philosophy

Stephen Charnock’s Response to Modal Collapse

As a result of the recent discussion concerning the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) an objection has been raised referred to as “modal collapse.” This objection purposes to show an inconsistency in the claims of DDS when brought into relationship with divine freedom. For example, if God’s will is indistinguishable from His essence, He could not have willed to do otherwise since He is immutable. J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig put it this way:

. . . if God is identical with his essence, then God cannot know or do anything different from what he knows and does. He can have no contingent knowledge or action, for everything about him is essential to him. But in that case all modal distinctions collapse and everything becomes necessary. Since God knows that p is logically equivalent to p is true, the necessity of the former entails the necessity of the latter.[1]

What’s the problem here? you ask. Let’s explore what a 17th century Puritan would say:

Stephen Charnock’s Response

Moreland and Craig believe it is a problem that God cannot know or do anything differently, but if God is infinitely and immutably good then so is His knowledge, wisdom, and works. And thus, the libertarian freedom assumed by Moreland and Craig must be false. God is infinite perfection and for Him to know or do anything other than what He knows or what He does would entail imperfection. Charnock responds:

…so that we must distinguish between the person decreeing, the decree itself, and the thing decreed. The person decreeing, viz., God, is in himself immutable, and the decree is immutable; but the thing decreed may be mutable; and if it were not changed according to the first purpose, it would argue the decree itself to be changed; for while a man wills that this may be done now, and another thing done afterwards, the same will remains; and though there be a change in the effects, there is no change in the will.[2]

There is a real distinction between cause and effect. In this case, God is the first cause and the effect is creation. On this basis, there is nothing wrong with saying creation is necessary in the sense that if God is who He is, then creation will nomologically be a certain way. We could refer to this type of necessity as nomological necessity (e.g. if God is S, then X will be like P).

God, in eternity, has decreed this world to be such as it is, immutably. In other words, the divine decree is identified with the divine essence and cannot be otherwise because God is infinitely and immutably good. This creation is the creation produced as a result of God’s character. Charnock goes on:

The immutability of God’s will doth not infringe upon the liberty of it. The liberty of God’s will consists with the necessity of continuing his purpose. God is necessarily good, immutably good; yet he is freely so, and would not be otherwise than what he is. God was free in his first purpose; and purposing this or that by an infallible and unerring wisdom, it would be a weakness to change the purpose. But, indeed, the liberty of God’s will doth not seem so much to consist in an indifferency to this or that, as an independency on anything without himself: his will was free, because it did not depend upon the objects about which his will was conversant. To be immutably good is no point of imperfection, but the height of perfection.[3]

The reader should notice that Charnock has a different idea of what constitutes God’s freedom than that of those who object to DDS on the basis of modal collapse. For Charnock, divine freedom does not have reference to the potential to do something regardless of nature (libertarian freedom). Moreland and Craig assume God’s freedom is libertarian freedom; but because God is necessary and immutable, He cannot be libertarian free.

Classical divine freedom, on the other hand, consists in the fact that God’s will does not depend on anything to be what it is. The divine will is the divine will because God is who He is. So, for Charnock, God’s freedom is not impugned because God depends on nothing to be who He is, and that is the absolute perfection of freedom.

An article on Freethinking Ministries says:

It must also be said, that he refers to the “conceptual resources available to the defender of DDS” in making the distinction between “God’s act of creation” and its effects. It must be said that conceptual distinctions do not rescue the defender of DDS from the incoherence of positing something contingent as identical with something else absolutely necessary. Conceptual distinctions are in the mind only and bear no resemblance to the ontological status in question, that is to say, they aren’t real in any sense of the word and appealing to them in any attempt to defend DDS doesn’t help. Thus, it seems clear to me that the modal collapse argument stands firm.[4]

The article wrongly claims that the distinctions between acts and effects do not rescue the defender of DDS from the notion of a contingent thing being identified with something else “absolutely necessary.” This is wrong for two reasons. First, no informed DDS proponent is seeking to identify contingency with necessity. Second, the distinction between God and creation is not conceptual, but real (per the Creator/creature distinction).

It appears the author of this article wants to say something like this: since God’s knowledge is identical to God’s essence, and since creation is in God’s knowledge from eternity, immutably so, then it follows creation is necessary not contingent––making God and creation co-substantial in some pantheistic sense. But this undermines what it means to have something in virtual existence versus what it means to have something in actual existence. The formal or actual existence of creation is contingent because it rests upon the sustainment and causal power of the Prime Mover and first Cause––God. But God’s knowledge is a simple act. Charnock writes:

God knows all things by one intuitive act. As there is no succession in his being, so that he is one thing now and another thing hereafter; so there is no succession in his knowledge. He knows things that are successive, before their existence and succession, by one single act of intuition; by one cast of his eye all things future are present to him in regard of his eternity and omnipresence; so that though there is a change and variation in the things known, yet his knowledge of them and their several changes in nature is invariable and unalterable.[5]

When we speak of God’s knowledge, we are speaking of a perfect knowledge, not of a knowledge like that of a human person. Tom knows things in succession and obtains knowledge over time. God does not know like this. Therefore, when we say “God’s knowledge” we are speaking analogically, not univocally. There is a quidditative difference between God’s knowledge and our own. We know that in God there is something like our idea of knowledge, but we fail to grasp the entirety of the what that is exactly.

Charnock assumes this in his writing. If there is no succession or change in God’s knowledge, and if His knowledge is immutable (1 Sam. 15:29), then it is necessary, not contingent. If, following from their idea of libertarian freedom, Moreland and Craig want to affirm contingent knowledge in God, then it logically follows that God is contingent on something else to be who He is. Note, we are not talking about objects of God’s knowledge, but God’s knowledge itself. Objects of God’s knowledge are contingent upon God to be what they are, but God’s act of knowing is necessary.

Conclusion

Modal collapse is concerned about divine freedom or liberty. The objection is framed in terms of divine freedom within the context of the fact that God created the world. If God is divinely simple, then God’s knowledge and will are identified with His essence and therefore not truly distinct in Him. This means that God could not have done otherwise because who He is essentially necessitates a particular kind of creation. But as we have seen, the freedom implied by men like Moreland and Craig is not the same freedom thought of by Charnock. For Charnock, God is free not because He can do anything and everything regardless of who He is, but because His will depends on nothing external to Himself to be what it is.

God is, therefore, free even though creation is nomologically necessary, flowing from who God is. Creation is as it is because God is who He is. Here, we must be careful to remind ourselves of the Creator/creature distinction lest we confuse God with His creation ontologically. God is quidditatively different than His creation, that is, He exists in a different way than His creation does. Yet, because God is who He is, He determined to create in a certain way. His decree is immutable and therefore necessary, being one with His essence. Creation nomologically follows, to the iota, that immutable and necessary decree, while at the same time being itself contingent upon God for its actualization and sustained existence. So, while creation is nomologically necessary it is not metaphysically necessary as in self-existent.

I conclude, therefore, that modal collapse lacks the theological perspective and categories necessary to render any real challenge toward classical theism, and more specifically, the doctrine of divine simplicity.


  1. J. P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 525.
  2. Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 328.
  3. Ibid., 328.
  4. Byrd, Shannon. “The Collapse of the Anti-Modal Collapse Objections.” Free Thinking Ministries, 11 July 2017, freethinkingministries.com/the-collapse-of-the-anti-modal-collapse-objections/.
  5. Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 323.

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