Classical Theism vs. Theistic Mutualism

by Contributor Don Brooks

Explanatory Note from the Editor: This post is part of a larger paper was written and presented by the Founder of Discovered Ministries in the Discovered Ministries Paper Exchange. This ministry is a regional ministry hosted by Discovered Ministries to encourage Christian discipleship of the mind, growth in the knowledge of God, and godly interaction with God’s word and the truths He communicates to us. It is a community of believers engaging each other in a manner that challenges them and grows them. This was the paper at the second quarterly meeting which was presented and defended.

A recording of the presentation can be viewed here! The password: %bp!2Y7%

How would you describe the nature of God?

I was reminded of the importance of this question in a recent conversation with a friend whose son attends our chess club. Danja comes from a region in India that is matrilinneal and matriarchal. Her cultural experience is very interesting, but it is her description of god(s) that bears on our question. She described gods who are in and worshipped in the creation. She said her gods did not write a constitution like the Bible or Quaran to tell her what to do. So she has been left on her own to think for herself. She described the many gods and the temples that honor them. She said you will see representations of Jesus, Mohammed, and Allah alongside the Hindu gods. To my surprise, she said that these temple gods are not allowed to make any decisions. They cannot do anything. They are like minor children with priests and governments serving as their guardians. As the conversation came to a close, she told me that she practices Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, then added with a smile, “ultimately I am probably an atheist.” I believe that Danja’s genuine desire for herself and her relationship to ultimate reality is evidenced in the naming of her son, Aamodh Vishpowren, which means Happy Citizen of the Universe.

Danja’s polytheism seems as far away as India itself. For us, God is not in his creation, he is distinct from it and transcends it. God is not silent. He is personal and has communicated to us through His Son, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, history and creation. God is not many nor are there many gods. God is One. Most pointedly, God is sovereign over all things. He is not subordinate to priests, govenments or anyone for that matter. But even this description, a real contrast to Danja’s understanding, does not tell us very much. We still have more questions about God’s nature. Although we cannot understand God in His fullness, thereis more we can know. Traditionally, this exploration has led to an understanding of God called Classical theism.

Historical Tradition

According to Feser, Classical theism (CT from here forward) has been the mainstream understanding of the divine nature through most of the history of philosophical theology.1 Historical theologian Richard Muller writes that divine simplicity, the core doctrine within CT, “is among the normative assumptions of theology from the time of the church fathers to the great medieval scholastic systems, to the era of Reformation and post-Reformation theology, and indeed onto the succeeding era of late orthodoxy and rationalism.”2 James Dolezal echoes Feser and Muller when he observes that, “what one discovers in older Protestant confessions such as the Belgic Confession, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Confession of Faith is basically in keeping with the view of God as found in the works of patristic and Medieval theologians such as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas.3

Classical Theism Described

CT is marked by a strong commitment to the doctrines of divine aseity, immutability, impassability, simplicity, divine eternity and the substantial unity of the divine person”4 Aquinas in his questions on the divine attributes lists simplicity first. For Aquinas simplicity is the one divine attribute upon wihich the others stand. Feser asserts the importance of simplicity and the interdepence of the divine attributes below.

(T)he doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. . . The doctrine of divine simplicity has a number of crucial implications, which are, accordingly, also essential to classical theism. It entails that God is immutable or changeless, and therefore that He is impassible – that is, that He cannot be affected by anything in the created order. It entails that he is eternal in the sense of being altogether outside of time and space. It entails that He does not “have” existence, or an essence, or His various attributes but rather is identical to His existence, His nature and His attributes: He is His existence which is His essence which is His power which is His knowledge which is His goodness.5

Theistic Mutualism

There are a number of competing approaches to CT. According to Feser, the commitment to divine simplicity and its implications set classical theism at odds with theistic personalism, open theism, deism, process theology, and other more anthropomorphic conceptions of God.6 Dolezal describes these competing approaches (Neo-theism is the term used by Norman Geisler) as theistic Mutualism.7 8 He says that today, many, if not most evangelical theologians deny all or some aspects of CT.

Theistic mutualists ordinarily9 deny that God is immutable, impassable, eternal (timeless) and simple.10 They claim that the CT’s God is too distant, too cold, too other. He is incompatible with a straightforward reading of Scripture. “In an effort to portray God as more relatable, (they) insist that God is involved in a genuinely give and take relationship with his creatures.11 Although TMs may may not all agree on the extent of God’s involvement in his give and take relationship with humans, they do all agree that there is change and process in God. They are committed to univocal thinking with regard to God and the world and thus conceive of God as interacting with the world in some way like humans do, even if on a much grander scale.12

In the remainder of this paper we will consider three general challenges to CT. Then we will examine the key metaphysical commitments that bear on God’s nature. Then, in conlcusion we will summarize the importance of CT.

Three General Challenges and a CT Response

These challenges will interact primarily with simplicity, impassability and immutability from the perspective of the soft mutualist. Dolezal describes the soft mutualist, in contrast to the hard mutualist (open theist, process theologian), as one holds that God does not create the world by necessity, neither does he need the world in any significant sense. Many soft mutualists do not hold that God is intellectually open or in process of development. They maintain that God neither learns nor depends on creation for his knowledge and that his will is not changed by the action of his creatures.

Biblical Support and Divine Simplicity

According to John Fineberg, appeals to references that identify God with His attributes (Jer. 23:6, John 1:4,5,9, 14:6, 1 Cor 1:30, 1 John 1:5, 4:8) beg the question and wrongly use surface grammar to indicate that these verses teach divine simplicity. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig conclude that Christians have no good reason to adopt and many reasons to reject a full-blown doctrine of divine simplicity.13

Response: It should be conceded that there is no single biblical proof text for divine simplicity. Whether or not appeals to references that identify God with his attributes can be understood to support simplicity are not within the scope of this paper. But it seems to me that it can be demonstrated that simplicity follows necessarily from other doctrines that are clearly taught in the Bible, such as aseity, infinity, creation and perfection. If this is the case, then simplicity is a biblical doctrine.

God’s Attributes and His Nature in Relation to Divine Simplicity

If God is simple, then his attributes of justice, omnipotence, wisdom, etc… are all identical. There is no distinction. This then renders the distinctions we make in our God-talk meaningless, if not illogical or incoherent.

Response: Historical affirmations that God is his justice, omnipotence, wisdom, etc… abound. These affirmations read as worship and praise to the transcendent nature of God. In my view it is not difficult to see the unity that runs through all of God’s attributes and to affirm along with the Reformers that all that is in God is God.

Dolezal observes that the distinctions we make among the attributes in our God-talk follow from the manner in which God’s perfection is revealed, not from the manner in which it exists in him.14 In as much as the language and imagery by which God reveals himself, in nature and Scripture, draw upon a vast range of really distinct perfections in the created order, so likewise human speech about God follows the same path. But It does not speak of God as he is. It cannot!15 Rather, in revelation, God’s simple perfection refracts through the prism of creation and history, the perfect fullness of his being.

Univocal versus Analogical Biblical Language

If Scriptural revelation about God and his relationship to us is understood analogically, it would mean that we cannot know anything true about God in a literal or absolute sense. At best we have metaphorical knowledge which is not true knowledge. Therefore, Biblical descriptions of God should be understood univocally. If God is greived by his people, then he at that moment is grieved in his being as we experience and understand being greived. If God delights in his people at another “time” then he is at that “time” delighted as we delight in others. This would both yeild true knowledge of God and present God as a person in real relationship with his creatures.

Response: Univocal language is not the only source of true knowledge. Analogical knowledge does provide literal truth. For example, when we say that Fido is a good dog, Reagan was a good man, and Subway makes a good sandwich; we are not using the word good univocally or even equivocally. We are using it analogically. We know that these three are literally good, even if by analogy to one another. In addition, the biblical teaching on God’s transcendence, infinity and aseity strongly imply an analogical understanding of God as revealed in Scripture. While a univocal reading of Scripture would yeild a God who is self-contradictory.

Metaphysics

Another important consideration in the challenge to CT is related to metaphysical commitments. Ontological commitments are often left unstated or unformulated by theolgians. Etienne Gilson observes that such commitments are inseparable from the position one takes on the question of God’s simplilcity.16 This is certainly the case for the mutualist.

Mutualists describe God as having both essence and being. God’s essence is his quiddity, his essential nature. God’s being is that he exists. Humans also have both essence and being. Socrates could either be wise or unwise. Happy or sad. Whatever the case, Socrates’ essence is still human. For the soft mutualist, God’s essence is absolute divinity in the fullest sense. But his being experiences change in the give and take of his relationship to his creation. God may change in his being, but he is still God in his very essence.

Historically God’s simplicity was affirmed prior to the time of Aquinas. Aquinas stated with more precision than any of his predeccessors the metaphysics of divine simplicity. This is because of the reappearance of Aristotle in the West. The Aristotelian categories of Act and Potency became for Aquinas the key to understanding the nature of God. His most significant contribution to metaphysics was his insight that in God there is no distinction between essence and being. God’s essence is his being. God is pure act. There is not potential in God. All that he is is in act. God is pure being.

Aquinas also reasoned that any composite essence and existence must be caused by another existence. The parts would stand prior to the composite being. Aquinas further reasoned that an essence cannot give itself existence. But God is pure being (his essence is his being). He has no need to receive being from another. He is the First Cause.

Challenges to a Non-Thomistic Metaphysics17

1. If God is part of the genus or kind then he is not of necessity the only One of his kind. Even if he is the only one like him there could be another.

2. If God is made of metaphysical parts, these parts stand prior to God and he cannot be the First Cause.

My Personal Conclusions on the Truth and Importance of CT

In my opinion the biblical, historical and philosophical basis for CT are convincing. I believe an approach to God that denies CT is in some way lacking. Below I have listed my own thoughts in this regard.

1. The mutualistic, univocal approach results in a God who changes. A God who experiences the ups and downs of a give and take relationship with his creatures. The mutualist safe guard against essential change in God is commonly God’s sovereign will. I personally find this wanting.

2. Mutualist efforts to understand God’s triune nature can walk closely to historic errors. It is possible there is not a foundation to ultimately avoid historic errors. I believe that divine simplicity provides a safeguard for God’s Oneness.

Dolezal comments that Athanasius (by extension the early church fathers) sought to explain God’s Triune nature in the context of simplicity, while today that has been reversed. Mutualists try to understand simplicity in the context of the Trinity. Simplicity, for some, is incompatible with the Triune nature of God.

3. I also believe that simplicity does not detract from our intimate and real relationship with the one true God. I can affirm within divine simplicity all that God says about his relationship to his creation. The complexity of simplicity does make communication of this doctrine difficult.

4. I believe that there is a tendency in contemporary culture to make God more like us. I am reminded of God’s rebuke in Psalm 50:21, “You thought that I was one like yourself.” It is common to hear the mutualist deny that they believe God is like humans, just infinitely greater. This is probably true for some mutualist, but I have a hard time seeing this approach to God yeilding anyting but a God who is simply like humans, just greater.

1See Edward Feser’s blog on divine simplicity.

2Dolezal, “God without Parts.” p. 3

3For a chronological listing of theologians and philosophers who held to classical theism defined minimally by an affirmation of divine simplicity see Dr. Richard Howe’s paper at this address AntecedentstoAquinasDoctrineofSimplicity Howe.pdf

4Dolezal, “All that is in God,” p. 1

5See Edward Feser’s Blog article

6Ibid.

7This approach to theism has its roots in Personalism. Theistic mutualism is preferred here for several reasons. First, Dolezal’s use of mutualism better communicates the intention of the mutualist. Also, Personalism has broad philosophical roots which include but are not limited to theistic implications. Finally, the term Personalilsm can give the impression that whether or not God is a personal being is the issue at stake in these approaches to theism.

8Mutualism, as Dolezal uses the term, denotes a symbiotic relationship in which both parties derive something from each other. In such a relation, it is requisite that each party be capable of being ontologically moved or acted upon and thus determined by the other. This does not necessarily require parity between the parties involved. . .

9Feser and Dolezal’s use of ordinarily may face resistence by some mutualists and those who self-describe as modifiers of certain CT commitments but still define themselves as CTs.

10See Feser’s blog for many helpful articles. Dolezal references Feser here as well.

11Dolezal, “All that is in God.” Loc 182. (Kindle) Dolezal’s reference to the mutualist motive to make God more relatable may not be well-received by those who believe the biblical case does not support these doctrines.

12Dolezals, Loc 187

13Dolezal, “God without Parts” p. 27-29.

14Dolezal, “All that is in God” p. 43.

15In this passage Dolezal’s conviction and emphasis exclaims that this language and cannot reveal God as he is univocally.

16Dolezal, All that is in God, p. 27

17These challenges require a deeper look into this area of metaphysics.

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