[Previous reflections, including a brief historical context, are to be found here.]
These are the reflections of someone particularly ignorant about such deep matters, let alone of this specific Church Father. There are others who are much more knowledgeable than me. What I will attempt with these reflections is to bring together the deep theology they explicate and some thoughts of a more practical, hopefully somewhat ascetical, bent. That is to say, what I want to attempt is to reflect on these things as a way to better my living of the faith, and my prayers. I’m happy to be corrected by those who discern errors in my thoughts here.
I remember, when I was younger, probably not even yet ten years old, my maternal grandfather, himself a minister, illustrating to me the great mystery of God by asking me the unanswerable question: God can create a rock heavier than he can lift? My first instinct of course was to say yes, after all, God is the creator. But half-a-second later I realized that if I said yes, to affirm his attribute of creator, I must ultimately deny his omnipotence by affirming that there was something he could create that he could not lift (assuming of course that such an anthropomorphism even applies to God). Grandpa, with a smile and a wink, saw the thought processes working themselves out visibly in my facial expressions. We affirm, he said, that God is a creator, and that he is omnipotent. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.
I open with this illustration, not only because it has obviously influenced my thinking about God, but because there is another version of this question at play in the Protestant Christian world: Can God both foreknow the future and grant humans true freedom? Some Protestants, of course, answer no. And of those who do, some we call Reformed Calvinists. For those Reformed Calvinists who answer “no,” God’s foreknowledge must, if God is truly sovereign, determine every alternative possibility toward one end, namely, that end which is already foreknown by God. If God knows one particular reality, that knowledge must necessarily be true, which means that the future is already determined. And if the future is already determined, then humans are not free to choose or to do otherwise than that which God already foreknows.
Other Protestant Christians answer yes to the compatibility of foreknowledge and human freedom, and these we call Arminians. But the Reformed Calvinists have always felt that the Arminians were cheating, equivocating on terms or begging certain questions. And so, some Protestant Christians have developed the theology of “open theism” as a result. They want to affirm that human beings are truly free, but to do so they must acknowledge that God’s foreknowledge is limited by that which it is possible to know (God cannot know that which is not real). Since the future for humans is not yet real, therefore cannot yet be known, God does not truly foreknow the future. He might be able somehow to grasp all the pertinent possibilities of human choices and acts, but he does not, strictly speaking, know them until they come to be. God is, to be sure, above and beyond time, and there are some things which God wills to foreknow (certain Christological prophecies, say, or the eschatological realities of the Church), but if human beings are, indeed, truly free, God cannot foreknow the choices they have not yet made.
This summary of open theism, of course, does not do justice to it. And I examine open theism with a bit more detail in an earlier post. But this summary highlights the one problem many Western Christians have, and which St. Gregory addresses in his Dialogue: a confusion between God’s essence and his attributes (or energies), and, correlatively, a confusion between God’s nature and his Person.
The problem arises, of course, from a mistaken understanding of what is meant by God being simple. The simplicity of God is taken to mean that God has no parts, that is to say, that God cannot be divided up into his constituent characteristics. It would be a contradiction in terms that the infinite God was composed of finite parts: here his love leaves off and his judgment begins, neither encroaching upon the other. As a result, to avoid such a blasphemy, some proponents of divine simplicity went beyond the patristic consensus on God’s simplicity and employed a sort of platonic rationalism to the question. God’s simplicity became a definitional sort of simplicity, or, absolute simplicity. God, indeed, had no parts, he was utterly simple, and if God was the holy and invisible Creator, then creatures could have no access to his essential nature. If God’s simplicity meant that God was all essence, with no remainder, and if that essence was wholly inaccessible to us, then it further followed that we could have no participation in the divine.
But there is another related implication. If we can have no participation in the divine essence, then it remains to be explained how is it we can be saved? One answer is that the grace God extends to us is not his essence (for that would divide up God’s simplicity), but rather a created thing God gives us. This however, rather than preserving the divine simplicity, divides God into uncreated and created entities, a rather polytheistic conundrum for Trinitarians.