The Doctrine of God
By Blair Reynolds
Classical theism, the reigning doctrine of God in Christendom, affirms that God is void of body, parts, passions, even compassion, wholly simple, wholly immutable, independent, immaterial, the supreme cause and never the effect. What creatures have, God does not. I challenge this doctrine, on five grounds.
First, I find it unbiblical. Now, in so saying, I realize the Bible is not a book on metaphysics. God’s salvific revelation occurs in history, not nature. Nevertheless, I feel Scripture implies a metaphysic wholly other than that found in classical theism. Granted, many biblical passages speak of God as immutable. But wait a second; many others do in fact speak of God as changing (e.g., Hosea 11:8, Amos 7:3, Jeremiah 18:8, and Exodus 32:14). Indeed, the prophets function so as to alter the operations of YHWH’s will. Malachi 3:5-7 is often taken to be an affirmation of a wholly immutable God (“I, the Lord, change not”). But this is followed up by saying, “Return to me, that I might return to you.” Taken together, these passages mean, at least to me, that God enjoys fixity of purpose, and in that fixity, does not vary. But rather than denying change, such fixity insists upon it. Hence, if we change in such-and-such a way, then God, too, will change in an appropriate manner. And the biblical metaphors for God are all anthropomorphic in nature. God shares the creaturely characteristics of will, memory, emotion, anger, disappointment, etc. Quarrel all you want with these metaphors, as but a mere concession to our feeble intellects. Still, the fact remains that they mean God undergoes changing affective states analogous to pleasure and displeasure in our selves. If these metaphors do not fit the reality of God, then they are useless and should be dropped. The Incarnation, if it is at all revelatory of God, reveals his general modus operandi with creation. God is incarnate throughout the entire universe, which functions as his body. And the biblical predication of God is generally relative predication. It’s hard to be a creator, without a creation; a king, without subjects; a father, without children; a lover, without someone to love.
Second, there is the matter of epistemology. Knowledge, I think, demands two things. No. 1, we must generalize from the familiar to the unfamiliar. No. 2, to have knowledge, real knowledge, we must have empathy, a knowing from “within.” Now, if there is one “within” I am most familiar with, it is human experience. So, I think that unless there is a genuine analogy, a true likeness, between ourselves and all the rest of reality, from the atom up to God, then we haven’t got an inkling as to what is going on. Now, one major characteristic of human existence is that we are continually changing, evolving. The traditional notion of the “self” as something permanent is a myth. Rather, the “self” is best thought of as a name for a society of perishing occasions. Moment to moment, we are different persons. No thinker thinks twice. God, then, I see as the most changeable that there is, the supreme effect as well as cause. And in so saying, I am not overlooking the fact that there is consistency in God. There is an absolute or abstract dimension to God. It is what God always does. God always seeks to maximize beauty, is always omniscient, empathic, loving. But there is also the matter of the relative nature of God, God in the concrete, God as continually changing. We must, however, be careful not to focus just on the common thread running through various occasions, overlooking their key differences. Well may God always seek to maximize beauty; but what is beautiful in one context or era may not be in another. Well may God always be omniscient; but as new things happen, God’s knowledge is increased, if for no other reason than that he has moved from knowing X as merely potential to knowing X as a definite, decided matter of fact. Another major characteristic of human existence is that we are social, relational beings who arise out of our relationships. Reality is like a spider’s web; you tweak it here and it jiggles there. God, then, is indeed the supreme effect as well as cause. As much as God creates the universe, the universe creates God.
Third, there is the matter of meaning, value, significance. If God is wholly immutable, as classical theism argues, then, saint or sinner, it’s all the same to him, he remains blissfully indifferent. If nothing can make any real difference in God, then his love and wisdom can make no difference in his decision-making process. But who can put any real faith in such a cold, dehumanizing God? And if God could be just as happy, whole, and complete, without a universe as with one, then why did he bother to create it in the first place? How would we be anything other than meaningless and insignificant to him? And how could we think of God as loving? Love means, at a minimum, to derive part of the content of your being from the loved object. And how could God deliver us from the evil of evils, that the past fades? We acquire satisfactions, only to lose them. So, why bother to do anything, when it’s all going to go up in smoke soon enough? If God is wholly immutable, he is, then, helpless to deliver us from this evil. On the other hand, if God is supreme effect, if we can pass our experiences over into God, then everything is of significance, because everything is preserved and enjoyed in God’s memory forever.
Fourth, there is the matter of divine transcendence. Classical theism sought to affirm transcendence, but at the price of immanence. God, in Thomism, exists wholly outside of creation, wholly unrelated to anything going on. Hence, we are left with the tragic situation of a world that never really gets into the life of God, because he is not about to react to it, and a God who never really gets into the world, because he would then be affected, conditioned, by it. The universe, then, has meaning only in the negative sense of a kind of holding tank to be escaped from if we are to attain to what is of ultimate value. Thus Christianity becomes a static, world-negating religion. And then, is God truly transcendent? The classical model of God pictures him and the world as two wholly separate circles that do not intersect. The world of time, change, materiality, contrasted over and against the divine world of immaterial, changeless simplicity. Well then, what do we call the whole of reality, the whole shooting match? Meta-God? Because by that it would seem that God is but one limited aspect of some larger, more inclusive whole or reality that includes him and then some. Put another way, classical theism argued that no reality can stand over and against God, on an equal footing, so as to exclude him. But, ironically, that is exactly what classical theism ended up doing: The whole world of materiality and change is, at best, an anti-God principle, the complete and total antithesis of God’s own nature. I think a better solution is to say that God is the chief exemplification of all metaphysical principles. Loosely put, what holds for creatures also holds for God, but to the nth degree. And this huge quantitative difference makes for a qualitative one as well. Everything in the universe is a part of everything else, is incarnate throughout; but only to a very limited degree. We, for example, directly interact with little more than our own brain cells. In sharp contrast, God’s body, the universe, is wholly internal to him. Hence, God enjoys an unsurpassable direct and immediate empathic response to any and all creaturely feeling. We are total strangers to sensitivity on such a grand scale.
Fifth, and finally, there is the matter of what is sometimes called the “monopolar prejudice” of classical theism. Now, it sure seems to me that the church fathers, and many Christians today, set up checklists of seemingly contradictory divine attributes, such as being-becoming, and cause-effect. Then they go down the list, ascribing only one side to God, the side that squares best with certain Hellenic notions that the “really real” is wholly simple, immaterial, and passionless. To me, this is lopsided. Nothing real can be described by reference to only one side or pole, and each pole represents a virtue. If it is good to be independent and not deterred by others, it is also good to be deeply moved and affected by the feelings of others. I think that creation is God’s own eternal evolution from unconsciousness into self-consciousness and self-actualization. We should rejoice in the fact that we have a genuine significance in the life of God.
Blair Reynolds holds a doctorate in theology and has done graduate work in psychology. He writes from Fairbanks, Alaska.