God, man, and classical theism

In the discussion generated by my recent post on classical theism (both here and at What’s Wrong with the World), several people have raised the question of whether the seemingly remote and abstract God of classical theism can plausibly be thought to take any interest at all in human beings, and in particular whether he can plausibly be identified with the God of Christianity, who definitely has such an interest. The theistic personalist claims that the conceptions are incompatible, which is why he rejects classical theism. I want in this follow-up post to note some of the problems with this position.

1. As Aquinas says, the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments when the authority in question is a human one. But it is still an argument. And it is the strongest of arguments when the authority is divine. Consider, then, that many of the great classical theists referred to in my previous post – thinkers like Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas (to stick just with the A’s) – were also among the greatest of Christian theologians, and not only saw no difficulty in identifying the God of classical theism with the God of the Bible, but appealed to scriptural passages no less than to philosophical considerations in defending classical theism. Consider also that some of the key elements of the classical theist conception of God – such as God’s simplicity, immutability, and eternity – are considered irreformable, de fide doctrines of the Catholic Church, affirmed by the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council. For Catholics, who believe on independent grounds that the solemn doctrinal pronouncements of such councils are infallible, that suffices to show that classical theism is backed by divine authority. Non-Catholics will, naturally, take a different view, but if they take Christian tradition seriously they must at least regard the testimony of Church fathers, and of eminent theologians and ecclesiastical councils over the course of many centuries, as weighty evidence in favor of classical theism.

2. It is no good merely to point out that certain biblical passages seem to conflict with the conception of God affirmed by classical theism. For no one, not even theistic personalists, believes that all biblical descriptions of God are to be taken literally in the first place. For example, no one thinks that God literally has eyelids (Psalm 11), or nostrils (Ezekiel 18:18), or that he breathes (Job 4:9). These can’t be literal descriptions given that the organs and activities in question presuppose the having of a material body, which God cannot have since He is the creator of the material world. So, if the theistic personalist wants to insist on a literal reading of some passage that seems incompatible with classical theism, he needs to give us some account of why we should take that passage literally even though we shouldn’t take other ones literally. And he is going to have a hard time doing that. For notice that the reason why we don’t take the passages about eyelids, nostrils, etc. literally is that a literal reading would conflict with other things we know about God from the Bible, such as that He is the creator of the material world. But this same consistency criterion poses problems for some of the things the theistic personalist wants to affirm. For example, some theistic personalists hold that God is (contrary to what classical theism holds) capable of changing, on the basis of biblical passages which when taken literally would imply that God sometimes changes His mind. But other biblical passages (e.g. Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17) insist that God does not change. How do we reconcile them? The classical theist answers that we already know from following out the implications of God’s being the first cause of all things that He must be simple and thus unchanging, so that it is the passages that imply otherwise that must be given a metaphorical reading.

3. Of course, the theistic personalist may at this point decide to modify his understanding of God as creator rather than accept classical theism. For example, he might acknowledge that the classical theist is correct to say that if God has the sort of absolute metaphysical ultimacy classical theism attributes to Him, then He must be simple, immutable, and eternal, in which case biblical passages like those which seem to imply that God sometimes changes His mind could not be taken literally. But the theistic personalist might then respond by rejecting the idea that God is absolutely metaphysically ultimate in the way the classical theist claims He is, so as to preserve a literal reading of the passages in question. But there are two problems with this sort of move. First, it is doubtful that it can be reconciled with what has traditionally been understood to be Christian orthodoxy – though this would, of course, not necessarily trouble process theologians and other theological revisionists. But second, the move in question does nothing to show that the arguments of classical theists are wrong. After all, the classical theist typically claims that we can show through philosophical arguments that the God of classical theism exists. If this is correct, then if we also accept the biblical descriptions of God, it follows that the only right way to read them is in a way consistent with classical theism. And as I have said, that is, of course, exactly what the great Christian theologians of the past and the councils cited above did. The Christian classical theist holds that his approach is the only way to reconcile what we know of God from both reason and revelation. It won’t do, then, for the critic of classical theism to dig in his heels and insist on a literal reading of biblical passages that seem to support theistic personalism. He has to show that the philosophical arguments for classical theism are mistaken, and thus that the possibility of a literal reading is open to him in the first place.

4. It is in any event a serious mistake to think that classical theism is motivated by purely philosophical considerations (and “Greek” or “pagan” ones at that) while theistic personalism is more sensitive to specifically Christian and biblical concerns. Consider the central theistic personalist thesis that God is a person like we are, only without our bodily and other limitations. As Brian Davies points out in The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, one of the most remarkable things to note about this sort of claim is how foreign it is to what has historically been regarded as Christian orthodoxy:

The formula ‘God is a person’ is (given the history of theistic thinking and writing) a relatively recent one. I believe that its first occurrence in English comes in the report of a trial of someone called John Biddle (b. 1615), who in 1644 was brought before the magistrates of Gloucester, England, on a charge of heresy. His ‘heresy’ was claiming that God is a person. Biddle was explicitly defending Unitarian beliefs about God, already in evidence among Socinians outside England.

In other words, Biddle’s ‘God is a person’ was intended as a rejection of the orthodox Christian claim that God is three persons in one substance (the doctrine of the Trinity). One can hardly take it to be a traditional Christian answer to the question ‘What is God?’ According to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is certainly not three persons in one person. And when orthodox exponents of the doctrine speak of Father, Son, and Spirit as ‘persons,’ they certainly do not take ‘person’ to mean what it seems to mean for [Richard] Swinburne and those who agree with him. They do not, for example, think of the persons of the Trinity as distinct centres of consciousness, or as three members of a kind. (pp. 59-60)

Davies goes on to emphasize that as used within the context of Trinitarian theology, “person” translates the Latin persona, which in turn was intended to translate the Greek theological terms prosopon and hypostasis – both of which have precise theological meanings and neither of which is intended to convey the idea of a “person” in the sense in which a human being is a person. Indeed, even apart from questions of orthodoxy, the idea that God is three Persons in one substance entails that God cannot “a person” in the way that we are, since for there to be two or more human persons is precisely for there to be two or more substances. (This is true regardless of which theory of personal identity one endorses, even a Lockean “continuity of consciousness” account. For even if two streams of consciousness, and thus two Lockean persons, existed in the same body, qua persons they would be only contingently associated with that body and thus not “in” that one material substance in the sense in which the three divine Persons are “in” one divine substance.)

In short, for the classical theist, theistic personalism is bad philosophy and bad theology.

5. As I emphasized in the earlier post, that does not mean that God is impersonal, since according to classical theism there is in God something analogous to what we call intellect and will in us, and other attributes too which presuppose intellect and will (such as justice, mercy, and love – where “love” is understood, not as a passion, but as the willing of another’s good). And this brings me to one final point, which is that even apart from biblical revelation, and on philosophical grounds alone, we have reason to conclude that the God of classical theism takes a special interest in man.

Consider that for at least some classical theists, philosophical arguments alone can tell us not only that there is a God, but also that human beings have immaterial and immortal souls. For Thomists, they tell us further that the soul is related to the body as form is to matter, so that though the soul survives the death of the body, the human person does not, and can come to life again only if soul and body are reunited; that the soul cannot arise out of the material processes that suffice for the generation of lower animals but must be specially created by God with each new human being; and that our natural end is God Himself, so that we cannot be happy apart from Him. Now, that there will indeed be a resurrection of the dead, as well as the details of the Christian account of salvation, are further facts that cannot be known apart from divine revelation. But what (many) classical theists regard as knowable through reason alone and apart from specifically Christian theology already suffices to show that God has a very special interest in man indeed – so much so that He specially creates each individual human soul for a natural end that involves knowing Him everlastingly, in a way that requires a further divine intervention in the form of a resurrection if it is perfectly going to be fulfilled. It can hardly be that surprising, then, that the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob turn out to be the same.
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