Summary of “Impassibility As Transcendence: On the Infinite Innocence of God” by David Bentley Hart

In this essay Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart challenges the later Western development of the doctrine of predestination as presented in the de auxiliis controversy of the early modern period. After providing us with a proper grammar of divine transcendence, Hart goes on to give us the historical context of the de auxiliis controversy and, subsequently, a critique of the doctrines involved. 

Part I

Anticipating his main critique of the Banezian thomist school, Hart opens up his essay with an exhortation for all theologians to hold to the grammar of transcendence when speaking about God. Even the best of theologians who are keenly aware of God’s transcendence often fail to keep this doctrine at the forefront of their minds. The radical otherness of God slips into the background slowly giving way to a God who enters into contingent categories and finite causation framing God as one agent, albeit a really big one, among other agents. 

Hart quotes the 20th century thomist Garrigou-Lagrange as an example of failing to keep the grammar of transcendence: “God determining or God determined: there is no other alternative.” Although Garrigou-Lagrange would insist on the transcendence of God, he, in this statement, places God not only in contingent categories but pits God against His creation as if God were one of the objects within it: God vying for power against lesser beings.  But the pressing question is: how could there be competition between the transcendent God and finite beings created from nothing? God did not create rivals alongside Himself. According to the Fathers of the Church, we should not even say that God is superior to his creation for comparative language inserts God into the created order. He transcends the basic categories of act and potency, substance and accident, existence and non-existence. Thus, contra Lagrange, God need not determine created beings in order to escape being determined. 

The latter point is crucial when we attribute names or properties to God. An ever present apophatic renunciation should accompany any language we use for God. That God is immutable is not a positive statement. God’s immutability does not mean that God is really immovable like a fixed rock or mountain. It means that God transcends the categories of movable and immovable. Again, God is omnipotent. This does not  mean that God is the strongest guy in the cosmos who can out-wrestle the strongest men. Instead, God is not bound by physical force and He transcends the language of power and reaction. God as pure Act transcends the categories of act and potency and, thus, not defined. God is present to our acts and passions alike. God is omni-present and, thus, He does not need to make room for creation. These category mistakes are of infinite deviation. 

Part II

Hart aims his theological crosshairs on the Banezian Thomists’ subsequent development of predestination in the early modern period culminating in the  “de auxiliis” controversy, specifically, their teaching of physical premotion (praemotio physica). The latter doctrine was posited to safeguard God’s determining power lest theologians attribute some kind of passive response to His providential care. Physical premotion means that God efficaciously causes all the free acts of human beings, even sinfully free acts. The latter sinful acts are efficaciously caused by God in so far as they exist and are free, but they stem from man in so far as they defect in choosing lesser goods over God. Man, according to the doctrine, will infallibly choose this thing and not that thing while remaining free. He remains free because freedom is the non-coercion of contingent, proximate causes. In other words, man could have chosen otherwise when it comes to created causes exterior to him but is determined in relation to God’s efficient causality. Because without God’s efficacious grace we infallibly chose to sin and will remain in sin if God does not efficaciously cause us to choose the good. God, of course, owes no one grace so man alone is responsible for his sins and damnation. The damned reveal the justice of God, the elect God’s mercy. Why one man is in the latter group rather than the former group has nothing to do with their merits nor their demerits but has only to do with the God who moves the will. 

The argument for physical premotion is ultimately a metaphysical one. Every free act is a movement from potency to act. And because no potency is actualized without the First Act (God), God must provide, so the doctrine teaches, the actualizing power for every free act executed. As Hart sums up: “thus, in addition to his act of creation, God must always supply an additional movement of the will, directing it toward one end or another.” 

Part III

According to Hart, physical premotion violates the logic of transcendence. It assumes that God must continually actualize the wills of men through the reduction of potencies to free acts, as if God created static essences and later activates their potencies. But if we follow the logic of transcendence we must say that God in his ex nihilating act creates without reducing potencies to act–there was no potency “before” creation–and in one act creates the whole of creatures, potencies, acts and all that they are. He makes them to be beings other than Himself without being alongside Him as if God shared a world with them. To the contrary, man was created with a will inclined to choose the good, thus, no “additional act” is needed to reduce man’s will to choose. Hart reasons: just as God creates beings that are not Himself, so He creates free wills that need not to be determined by Him. The Banezian portrays God as a supernatural secondary cause of every human free act. Thus, God does not transcend human freedom; He determines it through efficient causality lest He be outmatched by His creation. 

Things get more problematic for the Banezian when we investigate the moral nature of men’s acts. Men will sin without fail if God does not supply the efficient grace needed. God permits sin in so far as he withholds grace from men. And because men are not owed grace, God has chosen to withhold grace from some men to display His justice. Ironically, this places grace on the continuum of nature and yet God often refuses to supply what man needs. God does not really love all. For love entails that the lover wills at least what the beloved needs. If God refuses what is needed for man’s happiness, theologians must speak of God’s hate for the non-elect. 

Part IV

Both sides of the de auxiliis controversy (the Molinists and the Banezians) failed to follow the logic of transcendence, thus, giving positive answers to apophatic questions. For just as God created beings other than Himself, so He created free beings other than Himself giving them the space to freely seek their proper end. They are not Being although they would not be at all without Him; they are not His determining will, although they could not will the good without Him. How this works is as mysterious as creatio nihilo itself. How did God create is an impossible question to answer without a host of apophatic statements. So it is with how God gives freedom to His creatures. Hart finishes this section with a wonderful analogy with Christ’s mode of suffering: “Just as the incarnate Logos really suffers torment and death not through a passive modification of his nature, imposed by some exterior force, but by a free act, so God ‘suffers’ the perfect knowledge of the free acts of his creatures not as a passive reaction to some objective force set over against himself, as the free transcendent act of giving being  to the world of Christ–an act to whose sufficiency there need attach no mediating ‘premotion’ to assure omnipotence.” 

Part V

Eternal damnation magnifies the implications of the doctrine of premotion. If God withholds the necessary grace for some men to choose his final end then God does not will the salvation of all. Of course, the Banezian will say that God antecedently wills the salvation of all but consequently damns some. Hart thinks this to be sophistry. Instead, Hart asserts that God wills the salvation of all without determining their wills. 

Part VI

Hart argues that God does not need to reveal his justice by withholding grace. His justice is perfectly revealed by the Cross wherein mercy and justice are one. In this line, Hart interprets Paul in  Romans 9-11 to mean that the vessels of wrath are in fact vessels of mercy, for God binds all to disobedience so that he might have mercy on all. God does not need evil to display his goodness, lest we compromise the convertibility of the good and being. Hart concludes: “If God required evil to accomplish his good ends–the revelation of his nature to finite minds–then not only would evil possess a real existence over against the good, but God himself would be dependent upon evil: to the point of it constituting a dimension of his identity. . . if God needs the supplement of evil to accomplish any good he intends–even a contingent good–then he is dependent upon evil in an absolute sense.” 

Part VII

The Banezian position was a reaction to the early modern notion of efficient causality which gave us the god of sheer arbitrary power. The rejection of this god led to a crisis of atheism–an understandable response according to Hart. Hart concludes: “When all that is high and holy in God has been forgotten, and God has been reduced to sheer irresistible causal power, the old names for God have lost their true meaning, and the death of God has already been accomplished, even if we have not yet consciously ceased to believe.”

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