Skip to content

Immanence and Ethics, Part 2: Reconciling Moral Freedom and Adventist Holism

Immanence and Ethics, Part 2: Reconciling Moral Freedom and Adventist Holism

Dialectical Theism and God’s Immanence

In Part 1, I argued that there is an inconsistency between Adventism’s anthropological monism and its metaphysical dualism. On one hand, the church affirms the unity of body and spirit, and thereby denies that spirits remain conscious after death. On the other hand, by affirming that people have free will, it raises the metaphysical problem of how it is possible for the will to control the body, which consists of a different ontological substance (that is, physical rather than spiritual matter) and is subject to causal necessity. I also discussed several problems with the Adventist basis for asserting that we have free will, such as its monarchical conception of God and its insistence that God’s law is a heteronomous authority that we must be induced to obey by the threat of punishment.

In this article, I will propose an alternative to the traditional Adventist conception of God that will enable us to affirm both anthropological monism and the ethical benefits of believing that we have free will. By recognizing history as the process in which God reconciles his creation to himself, we can affirm both that history and its participants are subject to natural laws and that we can fulfill God’s universal moral demands through the Spirit’s activity within us. This idea of a historical process of universal reconciliation requires us to affirm both God’s transcendence and his immanence. We must affirm God’s transcendence if we are to acknowledge his omnipotence. However, we must also affirm his immanence because the Creator cannot be reconciled with his creation unless he is involved in and affected by it. Because these divine properties are opposites, we must find a synthesis between them.

The theologian John Macquarrie attempts this synthesis with his doctrine of dialectical theism.[1] Central to this doctrine is the concept of the dialectic, which is a logical contradiction between opposing ideas. Although the concept of the dialectic is present in the writings of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, it was Georg W. F. Hegel who gave it its most systematic treatment. Hegel interpreted history as the process by which logical contradictions are resolved in time. Moreover, he believed that it was this process that constitutes the mind or subject who engages in it. In other words, philosophy is not simply the synthesis of opposing properties, but it is an immersive experience playing out in history that results in the unity of subject (the individual) and substance (the content of the logical oppositions that are reconciled).[2]

Dialectical theism maintains that the process by which we seek to understand God as having dialectically opposed properties is an immersive experience by which we are constituted as individuals. Consequently, if theology’s task is to engage in this dialectical process, then theology is an activity in which every believer must participate if they are to have faith. In dialectical theism, the subjects that are constituted by the resolution of the dialectical oppositions within God are both God and us. If God is to be a real influence in human history, he must actualize himself in its processes through the Spirit’s influence on us. This does not mean that God fully actualizes himself in history, as though “history” were simply another word for “God.” There remains an aspect of God that transcends history, and his ultimate reality does not depend on his historical self-actualization. Nevertheless, dialectical theism promotes an eschatology in which God is progressively reconciled with his creation through the unity of his subjectivity with our own subjectivity—in other words, through God’s mutual identification with us. This is an eschatology of universal reconciliation through our existential participation in the Spirit’s activity of articulating and fulfilling our moral responsibilities.

Macquarrie discusses six dialectical oppositions within God that he believes the church must affirm. I will examine each of these in turn and will consider their implications for Adventist theology.

Being and nothingness. The first opposition is between being and nothingness. Macquarrie notes that throughout the history of Judeo-Christian thought, God has been described in ontological terms (that is, terms concerned with the nature of being). In Exodus 3:14–15, God says, “I am who I am.” The theologian Thomas Aquinas described God as “He who is.” John Scotus Eriugena called God “He who is more than being.” These labels not only affirm that God exists, but that he exists beyond the limitations to which spatio-temporal objects are subject. Consequently, when we say that God “exists,” we mean something different than when we say that a person or thing exists. As Macquarrie explains, “[God] is not a being in the ordinary sense of the word. God exists in the sense of the source of all existence.”[3]

The opposite of being is nothingness, and this property may also be applied to God. Because God does not exist in the ordinary sense of the word, God is nothing—that is, he is not a thing. But this assertion is not inconsistent with belief in God. As Macquarrie explains, everything in the universe depends for its existence on other things, but the existence of the universe itself does not appear to be conditioned by anything outside itself. “If it is felt that one must seek a reason for the existence of the world, this cannot be another existent but a reality of an entirely different order, a reality which is not an existent but a source of existence.”[4]

Macquarrie identifies this reality as God. Like the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, whom I discussed in Part 1, Macquarrie conceives God as the noncontingent basis of reality. Spinoza described God as causa sui, a cause of itself.[5] But it is important to remember that to describe God in terms of causation is to speak metaphorically, since God is not limited by causal necessity. Language is incapable of fully expressing who God is. Macquarrie comments on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is,” saying, “Wittgenstein thought the question [of why the world exists] is unanswerable and should not even be asked—we can only be silent. . . . Yet people do not just remain silent. They stretch language to the uttermost, not to comprehend, but, again in Wittgenstein’s terms, to ‘show’ or ‘point to’ (zeigt) the mystery.” Dialectical theism does not remain content to identify God as the mystery beyond existence, but rather it attempts to understand God through his other dialectical oppositions.[6]

Singularity and multiplicity. The second dialectical opposition is between God’s singularity and multiplicity. Macquarrie states, “God is the unity holding all things together and without which there would be chaos. But this is not a barren undifferentiated unity. God is also the fullness of being and embraces within himself all the richness of being.” That is, everything that exists has God as the source of its existence. Although God is a singular being, he expresses himself through his creation of the multiplicity of existing things.

Macquarrie distinguishes between three modes by which we understand God as being. The first is the primordial mode, which refers to the “ineffable and incomprehensible superexistence which does not itself exist but is the creative source and condition of everything that does exist.” Macquarrie explains that this side of God “is the deepest and most mysterious region of deity, God in his otherness and transcendence.” We cannot say anything affirmative about God in his primordial being except that it is the “originary event” from which the universe has emerged: “God has come out from the hiddenness of the ultimate mystery to bring into being a cosmos evolving under ordered laws.”[7]

On this point, Macquarrie echoes Spinoza, who defines God as the substance underlying reality and argues that there are two attributes by which we may know him: his self-expression in thought and his self-expression in the spatio-temporal world.[8] However, although these two attributes are, in his view, the only ways by which we may know God, he insists that God possesses infinite attributes besides the ones we can conceive. Spinoza denies that human beings are capable of discerning all God’s attributes because he wants to discourage our tendency to adopt anthropocentric views of God and nature. Affirming God’s primordial nature undermines our tendency to project onto God our own concerns and motives and to succumb to the prejudices that result from this tendency.[9]

Nevertheless, to view God as entirely inaccessible to human thought is not edifying, since the idea of God cannot offer us moral guidance unless he can be known. With this in mind, Macquarrie discusses a second mode of considering God as being. This is the expressive mode, in which “the divine activity has come out into the openness and intelligibility of the cosmos.” The notion of intelligibility is central to this mode of being: “What we have in mind here is close to the traditional Logos or Nous, that rational and intelligent aspect of deity which is also the agent in forming the creation.” God’s act of creation, by which he gives his own being to creatures other than himself, is simultaneously an act of making himself intelligible to those creatures: “Although the furthest depths of deity (the primordial being) remain veiled to us, something of the divine nature—and this very word ‘nature’ (natura or [physis]) means originally an ‘emerging’ or ‘arising’—is communicated or revealed in the cosmos, for in some way it must express the reality from which it arises.”[10]

Here Macquarrie is describing God’s general self-revelation in nature. He employs the concept of the Logos, which is the same Greek term translated as “Word” in John 1:1–18, where Christ is described as the Word of God. However, God’s self-revelatory activity is not limited to Christ. Logos, within Greek thought, means not only “word,” but the rational structure of thought by which we can comprehend the world. When we describe God as the “Word,” we are considering his self-expressions in all forms that are comprehensible to us.

To maintain that God has revealed himself adequately in nature, although he still remains partially veiled, does not conflict with the Bible. As Paul argues in Romans 1:19–20, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.” The phrase “invisible though they are” indicates that there remains a primordial aspect of God beyond our comprehension. But the phrase “what can be known about God” suggests that what God has revealed of himself in nature is adequate, since it contains all that can be known about him.

The problem with God’s general self-revelation in nature, as Paul explains, is not that it is inadequate, but that people are prone to idolatry (Romans 1:21–23). This occurs when people conflate God’s expressive mode with his primordial mode, as though God is coterminous with his self-expression in nature. This is pantheism in the most accurate sense of the word. (Because Spinoza affirmed God’s primordial nature and believed that the attributes of thought and extension were not the only attributes of God, it is inaccurate to describe him as a pantheist.) But idolatry is not limited to worshiping natural objects. It applies to any phenomenon, such as biblical literalism, in which God’s self-revelations are regarded as pointing to nothing about God beyond themselves. The idolatry consists of the anthropocentrism involved in believing that God has made himself fully known to humanity, as though no aspect of God could be incomprehensible to us. Adventists who are concerned to avoid the pretension to be “like God” in knowing everything about him should avoid the tendency to bring God fully down to our own level by believing that he is a completely anthropomorphic being.

By emphasizing the grace received through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul sought to affirm the need to experience God’s presence as immanent in our personal lives. He contrasts this subjective experience of faith with the legalistic attitude that regards God’s law, as codified in the Ten Commandments, as coterminous with our moral responsibilities. Legalism, like biblical literalism, is a form of idolatry, because it maintains that God’s will is fully embodied in the law. Paul emphasized the law’s inadequacy to save people from their sinful condition precisely because the law is incapable of pointing beyond itself to God’s primordial nature. God’s primordial nature, and the moral responsibility it entails, cannot be stated in imperatives, but only shown in a personal encounter with God through faith.

The third mode of considering God as being is the unitive mode, in which a dialectical synthesis of the primordial and expressive modes is achieved. Macquarrie states, “The cosmos or nature which has emerged through the creative activity of the Logos seeks to return to its source, not in the sense of being swallowed up once more in the mystery from which it has emerged, but through forming a new and richer unity, a unity which necessarily includes distinctness, and to which our best clue is the intimate personal relation between two human beings.”[11] Macquarrie refers to the unity that preserves difference as God’s act of “letting-be,” an activity that is present in the love between two people.[12]

These three modes of comprehending God’s being are what the theologian Paul Tillich calls the Trinitarian principles.[13] God in the primordial mode corresponds to the Father; God in the expressive mode corresponds to the Son; and God in the unitive mode corresponds to the Spirit. Macquarrie makes this last correspondence explicit: “This unitive mode of being invites comparison with the idea of the Spirit of God, immanent in the creation, striving within the creation to bring it to its fulfillment. God is not only Logos or intelligence; we may also ascribe to him something analogous to appetition.”[14] That is, within God there is a striving to be reunited with the multiple expressions of his creative will, which have become estranged from him by the very act of their creation as distinct beings.

Knowability and incomprehensibility. When speaking of God in the primordial mode, it is impossible for us to say anything affirmative about him. However, as Macquarrie suggests, “if what we have said about God’s expressing himself in the creation has any truth to it, or, again, if God is not simply primordial being but also expressive and unitive being, then he does not confront us as a pure unknown.” Rather, Macquarrie maintains that our “knowledge of God . . . is mediated through images and symbols.” Among these images is the human being (Genesis 1:27), which is “a kind of microcosm” of God.

Importantly, these images and symbols are not the final expressions of God’s self-revelation; to regard them as the fullest expressions of God is idolatry. Consequently, we cannot deduce or infer God’s properties entirely from them. Macquarrie agrees with H. A. Hodges that “the foundation of theism is not a speculative guess or inference or theory, but an imaginative vision of existence which can be of deep significance for life.” This imaginative vision, when it is “subjected to critical investigation, and . . . backed up by some metaphysical theory,” constitutes an intuition of God.[15]

This kind of cognition is superior to mere imagination or inferences from empirical observation because it is capable of furnishing a “spiritual discernment [that] leaps ahead” of philosophy and theology. This religious discernment is superior to theology because the latter can only “analyze, conceptualize and evaluate what is already there in religion.” The inferior kinds of cognition can only interpret or organize what is present to the senses, whereas there is predictive power in intuition that can yield reliable results prior to sensory perception.[16]

Transcendence and immanence. The fourth dialectical opposition is between transcendence and immanence. On one side, dialectical theism affirms God’s transcendence by recognizing that there is an abyssal or primordial aspect of God, an aspect of himself that he does not express in nature through its laws. On the other side, following Acts 17:28, which says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” it affirms God’s immanence or “his indwelling of the creation, his presence and agency within the things and events of the world.” These affirmations distinguish dialectical theism from both pantheism and classical theism: pantheism tends to emphasize God’s immanence at the expense of his transcendence, while classical theism, with its monarchical conception of God, tends to emphasize his transcendence at the expense of his immanence.[17]

Classical theism has dominated Christian theology throughout its history. Adventists have especially emphasized God’s transcendence to the exclusion of his immanence, believing that the latter position amounts to pantheism or spiritualism. However, as Macquarrie argues, from the outset of the Bible, God indicates his involvement in his creation when he states, “Let us make man in our own image” (Genesis 1:26). In this statement, God is both the subject and the object of his creative activity: his creation of human beings is directed towards himself as an act of self-creation. According to Macquarrie, “If we overstress the image of ‘making’ in our attempt to characterize the unimaginable event of creation out of nothing, we cannot help introducing notions of arbitrariness and externality and even a tendency to acosmism. . . . But if God is ultimately that mysterious primordial event of giving . . . then we may say that it is his very nature to create, to overflow himself in his generous bestowal of the gift of existence.”[18]

A difficult aspect of Macquarrie’s conception of God is his understanding of the relationship between God’s essence as a creative being and the necessity of the world’s existence. He argues that his understanding of God’s immanence is “more in accord with the demands of the religious consciousness than a God who might or might not have created, and whose creation was so external to him that its disappearance would have left him precisely the same as he was when it existed.” However, Macquarrie is hesitant to imply that “creation is necessary to God, as if there were some fate that compelled him to create.”[19] The latter is precisely the conclusion to which Spinoza arrived and the reason for his frequent characterization as a pantheist. Spinoza argued that it is purely speculative to suggest that God has free will, because to us it appears that God necessarily caused all things to exist.[20]

Tillich sought to avoid Spinoza’s conclusion by drawing on the ideas of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between things in themselves and their appearances. Kant maintained that due to the limitations of our perceptions, we can only perceive the appearances of things, but not their inner nature. Tillich applied this idea to our understanding of God: we cannot perceive God in his innermost or primordial nature, but only through his activity in the world of appearances, that is, in his expressive mode. For Kant and Tillich, causality is a rational category that our minds impose on the world, but it is not necessarily a property of things in themselves. Therefore, when we consider God’s activity in the expressive mode, we may understand it as subject to causality because our ability to perceive that activity is limited by the categories of our rational thought. However, we cannot affirm that causality is a property of God’s inner or primordial nature since this would subject God to the constraints of fate.[21]

Passibility and impassibility. The fifth dialectical opposition is between God’s passibility, which refers to his ability to be affected by our suffering, and his impassibility, which refers to his ability to produce effects outside himself without being affected or overcome by them. Inasmuch as God is capable of producing effects outside himself, he is said to be their transitive rather than immanent cause.[22] Macquarrie states that in classical theism, which conceives of God as wholly transcendent, “God is pure act, and in him there is neither passivity nor potency. He acts upon the creation, but this is a purely asymmetrical relation, and there is no way in which the creation can affect God.”[23] Classical theism denies that God is affected by his creation; rather, it affirms God’s complete transitivity, in which God as subject is distinguished from the world as the object of his creative activity. By contrast, dialectical theism affirms God’s participation in his creation and maintains there is reciprocity between God and the world that results from his immanence within it. Macquarrie states, “If we take seriously the belief that God is in a significant degree immanent in his creation and involved in its affairs, then he must be deeply affected by everything that goes on in the world. He must be deeply concerned with the fate of a world into which he has put himself, and the suffering of that world must in some way be also experienced by God.”[24]

The opposition between immanence and transitivity is especially relevant to our understanding of moral law, and it has significant political implications. When God is conceived as a monarchical figure as in classical theism, he is regarded as wholly transitive, and his moral law is regarded as entirely heteronomous or impartial to its subjects. In this view, good and evil are defined as whatever God commands that we should or should not do. Consequently, good has no intrinsic relevance to human interests, unless we presume that all God’s commands are conducive to love. Apart from this presumption, which one might suggest is belied by the existence of evil in the world, there can be no certainty that God’s commands are not completely arbitrary or even antithetical to human life. This divine command theology necessitates a special revelation by which people can know what God’s commands are, since it cannot be expected that people will know what is good on the basis of God’s general self-revelation in the laws of the natural world. As a special and unique revelation, it would have to be given only to specific individuals at a local place and time, which necessarily privileges its recipients over others.

The authoritarian and patriarchal political values that have characterized much of Western Christian history and which are especially visible in Catholicism and Calvinism may be attributed to the monarchical conception of God, with its heteronomous conception of God’s law and the corresponding idea that God must have chosen a particular institution to possess the special revelation of his will. Although Protestantism has rejected the idea that God has vested a specific institution like the Roman Catholic Church with the sole power of interpreting his special revelation, conservative forms of Protestantism, including Adventism, retain this authoritarian character when they insist that only particular methods of scriptural interpretation are acceptable.

By contrast, conceiving God as wholly immanent, to the exclusion of his transitivity, results in an autonomous and democratic conception of God’s law that is more congenial to our modern political values. We might take Spinoza as representative of this view. As discussed in Part 1, Spinoza defines good as what is conducive to our endeavor to persevere in existence. This definition of good does not require a special revelation. Rather, as Spinoza maintains, everyone innately possesses within them the idea of God, by which they are enabled to fulfill their essential endeavor to exist. In fact, this idea of God, which follows necessarily from God’s infinite nature, is what constitutes our minds. This does not mean that we are God or that everything we think is necessarily right. Rather, it means that insofar as we recognize that everything follows necessarily from the divine nature and overcome the impediments to our rational thought, we have the intellectual love of God whereby we can obey him.[25]

Spinoza tries to avoid the moral relativism that potentially results from his definition of good by arguing that people may determine dispassionate moral principles through the use of their reason. However, given our susceptibility to negative emotions, and the difficulty of overcoming them, Spinoza admits that it is rare for people to achieve blessedness through the exercise of their reason.[26] Moreover, Spinoza’s theology not only seems to entail a righteousness by works, in which we are saved by our own virtue, but it produces eschatological uncertainty, in that the possibility of universal salvation is not guaranteed. According to Macquarrie, this eschatological uncertainty reduces God to “a puny godling, not so much the source of anything affirmative as the hapless victim of a world that has got completely out of control.”[27]

Spinoza repudiates eschatology because he rejects teleological reasoning as the projection of all-too-human concerns onto nature. It is for this reason that in addition to being called a pantheist, he has also been called a deist and even an atheist (despite affirming God’s existence). If Christian theology is going to affirm God’s immanence without denying his providential influence on history, it must also affirm his passibility. Macquarrie states, “A truly dialectical understanding of God does not substitute passibility for impassibility, but claims that God unites these two characteristics in himself.” It affirms God’s impassibility by regarding him as “the ultimate reality” who “cannot be annihilated or overcome.” Nevertheless, it also affirms God’s passibility by arguing that God “can accept the world’s pain, and does in fact accept it because he is immanent in the world-process, but he is never overwhelmed by it.”[28]

God’s passibility and impassibility are united in the Christian doctrines of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus affirmed a monarchical conception of God, as is evident in his remarks concerning God’s imminent reign (for example, in Mark 1:15). However, as Paul teaches in Galatians 3:18, Christ inaugurated a new order characterized not by the hierarchical relationships of monarchies like the Roman Empire, but by egalitarian relations between ethnicities, classes, and genders. Moreover, as Paul argues in Romans 7:6, Christ discharged us from obedience to a static, heteronomous law. Instead, he teaches that obedience to our moral obligations is autonomous—or, as Tillich calls it, “theonomous”[29]—for those who have faith, since by faith, the Spirit of Christ dwells within us and enables us to be righteous (Romans 8:9–11). Finally, although the life and death of Christ constitute a special self-revelation of God in history, Christianity recognizes that the particularity of this event could not be experienced universally by all people in all times. It teaches that the reception of God’s grace does not depend on a direct encounter with the historical Jesus, but that it may be experienced through the immanent activity of the Holy Spirit in the historical process. Through these doctrines, Christian theology seeks to resolve the tensions between God’s passibility and impassibility and between his transitivity and immanence.

Eternity and temporality. The sixth dialectical opposition is between eternity and temporality. According to classical theism, God transcends time. However, as just indicated, the activity by which the Spirit reconciles God’s passibility and impassibility is a temporal process that occurs in history. Dialectical theism affirms that “God is both eternal and temporal.” He is eternal in that “there is a sense in which everything is already fulfilled in him,” but he is temporal because he is affected by our struggle for a better world. If God cares about history’s outcome, he must be subjectively involved in history. Macquarrie suggests, “Though the language is certainly bold, it does not seem to me entirely wrong to say with Eriugena that God is actually making himself in the temporal world; or, in the words of a modern philosopher, [Alfred North] Whitehead, that while God in his primordial nature is eternal and perfect, he is in his consequent nature temporal and shares in the ‘creative advance of the world.’”[30]

God’s temporality is central to the eschatology of dialectical theism. If God is actually making himself in the temporal world, then eschatology describes the process by which history progresses towards God’s existential self-actualization. This self-actualization necessarily has an ethical dimension, since it refers not only to the full expression of his creative potential, but to the fruition of his will in human life. If human history is to be recognized as having any inherent value, God must not save humanity despite its history. Rather, God must redeem humanity by saving history itself through the actualization of his will within history. History is not incidental to God’s plan, but is rather an integral part of that plan, since God set history into motion with his creation of the world. Consequently, dialectical theism maintains that God intends to reconcile his creation to himself within the constraints of human and natural history.

Free Will, Ethics, and Universal Reconciliation

One of the challenges with dialectical eschatology is its potential determinism. If we affirm that God is the primordial power that sustains all creation, then we must acknowledge that he set history in motion and providentially guides it. Additionally, if we affirm that God is omnipotent and that he intends to reconcile us to himself within history, then we must consider this reconciliation to be inevitable. However, this would suggest our actions can have no meaningful effect on history’s outcome. If history is the product of our choices, but our actions cannot prevent the fulfillment of God’s will in history, then it would seem our actions are irrelevant to God. And if this is the case, then dialectical eschatology undermines the basis for supposing we have free will, which is to affirm that we can please God by choosing good over evil. The potential problem with this eschatology is that it could suggest that God is impassible since God is ultimately unaffected by our actions.

To affirm God’s passibility, we must affirm that our actions are relevant to the process by which God fulfills his will in history. We must affirm that we are more than passive products of the historical process and that we have an active responsibility to change the world for the better, to the extent that we can. Crucially, this affirmation supposes that the future is contingent on our actions. Dialectical eschatology therefore maintains that the fulfillment of God’s will is dependent on our appropriation of it in our lives.

The questions that confront us are whether we have free will, and if not, whether this affects our ability to act morally. Unfortunately, the question of whether we have free will cannot be answered easily in the affirmative. It seems unlikely that the human brain can make choices that do not necessarily follow from its neurological constitution and from the sensory stimuli to which it has been exposed. Neuroscience has not only confirmed the inseparability of body and mind, which Adventism supports, but it has precluded the possibility of a metaphysical soul that controls the body. Consequently, it undermines the doctrine of free will, which Adventism continues to teach.[31] This is why there is tension between Adventism’s anthropological monism and metaphysical dualism.

Given the lack of evidence for free will, we therefore must consider whether free will is necessary for our actions to be moral. One way to approach this problem is to ask whether one’s actions are any less good or bad if they do not have free will. If a robot goes on a murderous rampage, should we not regard its actions as worthy of condemnation simply because its programming determined it to do so? If a dog learns to obey our commands, should we not praise it simply because dogs are predisposed to obey the leaders of their packs? And if actions can be considered good or bad regardless of whether something could have acted otherwise, then why would this not also be the case for human beings?

In my view, insofar as it is within our power, we have the responsibility to encourage good behaviors and discourage bad ones, even if a person could not will otherwise. To the extent that we recognize what is beneficial to ourselves and to others, we should endeavor to do it. Actions do not need to follow from a free choice to be moral, nor do we necessarily need free will to act. We can act morally insofar as we recognize that God’s power constitutes the essence of the human mind. Paul affirms this is the case when he teaches, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

In other words, we are enabled to do what is good in the absence of free will by the knowledge of God’s will and the knowledge that God works within us to accomplish his will. Dialectical theism maintains that we are guaranteed this knowledge through the Holy Spirit’s intra-historical activity of revealing it to us. Moreover, it suggests that the means by which the Spirit reveals ethical knowledge is another dialectical process involving two opposing ethical approaches. In one approach, which affirms what Yirmiyahu Yovel calls the “principle of immanence,” our ethical values are derived from our “this-worldly existence,” which is regarded as the only source of knowledge concerning what we can and ought to do.[32] By contrast, in the other approach, our ethical values are derived from our sense of what is transcendent and universal. I will refer to these as the “realist” and “idealist” approaches, respectively.

The realist ethical approach analyzes the human condition through the framework of moral anthropology. This is the approach taken by Spinoza in his Ethics, where he seeks to study human nature as one would study geometrical figures.[33] Spinoza denies that people have free will, by which he means the ability for people to affirm or deny anything that does not necessarily follow from previous affirmations or thoughts.[34] He finds this helpful for understanding how our moral decisions are determined by external circumstances outside our control.[35] Although Spinoza denies that we have free will, he nonetheless maintains that we have the power to act morally because God constitutes the essence of the mind. Through God’s power within us, we can attain true freedom, which is a state of adequate knowledge concerning our capabilities. He proposes that we can attain freedom by overcoming the negative emotions that prevent us from acting by the command of reason.[36] Importantly, because Spinoza defines good as what facilitates our intrinsic endeavor for self-preservation, he maintains that there is no reason apart from this endeavor for which we should act.[37] He argues that we should not behave virtuously because we expect an extrinsic reward or want to avoid punishment. Rather, the blessedness we attain from being virtuous is intrinsic to virtue itself.[38]

The other ethical approach, which regards our moral responsibilities as transcendent, is represented by Immanuel Kant, who denies that moral anthropology is capable of yielding valid moral principles. For a moral principle to be valid, Kant maintains that it must be universal in scope and unconditional in its demands. Good is not contingent on our ability to perform it, nor is it partial to our personal interests. Unlike moral anthropology, which in his view can only yield contingent maxims, Kant argues that for moral principles to be universal and impartial, they must have an “a priori basis.” They must “command for everyone, without taking account of his inclinations.”[39] Kant defines good as any maxim of choice that is fit to be a universal law, and he suggests that the ability to identify these impartial, universal maxims suggests that people have the free will necessary to obey them.[40] Regardless of whether this inference is valid, it is nonetheless helpful to imagine that we have the ability to choose good over evil. People seem to have the innate sense that morality should be impartial, and that they have the responsibility to act in ways that are not necessarily conducive to their immediate interests.

The main challenge with Kant’s idealism is that, unlike Spinoza’s realism, it provides no assurance that blessedness or happiness is intrinsic to moral virtue itself. Rather, as Charles Taliaferro explains, Kant believed the unity of happiness and virtue “is only possible if there is an all-powerful, just God of the natural world who will indeed bring about this ideal end.” This is the basis of Kant’s faith in God’s existence. Since “God can make it the case that our moral, rational ideal is intelligible, … a moral, rational agent should postulate that there is a just, all-powerful God who will harmonize virtue and happiness” if they are to avoid the “absurd or tragic” conclusion that we live in “a cosmos in which vice brings happiness and virtue is the advent of unhappiness.”[41]

Although I agree with Kant that faith in God’s providence involves the idea that God acts within history to unite happiness and virtue, I believe he is wrong to infer God’s existence from the feeling that we ought to be capable of obeying universal moral principles. Those who have no problem accepting that the universe is chaotic and unconcerned with human morals can easily dismiss this inference as wishful thinking. People should not believe in God simply because they hope that their virtue will eventually be aligned with their happiness, as though happiness were extrinsic to virtue. Spinoza criticizes those who believe that people are happy insofar as they are free to do as they please and that “they are giving up their right insofar as they are obliged to live by the precepts of divine law.”[42] Rather, as noted above, he maintains that blessedness is intrinsic to virtue itself. Unless virtue is inherently conducive to our happiness, there can be no incentive, apart from the threat of divine punishment or the hope of an eternal reward, for people to obey universal moral imperatives rather than pursuing what is immediately beneficial to themselves. But if they must be induced to virtue or faith by hope or fear, then their virtue and piety are not authentic, but are merely contingent on the expected reward or punishment.

My proposal is that the tension between Adventism’s anthropological monism and metaphysical dualism can only be resolved by reconciling Spinozist realism, which acknowledges the limits of our reason, and Kantian idealism, which affirms that we ought to obey universal moral imperatives.[43] In contrast to Kant, who maintained that the reconciliation of happiness and virtue will occur solely as the result of divine intervention, I believe it requires our cooperation with God through faith. It is our responsibility to ensure that what is within a person’s power and interest to accomplish is the same as what is demanded of everyone according to universal, impartial moral norms. A person is not benefited by doing that which cannot be a universal maxim of choice. Conversely, there is no point in supposing that certain principles ought to apply to everyone if people do not have the ability to obey them due to their existential limitations. Nor is it sufficient to infer that because we can imagine universal moral principles, we must be capable of obeying them. We must take account of people’s actual power. In the best possible ethical system, moral principles apply universally and impartially to everyone, and people are both naturally able and inherently incentivized to follow those principles.

Dialectical theism teaches that the synthesis of the real and ideal ethical positions is an ongoing, intra-historical process that is accomplished through the church’s cooperation with the Spirit’s activity of making universal moral principles known to us within the limits of our historical conditions. The result of this process is not a final, immutable set of ethical propositions that has no bearing on the individual’s life. In dialectical theology, there is no substance without a subject, and inasmuch as there is a subject who is constituted by this process—namely, God working within individuals to accomplish his will—its moral substance will only persist as long as the subject participates in it. Faith is our participation in this process, and it is distinct from mere obedience to static and indifferent moral commandments. Because this process depends on our active appropriation of God’s will in our lives, its outcome is contingent on our actions. Nevertheless, it requires our reliance on God’s grace. We are not saved by our obedience; rather, we are saved because God graciously actualizes himself in history to reconcile us to himself.

Because dialectical theism affirms the universal reconciliation of God’s creation in time, it does not condemn those who are unable to choose differently due to their existential limitations. Consequently, although it envisions moral principles that are universal and impartial in their demand, it remains ambivalent to whether we actually possess free will. It therefore does not require the dualism that results from believing that our free will is made of a different metaphysical substance than the material substance of our bodies, which are subject to deterministic causes. Dialectical theism agrees with Spinoza that we can act morally even if we do not have free will, because it is God who acts within us.[44] Unlike Spinoza, however, it affirms that because of God’s grace, we can hope for the eventual reconciliation of ourselves with God. It is precisely because of his grace that we can have the faith that makes this reconciliation possible.

Dialectical theism resolves the tension between Adventism’s anthropological monism and metaphysical dualism by affirming a doctrine of universal reconciliation that neither diminishes God’s providential activity in history nor denies that it is desirable to abide by universal and impartial moral imperatives. By rejecting the moral basis for promoting a dualism between free will and causal necessity (that is, between spiritual and material substance), dialectical theism allows the church to repudiate spiritualism by affirming the inseparability of the body and the spirit without resorting to metaphysical dualism.

Critically, however, dialectical theism demands that Adventism should abandon its irrational fear of God’s immanence, which it calls pantheism or “type two” spiritualism. Although it departs from the extreme transcendentalism of classical theism, the doctrine of God’s immanence is not pantheism and is not a form of idolatry. In fact, affirming God’s immanence, which requires us to recognize that God is the source of our being and the one who acts in us to accomplish his will, is incompatible with spiritualism, which results from metaphysical dualism.

Moreover, dialectical theism requires us to affirm that there is truth in what conservative Adventists misleadingly identify as “philosophical spiritualism.” First, it supports the idea of historical progress by affirming that God works providentially within history to fulfill his will in us. Second, dialectical theism maintains that because it is God who works in us to will and to do his pleasure, we can affirm that God’s law is immanent within us and that we can think and act autonomously without violating his will, provided that we live in faith. Finally, dialectical theism affirms that because it is God who constitutes the essence of the mind, we can employ our critical reasoning in interpreting the Bible while remaining faithful to its message.


[1] John Macquarrie, In Search of Deity: An Essay in Dialectical Theism (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984), 14–5.

[2] Macquarrie (1984), 130–1.

[3] Macquarrie (1984), 172–3; quoting Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, 13, 11; and Johannes Scotus Eriugena (ed. H. J. Floss) in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina (volume 122), 487B. See also my article “Faith, Salvation, and Adventist Identity” (part 3), Spectrum (December 10, 2022),, where I discuss Paul Tillich’s suggestion that to say that God “exists” in the ordinary sense of the word, as though he were a spatio-temporal object, is as atheistic as rejecting the idea of God altogether.

[4] Macquarrie (1984), 173.

[5] Benedict de Spinoza (ed. Matthew J. Kisner, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Matthew J. Kisner), Ethics Proved in Geometrical Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 3, 14 (ch. 1, definition 3 and proposition 15).

[6] Macquarrie (1984), 173; quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Kegan Paul, 1922), 187.

[7] Macquarrie (1984), 174.

[8] Spinoza (2018), 3–4, 44–5 (ch. 1, definition 4 and axiom 3; ch. 2, propositions 1 and 2).

[9] See Spinoza (2018), 35–9 (appendix to ch. 1), where he criticizes anthropomorphic and teleological conceptions of God.

[10] Macquarrie (1984), 174–5.

[11] Macquarrie (1984), 175.

[12] Macquarrie (1984), 173.

[13] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 1) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 249–51.


[14] Macquarrie (1984), 175.

[15] Macquarrie (1984), 176; quoting H.A. Hodges, God Beyond Knowledge (Macmillan, 1979), 175. Compare this to J.H. Waggoner’s statement quoted Part 1 of this series, in which he criticizes the tendency of those who believe in God’s immanence to trust their intuition. Intuition, as properly understood, does not consist of “mental views for which [one is] not dependent” (by which Waggoner means views influenced by evil spirits), but rather of a critically examined imaginative vision that fits into a consistent metaphysics.

[16] Macquarrie (1984), 191. See also Spinoza (2018), 78 (ch. 2, proposition 40, scholium 2).

[17] Macquarrie (1984), 178.

[18] Macquarrie (1984), 178–9.

[19] Macquarrie (1984), 179.

[20] See Spinoza (2018), 31–4 (ch. 1, proposition 33, scholium 2).

[21] Tillich (1951), 236–7.

[22] When I affirm that God creates things “outside himself,” what I mean is that God creates things that are not concealed within his primordial nature, not that he creates things out of a metaphysical substance other than himself, as in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Such a substance (nihil) would have to be noncontingent if it is to be a different substance than God. However, God is the only one who is noncontingent.

[23] Macquarrie (1984), 179.

[24] Macquarrie (1984), 179–80.

[25] Spinoza (2018), 53 (ch. 2, proposition 11 and its corollary).

[26] Spinoza (2018), 250 (ch. 5, scholium of proposition 42).

[27] Macquarrie (1984), 180.

[28] Macquarrie (1984), 180–1.

[29] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (volume 3) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), 267–8.

[30] Macquarrie (1984), 182.

[31] In my view, although Adventism teaches that we have free will, it does not hold it in high esteem. The Great Controversy doctrine suggests that although God could have predetermined people to obey his will, he instead created them with free will, by which they could choose to disobey him. Thus, it seems that people did not initially need free will to choose good over evil, but only to choose evil over good. Ultimately, the Great Controversy doctrine portrays free will in a negative light. This denigration of free will results from its heteronomous conception of God’s law, which regards moral autonomy as inherently evil.

[32] Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics, Volume 2: The Adventures of Immanence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), ix.


[33] Spinoza (2018), 94 (ch. 3, preface).

[34] Spinoza (2018), 84 (ch. 2, proposition 48).

[35] Spinoza (2018), 92 (ch. 2, scholium of proposition 49).

[36] Spinoza (2018), 177–8, 215 (ch. 4, proposition 28; and ch. 4, appendix, point 4).

[37] Spinoza (2018), 176 (ch. 4, proposition 25).

[38] Spinoza (2018), 249 (ch. 5, proposition 42).

[39] Immanuel Kant (trans. Mary Gregor), The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 9–10.

[40] Kant (1996), 13–14.

[41] Charles Taliaferro, Evidence and Faith: Philosophy and Religion Since the Seventeenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 235–6.

[42] Spinoza (2018), 248 (ch. 5, proposition 41).

[43] This proposal is inspired, in part, by Paul Tillich’s discussion of philosophical and theological attempts to synthesize the ideas of Kant and Spinoza; see Paul Tillich (ed. Carl E. Braaten), A History of Christian Thought (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 370–1.

[44] Although I find Spinoza’s ethical arguments compelling, my aim is not to attack the idea of free will. Rather, I want to show that belief in God’s immanence is not the same as spiritualism and that it can enable Adventism to reject metaphysical dualism. I have argued in previous articles that moral autonomy, which I had assumed depends on free will, is compatible with faith. I abide by my view that faith requires moral autonomy, regardless of whether we have free will or whether it is God whose will works through us. If it were possible to affirm free will without denying either God’s primacy or immanence, then I would endorse that position. However, many attempts at reconciling free will with God’s immanence, such as Whitehead’s process philosophy, have reduced God to an accidental (rather than a first) cause, which I find dissatisfying.

William C. DeMary is a software engineer living in Texas.

Image Credit: Revival of the Second Great Awakening, c. 1840s. Library of Congress.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.