§3. Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s ‘two-willed god’: There is a history!

*To catch up read my first and second installments, 1) here and 2) here.


This is my second installment (well third really) on Matt Chandler’s and John Piper’s ‘two-wills in God theology’. My last post on this sought to introduce us to the way that John Piper, in particular, and Chandler otherwise, understand a concept that they both articulate as ‘The TwoWills of God’. I registered my concern in that last post about where this approach leads, because of where it comes from; and because of what it implies about God’s nature, and how he relates to his creation (us) in what has been called salvation history. This post will briefly sketch the aspect of where  two wills in God theology came from; my next and last post in this mini-series will detail what the implications are of this approach (for Christology, soteriology [study of salvation], etc.), and in this detailing I will offer what I think is a corrective—which of course is what we advocate for as Evangelical Calvinists.

The history of two-wills in God theology can be seen given definition through the thought processes of a medieval theologian named William of Ockham. He believed, in a nutshell, that God was one way in eternity (God’s so called ‘absolute will’), and another way in time-space salvation history (God’s so called ‘ordained will’). What this does is introduce a wedge between the God of eternity and the God of spacio-temporal time; meaning that the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ could potentially be different than the God behind Jesus back up in eternity (understand that I am speaking in oversimplified ways and rather crudely)—or, there is no necessary link between how God acts in eternity, and how God acts in time. The result of this is to place a rupture into the very being of God. Here is how Steven Ozment summarizes Ockham’s view (and he also quotes a bit of Ockham for us); we will quote this at some length:

Ockham’s reputation as a revolutionary theological thinker has resulted from the extremes to which he went to establish the contingent character of churches, priests, sacraments, and habits of grace. He drew on two traditional sources. The first was Augustine’s teaching that the church on earth was permixta, that is, that some who appear to be saints may not be, and some who appear not to be saints may in fact be so, for what is primary and crucial in salvation is never present grace and righteousness, but the gift of perseverance, which God gives only the elect known to him. Ockham’s second source was the distinction between the absolute and ordained powers of God, the most basic of Ockham’s theological tools. Ockham understood this critical distinction as follows:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potential ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do. . . . The things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potential absoluta]. [Quodlibeta VI, q. 1, cited by Dettloff, Die Entwicklung der Akzeptations- unde Verdienstlehre, p. 282, and Courtenay, “Nominalism and Late Medieval Religion,” p. 40.]

Ockham seemed to delight in demonstrating the contingency of God’s ordained power—what God had actually chosen to do in time—by contrasting it with his absolute power, the infinite possibilities open to him in eternity. According to his absolute power, God could have chosen to save people in ways that seem absurd and even blasphemous. For example, he could have incarnated himself in a stone or an ass rather than in a man, or could have required that he be hated rather than loved as the condition of salvation. . . .[1]

In order to keep this brief enough I will not elaborate too much, but let me give some reasons why I think this is important to know; and also for whom I am presenting this in the main:

1)      I am introducing this for folks who have never had a Reformation Theology class in seminary, for example. So this is intended to provide exposure for all of those who have been unexposed heretofore.

2)      My hope is that because of said exposure, the reader will understand that there is something more going on when they hear Piper and Chandler articulate two wills in God theology. In other words, the way that both Piper and Chandler present this, to the uninformed; the parishioner will walk away thinking that what Chandler just said about two wills in God is simply Gospel biblical truth without reservation or anyway to critically consider this. So my goal is rather minimal by reproducing Ozment’s thought for you; my goal is simply to alert the attentive reader and thinker that there is something more than ‘biblical truth’ going on in the in-formation of Piper’s and Chandler’s view on this particular topic.

3)      I want the read to understand that there is a particular problem associated with thinking in these kind of Nominalist ways (which is what the philosophy is called that Ockham articulates) about the nature of God. As I noted earlier, it creates a potential schism (indeed necessary) between the God of eternity and the God of time revealed in Jesus Christ; so as my favorite theologian says (along with Barth before him), we end up ‘with a god behind the back of Jesus’ who is not necessarily the same God we see revealed in Jesus (so when Jesus says in John 14 that ‘when you see me you see the Father’, that may or may not be true according to the implications and logic associated with a two-wills in God theology).


My next and final post in this series will expand on the problems associated with this approach; elaborating upon my parenthetical point in point three in the aforementioned. I will notice how this approach, which is purported by both Piper and Chandler to resolve some apparent tensions in scripture; instead exacerbate things in scripture by undercutting the most important point and touchstone we work from as Christians—that is what has been called a Theology Proper or Doctrine of God. If we get this point wrong—e.g. who God is—then the rest of our theological thinking and biblical interpreting will be found to be built on sandy beaches and not the rocky jetty that will stand under the most tumultuous theological storm waves one could fathom.

[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History Of Late Medieval And Reformation Europe, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 18.


God’s Non-Necessity and Ockham

Justin Stratis over at the new theoblog, Out Of Bounds, has recently thrown up a post that is quite provocative. He is thinking out loud about a thesis of his about the world and its contingency; and what this does to our knowing about God and ourselves. He writes:

For several months, I’ve been reflecting on the place where God might “fit” in our attempts to think about, and ultimately know, ourselves and the world. Consequently, I’ve come to believe that God is formally unnecessary to such attempts. My thesis is that because the world is a finite and contingent thing, God need not be posited in order to make sense of it. (see full post here)

Justin seems to be probing from a more Modern theological position, and I would imagine that his further thoughts on this will mostly be from this vantage point. Nevertheless, as you read what Stratis is saying in full (so follow the link I provide, and do that — read the ensuing comments too), it sounds eerily similar to the kinds of thoughts that Medieval Scholastic theologian Ockham posited; at least relative to God’s non-necessity to the world, and our relative knowledge of it. Just recently I have begun to review a text we used for my Reformation Theology class in seminary (years back), and I have just happened upon Steven Ozment’s accounting of Ockham’s approach; very similar stuff to what Justin Stratis is working through (we’re just looking back a bit further into the history than I would gather Justin is working from). Here is how Ozment describes Ockham’s approach:

Ockham thoroughly rejected the metaphysic of essences and the metacategories so popular among thirteenth-century scholastics, which he believed had entangled God, man, and the world in a great chain of presumed ontological links and forces. He described “divine ideas” as merely the knowledge God could be said to have of the particular things he had created; just as man’s ideas or concepts reflected his encounter with and ordering of the world he intuited, so God “knew” the world he created. There was no grand system of divine ideas interlocking divine, human, and physical reality as with Augustine, Aquinas, and even Scotus. “Ideas,” Ockham wrote, “are not in God really, as part of his very nature [subiective et realiter], but only as objects [in ipso objective]—as the individual things he knows.” Universals as eternal archetypes really in the mind of God and in individual things as principles of their being and intelligibility fell away. Universals were distinctly human phenomena confined to the ordinary processes of a finite mind interacting with its perceived environment. The “secularization” of the knowing process begun by Aquinas here reached a true completion.

For Ockham, traditional philosophical and theological problems no longer opened onto such vast horizons as they had done with his predecessors; Ockham forced speculation to become more modest. Theological conclusions that came easily for Aquinas became impossible in the new Ockhamist world. If one cannot believe that the particular things of the world are essentially connected with their ultimate cause, then it becomes difficult to argue confidently from finite effects to the existence of God. For Ockham, there was no more rational basis for belief in God’s existence or the immortality of the soul than there was for the existence of intelligible species and common natures. All such things become genuine matters of faith. [Steven Ozment, The Age Of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History Of Late Medieval And Reformation Europe, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 60-1]

To be clear, this post is not intended to challenge or characterize what Stratis is reflecting upon. Instead, Justin’s post is simply more of a springboard that got me thinking about the issue of God’s relation to the world; which led me to consider how someone in the history had similar sentiments at play in his own reflections and constructive theologizing. Obviously Ockham has the two-wills (absoluta, ordinata) at work in his mode of thought; and Ockham had never heard of Karl Barth’s actualistic metaphysic (for lack of a better term) and a post-metaphysical approach — and my hunch is that these are the categories (Barth’s, Jüngel’s, and other Moderns) that Stratis will be working through. Nevertheless, it is at least interesting to note some corollaries between the kinds of Modern questions that Stratis is positing; with the Pre-Modern/Critical ones that somebody like Ockham similarly articulated. I suppose in some ways the Teacher’s dictum of “there is nothing new under the sun” is apropos (maybe its just that some ideas are closer to the sun than others 😉 ).

I am just thinking . . .