Divine Aseity, Divine Freedom: A Conceptual Problem For Edwardsian-Calvinism -- By: James Beilby

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 47:4 (Dec 2004)
Article: Divine Aseity, Divine Freedom: A Conceptual Problem For Edwardsian-Calvinism
Author: James Beilby

Divine Aseity, Divine Freedom: A Conceptual Problem For Edwardsian-Calvinism

James Beilby

[James Beilby is assistant professor of theology at Bethel College, 3900 Bethel Drive, St. Paul, MN 55112.]

The purpose of this paper is to consider whether the Calvinist’s typical understanding of why God created the world is consistent with the assertion of God’s independence and self-sufficiency—an attribute theologians have labeled “aseity.” The essence of the problem is this: the Calvinist’s typical assertion that God’s fundamental purpose in creation is to demonstrate his glory seems to entail that God have an “other” to whom his glory must be demonstrated. But if this is the case, then God is dependent in some sense on this “other” for the demonstration of his glory and, ironically, less sovereign than in a theology where the demonstration of God’s glory is less central. While this is not a new objection, it has not been a primary locus of discussion for some time. The reason for this is not that the objection is too obscure to be recognized, but rather that the objection has apparently been deemed to be answered.

I will begin by defining the central terms of the dispute: aseity, divine freedom, and Calvinism. Then, after sketching the basic contours of the objection, I will consider the answer of arguably the greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, whose treatment of this topic has been enormously influential. After arguing that Edwards’s answer fails, I will close with a consideration of the various options open to Calvinists with respect to this objection.

1 He Basic Argument: The Tension between Calvinism and Divine Aseity

As much as evangelical Christians disagree about how the sovereignty of God should be understood and what its implications should be, there is universal acceptance that God is independent, self-existent, and fully self-sufficient. He does not need anything outside of himself to exist, be satisfied, be fulfilled, or (to borrow an overused phrase from contemporary psychology) be “self-actualized.” Whether Exodus 3:14 is translated “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be,” the meaning is the same: God’s existence and character are determined by him alone.1

These characteristics highlight what has been called God’s aseity. Derived from the Latin phrase a se, meaning “from or by himself,” aseity is arguably the most fundamental divine attribute. Herman Bavinck, for example, argues that aseity “is commonly viewed as the first of the attributes” becau...

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