What Is God?

D. Stephen Long

That God was perfect, simple, and Triune was the common language of the church for nearly two centuries. It was affirmed at the Council of Rheims in 1149 and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It is present in some form in nearly every Protestant Confession and can still be found in the Roman Catholic Catechism. One of the first Protestant theologians to call for its rejection was the controversial John Biddle (1615-1662), who accused it of being composed by human traditions based on “figurative” biblical readings, and dependent on Greek metaphysics rather than Scripture. With the literal rule of Scripture in hand, Biddle radically revised the traditional answer: God is located in heaven, has figure or shape and thus is composite, has passions, and has limited knowledge of the future. Biddle understood himself as “continuing the Reformation.” Protestant theologians at his time were horrified; in our day, many seem less so.

Modern theologians are not as radical as Biddle in calling for revisions to the common language for God. Yet despite its ancient pedigree, its traditional depth, and its ecumenical consensus, many, if not most, have summoned us to reject or revise it. Process and open theists, analytic and liberation theologians, as well as anti-metaphysical Barthians tell us the language is insufficient for our day. They challenge it for a number of reasons. (1) It cannot resolve the theoretical problem of evil: if God is eternal and simple, then what God knows God wills; evil will be directly willed by God. (2) It cannot resolve the human freedom and divine foreknowledge dilemma: if God is simple and eternal, then human agents who are caused by God are determined by what God knows and consequently, they are not free. (3) It is logically incoherent. If God is simple and eternal, then somehow God cannot have real relations “internal” to God or “external” with creation. (4) It is based on a faulty “substance” metaphysics that expresses patriarchal authority. Or (5) it fails to express adequately the Holy Trinity.

To engage each of these reasons would require a book length treatise. I cannot do it here (but attempt to do it elsewhere in my book, The Perfectly, Simple, Triune God [Fortress, 2016]). I only hope to challenge what has become a dogmatic certainty against the traditional answer: its perceived insufficiency has become so commonplace that theologians only have to say “substance metaphysics” or “classical theism” and they conjure up the image of an abstract, distant, unloving God, “locked within itself” (to quote Rahner.) Who would want that God? If this were the depiction found in Augustine, Dionysius, Anselm, Thomas, the Protestant Scholastics, and so on, then of course it should be challenged. But were they the impoverished theologians this all too common critique suggests? Before accepting the critique, every theologian should at least examine if the critique is true, if it is a charitable reading.

The argument often begins by assuming the problem was the traditional teaching on God’s unity or essence (substance) – God is, simple, perfect, immutable, infinite, and eternal. Once God is depicted as such, then it either creates the problems identified above, or it says what needs to be said before we say what matters most, namely, that God reveals God’s self as Triune through the Incarnation of the Son and sending of the Spirit. So “substance” becomes more determinative for who God is than the divine economy. This critique, however, is a caricature. It misses what the teaching on the divine unity does (and unfortunately has led to a misplaced search for a “social” trinitarianism.) One of the most Thomistic Protestant theologians can help us see why it is a caricature – Arminius.

Arminius never made God the source of evil through a doctrine of divine reprobation prior to the divine economy. In that sense, he “fixed” Thomas and Calvin’s teaching. Nor did he deny human freedom. He also set forth a compelling account of the Trinity, following Thomas closely, in which the two processions of Son and Spirit are related to the divine understanding (truth) and will (good). Arminius begins with simplicity. Simplicity here, however, does not relate God to creation. It is an incommunicable attribute of God. It is a feature of speculative and not practical theology (see my previous installment). The divine will wills first the perfection/goodness that God is in God’s being. Then divine power exercises the simple will externally making possible beings other than God, beings that will therefore not be simple. God wills and knows creatures solely in the goodness and truth of God’s own essence because that essence always already is, in its perfectly, simple unity, the Triune persons. This goodness and truth come first because God is perfectly, simple, and Triune prior to being creator. Creatures arise from God’s power as participants in that goodness. The power God then operates on creatures arises from what is communicable of God’s goodness and knowledge. God is never defined as power apart from God’s goodness and truth.

For Arminius, this communication to creatures does not require any diminishment of God’s omnipotence or omniscience. God is in no sense limited. God “moves” toward creatures only as the simple, infinite, eternal, immutable, and Holy God. Arminius’s complicated Thomistic metaphysics avoids any hint that God’s will is irrational or that God decrees something other than God’s goodness and perfection for God’s creatures. It is a source for the doctrine of God that Wesleyans could and should affirm, and in doing so, we will also affirm the traditional answer in its depth and ecumenical consensus. It will not resolve the theoretical problem of evil, but it should never be resolved. It does help us address the problem of human freedom, and I think, it can answer the other questions that have led to the current dogmatic certainty that the traditional teaching must be rejected or revised. My final installment will address these concerns.

Posted Jan 11, 2016

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