Monday, November 27, 2017

Making a deal with the devil

1. The current debate over James Dolezal's "classical theism" reflects some perennial disagreements. It has both methodological and substantive dimensions. 

By "methodological" I mean theological method and hermeneutics. Is there a golden mean between open theist hermeneutics and classical theist hermeneutics? Are biblical representations of God consistently literal, consistently anthropomorphic, or sometimes one and sometimes the other? 

If they're literal all the way down, then Yahweh is a highly humanoid God who's pretty indistinguishable from heathen deities. If they're anthropomorphic all the way down, then God disappears behind an impenetrable, ineffable screen because we have no revelation of what God is really like in comparison to anthropomorphic representations. 

But if some Biblical representations are anthropomorphic while others are literal, are there principled criteria to distinguish them, or is our classification of any particular passage ad hoc? I'd like to outline some basic criteria:

i) Attributes

If, according to Scripture, God is a se, omniscient, omnipotent, impassible, timeless, and spaceless, then certain representations, if taken literally, are incompatible with his revealed attributes. In cases like that, the default setting is to classify them as anthropomorphic.

ii) An open theist would object that my demarcation is circular and question-begging because it privileges certain representations at the expense of others. The very question at issue is which representations furnish the standard of comparison. There are classical theist prooftexts as well as open theist prooftexts. What's the deal-breaker? 

iii) However, even in that event, if we espouse the inerrancy of Scripture, then we recognize that both sets of passages can't be literally true, so some harmonization in one direction or another is in order–unless we're stuck with irreconcilable paradox. 

That would give us two incompatible representations of God. But we can't have two masters. 

iv) Which is more plausible? That a God like classical theism would sometimes accommodate himself to human understanding by sometimes assuming a more humanoid depiction, or that a god like open theism would sometimes represent himself along the lines of classical theism?

I think it's fairly easy to see that even if classical theism is true, God will sometimes depict himself in more humanoid terms to make his self-revelation more accessible to a popular audience. By contrast, it's unclear what would motivate the reverse.

v) Even if we grant for discussion purposes that God is finite in knowledge and power, finitude ranges along a vast spectrum. That doesn't mean he's finite in anything like the degree to which human agents are finite. He will still be vastly greater in knowledge and power than human agents. But in that case, it's implausible that he'd back himself into some of the dilemmas that open theist prooftexts depict. 

vi) Genre

Some literary genres are more disposed to anthropomorphisms than others. Poetry resorts to metaphor and hyperbole. Narratives are phenomenological. 

By contrast, the Bible often makes more prosaic statements about God. They take precedence.

vii) A major theme in Scripture is the contrast between the one true God and paganism. That distinction is qualitative as well as quantitative. It's not that there's only one god who's a Zeus-like deity, in contrast to a plethora of Zeus-like deities. Rather, it's that Yahweh is categorically different from the highly humanoid gods of paganism. Not a physical being with the limitations of a physical being.

viii) It's arguable that Gen 1 implies the absolute origin of time. In that case, God is independent of time. God subsists apart from time.

It may be objected that the origin of the diurnal cycle doesn't entail the origin of time. That's true from a philosophical and scientific standpoint. But we must ask ourselves how a narrator would express the idea of a timeless, spaceless God using popular language rather than scientific and philosophical jargon. 

Assuming that Gen 1 describes the absolute origin of the world, then the first day is a token of time's origin. 

ix) According to Israel's aniconic piety, it is forbidden to represent Yahweh in humanoid terms (much less bestial terms). The implication is that such representations are unsuitable inasmuch as Yahweh is not a humanoid deity.

x) By the same token, aniconic piety presumes the essential invisibility of God. And that in turn suggests that God is not a physical being. Not an object of sensory perception.

It may be objected that something can be invisible yet physical. And that's true from a scientific standpoint. But the Pentateuch isn't written with atomic microscopes in mind. If God is incorporeal or spaceless, the invisibility is a token of that fact. A way of expressing that fact for a prescientific audience. 

xi) Finally, there are some Bible verses (1 Cor 2:7; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 1:2-3; Jude 25) which suggest that God exists apart from time, although we need to be careful not to assume that these speak with philosophically technical precision.

In sum, I think the broad contours of classical theism are exegetically justifiable. 

2. That said, classical theism is often expounded in terms of Thomistic metaphysics, and to that degree, demands a commitment to Thomistic metaphysics. But that's philosophical rather than revelatory. 

3. Moreover, classical theism is a set of propositions. Some individual elements are more defensible than others. 

Furthermore, a constituent element like Thomistic simplicity is, in itself, subdivisible into a set of propositions. Take the especially contentious claim that all God's attributes are mutually identical.

4. Classical theism is sometimes represented as a common denominator of monotheistic religions: 

Classical theism’s ancestry includes Plato, Aristotle, Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. It entered Judaism through Philo of Alexandria (§4), reaching its apogee there in Maimonides (§3). 

Classical theism is the conception of God that has prevailed historically within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Western philosophical theism generally.  Its religious roots are biblical, and its philosophical roots are to be found in the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian traditions.  Among philosophers it is represented by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Avicenna. 

I believe we could add Ibn Rushd to the roster. 


Maimonides follows the Islamic Neoplatonic tradition of envisioning God as the purest of unlimited being, a kind of pure being so utterly unified that it transcends any internal divisions. This theme can be clearly found in the Theology of Aristotle and in the Kalâm fî mad al-khair in the identification of God as “Pure Being” or “Being Only,” as well as in Almohad (see Stroumsa 2009) and Mu‘tazilite theology of the time. It is this radical sense of unity that accounts for Maimonides' strong negative theology (about which we will say more below): since God is utterly and absolutely unified, He is a subject about whom we can predicate nothing (since, after all, predication implies of a subject that he is one thing or another, thus suggesting some limitation). As such, God, as subject, transcends the normal parameters of language and conceptualization.

On the theme of divine unity, Maimonides stresses:

He, may He be exalted, is one in all respects; no multiplicity should be posited in Him; there is no notion that is superadded to His essence (G 1.52, P 378)

Completely different from all other existents, Maimonides' God is one in all respects, an idea mirroring the God of the Neoplatonic Islamic philosophers before him. Turning to al-Farabi, we find:

…[God's] distinction from all the others is due to a oneness which is its essence (al-dhāt)…Thus the First…deserves more than any other one the name and meaning (of “the one” ) (PS, 68-69)
In this same spirit of emphasizing the divine oneness, and developing too an idea of God as the unique necessary existent, Avicenna explains of God that, 
…it is not possible that the true nature which that whose existence is necessary be composed of a multitude at all… (see HM, H 241)
Avicenna concludes further along these lines that God, the being whose existence is necessary, is “a unity, while everything else is a composite duality” (see HM, H 247). 

Following on the theme of God's unity, Maimonides emerges as a strong proponent of apophatic discourse, sometimes referred to as “negative theology,” which is a mode of talking about God with the sensitivity that, since God admits of no multiplicity, we cannot meaningfully (at least not in any straightforward or literal sense) ascribe any traits to Him. The very act of predication involved in attributions (formulas of the form “God is… ”) are doomed to failure in the light of God's utter unity. To approach God apophatically is, hence, to approach God with a heightened sensitivity to the failures of language to say very much about Him at all. 

5. In addition, divine simplicity is often regarded as a lynchpin of classical theism. For instance:

Indeed, divine simplicity is near the conceptual core of classical theism; it is one chief reason classical theists think God immutable, impassible, timeless and wholly distinct from the universe. 

6. However, this should raise some red flags for Christians. To begin with, Platonism, Philonic Platonism, and Aristotelianism are pre-Christian. Therefore, they don't have the same ontological requirements as Christian metaphysics. In addition, Medieval Judaism and Kalam/Mutazilite Islam are anti-Christian. They developed in explicit opposition to Christian theism. So these are militantly unitarian traditions. It's natural for them to stress radical divine simplicity, because they don't need to accommodate a Triune deity. Indeed, radical divine simplicity is a selling point for unitarianism. So Christians ought to be very wary of building on that philosophical platform. Are we making a deal with the devil?

I've seen Thomists struggle to wedge the Trinity into divine simplicity. If, however, we took the Trinity as a starting-point, and developed systematic theology from that starting-point, would divine simplicity still be the end-point? 

7. In addition, it conduces to apophatic theology, which is little more than pious agnosticism. 


  1. "I've seen Thomists struggle to wedge the Trinity into divine simplicity. If, however, we took the Trinity as a starting-point, and developed systematic theology from that starting-point, would divine simplicity still be the end-point?"

    Assuming you don't believe that some doctrine of Divine Simplicity is inherently contradictory with the Trinity, what does a properly Trinitarian "Divine Simplicity" look like? I've read all three of your posts on this, and I'm not sure that I detect a constructive alternative. Or is it your position that "Divine Simplicity" is just not a valid Biblical/Theological category, especially in a "Reformed" sense?


    1. I think Thomistic simplicity is probably incompatible with the Trinity. I affirm God's mereological simplicity in the sense that as a timeless, spaceless being, God has no spatiotemporal "parts" or subdivisions.

    2. "spatiotemporal" certainly seems to limit the scope of any discussion of simplicity to the anthropomorphic category you outlined above. So there is no scope for simplicity with respect to the divine essence per se, something more literal/propositional? I had always believe that the WCF 2.1, for instance, when using the idea of "parts" was referring to God's non-reducible essence (He is not, as we, dependent on something more ontologically basic, analogous to atoms, molecules, organs, etc.). I had not thought it was anthropomorphically referring to arms and legs, or some such (doesn't the preceding use of "body" cover that aspect?). I.e., WCF 2.1 is not referencing a spatiotemporal category but rather referring to ontic irreducibility.

      Also, your use of "literal" leaves me confused - is the bare "shema" (behold the Lord God is one...) to be taken literally/propositionally, or anthropomorphically? If literally, you seem to categorize this as "propositional" and therefore somehow non-revelatory and subject to varying degrees of critique/challenge. The Divine Economy amongst the Trinity (not-simple) subsists behind/beneath an essential unity/simplicity of essence. I'm just confused as to how this is somehow monist or devil-dealing.


    3. "He is not, as we, dependent on something more ontologically basic, analogous to atoms, molecules, organs, etc.)…but rather referring to ontic irreducibility."

      God is simple insofar as he's not composed to more basic units. However, I deny that if God has distinct attributes, they are more basic than God. It's not like legos. Abstract relations are different than concrete relations.

      Consider some ingredients in Thomistic simplicity: no act/potency distinction in God; no subject/accident distinction in God; the divine attributes are mutually identical:

      i) Does that mean God has no contingent relations but only necessary relations? If so, I disagree. For instance, the Incarnation is a contingent relation, true in at least one possible world, but not in all possible worlds.

      This goes to the question of divine freedom.

      ii) Likewise, the question of whether Thomistic simplicity allows for the Trinity. Not to mention that I don't think "subsistent relation" does justice to members of the Trinity.

      iii) In addition, it's essential to Calvinism that God's justice and mercy be really, and not merely formally, distinct–for reasons I've stated.

      iv) There are other issues. For instance, can a God who lacks any internal complexity know particulars?

      "If literally, you seem to categorize this as 'propositional' and therefore somehow non-revelatory and subject to varying degrees of critique/challenge."

      I never suggested that literal statements or propositional statements are non-revelatory.

      "The Divine Economy amongst the Trinity (not-simple) subsists behind/beneath an essential unity/simplicity of essence."

      There's nothing behind the divine essence on either a Thomistic construal or my own.

  2. I concede your penultimate point, about literal statements, etc. I had misread the first half of your post.

    As to the rest of it, I guess I just don't understand where you are coming from with respect to equating Dolezal's "classical" theism with Thomistic metaphysics. I've read much in Reformation-era theology/polemics, and much 17th century Puritans, and 19th century Old Princeton and Scottish Free Church, etc. From what I can recall, they all assert a "classical theism". However, the "Thomistic" variety that you describe just doesn't seem to fit what all (or at least most) of these theologians say on the matter.

    1 - "no act/potency distinction", does not this distinction reside in the Persons of the Trinity, and not necessarily in the "essence" that they all partake of? If it is in the essence, it is only reveled to us in space/time (and in the Word), and perhaps amongst the Trinity as well, only with respect to the Divine Economy's actual acting. How is a potency to be revealed if not by acting?

    2 - "no subject/accident distinction", again, I had thought that such a distinction exists in the essence of God only in so far as He is Trinity. Trinity assumed, this distinction is there, and again revealed to us only via that Trinity. Does "Thomistic" simplicity really deny this?

    3 - "the divine attributes are mutually identical", from my reading, the word "identical" would be denied, rather all these writers talk of God's attributes being compatible and in harmony; the attributes themselves would certainly have distinctions. Again, do Dolezal and/or "Thomisitic" simplicity really teach "identity" of attributes, rather than the classical language of "compatible and harmonious"? I would find that surprising.

    I guess at the least perhaps these more distinctly Reformed theologians are doing something different that Dolezal is?

    ("There's nothing behind the divine essence on either a Thomistic construal or my own"

    Perhaps my expression was not correct. As I understand the historical use of "subsist", this does not imply that God's being a Trinity means that the Trinity amounts to sneaking in a further reducibility of God's essence into "parts". Each "part" of the Trinity is fully, essentially, God. I think we might have been talking past each other.)


    1. i) To my knowledge, Reformed scholasticism was basically equivalent to Reformed Thomism.

      ii) Yes, it's possible to be a classical theist without subscribing to the Thomistic version. However, Dolezal is evidently a Thomist, and his supporters are defending his particular version of classical theism.

      iii) I've read multiple sympathetic expositions of Thomistic simplicity which infer that if God is identical with his attributes, then his attributes are identical with each other. Likewise, that the attributes are only conceptually rather than really distinct.

      And the whole argument about how distinct attributes would make the attributes ontologically prior to God, so that God is dependent on something more ultimate (attributes=parts) presumes that equation.

      iv) Here's an example of a philosophical theologian who subscribes to classical theism, struggling with Thomistic simplicity:

      "But if His essence is identical with what he does, then He would become a different being as He did different things…It seems that there are all sorts of contingent truths about God. If he created freely, then He might not have done so, and that God is a creator is a contingent truth….But if God's power and His knowledge are identical to the eternal act of being which is his nature, how could He do and know other than He does and know without being other than God?"

      'There are possible worlds in which God wills not to create…' But it is very difficult to see how God in the actual world could be the same being as God in some other possible world, if (1) God in the actual world is identical to His eternal and immutable act in this world, (2) God in a different possible world is identical to His act in that world, and (3) God's act in the actual world is *not* identical to His act in the other possible world."

      A second possibility is to deny contingency in God…Given God's nature He could not do other than He does. There is no contingency in God, so there are no other possible worlds, whatever we may be able to imagine." Kathrin Rogers, Perfect Being Theology (32,34).

    2. I'm on both sides of this issue. I agree with Frame in some respects, but differ in others.

      Areas of agreement:

      i) Dolezal, Mark Jones et al. are guilty of subordinating revelation to tradition/historical theology.

      ii) Thomistic simplicity generates serious and unnecessary problems for our doctrine of God.

      iii) There's no reason to commit ourselves to Thomistic metaphysics.

      iv) There's no reason to treat classical theism, especially of the Thomistic variety, as a take-it-or-leave-it package.

      Areas of disagreement:

      i) I agree with Paul Helm that God is timeless and spaceless.

      ii) I don't think it's coherent to say that God is both in time and outside of time, in space and outside of space.

      iii) Helm has done good work on how a timeless God can have conversations with temporal agents. So those narratives are consistent with a temporal or timeless God. The hermeneutics of classical theism is justifiable.

      iv) I don't think a divine Incarnation requires God to literally enter time and space.

  3. Oh, one last item. Any comments on this (would require a new post, I assume):