July 24, 2016
Is Mercy an Essential Property of God?
Hello Dr. Craig, I was recently reading your "Love and Justice in The Trinity" question response.
Specifically you state: "My argument is that it's not enough to think of love as a mere dispositional property, the disposition to love if some other person were to exist. Being loving is not merely the disposition to give oneself away to another if that other existed. Being loving involves actually giving oneself away to another. So this disposition cannot lie merely latent in God and never be actualized."
So thinking about mercy, if being loving requires one to have an object which is being loved, then could it be argued that if God is merciful he would require an object to which such mercy is shown? What would be your response to such an objection Dr. Craig?
Your brother in Christ,
I think this is our first question from Montenegro, Vlad! (Check it out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montenegro). Thanks for writing!
Your question relates to my current work on the atonement. The 16th century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus sought to refute the Reformers’ doctrine of the atonement by arguing that retributive justice is not an essential property of God, any more than is His mercy. Rather what is essential to God is His uprightness (rectitudo) or fairness (aequitas). But whether He punishes sin is up to His free will. Similarly, mercy (misericordia) is an essential property of God only in the sense that God is loving. But whether God chooses to pardon sinners is up to His free will.
Now Socinus is in a sense correct, nor would the Reformers have disagreed. Retributive justice and mercy cannot be essential properties of God because they both entail the existence of persons who can be punished or forgiven, that is to say, created persons, and orthodox theology has always held that creation is a contingent, freely willed act of God, so that creatures exist only contingently. So there are possible worlds in which God is neither punitive nor merciful; but He is nevertheless just and loving in such worlds.
Where Socinus moved too quickly, I think, is in assuming that because retributive justice is not essential to God, it is only the product of His free will. Why not say instead that God’s uprightness and fairness entail retributive justice if creatures do exist and sin?
So in answer to your question, “if being loving requires one to have an object which is being loved, then could it be argued that if God is merciful he would require an object to which such mercy is shown?”, I’d say that while love is an essential property of God, mercy is a contingent property of God, the way God’s love expresses itself toward fallen creatures if they do exist. In the absence of any creatures, God is loving but not merciful.