alternatives, but a “choice” in the sense of an act of the will which is nevertheless determined by the divine nature. It lacks the liberty of indifference. See especially Abelard, Theologia Christiana, bk V and Theologia Scholarium, bk III. Interestingly, Wesley takes exception with Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” conclusion, yet advocates for something close to the argumentation that gets Leibniz to that conclusion, an argument that was similar to Abelard in significant respects. See Leibniz , Theodicy, part I, ch. 8. See the similar evangelical rendition of the argument in Jonathan Edwards, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8, “Dissertation I. Concerning the Ends For Which God Created the World,” section IV, pp. 445-64. The argument is more succinctly put in Alexander Pope’s First Epistle in his “Essay on Man”: “Of systems possible, if ’tis confest /That Wisdom infinite must form the best.”

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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