On God’s uniqueness

I’ve been trying to keep The Hump’s recent blog posts focused on the drip-feed of my book God’s Good Earth in twice weekly chapters – even that is a lot of reading for busy people, and I want to present my case in an orderly manner rather than firing off posts on all kinds of subjects in between.

But I felt I had to comment on a recent thread on BioLogos, in which the argument is made that Intelligent Design implies that God is merely one amongst a number of possible designers, whereas God is, in fact, not to be compared with any other agent.

The limitations of ID’s scope and methodology do, indeed, leave open the question of who the designer behind the wisdom and order of nature is, and there are a few ID people who hold that methodological agnosticism (which current science insists upon) at a personal level, believing it quite possible that advanced aliens, for example, are the authors of life. But they are few and far between, and as Eddie (and others) ably argued on that thread, to draw limits on what a particular line of argument can prove is very different from numbering God amongst the other artisans of the Universe.

I would not have felt led to comment, though, were it not for the fact that this is another case – not the first, unfortunately – of TE pots calling ID or Creationist kettles black. Not long ago, someone suggested in a BioLogos article that ID is basically Gnostic, for reasons that rather escaped me at the time, but which ignored the fact that the charge of believing in a Gnostic demiurge (in the form of evolution) is far more aptly levelled at TE believers in “free process” theology.

Then there was the article that seriously suggested ID supports “occasionalism” because (the article claimed) ID says God intervenes occasionally in nature. This revealed a crass misunderstanding of the term occasionalism (which actually means the belief that God is the sole active agent in the cosmos, and what we see as causal factors are only “occasions” for his personal activity). But if we pass over that and accept the idiosyncratic definition, it more aptly describes a common TE position that, in all probability, nature acts largely autonomously but that, perhaps, God may occasionally intervene miraculously (the position called Semi-deism by Russell and often voiced on BioLogos). Virtually all IDists, in contrast, stress that evidence for instances of design is just that – what can be methodologically evidenced, as opposed to the vast mass of “the designer’s” works, which do not lend themselves to such analysis.

But I’m not here to praise ID, but rather to criticise what I hope is unconscious hypocrisy, by looking at how the incomparability of God harms current theistic evolution positions far more than it does ID. Essentially, what is being argued is “classical theism” (our own position here) v. the “theistic personalism” which has become popular recently, though it seems to find its ultimate origin in the teaching of the 17th century Unitarian John Biddle.

As it happens, there is an internet discussion on this very subject proceeding as I write, involving such philosophical luminaries as William Lane Craig and Ed Feser – see here. As Feser points out, the point of departure for theistic personalism (or what Norman Geisler calles “Neotheism”) is the denial of the ancient doctrine of divine simplicity. God simply is what he is essentially, outside of time and space, “without body, parts or passions”. In Thomistic terms, this is expressed as “pure Being”, but as Feser points out the same truth is held in other forms by Platonists and, in fact, all the classical monotheistic faiths.

Now, the argument proposed at BioLogos was developed from this very position. Since God is simple Being in this way, it is wrong to regard him as an instance of anything within Creation. And therefore to suggest that God is “a designer”, leaving the possibility open of other designers such as space aliens, is a denial of Christian doctrine. And taken at face value, that statement is true, and worthy of deep consideration.

But if TEs are so offended by such an implicit denial of God’s uniqueness, then they ought to be thoroughgoing in their embrace of classical theism, and in their rejection of theistic personalism. For not only is “design” just one aspect of the question, but it is usually regarded as so minor as to be ignored in the discussion. The more central implications cut across much of what modern theistic evolution insists on in its theology.

As the appellation “personalism” implies, the major difference from classical theism is the insistence that “God is a person”. Feser’s column points out some problems with this in terms of Trinitarian theology (the One God God is actually three Persons), and also how it partly arises from a confusion of classical theology with the early twentieth century philosophical mystical idea of “The Impersonal Absolute”. Most importantly, Feser repeats his mantra that the problem with the sentence “God is a person” is not the word “person”, but the word “a”.

In our context, if it is wrong to describe God as “a designer”, it is equally wrong to describe him as “a person”. To do so, when the logic is followed, makes “personhood” like “design” separable from God’s essence, that is, God would consist of parts, and that would require some other Cause to have brought them together as God.

Classical Theism, for that reason, uses the concept of “analogy” to describe God and his attributes. Feser cites a good illustration of this, in describing the goodness of his supper, the goodness of Lane Craig’s books and the goodness of Lane Craig as a person. All three, he says, are true instances of goodness, not mere metaphors, but they cannot be compared because food is good in quite different ways to books or people.

What is the application of this in theistic evolution, as popularly held?

In the first place, it completely outlaws any arguments from theodicy (here, at least, this essay ties in with the most recently published chapter of my book!). To say that God would be morally wrong to create, say, guinea worms, or more generally the world we experience and study by science, and that therefore he must have made evolution autonomous is precisely to make God just one instance of the category “moral person” (that is, it is to judge God as if he were a mere man). To say that God would be a despot, or a puppet-master, to order the details of his Creation moment by moment, is to use the yardstick of human behaviour as an arbiter of God’s intrinsic incomprehensibility. And yet you and I know that TEs do it all the time, and often base their entire theology of sin, atonement and so on on such premises. That is a far graver matter than anyone mistakenly bracketing God with other hypothetical designers.

Another popular fruit of theistic personalism (and necessarily only that viewpoint) is kenotic theology, especially as applied to origins. You know the arguments well (or if not, use the search function here for “kenosis” or “kenotic” or “Philippians”). Jesus (it is claimed) emptied himself of divinity in the Incarnation, and since he is the paradigm of God to us, God too must divest himself of such divine attributes as omnipotence and omniscience, in order to make the Universe open to chance and choice.

Kenosis, of necessity, implies that the essence of God is not simple, as classical theism has always maintained, but divisible: God can make himself less (to make way for creation), and can dispense with aspects of his essence (knowledge, power, etc), just as the zealous follower of the Sermon on the Mount might pluck out the eye that offended him. You can believe that about God if you like (and it’s hard to find a TE writer, either popular or academic, who hasn’t imbibed Moltmann’s kenoticism), but you can’t at the same time criticise someone for suggesting he might have made himself a mere designer in the same way.

The extreme of theistic personalism, within what is now called Evangelicalism, is of course Open Theism, in which God limits himself in all kinds of ways for the sake of human (and amongst TEs, natural) autonomy. Indeed, it is his very nature to be changed by the contingent circumstances within Creation (hence “the openness of God”) It would even be immoral and passionless of him not to do so. If the argument from divine simplicty is a hammer blow to ID, why is it not also to be applied to the skulls of John Polkinghorne, Karl Giberson and those other TEs who have openly embraced, or flirted with, Open Theism?

Eddie points out on the BioLogos thread that God may be more than a designer, but cannot be less. Within the context of the classical theism being wielded in the original article, the concept of divine simplicity necessarily overflows into the doctrines of creation and providence. Hard though it may be to conceive, the whole of creation, in every detail past present and future, originate (of necessity) in one simple act of divine volition. There isn’t space here to make the arguments to demonstrate how that necessarily follows from classical theism, but it is the way that Christianity has always avoided ultimate dualism – as Augustine and others relaised, even human evil is ultimately encompassed within the good purpose (singular and simple) of God. I’ve written a bit more on that here, and in my reply to Sy Garte on the last post.

The net result is that classical theism really doesn’t allow one to propose an evolution that is at any time independent of, opposed to, or beyond what God has chosen to exist. In other words, one may view evolution as an instrumental means God employs within creation, but never as an agent whose outcomes might be more than, less than or even different from what God willed to occur. That is why it is called “monotheism”.

There is a word for such an instrumental use of means towards a specified end – it is “design”. I started out with a reminder that classical theism consistently views the attributes of God analogically. He is a real Father – indeed, he is the fount of Fatherhood. And yet he is not a father as I am a father – through marriage, procreation and whatever good or bad food, training and example I give my children. We may call him “Father” only because he has revealed it as a valid analogy through the Scriptures and through Jesus. We are not, in contrast, entitled to say, “I like to think of God as one of my mates at the pub”: not only does that fall foul of divine simplicity by calling him “a” mate and implying he gets drunk, but it is a presumptuous – even idolatrous – projection of our own desires on our Creator Lord.

As far as “design” goes, it is child’s play to open the Bible and see how it universally authorises the analogy of God as a wise artificer in Creation. Indeed, it is far and away the most common way (together with his rule over it as a lord) in which his relationship to nature is described. We are invited in its pages to examine and understand his workmanship in all kinds of things, from the containment of the oceans to the withholding of rain. This is not to deny the analogical nature of the Bible’s usage, any more than we should be surprised that it doesn’t mention his wife in relation to his Fatherhood, or that it does mention his hair or his fingers – a fact which has led a few Open Theists to insist that God does have a body.

So the surprising conclusion is that, provided one is fully aware that one speaks of design as an analogy of God’s activity, there is nothing wrong in a classical Christian seeing not only Creation, but individual elements within it, as the designs of God’s mind and the works of God’s hands.

On the other hand, there can be no justification for many of the things that distance God from design and workmanship within current theistic evolution, which come directly from the assumptions of theistic personalism. Your choice.

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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