Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book Review: The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes by Edward R. Wierenga

Although the problem of evil (in its various formulations) has long been the predominate anti-theistic argument, another family of arguments against traditional theistic belief attacks what has been called “the coherence of theism.” These arguments question whether the standard divine attributes (such as omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness) are coherent notions, and whether they are consistent with each other. Christian apologists, therefore, will take considerable interest in the work of philosophers of religion who develop, defend, or critique various formulations of the standard divine attributes. Edward Wierenga’s book The Nature of God: An Inquiry into Divine Attributes is an excellent contribution to this discussion.

Wierenga opens the book by noting that, despite the immense diversity evident in the various theistic traditions, there is broad agreement on which properties are central to the divine nature. In particular, the variety of sources that influence theistic thought, “…concur in attributing wisdom, power, and goodness to God. With somewhat less universality, they also ascribe eternity, immutability, timelessness, and other attributes to God.”[1] Accordingly, after introducing possible worlds semantics and laying out some of the metaphysical assumptions that will operate throughout the remainder of the book, Wierenga proceeds to analyze these divine attributes one at a time, with the aim of finding “historically adequate and philosophically defensible formulations of claims about the nature of God.”[2]

Chapter 1 is devoted to the property of omnipotence. Here Wierenga takes on the notoriously difficult task of formulating a definition of this divine attribute, and ultimately formulates two variations of a definition that is stated in terms of God’s ability to actualize states of affairs. The first variation presupposes that God is temporal, while the second is altered to accommodate divine timelessness. A couple things are particularly noteworthy in this chapter. The first is Wierenga’s handling of the “Mr. McEar” objection. Theists will often say that God, though omnipotent, need not be able to do things which are contrary to his nature. But it has proved challenging to formulate a definition of omnipotence that accommodates this notion without also allowing other virtually powerless creatures to qualify as omnipotent. The usual suspect is Mr. McEar, a fictitious character who is essentially unable to do anything other than scratch his ear. Rather than crafting his definition to exclude McEar (as others have done), Wierenga argues that creatures like McEar are broadly logically impossible.

Also worthy of note is Wierenga’s reply to the Stone Paradox. Can God make a stone that he cannot lift? A slight rewording of C. Wade Savage’s formulation of this paradox results in the following argument:

(1) Either God can strongly actualize there being a stone which he cannot lift, or God cannot strongly actualize there being a stone which he cannot lift.

(2) If God can strongly actualize there being a stone which he cannot lift, then he is not omnipotent.

(3) If God cannot strongly actualize there being a stone which he cannot lift, then he is not omnipotent.

(4) Therefore, God is not omnipotent

Wierenga replies by considering the question of whether or not omnipotence is an enduring property for God (i.e. a property that cannot be lost once one possesses it). He considers Richard Swinburne’s view that omnipotence is not an enduring property. For Swinburne, God can create a stone he cannot lift, but he remains omnipotent so long as he never creates such a stone. If he ever were to create such a stone, he would thereby cease to be omnipotent. So Swinburne would reject (2). But suppose omnipotence is an enduring property. If actualizing there being a stone which God cannot lift would entail ceasing to be omnipotent (as Swinburne argues), then it is impossible for God (if he has at any time been omnipotent) to actualize that state of affairs. Since an omnipotent being need not be able to do the broadly logically impossible, (3) is false. Wierenga’s reply can be stated as an argument with a structure parallel to that of the stone paradox (though he does not state it this way himself):

(5) Either omnipotence is an enduring property, or it is not an enduring property.

(6) If omnipotence is an enduring property, then the stone paradox fails.

(7) If omnipotence is not an enduring property, then the stone paradox fails.

(8) Therefore, the stone paradox fails.

The next four chapters are devoted to omniscience. In chapter 2, Wierenga asks how omniscience should be defined. Is a being omniscient just in case he has knowledge of all true propositions? In the process of evaluating this proposal, Wierenga considers the different sorts of knowledge designated by the terms de dicto, de re, and de se. Of particular interest is his treatment of knowledge de se, which is a special sort of self-knowledge. Someone sitting near me might know that

(9) Justin is writing a book review.

But it would seem that only I, Justin, know that

(10) I am writing a book review.

This is knowledge de se. Can God know propositions like (10)? Wierenga argues that he can, by contending 1) that people can have more than one individual-essence, and 2) that when we have knowledge de se, we grasp a special individual-essence (haecceity) that is not grasped by others nor picked out by demonstratives such as “you,” “he,” or “that person.” So knowledge de se reduces to knowledge de re, and thus God can know such propositions as (10). After defending these reductions, Wierenga concludes that omniscience may be defined as knowing all true propositions, without any further clauses or qualifications.

In chapters 3 and 4, Wierenga tackles the dilemma of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. After briefly considering and rejecting a fallacious formulation of this argument, Wierenga lays out a more formidable version, according to which God’s past beliefs possess “accidental necessity.” Truths about the past are accidentally necessary insofar as they are in some sense fixed; there is nothing that can be done now to affect what happened in the past. But if God knew eighty years ago that Jones will mow his lawn tomorrow, then God’s knowledge is now accidentally necessary. And since God’s knowing that Jones will mow his lawn tomorrow entails that Jones will mow his lawn tomorrow, then (assuming that accidental necessity is closed under entailment), it is now accidentally necessary that Jones will mow his lawn tomorrow. This, however, seems incompatible with the claim that Jones will freely choose to mow his lawn. (The argument can be generalized for all divinely foreknown choices.) After considering several possible lines of attack, Wierenga concludes that the best way to reply to the argument is to argue that God’s past foreknowledge (or forebelief) is not accidentally necessary. (After all, some facts about the past do not seem to be accidentally necessary, such as its having always been true that Jones will mow his lawn tomorrow.) Wierenga considers and eventually rejects several accounts of accidental necessity, but he finds an account by Alvin Plantinga promising, and (with a bit of patching up) ultimately deems it successful. According to this proposal, God’s past foreknowledge and forebelief are not accidentally necessary, so Wierenga believes that it resolves the dilemma.

The discussion of omniscience continues in chapter 5 as Wierenga turns to the subject of divine middle knowledge. Here he explicates and defends the theory of middle knowledge, according to which God knows the truth-values of subjunctive conditionals about free creaturely choices. Thus God is able to direct the affairs of history in part by his knowledge of what any possible person would freely do in any possible and appropriately specified set of circumstances. Wierenga discusses a couple significant advantages of this model, as well as a couple of major objections, and concludes that divine middle knowledge provides a promising account of divine providence. He spends a few pages at the end of the chapter discussing alternative accounts of providence (perhaps a bit too briefly to give them a fair hearing, in this reviewer’s opinion), and judges them to be unsuccessful.

In chapter 6 Wierenga turns to the attributes of immutability, eternity, and timelessness. He begins by distinguishing these attributes from each other and attempting to adequately define each. His definitions capture what we might call the stronger, classical sense of each of these attributes. Of special note is his understanding of eternity, which he takes to be timelessness plus a second condition. “A being that was timeless but not limitless, or timeless without having everything present to it all at once, would not be eternal.”[3] While, Wierenga believes that the arguments for attributing these properties to God are inconclusive, he assumes that “since these views have been widely held, it is of some interest to see whether there are persuasive philosophical objections to them.”[4] He considers two objections, both of which he concludes are unsound. One is based on divine action in the world, and the other on divine knowledge. I do not have space to review these arguments here, but it is noteworthy that Wierenga’s reply to the objection that a timeless, immutable God cannot know tensed propositions (like it is raining now) parallels his solution to God’s knowledge of de se propositions, for it involves grasping the haecceities of moments of time. Recognizing that this solution will be controversial, Wierenga also offers at this point an alternative account of both present-tense propositions and first-person beliefs, wherein some propositions vary in truth-value across persons and times, depending on perspective.

Chapters 7 and 8 tackle divine goodness. In chapter 7 Wierenga expresses skepticism that divine goodness can be analytically defined, but he does not believe that will thwart his purposes. He appeals to his definition of omnipotence in chapter 1 to explain how God can be both omnipotent and unable to do evil, contrasting his own solution with that of Nelson Pike. In Pike’s proposal, “God” is the title or office contingently held or occupied by a certain individual (call him Yahweh). According to Pike, Yahweh is able to do evil if he chooses, and he continues to count as God so long as he does not choose to engage in any evil acts. Wierenga blasts Pike’s solution to this dilemma as “outrageously unorthodox.”[5] He then turns to consider the objection that God is not significantly (morally) free or praiseworthy if he is unable to do evil. In reply, Wierenga suggests that God may be significantly free and able to be credited for good acts so long as it was within his power to do something else (like an equally good but different act) instead. Furthermore, though God may not be morally praiseworthy for refraining from sinning, his inability to sin may contribute to his overall greatness, for which he is praiseworthy.

Finally, in chapter 8, Wierenga considers the source of moral obligation, noting the common theistic intuition that moral obligation is in some way rooted in God. Wierenga identifies the strongest and weakest version of the so-called Divine Command Theory (DCT). On the strongest version of DCT, moral properties like being obligatory are identical to theological properties like being commanded by God. On the weakest form of DCT, God’s commands are coextensive with what is right, and merely provide a reliable moral guide. Wierenga proposes his own version of DCT, which falls between the strongest and weakest on the spectrum (though closer to the strong end, in this reviewer’s estimation). Wierenga’s DCT may be (very roughly) summarized as follows: God’s commands are coextensive with all moral obligation, and God brings it about that an act is obligatory if he commands it, permissible if he does not forbid it, and wrong if he forbids it. Much of the chapter is devoted to fending off objections to this version of DCT. Along the way, Wierenga notes some commonalities between objections to DCT and objections to the popular ethical theory of utilitarianism, arguing that DCT should have at least as much credibility as the utilitarian model.

The Nature of God is a carefully argued, insightful book. While the omission of several traditional divine attributes (such as necessity, aseity, simplicity, and omnipresence) was a bit disappointing, the work is a high-quality and worthwhile examination of those attributes that Wierenga does include. Though its technicality will necessarily narrow the scope of its readership, those who have the background knowledge required to keep up with Wierenga’s discussion will find The Nature of God highly enjoyable. It should be noted that the outline of his arguments here has been necessarily sketchy; to appreciate the full nuance and precision of Wierenga’s work, one needs to read the book. It should also be noted that the discussion of these divine attributes has progressed since The Nature of God was first published, but it is clear that this volume remains an important contribution to the contemporary discussion. I highly recommend it.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is an undergraduate art and design student from Michigan. He has a passion for apologetics and is planning to study philosophy of religion in graduate school. More of his writing can be found at

[1] Wierenga, Edward. The Nature of God. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989, p. 1
[2] Ibid. p. 2
[3] Ibid. p. 170
[4] Ibid. p. 175
[5] Ibid. p. 204


Edward Wierenga said...

Exceptionally clear and accurate description of the main lines of thought in this book. Really terrific job!

One correction (of my mistake). I attributed to Richard Swinburne the claim that omnipotence was not enduring based on my misreading of The Coherence of Theism. Swinburne does, in effect, say this, but only within the scope of the assumption God is a contingent being--and assumption that he does not, in the end, endorse.

Edward Wierenga

Justin Mooney said...

Thanks Dr. Wierenga!

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