Macquarrie on divine self-giving and the risk of creation

In his Principles of Christian Theology, a book I’ve returned to a number of times over the years, John Macquarrie considers what it means to talk about God’s “risk” in creating the world in a way that strikingly resembles more recent discussions.

Recall that for Macquarrie, God is Holy Being, characterized by a self-giving that empowers the being of created things. God pours the divine being out in the act of creation, giving rise to particular, determinate things. But this creation of finite, determinate things inherently involves an element of risk:

In creation, God gives being, and he gives it to the plurality of particular beings. But what constitutes a particular or finite being is just that it is determinate; and whatever is determinate is what it is just in so far as it is not anything else. To have any determinate character is to be without some other characters. Hence creation may be considered as the going out of Being into nothing and the acceptance by Being of the limitations of determinate characteristics. All this makes possible the expression of Being in a richly diversified community of beings that would utterly transcend in value and interest what we can only visualize as a hypothetical limiting case, namely, a purely undifferentiated primal Being. But this creative process inevitably involves risk. There is a genuine self-giving of Being. We have already seen that this imposes a self-limitation on God, when we discussed the problem of his omnipotence. But more than this, it means that God risks himself, so to speak, with the nothing; he opens himself and pours himself out into nothing. His very essence is to let be, to confer being. He lets be by giving himself, for he is Being; and in giving himself in this way, he places himself in jeopardy, for he takes the risk that Being may be dissolved in nothing. Did Bonhoeffer have something like this in mind when he talked about the “weakness” of God, the God who manifests himself in the crucified Christ as placing himself at the mercy of the world? One would have to say, however, that this weakness of God is his strength. We have seen that a God who securely hoarded his being would be no God, and perhaps nothing at all. Only the God who does confer being and so goes out from himself into creation and into the risks of finite being that is bounded by nothing—only this God is holy Being and lays claim to our worship and allegiance. Only this God is a God of love, for love is precisely his self-giving and letting-be. (Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition, 1977, pp. 255-6)

A side-effect of this “going out” of the divine being is the existence of what we usually refer to as “natural” evil. Finite, particular things, being limited, have an in-built potential to lapse back into nonbeing. “These beings have been created out of nothing, and it is possible for them to slip back into nothing or to advance into the potentialities for being which belong to them. Evil is this slipping back toward nothing, a reversal and defeat of the creative process” (p. 255).

Providence is God’s ongoing creative activity to overcome “negativity by positive beingness,” but along the way there will be “many a reverse and many a detour.” This is because the existence of a multiplicity of finite things means that conflict is possible—and perhaps inevitable; one being’s flourishing often comes at the expense of another’s. But the venture of faith is that creation was worth it: that the unfolding of being in richer, more diverse and complex forms has immeasurably more value than if there had been no creation.

Macquarrie is working out of what he calls an “existential-ongological” perspective influenced by Heidegger, Tillich and Karl Rahner among others; but his view resembles other positions that have been developed in recent decades which emphasize limits on divine power. The central idea is that, for there to be a free, self-developing creation with its own integrity, God cannot micromanage it to eliminate any risk of evil or suffering.

There are disagreements over whether this means that creation inherently limits God’s power or whether this is a kind of voluntary self-limitation on God’s part. The former is characteristic of process theology: God’s power over creation is limited as a matter of metaphysical necessity. The latter view is associated more with open theism and thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who emphasize the voluntary nature of God’s self-limitation (or kenosis).

Macquarrie’s view doesn’t seem to fit neatly into either of these categories. There is certainly a kind of gratuity to the divine outpouring of being; in that sense, it resembles the “kenotic” view of Moltmann and the open theists. At the same time, he does hint that creation is in some way necessary to God—or at least to God being God (as noted in his provocative statement that a God who “hoarded” being would be “perhaps nothing at all”).

One contemporary view that may lie closest to Macquarrie’s is that of Thomas Jay Oord, a Wesleyan “relational” theologian who develops a position he calls “essential kenosis” in his interesting recent book The Uncontrolling Love of God. According to Oord, God is not limited by a metaphysical structure (as in process theology), but nor does God “voluntarily” self-limit in the manner of open theism and Moltmann. Rather, God’s very nature is one of self-giving love (hence essential kenosis). God’s outpouring of being and “letting-be” of particular beings flows from the divine nature itself. For Oord, this act of letting-be inherently precludes a deterministic micro-managing of creation by God; that would be a kind of divine self-contradiction.

This seems to me to be close to what Macquarrie is getting at. To be God just is to pour out being into the creation of finite, particular things. Because these things have their own determinate natures, creation is an inherently risky endeavor. But at the same time God is everywhere and always active and present to move creation toward its fulfillment.

I don’t know that this provides a fully satisfactory “solution” to the problem of evil. (In fact, I’m pretty sure there is no satisfactory solution at an intellectual level.) But I think a position along these lines has certain advantages over its main competitors.


3 thoughts on “Macquarrie on divine self-giving and the risk of creation

  1. tjoord

    I agree with you: Macquarrie’s position is similar to my own. (I read some of his work in grad school, but your essay makes me think I should return.)

    In the quote you post, some parts sound like the voluntarily self-limiting that I reject. But others sound like the involuntarily self-limited — essential kenosis — that I propose. When Macquarrie says God’s “very essence is to let be,” that sounds like my position. I’m also in agreement with you proposals on risk, although the kinds of risks God takes, in my view, would always be risks within the limits of love.

    The part of the quote that I’m a little uneasy with is his statements about “nothing.” At times, the nothing to which he refers sounds like a something, and I’m good with God creating in that way. But other times I’m wondering if he affirms absolute nothingness, in the classic sense of creatio ex nihilo. Not only is that classic view not explicitly found in the Bible, I think it presents insuperable problems for thinking about God’s culpability for evil. That’s a subject I address in my essay, God Always Creates out of Creation in Love, which is in the book I edited, Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals (Routledge).

    Most of all, I’m extremely pleased that you read Macquarrie and saw the connections with my proposals. That makes me think you’ve understood my proposal pretty well, which is, of course, very gratifying! Thank you.


  2. Hi Prof. Oord: Thanks very much for reading and your comment!

    I do think there’s a certain ambiguity in how Macquarrie treats “nothingness” and it’s not altogether clear to me if he affirms the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in it’s classic form. Some of what he says sounds similar to Paul Tillich’s view, which seems to posit nothingness almost as an independent power threatening to undo creation. (Also somewhat similar to how Jon Levenson talks about chaos in his Creation and the Persistence of Evil.)

    I enjoyed your new book very much and hope to find time to blog about it a bit more. And thanks for the pointer to your essay on creation; I’ll check it out.


    1. tjoord

      Thanks, Lee. I agree with your comment on Levenson. I often cite him as a source for rejecting the classic view of creatio ex nihilo. I’ve also been reading his new book on love in Judaism.

      Thanks too for your kind words on my book. I look forward to hearing your evaluation!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s