Saturday, May 23, 2020

Is God like us?

Here's a highly intelligent discussion of a recondite topic:

1. I agree with classical theism that God is timeless and impassable. Mullins has a nice definition of timelessness, but I'll quote his definition of impassibility, which makes three related claims bundled into one:
(i) Impossible for God to suffer.
(ii) Impossible for God to be caused or influenced by anything external to God.
(iii) Impossible for God to have an emotion that is inconsistent with his perfect happiness, his perfect rationality, and his perfect moral goodness.

Among other things, they define Thomstic simplicity to mean all God's attributes are identical to each other. All divine acts are identical to each other and to God's essence. God has no potentialities. God can't react.

2. I'm a classical theist but not a Thomist. I have almost no use for the Thomistic metaphysical categories. I concede that Classical theism is a combination of revelation and reason, special and general revelation. 

3. A big problem with Thomism is that it superimposes onto scripture an interpretive grid or philosophical hermeneutic that's imported entirely from the outside. It has no footing in scripture, and often overrides what the text says. 

4. Another problem with Thomism is that it leads to a very skeptical view of what we can know about God.

5. A basic appeal of non-classical theism is that it looks more biblical, more Protestant, than classical theism. 

6. On the issue of God-talk, I think Nemesh makes a good point that when God is "angry" in scripture, that's not a depiction of his mental state but an expression of his punitive actions. God's anger takes place in the world, not in himself. 

7. Because Thomistic simplicity is a bundle of distinct claims, it's not an all-or-nothing package. I agree with Aquinas that God is not an exemplification of properties over and above himself, but the exemplar. God is simple in the sense that he has no spatiotemporal parts or subdivisions. 

8. A problem with non-classical theism is that if in fact God is timeless and impassable, then how else can God relate to us except in ways that operate within what we are able to experience?

9. Scripture isn't uniform in how it depicts God. So it's not as though the non-classical theist consistently has scripture on his side while the classical theism must go outside of scripture. For instance, the predestinarian passages are much more consistent with classical theism than non-classical theism. God has an antemudane plan for the world. 

And that in itself suggests which set of passages we should use to interpret the other set of passages. The predestinarian passages go behind-the-scenes, showing us that the descriptions of God's activity in history are the outworking of his antemundane plan. So those enjoy interpretive priority. And it's not coincidental that the predestinarian passages of Scripture occur in the didactic genres (e.g. NT letters). 

10. It's not coincidental that the prooftexts for non-classical theism cluster around the narrative and poetic genres of scripture. But we'd expect the language of poetry to be more performative than propositional. 

11. Then there's God's relation to time. The world comes into being but God does not. Indeed, God brings the world into being. That raises the question of whether God subsists outside of time. Although it doesn't quite answer the question, I'd say that it's not only consistent with God subsisting outside of time but a more natural implication of the claim than the view that God was always temporal. Some non-classical theists split the difference by saying God entered time when he made the world. But the texts about creation don't say that.

12. Likewise, the predestinarian passages raise questions about God's relation to time. If time is an artifact of creation, and if time is part of God's plan for the world, then that suggests that his plan is timeless, in which case he is timeless. 

13. Among other things, biblical theism is supposed to be a corrective to pagan conceptions of God. But if we just went with certain poetic and narrative descriptions, Yahweh sometimes acts like the very humanoid heathen deities that scripture is designed to oppose. It blurs a critical point of contrast. 

All told, I think classical theism has a varied footing in text of scripture, unlike Thomism. 

14. When scripture records a conversation between Moses or Abraham and God, I don't think that's just a representation of God, where the narrator writes a story that doesn't correspond to what really happened. This is God's accommodation to our human limitations, but it's not a literary accommodation. 

As a matter of fact, Abraham hears God say something, then Abraham says something, then he hears God say something, then he says something. So the record of the conversation is true to Abraham's experience. 

However, the purpose of the conversation is not to peel back the curtain to show the metaphysical machinery behind the conversation. The fact that Abraham hears God in a temporal sequence doesn't entail that God is speaking to him directly. That God himself must enter time to have this conversation. Rather, God can use natural means to effect a script. 

15. Mullins objects that classical theism must explain away too much scripture. I agree with him in the case of Thomism. There is, however, nothing inherently wrong with having a unified hermeneutic which interprets the same kinds of passages the same way. 

16. Regarding the question of whether divine love is reducible to self-love, I say God can love us the way a fiction writer loves one of his characters. 


  1. This is maybe off topic just a bit, but I've often wondered about "hearing" disembodied spirits.

    Abram hears God, sometimes in the form of The Angel of the Lord. Angels are ministering spirits.

    Moses hears God from the burning bush, and from the tent of meeting.

    But hearing is produced by sound waves which are detected by the human inner ear. There are physical properties behind the sound waves.

    How does a noncorporeal being produce physical sound waves?

    In the case of God, He can do anything, but what about the Enfield poltergeist that Jason has often written about? And it's apparently not telepathy because in that case there have been mechanical recordings.

    I guess spirits have the ability to disturb the air and produce intelligible sound waves, but how that works practically without lungs or vocal chords is strange to me.

  2. I wouldn’t say we know "how" a noncorporeal being could produce sound waves (whether divine or not), but neither do we know how an embodied spirit can have effects on their own body, how particles can attract each other at distance, how electrons can repel one another, etc.

    Our partial explanations and familiarity of experience can lead us to think we understand some causations beyond what we do. But I think ultimately it's all quite (equally) mysterious to us.