Triple-A Theism

I’m grateful to Ed Feser for focusing my attention on possibly the biggest division in contemporary approaches to theology, including the theology of science and nature. That is the term theistic personalism, or sometimes neotheism. It is theistic personalism that explains the ascendancy of my bête noir, Open Theism, but also of many other modern Christian attitudes.

Theistic personalism is the departure from the classical theism I’ve been writing about in the last few posts in connection with Thomas Aquinas. It rejects the Thomistic idea of God as First Cause of all things, immutable, ineffable and, apart from revelation natural or spiritual, incomprehensible. As Norman Geisler describes in an excellent essay it attempts to explain God in terms of human characteristics writ large, claiming that this is both truer to Scripture and more relevant to people. He contrasts this to the older view which he, memorably, describes as AAA Theism – standing for Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas.

This idea of a deliberate contradiction of Aquinas puts me in mind of an earlier decription of the same thing, which I filed away and largely forgot as being less memorable. But actually it’s the same beast. Mark Noll’s scholarly essay on BioLogos describes the univocal concept of being introduced by Duns Scotus. Whereas in classical theism God’s mode of existence, as Uncreated, Eternal, Pure Act and so on, is fundamentally different to ours, in Scotism it is merely a larger, more perfect version of what we ourselves experience. So whereas in Thomism God’s attributes of rationality, knowledge and so on, and even love or wrath, are analogies of our own attributes, in Scotism (and theological personalism) they are just stronger examples. God is actually a complex person, in contradistinction to the divine simplicity of Aquinas.

The difference is that in Scotism, God knows infinitely more than we do, but possibly not everything (eg our future actions), whereas in Thomism God is knowledge. To speak of God’s ignorance of something is an oxymoron. To doubt his goodness is actually to doubt goodness itself. And so with his justice, his love or any other attribute.

You will, of course, find many to say that classical theism is unphilosophical, rationally incoherent and so on. You pays yer money and yer takes yer choice, as my grandma used to say. But to my mind, it is the self-contradictory God of univocal personalism that I find to be inadequate and, after over forty years of serious Bible study, alien to Scripture. Give me Triple-A every time.

To my mind is it the alternative that actually creates many of the problems modern theology seems compelled to try and solve. Just as Cartesian dualism set up the intractable mind-body problem which didn’t exist under Thomism (see Ed Feser again on that), a personal God, in the neotheistic sense, leaves one having to explain all his apparent shortcomings. Not least it accounts at root-level for the obsessional preoccupation with theodicy nowadays. God has to explain his actions just as human people do, and for the same reasons – it’s possible they may not be able to pass muster in our univocal judgement. But as one of Ed Feser’s regulars, Ben Yachov, says, “Classical theism needs a theodicy like a fish needs a bicycle.” Think about it.

One of the main reasons theistic personalism appeals to the Man in the Street is that it is sold as the only way to make God approachable. How can one love a cold-fish God, even without a bicycle, who doesn’t change despite our cries to him? A God who floats above suffering like the proverbial, and quite fictitious, eastern despot on whom the Old Testament God is supposed by western liberals to be modelled (forgetting that the average elected town mayor is further from his people than most Israelite kings ever were)? Worst of all, how can one worship a God whose love is a mere analogy?

C S Lewis (such a wise man for our times!) answered that when he wrote in his Science Fiction novels about the spiritual eldila, whose near-invisibility was not due to their being tenuous and insubstantial, but to their being so much more solid and real than we insubstantial mortals can discern. Similarly, the risen Jesus could enter a locked room because the spiritual is so much more substantial than mere matter. It is more correct to say that it is our weak emotions that are mere analogies of God’s true love, which is of course at one with his wrath, justice, mercy, compassion and grief and with all the actions that result from them in a unified eternity. He is, as Thomas said, Pure Act. This truly is a God worthy of worship. I’m more inclined to pity the other – as Sun Myung Moon claimed to have done over the failed Messiahship of Jesus. Well, if you’re just a Person, you’re bound to win some and lose some.

But the biggest call-out on the claim that one cannot relate personally to the classical God is the record of the love for him known by those who believed in him. Thomas Aquinas himself is one example. But I gained my own hunger for a deeper experience of God’s love from the writings of the Reformers and, especially, some of the Puritans, whose insistence on “experimental religion” (ie experience of God) is usually forgotten nowadays, but is based solidly on classical theism. If you doubt it, check out Samuel Crossman’s My song is love unknown , which was a meditation on Ephesians 3.17 – about the fulness of God.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Triple-A Theism

  1. Bilbo says:

    Since you brought up C.S. Lewis, I thought I would mention that Lewis was quick to say both that God was personal, but also that God was superpersonal. Thus it makes sense to say that God is not only Love, but also that God loves us. So I see the argument between Classical Theism and Theistic Personalism as an unnecessary one. Both are true.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Bilbo

    The issue isn’t at the level of colloquial usage, where “personal” is used as the antithesis of “impersonal”. It’s at the level of philosphical/theological terminology and understanding, where the words one uses have far reaching consequences. At the first level I believe in a personal God, because I know his love for me is real, that I can genuinely relate to him, and so on: he is not distant and aloof. But the second level means I’m not at liberty to say, for example, “I can’t relate to someone who doesn’t share my sense of regret for mistakes, ergo God must make mistakes.”

    Similarly in Trinitarian theology “three persons” (technical) doesn’t mean “three people” (colloquial). Those who think is does simply haven’t understood the issues.

    Indeed, the objections to classical theism are often from those who can’t, or won’t, see that “superpersonal” doesn’t mean “impersonal” – or rather, since “superpersonal” is Lewis’s own colloquial term, they misconstrue the technical terms used, like “immutable” etc, as if an unchanging God is like an unchanging (ie dead) human.

    The proof of the difference is the different conclusions they lead to: classical theism doesn’t lead to certain TEs’ panentheism, or to a God who creates by trial and error, or to one whose only knowledge of the future comes from fallible prognostication.

    Put it another way – Duns Scotus would not have agreed that his ideas and those of Aquinas were both true. And he could have told you why if you had a few days to spare.

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