An Orthodox Theologian on Divine Risk-Taking

By | August 24, 2021

Vladimir Lossky (1903–1958) was, and still is, an influential Eastern Orthodox theologian. I recently read an English translation of his book Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978) and was surprised to see several unambiguously clear endorsements of the idea that in creating free creatures, God has taken significant risks. That admission alone is enough to put Eastern Orthodoxy at odds with Molinism and all forms of theistic determinism. And, while Lossky’s admissions don’t entail open theism, they do imply that Eastern Orthodoxy’s view of the God–world relation is providentially equivalent to open theism.

What follows are several excerpts from Lossky’s book that I found particularly congenial to open theism. Key affirmations throughout are highlighted in bold. Italics, where they occur, reflect Lossky’s own emphasis.

For this unknowable God reveals Himself, and, because He transcends, in His free personal existence, His very essence, He can really make Himself a participator. (p. 25)

The above quote indicates that, for Lossky, God’s existence is not identical to His essence. This amounts to a rejection of absolute divine simplicity, perhaps the central dogma of classical theism. Moreover God’s making Himself a “participator” is a rejection of the Thomistic idea that there are no “real” relations between God and creation, i.e., the idea that the direction of causal influence runs exclusive from God to creation and never in the other direction.

To create is … a calling forth of newness. One might almost say: a risk of newness. When God raises, outside of Himself, a new subject, a free subject, that is the peak of His creative act. Divine freedom is accomplished through creating this supreme risk: another freedom. (p. 54)

The above is a clear affirmation of divine risk-taking. In creating free creatures, God willingly takes even a “supreme” risk.

For Orthodoxy … it is unthinkable that God, in order to create, should be content to produce a replica of His own thought, finally of Himself. (p. 57)

This amounts to a denial of meticulous providence. Creation is not the outworking of an exhaustively detailed script that God has authored wholly “of Himself.”

God creates beings who like Him can … decide and choose. But these beings can decide against God: is this not for Him the risk of destroying His creation? This risk, it is necessary to reply, must, paradoxically, register its presence at the very height of omnipotence. Creation, truly to “innovate,” creates “the other,” that is to say, a personal being capable of refusing Him Who created them. The peak of all-powerfulness is thus received as a powerlessness of God, as a divine risk. The person is the highest creation of God only because God gives it the possibility of love, therefore of refusal. God risks the eternal ruin of His highest creation, precisely that it may be the highest.
 … God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. … The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respectDivine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent: of such is divine providence. (p. 73)

This is another clear affirmation of divine risk-taking in the context of an explicitly synergistic view of human salvation.

Thus the history of the Old Testament is not only that of the foreshadowings of salvation but that of man’s refusals and acceptances. Salvation approaches or withdraws as man prepares or not to receive it. The καιρòς [kairos] of Christ, His moment, will depend on human will. The entire meaning of the Old Testament lies in these fluctuations underlying the double aspect of Providence. The latter is not unilateral. It takes into account the human waiting and call. (p. 88)

This is a rejection of meticulous providence and an affirmation of God’s flexibility in dealing with creation, so much so that even the timing of the Incarnation depends on human will.

This election was announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel. But Mary remained free to accept or to refuse. The whole history of the world, every fulfillment of the divine plan, was dependent on this free human response. The humble consent of the Virgin allowed the Word to become flesh. (p. 89)

Here again, Lossky says that the timing of the Incarnation, carefully prepared by God over the preceding centuries, could have been thwarted at the last moment by Mary. That seems like a significant risk on God’s part. With the Incarnation

God enters into the flesh of history: history is risk; God runs a risk. He, completeness and plenitude itself, descends unto the last confines of the being which sin riddles with incompleteness and implenitude, to make salvation possible to free beings without shattering their freedom. (p. 94)

God runs a risk because He wants our free response to His overtures.

The central moment of the economy of the Son, redemption, must not be separated from the divine plan as a whole. The latter has never changed. Its goal has never ceased being union with God, in all freedom, of personal beings …. Divine love always pursues the same end: the deification of men, and by them, of the whole universe. But the Fall demands a change, not in God’s goal, but in Him means …. Sin has destroyed the primitive plan, that of a direct climb of man to God. (pp. 110–111)

This is a clear affirmation by Lossky that God exercises general providence and not meticulous providence. He has a general plan for creation that has never changed, but the Fall required an adjustment in God’s strategy for reaching those goals.

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