Theistic personalism and the heart of God

A post on Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea raises the question of God’s “accountability” to creation, quoting the reply of Romans 9.20 about pots questioning their maker as, in some way, problematic. What is interesting is the series of excellent replies from (definitely!) Catholic Ben Yachov (who used to post on BioLogos a year or two ago). In effect, he suggests that Reppert’s soul-searching is yet another unnecessary complication from accepting theistic personalism, which I have written about here before. Ben Yachov, being a Thomist very sympathetic to Ed Feser, largely reflects the latter’s thought in this. 

I had hoped to add a response of my own, but the site had problems with my WordPress identity (as indeed do I), so I’ll try and redress that here. First let me expand the problem a bit, to explain why theistic personalism has become the (unconscious) position of most Evangelicals today. A full, and typical expression of classical AAA-theism (the alternative to TP) is in the Westminster Confession of 1646:

Of God, and of the Holy Trinity

I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

II. God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleases. In His sight all things are open and manifest, His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands. To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.

III. In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Personalism has its roots in the univocity of Duns Scotus, but scholastic theology doesn’t usually grab modern Christians – so what they latch on to are the bits about God’s being “without passions”, “immutable”, etc. They also clock the Thomist conception that God’s emotions (and other properties) are “analogous” rather than identical to ours, ie that his mode of being is fundamentally different from ours. How can we truly relate to such a passionless “state of Being”? Who would want such a cold fish of a God? And anyway, how is that anything like the God of Fire of the Bible?

Before attempting an answer, let me point out that The Westminster Confession was written by the Puritans, whose belief in a God who relates to us personally motivated some of the most passionate preaching of any age. Such teaching also goes back to men like Augustine, to whom God’s burning love meant all. For all the personalist “heart of God” talk, such passion is less in evidence today. You could freeze water on most neotheist writing – you know I’m not making it up!

The passage in Romans 9 says: But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” But contrary to Victor Reppert’s implication, this does not speak merely of the potter’s domination of the clay. It’s all about the fact that the potter, as a moral, conscious agent, knows very well that the pot he makes is not such an agent. If he chooses to make a wonky bowl, say in order to show a student what can go wrong, he knows there is no moral issue. If he sold the pot as “perfect” to another moral agent, or smashed it once it was owned by another person, it would be a different matter. He might also love a pot he’s made – but would hardly expect the bowl to reciprocate equally.

Ah, someone will say, but humans are not inanimate pots – they are conscious moral agents. That’s indeed true – but they are not divine, in the sense that classical theism sees God as divine. And divinity is as far removed from moral consciousness as the latter is from being a mere clay pot. Just as the clay cannot judge the potter because it hasn’t the faintest conception of what it means to be a moral agent, so a man cannot judge God because he has no conception whatsoever of what it means to exist as Divinity. Man’s moral sense, like his other attributes, are only analogies of what God is.

In the twenty-first century, we can perhaps improve on Paul’s parallel somewhat. We’ve not created conscious agents, but we have created computers, which are capable of calculation and computation as we are. I rather suspect that even digital computation is only analogous, rather than identical, to the way we do maths, but there’s a better comparison to be made anyway.

One of the myths of science is that data builds up until a theory, as it were, demands to be formulated. In real life something different usually happens. A study of Darwin’s notebooks, as opposed to his public statements, shows that he hit on his theory early on – partly through misreading Malthus – and only then spent years building up the data that would confirm it. The same is true of Einstein and relativity – the evidence followed far behind his firm conviction that it must exist.

Now, of course, what is taught to students is the formal proof of relativity rather than any flash of inspiration. It’s more difficult to be mathematically rigorous with evolutionary theory, but I must keep quiet about that or lose some readers. One could, I guess, input the mathematics into the laptop, and at some point e=mc^2 would emerge and the computer would have as close to a Eureka moment as processors ever do, and understand relativity. Now if, like the pot impossibly questioning its maker, the computer were to speak its mind, it might say to Einstein, “We both understand relativity now.”

Einstein would reply that it was so, but might add that his understanding came in a flash of insight – the computer’s only by the analogy of computation. And of course, the computer wouldn’t have the least idea what he meant, though Einstein, quite able to do Maths too, would fully comprehend the computer. That may be most un-egalitarian, but that doesn’t stop us programming computers rather than vice versa.

Incidentally note how those mysterious flashes of insight we sometimes experience are said, in the Westminster Confession, to be something like the way God knows all things – so the comparison is by no means empty. More importantly, note that Einstein’s genius, compared to the plodding, though speedy, binary functions of the computer, do not make his insights any less real than the machine’s. And in the same way, the fact that God is simple and passionless does not make his “emotional” or “moral” life less rich than ours – rather ours are a pale shadow of the reality. And yet they are enough to enable us to be said to be in God’s image, and to relate to him genuinely and effectively.

Only that doesn’t make calling him to account any less absurd than that of the pot in Paul’s analogy.

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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