Sunday, January 28, 2007


In my previous post I discussed, in a simple and superficial way, what is generally meant by a "free will". As Apolonio rightly pointed out in a comment, we ought not to confuse the notion of a free will with actions that are merely voluntary. I can assent to an act without willing it, and animals, in all probability, act voluntarily even though they are not, strictly speaking, free in the sense that human beings are.

Now it will be necessary to consider a concept that is of particular interest if we are to discuss the notion of free will in the context of the theology of Saints Augustine and Maximos. The term is generally rendered into English as "energy", but that is a rather unfortunate translation, since that English term carries all sorts of connotations that the Greek original does not carry. The Greek word, energeia, literally means an activity, but it has a rather long and convoluted philosophical history that requires a little discussion if we are to make any sense of its use as a theological term.

Consider the following property: "able to speak a natural language". (By "natural language" all I mean is one of the many languages that humans speak but that has not been invented ex nihilo. Examples of the former would be languages such as English, French, German, Latin. Examples of the latter would be "languages" such as Esperanto, Klingon, Quenyan.) All human beings, by virtue of their membership in the species, have this property.

"But wait!" you might say. "Infants don't possess that property. In fact, the word 'infant' means 'incapable of speech'."

Here we introduce some philosophical nuances. Plato and Aristotle used a Greek word, dunamis, to refer to a capacity to do something that is merely potential, that is, the ability to do that thing exists, but it is not being exercised. In the case of the property "able to speak a natural language" Aristotle notes that there are two different kinds of potentialities involved. At the very moment of conception every human being has a potential to speak a natural language in the sense that the human brain is, in a sense, "hard-wired" for such activity. That is, the human brain, unlike other animal brains, finds it particularly easy to pick up such languages, and you may say that humans have a facility for it that other animals don't possess, at least not to the same degree. So even an "infant" a human who cannot speak a language because he has not yet learned one, still has the potential to speak one, on condition that he eventually learn one. He possesses the property even though, at conception, he does not yet possess a brain. He does, however, potentially possess a brain, that is, he will grow one if his development is allowed to progress normally. He does not, however, possess a potential ability to fly under his own power, the way birds do, and this will be true no matter how long he lives and how much he tries to fly under his own power without artificial aid.

Once a human learns his native tongue, however, it will be possible for him to learn other languages. Suppose I know, in addition to English, Latin and Greek. Right now I am writing in English, but I could write this post in Latin. I have the potential to write in Latin because I know the language. This is a different sort of potentiality than the one the infant possesses, because the infant does not know any language, but still possesses the potential to know one, whereas I actually know a language that I am not using, but I possess the potential to use it.

Aristotle called the potentiality possessed by the infant a "first potentiality", and the potentiality possessed by the one who already knows a language but is not using it a "second potentiality". He also called the "second potentiality" a "first actuality", because that sort of potentiality is at the same time a kind of actualization of the first potentiality. When I begin to speak the language that I know, my potentialities are all fully actualized. Aristotle called this the "second actuality" or, to use his technical term, energeia.

In this early, philosophical usage, then, an energeia was merely the state that is the actualization of some potential. Aristotle, famously, defined the human soul as the first actualization of a body having the capacity for life, and the term he used for "first actualization" was prôtê energeia.

If you're wondering why we should be thinking about Aristotle at all in this context, the reason is not far to seek: Aristotle coined the word energeia: it did not exist in Greek (so far as we know) until he wrote his work called Protrepticus, a sort of motivational work designed to get people interested in philosophy. Plato had a similar distinction between potentiality and actuality, but he marked it with the words that mean "having" and "possessing" in Greek. (The word entelekheia, which is sometimes translated as "fulfillment", was also invented by Aristotle, and it may very well become relevant in this context, but I will pass over it for now.) To understand any Greek word fully requires having a very thorough acquaintance with its etymology and the history of its uses. We are rather fortunate, in a way, that the word had such a relatively late origin, since it saves us the trouble of looking through poets, historians, orators, and who knows what all, to get a sense of the term's denotation.

The theological use of the term is as follows. Certain properties are true of God, but he does not possess them in the sense of first potentialities, because that would imply that God will develop over time in a manner analogous to animal growth, and that is impossible for God who is eternal and unchanging in that sense. Nor does he possess them as second potentialities, since that implies that what is true of God now (for example, "omnibenevolent") was at some time not true of God. But that implies both that God is temporal rather than eternal and that it is true to say of God that he is not eternally omnibenevolent, which is not correct. Therefore, whatever is true of God, is true of him as a second actuality, or energeia.

In metaphysics, properties are treated in different ways depending upon one's ontological commitments. If you're a Platonist, for example, you think that every property is an entity in its own right, and that particular things only "possess" properties in the sense of being in a certain kind of relation to those entities. By contrast, if you are an Aristotelian, you will agree that properties are beings in a certain sense, but you will insist that their status as beings is ontologically dependent upon what it is for a substance, such as an individual human being or an individual horse, to be a being. If you are a nominalist, you think that property names are nothing more than names, and they do not pick out entities of any kind but refer rather to the way in which subjective observers experience the world. Many other ways of understanding properties are also possible, these are only a few. For a Christian, it is essential to assert that the being that is God transcends all other beings, regardless of what type of being they are. In other words, even if one is a Platonist, holding that properties are beings, as long as one is also a Christian one must assert that these beings, whatever their status in the sublunary realm, are ontologically dependent upon God, since God's being is fully independent of all other entities, and God is also the cause of all other beings.

So one is confronted with a special problem. Since it is difficult to conceive of any entity, let alone the Christian God, as being a being but having no properties whatsoever, it seems that there is a necessary relation of some kind between being a being and having properties, hence the being that is God would appear to be in some sort of necessary relation with his properties. Since this makes some folks a little squeamish on the grounds that they don't like to think of God being in anything like a necessary relationship with something other than himself, the idea surfaced of asserting that God and his properties are, in some sense, identical. God is love; God is compassion; God is goodness; God is omnipotence, etc. In uses such as these, the "is" turns out to be a kind of "is of identity", that is, it functions almost like a sign of equality.

Looking at the situation in this way, however, while it may comfort the Neoplatonist, makes others nervous. If the "is" here is the is of identity, then by rather straightforward logic, if God is love and God is omnipotence, then love is omnipotence, and that doesn't seem right, at least not when taken literally. Some would solve this problem by drawing a distinction between God "having" his properties" as opposed to "being" his properties. Clearly I, for example, can be an American and a male, and yet we do not think that this entails that the property of being an American is identical to the property of being a male. We do not say "I am American" and mean by that "I, the being who is Scott Carson, am identical in essence to whatever it is that is being-an-American." We mean only "I, the being that is Scott Carson, happens to have been born in the land colloquially known as 'America'."

So what, precisely, is the nature of the relation between God and his properties from an orthodox (minuscule "o") Christian perspective? This is particularly relevant to the question, What is the nature of the relationship between God and his will? One of God's properties is that he wills, and that he wills freely. Willing freely is an activity in which he engages--it is one of his energeiai. In my next installment I will begin to explore the difficulties of this question.

1 comment:

Strider said...


The following article by David Bradshaw was referenced on my site today:

Dr. David Bradshaw, “The Divine Eneriges in the New Testament” (SVTQ, vol. 50, no. 3, 2006, pages 189-223)

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

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