Lewis’s Possibilism, Lewis’s Actualism

by Dr. Jonathan McIntosh

One of my areas of research and interest concerns the question of God’s power and creative possibility. In the history of western theology, as I argue, there is an unresolved and, indeed, almost unrecognized debate between two contrasting views of how God’s creative activity relates to his creative possibilities. On the one hand is what I would identify as the standard or mainstream position, which I refer to as “theistic possibilism,” according to which God’s creative possibilities exist prior to and independently of what he actually makes. The classic example of this position is the Augustinian doctrine of the divine ideas, which says that there exists eternally in the mind of God the archetypes or exemplars of everything God can and does make, and this whether he actually chooses to make anything or not. The objection I have to this model of theistic actualism, however, is that even in those versions of it that root God’s possibilities within God’s own being, these possibilities, as things co-eternal within God himself, are not things that God exercises any creative control or sovereignty over, but are rather brute facts or givens of God’s own existence.

In contrast with this model of theistic possibilism is a minority position also present within the tradition of classical theism, and which I have termed “theistic actualism.” Theistic actualism is the thesis that, unlike theistic possibilism, God’s possibilities do not exist as prior determinants of what God can actually do or make, but are posterior or consequent to, being dependent upon, what God actually does or makes. Whereas theistic possibilism, accordingly, holds that God creates from a set of already existing and uncreated possibilities, theistic actualism views God as the sovereign creator of his own possibilities. A representative, even if little-recognized example of theistic actualism would be St. Anselm of Canterbury’s alternative to Augustine’s divine ideas, namely what Anselm called the divine locutio or “utterance.” According to Anselm, God’s prior knowledge of creation and its possibilities consists, not in a static, infinite set of intellectual ideas for everything God could make whether he makes any of them or not, but in a dynamic, linguistic “utterance” which contains everything that God has made or will make (along with their consequent possibilities, we may add), but which contains nothing at all of those putatively “pure” possibilities which are sometimes supposed to exist independently of what God has actually made. For Anselm, unless God actually makes a thing along with its possibilities, “it” is not in fact anything, not even a possibility.

In a couple of follow-up posts, I’ll give two examples of these two positions of theistic possibilism and theistic actualism working in tension with each other, and all within the writings of one and the same author, C.S. Lewis.