Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Afraid of Infinitude

The following is Doug Kelly's contribution to the Christianity Today Forum "Has God been held hostage by philosophy?" (January 9th, 1995). You can also read the contributions of Roger Olson, Timothy George and Alister McGrath here.


One of the best things about this most provocative book is its subject: it is actually about God, rather than being another evangelical "how to" or self-help manual. Clark Pinnock is certainly right about one thing: "The concept of God is the most important topic in theology." To their credit, the five authors have done something far from universal among theologians and philosophers; they have written in clear, straightforward English prose. It seems to me that they have been honest and aboveboard in plainly expressing what they think. Even those who strongly disagree with their conclusions will have to respect them for their transparent clarity.

Moreover, one must commend their desire to make their theological discourse practical so that it addresses living issues such as the reality of intercessory prayer, and how to interpret evil and fight it in today's world.

Several of these authors properly point out that the classical tradition has not always done full exegetical, theological justice to the matter of God's impassability. I was genuinely disappointed that, because of crucial, exegetical and central theological weaknesses, these brethren were unable to improve this situation. Indeed, what they have to say on this point and many others constitutes one of the saddest intellectual and spiritual retrogressions I have ever seen outside openly heterodox thinking.

The really crucial weakness that devastates the promise of this volume to present a fresh, more biblical view of God is this: The authors feel that God cannot be infinite and personal at the same time. To deal with us personally, rather than harshly and mechanically (which is how they see "sovereignty"), God either must be finite or, at least, refrain from employing such infinitude. Some of the authors hold that God really is not infinite (e.g., God literally does not know what is future); some of them suggest that he must voluntarily refuse to use his infinite abilities as the price of humankind's being guaranteed personal significance.

As a result of a selective biblical exegesis (that looks only at the human limitations implied in a word—such as repent—and strangely fails to consider the word in the light of the infinite subject to whom it refers) and a failure actually to read the Fathers of the Christian church, these writers attempt to get rid of God's infinity by ascribing it to classical theology's being the illegitimate offspring of the cohabitation of biblical concepts with pagan Hellenistic philosophy.

In reality, a careful reading of the Fathers (such as Athanasius, for instance) would indicate the profound Christianization of Hellenistic terms and concepts. Though they began as Greek terms conveying pagan content, such concepts as creation, being, logos, providence, and person were thoroughly transformed during the first four or five centuries of the Christian era in the light of Old Testament prophecy and the apostolic testimony to Christ.

Perhaps lack of familiarity with this field of study explains why the authors dismiss so easily the entire classical tradition as being no less Neo-Platonic than Pseudo-Dionysius, who in truly unbiblical fashion describes God as "beyond being." But they fail to point out the very significant fact that when Athanasius (long before the time of Pseudo-Dionysius) quotes this passage from Plato's Republic, he changes it to state that God is "beyond all created being"—a profoundly biblical concept (Athanasius, Contra Gentes, 2.2;40.2). This leads us to the heart of their problem.

It seems to me that these "openness" writers have failed to think through the profound implications of the difference between created (finite) being and uncreated (infinite) being. This failure to think clearly is manifestly demonstrated in their impoverished grasp of the relationship of language to being (i.e., epistemology). They seem to work on the assumption of the univocal validity of language for both God and man. That is, a word must mean for God the exact same thing it does for a human. For instance, "before and after" impose on God's experience the same limitations they do on that of humankind.

But one wonders how they could have neglected the church's pivotal teaching on the analogical usage of language (i.e., that there are both similarities and differences when the same word is applied to created and uncreated being). A brief reading of a few sections of Saint Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae or perhaps chapter five of E. L. Mascall's Existence and Analogy might have transformed this book. And long before Aquinas or Mascall, Saint Hilary of Poitiers (fourth century) wisely remarked (in De Trinitate 4:14) that human words are subject to God, rather than God being subject to human words (in the sense of comprehensively defined and thus limited by them). The human mind "must not measure the divine nature by the limitations of [its] own, but must gauge God's assertions concerning himself by the scale of his own glorious self-revelation. … Since we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words" (1:17).

In other words, the reason the five authors of The Openness of God deny the infinitude of nearly all the attributes of God is their failure to have heard what Hilary (and the whole orthodox Christian tradition) could have said to them. That is, we must not attempt to project our creaturely limitations onto the God who made us (as though we had made him). That would be a violation of the second commandment. Rather, with Saint Paul, let us understand that the analogy (and glorious reality) of God as our Father makes sense because fatherhood is from God (Eph. 3:14-15), as the incarnate Christ and outpoured Spirit have shown us. Hence, as Athanasius says, "God does not make man his pattern, but rather, since God alone is properly and truly Father, we men are called fathers of our own children, for of him every fatherhood in heaven and earth is named" (Contra Arianos 1:23).

Human reason, therefore, must adjust itself to God's being and not the reverse. Repeatedly in this volume, the authors univocally limit the infinite God by what they are able to understand (see, for example, the definition of divine omniscience on p. 136). This short-sighted procedure causes them throughout the book to deny one side of clear biblical teaching (such as God's sovereignty) in order to affirm the other side (such as human responsibility). Sadly, all too little that they write in this volume can be taken seriously either by scholars or by ordinary Christian layfolk until its authors rethink their basic approach. May they be blessed in doing so!

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