on November 8, 2012
This is a review of Edward Wierenga's The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion).
For a discussion that has yet to cease, or yield an answer satisfying to all, Edward Wierenga has taken on a daunting task. Yet admittedly, as he clarifies in his introduction, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes is a reactionary work. Likewise, it should not be considered an exhaustive discussion or review of the topic; he aims to develop a solid response to contemporary and opposing philosophies, of which there is not shortage of supply. A Reformed reader will benefit to know the various facets of this discussion, the pitfalls of certain logical gateways, and the ramifications for an underdeveloped theology.
He begins with the attribute of omnipotence, for which he immediately provides a discussion of its definition. Many who ponder the reality of God's omnipotence will suffice themselves to think that God may do anything. At some point or another they will be asked, "could God create for Himself a stone which He could not lift?" and they will be forced to admit the issue is deeper than appears on the surface. Wierenga explains that the attribute of omnipotence is not contingent on the breaking of the laws of logic. In other words, omnipotence should be seen as utmost ability. God has all the ability and all the strength required to cause any possible affair given the current state of affairs and state of the world.
He devotes the second chapter to the issue of God's omniscience, which lies as a foundation for the next several chapters. Wierenga essentially argues an orthodox understanding of God's omniscience: that He knows all propositional facts, believes no falsehoods, did not learn these facts, and did not deduce these facts from previous knowledge. Contemporary philosophers such as W. V. Quine have argued that there are divisions of de dicto knowledge, de se and de re, but Wierenga demonstrates that both are reducible to de dicto knowledge and therefore affirms God's knowledge of all propositions.
A great deal of the following three chapters are generated about the topics of free will and foreknowledge. He has laid a foundation for this discussion by now, that in chapter one it was established impossible for both God to force someone into making a decision, and for that person to make the decision freely; and that in chapter two it was established that God does not learn, and thus has knowledge of future propositions just as equally as present or past propositions. Rather than make a compatibilist argument for accidental necessity and free will, Wierenga aims to demonstrate by disproving several common contemporary positions that there is simply no acceptable argument for accidental necessity. In other words, if God's knowledge of all propositions are equally present to Him, there is no valid argument for "past knowledge" being accidentally necessary for present or future action. He further states that any alternative to this conclusion does not successfully reconcile divine foreknowledge and human free action.
More than the idea that all propositions are equally present to God, Wierenga argues for what Francesco Suarez and Luis de Molina described as "Middle Knowledge"--that God knows not only actual propositions, but also possible ones. He takes on several more contemporary discussions of the topic and describes how the scenario plays itself out in hypothetical worlds, concluding that there must be at least some true counterfactuals to freedom in order to accommodate a world that has both free will and evil. This is true where, as Wierenga describes, propositions "(i) God is omnipotent, (ii) God is omniscient, (iii) God is wholly good, and (iv) there is evil" (p. 126) coexist and must be reconciled.
This is followed with an intriguing inquiry into the timelessness of God. Naturally, the doctrine of timelessness carries philosophical and even logical dilemmas in tandem with the doctrines of immutability and omniscience. This is because the Biblical account of God seems to, at the very least anthropomorphically, reveal that He acts in time. The question then is whether or not this act represents a state of God at one time t that does not exist for Him at another time t1. By addressing key issues in a multitude of contemporary arguments, Wierenga ultimately concludes that the doctrines of immutability and omniscience do not necessarily conflict with the attribute of timelessness, but that a satisfactory argument for or against it has yet to be shown and deserves further scrutiny.
Wierenga spends the final two chapters discussing how his theses thus far practically flesh themselves out in matters of morality. Essentially, he argues that God's goodness is a matter of moral perfection and that human morality exists directly by the divine command. In other words, adultery is wrong because God commands us not to commit adultery.
It seems that Wierenga does not possess an affinity for labels, for he neglects throughout his many philosophical and logical discourses to strongly posit his position. At the very least, the reader would benefit from a disclaimer of the author's positions in the introduction, and perhaps even a clearer title that suggests an affirmation of Molinist theology. However, it is plausible that Wierenga's intentions were to reach an audience of Reformed or Arminian theologians, or a third audience of uneducated or unconvinced, for whom would be more likely to digest a seemingly multi-faceted and holistic discussion of contemporary philosophical debates. William Lane Craig, himself an advocate of Molinist thought, claims that many Arminians and Calvinists who were previously ignorant to the theology are favorably disposed to it upon discovery.
Determinist Calvinist theology forks in one of two directions: either the proponent must be satisfied with the mystery of compatibilism, or else suffer the quandaries of God's seemingly active causality of evil. 17th century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin put it this way:
that God on the one hand by his providence not only decreed, but most certainly secures, the event of all things, whether free or contingent; on the other hand, however, man is always free in acting and many effects are contingent. Although I cannot understand how these can be mutually connected together, yet (on account of ignorance of the mode) the thing itself is (which is certain from another source, i.e., from the Word) not either to be called in question or wholly denied
Wierenga effectively provides an alternate solution to the determinist Calvinist, suggesting instead an additional step to God's creative process called Middle Knowledge, which relieves some of the mystery and some of compatibilism and provides at least a somewhat coherent answer to the problem of evil.
Proponents of Arminianism will find that a Middle Knowledge theology provides ample room for human choice while granting a stronger view of God's sovereignty. Further, many Arminians may find that a Middle Knowledge theology is a natural philosophical progression from their current theological convictions given the admission that God chooses which world to actualize given the knowledge of what it's created agents would choose--either to reject or accept Christ--according to the yield of greatest good. Molinism also maintains God's sovereignty, purporting that God's choice is not contingent on man's free will due to His use of natural knowledge in contrast to foreknowledge.
However, the position is not without it's own problems, and Wierenga admits these. His concluding position is essentially that, though there are no pat answers to the ultimate ends of logical analysis to the Molinist position, it is yet more conclusive than the many other positions that have been suggested throughout Christian thought thus far. This conclusion is appropriate given Wierenga's overall literary strategy of process of elimination, which addresses philosophical debates rather than biblical proofs. For a position that is neither entirely supported nor refutable from Scriptural account, it does rely heavily on logical analysis of philosophical concepts. The reader will benefit from his more-than-fly-by analysis of some of the strongest opposing positions. No matter one's traditional position, he will certainly be challenged to think through each of the logical ends of his position.
As was mentioned at the onset, Wierenga by no means makes a full survey of the topics. This presents one major weakness: more than arguing for his own theological positions, he argues against his opposition. Likewise, there is plenty of room for further contribution on these subjects, and Wierenga himself invites such scrutiny and believes that each of the topics warrants further criticism. However, The Nature of God makes for a great introduction to the various positions that are available in today's philosophy and is a recommended resource for any interested theologian. The casual reader may prefer to acquire a less academically oriented work for a less technical overview of said topics.
Reviewed by Darrin Koehler at TheologyNotebook (dot com)
 Craig, William. "Reasonable Faith -- Molinism vs. Calvinism." [...](accessed November 1, 2012).
 Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology: Volume 1: First Through 10 Topics. P & R Publishing, 1992-07-01.