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A Most Methodical Lover?: On Scotus's Arbitrary Creator

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 2, April 2000
pp. 169-202 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0086

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.2 (2000) 169-202

On Scotus's Arbitrary Creator

Thomas Williams

University of Iowa

1. The Issue

Almost all interpreters of Scotus now agree in rejecting the old-fashioned charge that Scotus "thought God would act in a completely arbitrary way in his dealings with creatures." As they point out, Scotus says in several places that God is ordinatissime volens —"a most methodical lover," as one translator has it. Scotus also speaks of God as willing "most reasonably," and in one place he even says that God made all things "with right reason." Moreover, he devotes a whole question in the Ordinatio to arguing that there is justice in God. On the basis of such passages, interpreters conclude that Scotus's God, although he is of course perfectly free, always acts both reasonably and justly, never arbitrarily.

In this paper I shall examine these interpretations and the texts on which they are based. In every case, we shall find that interpreters have greatly overstated the constraints that God's rationality and justice impose on his willing. As a result, I shall have to admit that there is a good deal of truth in the charge that Scotus's God acts arbitrarily in some sense. But unlike those who have used the charge of arbitrariness to dismiss Scotus's views, I shall argue that the kind of arbitrariness Scotus recognizes in the divine will is nothing to worry about. Far from being an embarrassment, it is all of a piece with a most appealing picture of God and his relation to the created world.

First, however, I must delimit the scope of this paper, since there are really two distinct issues that arise in considering the degree of arbitrariness that must be attributed to Scotus's God. The first issue is what we might call the question of God's legislative rationality. Here the question is whether God's rationality constrains what he wills regarding the moral law. The mainstream interpretation holds that it does, and that the picture of Scotus as a radical voluntarist concerning the moral law—as someone who holds that God simply gets to make up whatever wacky rules he might come up with off the top of his head—fails to appreciate the rationality that Scotus ascribes to the divine will. The second issue, which we might call the question of God's creative rationality, is more general. Here the issue is whether God's rationality constrains the sort of world he can create and influences his dealings with his creatures. Again, the mainstream interpretation holds that it does; specifically, it holds that God must make his creatures in a fitting way and confer on them the perfections appropriate to them, and so not just any possible order of creation is in fact feasible for God as one who wills in a most reasonable way.

The two issues are not always kept separate in the secondary literature. Perhaps there is some justification for this, since many interpreters treat God's establishment of the moral law as a special case of his treatment of his creatures (specifically, of his human creatures), so that the question of God's legislative rationality turns out to be included in the question of God's creative rationality. But this assimilation of the two questions depends on a close association between the natural law and the exigencies of human nature, whereas Scotus takes great pains to repudiate any such association. Since I have discussed the question of God's legislative rationality at considerable length in another article, I here confine myself primarily to God's creative rationality.

I shall take it as proved (for it is not in dispute) that Scotus's God cannot will contradictions. He cannot create square circles or married bachelors. And since Scotus is an essentialist, he takes God's inability to will contradictions to mean also that God cannot create beings of a certain kind without giving them the features that belong essentially to such beings. Such constraints, however, are compatible with the greatest conceivable arbitrariness on God's part. For contradictions are not simply odd and exotic states...

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