Leibniz’s notion of sufficient reason and his use of univocal language, applied to God’s nature and acts, results in a truncated view of God’s infinite goodness, excluding a robust, Christian understanding of God’s transcendence and instead purporting a mechanized account of exalted Deism.
The principle of sufficient reason is a rationalist principle that contrasts with voluntarism as a theory for God’s freedom in action. While a voluntarist would argue that God is entirely free to do as he pleases, the rationalist emphasizes that everything God does must be done for a reason. If there is no sufficient reason for God’s acting in a particular manner, then he is no more than an all-powerful tyrant inventing arbitrary standards and acting in arbitrary ways. Leibniz hopes to counter this view of God by basing his theology on a rational principle.
The first recorded act of God is the creation of the world. According to Leibniz, God must have had a sufficient reason for creating the universe, and, more than that, he must have had a sufficient reason for doing so in the particular way that he did. Leibniz gives us his own thoughts on these topics, arguing that “God does everything in the most desirable way,” and so this world must be the best of all possible worlds.
The way Leibniz describes it, before the world was, God was. In his mind existed a number of possible worlds arranged in a hierarchy from bad to best. The best world is the world in which the most being is actualized, for being and goodness are equated. If God were to create the world with the most possible being, it would necessarily also be the world with the most possible goodness; thus, the best of all possible worlds. This aspect of Leibniz’s argument concerning possible worlds assumes two things: first, that possible worlds are ordered in a hierarchy, and, second, that there is a best possible world. He does not seem to admit of the possibility that there might be an infinite number of possible worlds.
Another aspect of Leibniz’s argument is an appeal to the whole history of each possible world in question. This argument arises to answer the question of suffering and evil. Leibniz is emphatic that all is for the best in the course of this world’s happenings, even if in a particular moment it might seem otherwise. Any evil that occurs is, ultimately, for some greater good. In this way, the goodness of the world and the goodness of God are both, he thinks, adequately defended.
As we venture further into Leibniz’s argument, defining a couple of terms may help provide context for some of the concepts he addresses. Necessity and possibility, two characteristics belonging to existence, play a significant role in Leibniz’s thinking. For a thing to be necessary indicates that it is not possible for it not to be. There is no way that a necessary being could not be or exist. Leibniz says that an absolutely necessary being is “one whose contrary implies a contradiction.” On the other hand, for a thing to be contingent, it must be possible for it not to be. Its contrary does not imply a contradiction. Contingency admits of something being otherwise than it is, while necessity does not admit that possibility. A possible being need not exist, but a necessary being must.
Thus, a possible world is one that need not exist. So we can ask: Is this best of all possible worlds that we live in necessary? The Christian tradition has consistently answered this query with an emphatic “no,” holding strongly to the belief that God needn’t have created the world. Creation was his own free act of love, an outpouring of the three persons of the Godhead. As we will probably expect, Leibniz agrees that the world is not necessary, positing this world as one of many possible worlds that could have come into being. Thus far, there are at least two reasons a Christian might wish to argue that the world is possible rather than necessary. Consider the following statements. 1) God created the world of his own free will, but could have done otherwise; 2) God was not compelled by either logic or lack of another choice to create this world in the particular way that he did. Regarding the first point, if we are to retain a notion of God as God, he cannot be dependent on anything external to his own being. As a necessary being, God exists regardless of anything external that does or does not exist.
This second point, however, is actually far more open for discussion than the first, in Leibniz’s view. Did God need to create the world in the way that he did? Leibniz has a very interesting response to this question. On the one hand, God did not need to create the world that he did create—a range of “possible” worlds existed in his mind, and from these he chose this one. On the other hand, Leibniz tells us that the reason God chose this world is because it, of all the possibilities open to him, had the most potential for existence—it was the best. This world that we live in is the best of all possible worlds, and God could not have chosen to create a world that was not the best.
Leibniz introduces a distinction between certainty and necessity to help us understand how God, although he will always do what is best, is not compelled to create in a certain way but maintains his freedom to act. Leibniz insists that distinguishing between certainty and necessity is crucial to maintaining God’s freedom. When something is certain, its contrary is not, in itself, an impossibility. It would not be contrary to the laws of logic and existence for God to have created another world—it is conceptually possible. But it would be contrary to God’s nature to create a lesser world, and thus “it is reasonable and certain . . . that God will always do the best, even though what is less perfect does not imply a contradiction.”
We could also approach this problem from the standpoint of metaphysical and hypothetical necessity. Metaphysical necessity, also called absolute necessity, is the kind of necessity whose opposite implies a contradiction. Hypothetical necessity is necessity that follows from events that have already occurred. Hypothetical necessity “determines the later things in the world from the earlier.” Thus, while God could have created a world that had less being or goodness without implying a contradiction, he wouldn’t ever do so given the conditions already in place—namely, his nature. Leibniz hopes, by this move, to maintain God’s freedom and his goodness.
This is really the reason that the question of possible worlds arises at all. It is an attempt to justify suffering and evil in the world without negating God’s goodness or the goodness of the world. It seems contradictory that God would create a world in which terrible things could happen if he is benevolent and has infinite love for all his creatures.
Therefore, for Leibniz, this world is the best of all the worlds that God theoretically (but not actually) could have created. This is the primary response given by those who don’t buy Leibniz’s argument. His defense is that ultimately, “we cannot always explain the admirable economy of [God’s] choice while we are travelers in this world; it is enough to know it without understanding it.” The question is, then, how do we know it? For Leibniz, we know God is good because we know that God is rational.
Underlying the discussion of certainty, necessity, and possible worlds is a heavy emphasis on reason, particularly as it relates to God’s ability to act. Leibniz’s constant refrain to those skeptical of this world being “best” is that God has a sufficient reason, even if it is unknown to us, for everything he does and for all that e allows to happen in the world. This raises an interesting question about God’s relationship to reason. If God could not create a world that was not the best without contradicting his nature, does reason command his actions and hold power over him?
One way to save Leibniz from denying God’s simultaneous omnipotence and benevolence is to equate God’s very nature with reasonability. Instead of viewing reason as binding on God in a negative sense, perhaps instead we can think of God as ultimately rational in his very nature, and thus not hindered at all by such a limitation of his action. If God himself is the source of all reason, it only follows that he would be the most reasonable of all beings. Since this is the case, for God to act against reason is to act against his nature. This is hardly a hindrance, as God’s nature is perfect. As Anselm told us long ago, anything that restricts God’s action is a sign of perfection rather than limitation.
Thus far, we have been discussing Leibniz’s arguments on his own terms and with his own language. But to speak of God in this way—strongly emphasizing his reasonable nature as the regulator for all his actions—is to demonstrate, or at least appear to demonstrate, that metaphysics is equipped to speak about the nature of God. But there are many who argue that God’s nature is far above the human capacity of human thought; not just in the sense that he is so perfectly reasonable that we cannot figure him out, but that he is above and outside of the bounds of reason as we understand it. Instead of equating God with reason, such theologians insist that God far transcends the all boundaries we can conceive of, including the human understanding of reason.
Proponents of this type of theology, known as apophatic theology, claim as their first premise that human beings cannot speak of God in the same way that we speak of humans. Our language is inadequate to speak of God; thus, to use the term “good” (just, beautiful, loving) in the same way of God that we do of human beings is a mistake. In this view, God can only be spoken of analogically. Equivocation is a way of using language that renders the same words different rather than the same in any two given situations. For example, when speaking analogously, justice as regards God and justice as regards an earthly king do not assume the same sense of the word “just.” Instead, how we think of justice in an earthly king is understood to be analogous to the way God is just, and thus only in part bearing true resemblance to God’s nature. The only way we can speak of God at all is by analogy. To speak univocally of God and man is to use terms that ought to be applied differently as if they apply in the same manner. To do so is to forget that God’s nature is wholly other than our own; that the creator and the creature cannot be understood or spoken of in the same manner.
The only thing we can rightly affirm of God univocally without demonstrating the severe limitations of human language is his infinity. Leibniz does not deny this in words, but his use of univocal language is evidence that he conceives of God in the same categories that he conceives of humans. This suggests a far less robust account of God than one insisting on equivocal language, which recognizes God as the infinite Good, surpassing all reason and understanding. His attributes are not merely ours writ large and belonging to a more powerful and eternal being. They are of a different kind entirely. Perhaps the strongest apophatic statement of all is that we cannot even speak of God as existing in the same way that we do.
One might argue that Leibniz does seem to have a sense of God as infinitely good upon reading a passage such as this one:
…it is sufficient to have the confidence that God does everything for the best and that nothing can harm those who love him. But to know in detail the reasons that could have moved him to choose this order of the universe—to allow sins, to dispense his saving grace in a certain way—surpasses the power of a finite mind, especially when it has not yet attained the enjoyment of the vision of God.
Leibniz is fully willing to admit that we cannot know God’s reasons for acting. Yet despite all this, Leibniz is so sure that God must always have a “sufficient reason,” however complex and above human capability to unravel. Leibniz recognizes here the impossibility that human reason will attain to God’s level of rationality, but he does not acknowledge the difference in category that renders us unable to even assert such a statement as “God’s reasons for acting are adequately rational.” But since Leibniz is so fixated on the problem of sufficient reason, we must trudge forward and attempt to uncover what purpose it might serve for Leibniz’s philosophy.
It is perhaps not too difficult to understand why Leibniz wants to keep this notion. It seems to be his way of defending God’s goodness and omnipotence simultaneously, despite evil’s existence—it is the basis of his theodicy. We don’t want to think of God as an arbitrary dictator deciding what is good, just and beautiful based on a whim. This becomes a worry when we believe in a God who is not in accordance with the laws of reason. But if knowing that God has a reason for all his acts doesn’t, in the end, explain what God is really doing, why bother with it?
It seems that at the root of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason is a desire to know that we can trust God. We must trust God if we are to have confidence in his goodness. This seems, ultimately, to be what Leibniz is interested in proving. Yet the way he ends up doing so reduces God to an infinitely complicated web of calculations that always work out for “the best,” no matter what it might look like to us lesser beings—his solution leaves little room for the Christian God.
The fact that Leibniz feels such a need to prove God’s goodness arises, perhaps, from worthy intentions; but it results in some unwelcome consequences for the way he thinks about God. These consequences can be traced to the very first premises of his argument. At its core, Leibniz’s theology differs from apophaticism in this fundamental way: Leibniz depends on the capacities of human reason as a starting point for understanding God, while apophatic theologians begin with reason’s inability to say anything about God. It is important to note that both approaches are attempts at coming to know God. Apophatic theology does not say “I don’t know” and then abandon the task of knowing God. It instead recognizes just how limited the human capacity of reason is in regard to the infinite, and from that standpoint of wonder and awe forges its slow way forward.
Leibniz’s theology, rooted in the principle of sufficient reason, is concerned primarily with understanding and defining God. This sort of reasoning necessarily results in a God who, being conceived using the human categories of understanding, is essentially akin to an incredibly powerful calculating machine. Leibniz does speak of God’s goodness, but does so only after demonstrating that his goodness is grounded in reason. Apophatic theology focuses on how we act in relation to God given the inadequacy of human reason to speak about him. Those who truly believe that God is infinitely good and utterly transcendent will have room to accept the rest of the Christian narrative with equal wonder and amazement. God’s goodness remains a revelatory mystery—a place to marvel, a place to praise, and a place to exclaim with joy, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
 G.W. Leibniz, “Discourse on Metaphysics,” in Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays, 1 (Title).
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Leibniz, “On the Ultimate Origination of Things,” in Discourse . . . and other essays, 42.
 Leibniz, “Discourse,” 32, 33.
 Ibid., 5.
 Romans 11:33, ESV.