Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Attributes of God (IV): Impassibility

This week we come to the conclusion of the first part of our long series on the attributes of God. In this first part we have been discussing the NOTs: simplicity (non-compositeness), infinity (not-finite), immutability (not-changing). These attributes of God are discovered by traveling along the via negativa, the way of negation: negating from God's being aspects we know about our own created being which are unbecoming of our creator. We have asked whether this is the best road to travel, and in the process offered some alternative affirmations (unity, greatness, constancy) which attempt to retain the truth of these negative attributes while (hopefully) avoiding the problems.

The last of the NOTs is impassibility. Technically speaking, impassibility is a secondary aspect of immutability, for passion is a sort of change. But because of its significance in the history of Christian thought and its current controversial status, impassibility deserves special attention.

What does impassibility mean? Impassibility is the negation of passion from God. Now this might seem a bit odd at first. Are we saying that God is dispassionate, uncaring, and boring? Although this may be an impression or implication of divine impassibility, it is certainly not the intended point of the attribute. A little vocab lesson will help here. Passion in its technical sense is to be contrasted with action. To be in a state of passion is to be acted upon by another. God is impassible in the sense that he is not acted upon by another but rather is the actor, or agent, of all his experiences.

Although this clarification of the meaning blocks a shallow dismissal of impassibility, there are still serious problems in attributing impassibility to the Christian God. Why? The God we worship is precisely the God of Israel who responds to the actions of his people and, in the fulfillment of their history, became human in order to suffer and die. The central place of the passion of Jesus Christ in any Christian theology worthy of the name makes impassibility a bit difficult to maintain.

The early church fathers were acutely aware of these difficulties. Their commitment to divine impassibility made them reticent about saying that God experiences death. This commitment of course made them very careful and attentive to Christological formulation, putting our sloppy and unreflective talk of divine suffering to shame. It forced them to be very precise. One could even say that the common Christian commitment to impassibility was the elephant in the room motivating the development of Christological dogma (from Irenaeus' battle with the Gnostics in the 2nd century through Nicaea and Chalcedon to the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century). But for all its contribution to Christian faith, this precision took to its toll: at the crucial point (the death of Jesus), the tradition consistently put some distance between God and Christ.

Because I believe that Jesus is God and that Jesus suffered and died, I cannot accept impassibility in the strongest sense. However, the attribution of impassibility to God is not without its grain of truth that must be retained. As shown above, divine impassibility bears witness to the fact that God is first and foremost the agent of his experiences. In other words, God is free. God freely engages in all his actions and passions. God initiates his history with his people. God is not drawn into relationship with creation as an outside force; rather, God creates the world in order to draw it into relationship with him. Now the history of this particular relationship includes God's passion: he undergoes suffering in the incarnation. But this passion is initiated by God's action. So we might even regard God's passion as a sort of action -- not out of an anxiety about attributing passion to the divine being, but out of a humble awe for God's free grace. God freely (without compulsion) engages in these actions and passions.

All this talk of freedom suggests that an alternative affirmation that retains the substance of impassibility while leaving behind its drawbacks is divine freedom. God is free. I am still open to the possibility of attributing impassibility to God, provided it is properly defined in accordance with the history of God's passion. But I am inclined to spend more of my energy proclaiming the freedom of God.

Any Thoughts?
Is my initial explanation of divine impassibility clear?
Do you agree with the criticism as I have outlined it?
Is my reformulation of impassibility in terms of divine freedom clear? Good? True?
At what point do you just drop a term if it requires such considerable redefinition?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Attributes of God (III): Immutability

We continue our series on the attributes of God with another of the famous NOTs: immutability. It seems like nowadays the language of immutability is found mostly on the covers of get-rich-quick books: "The 7 Immutable Laws of Real Estate Acquisition" and so on. But immutability has deep roots in the philosophical tradition. The idea that God is immutable comes from the contrast between him as creator and us as his creatures. For us, the norm (and bane) of our existence is that we are in perpetual flux and change. The secure bedrock or foundation of this chaotic creation, however, is the creator who is himself not subject to such flux and change. He is im-mutable, or not-changing.

The significance of immutabilty extends beyond the mere preference for continuity over change. As we learned in our first installment concerning divine simplicity, all of God's attributes characterize his being in toto. Thus the attribute of immutability conditions all the other divine attributes, such as love and justice and mercy. So the point is not only that God is immutable, but also that his character is immutable. God's love is unchanging, his justice is unchanging, etc.

This seems true enough on the surface, but there are some problems. I will outline one common objection, outline a possible response, then offer a thought experiment that may offer an alternative view of divine immutability.

Common Objection:

It seems that God is not immutable. Look at Scripture. God is repeatedly said to "change his mind." God is involved in history. He responds to his creatures. The praiseworthiness of the God of Israel is precisely his mutability: his ability to adapt in relationship to his beloved people. Immutability is a Greek philosophical concept that should be shed from a Biblical understanding of God.

Possible Response:

This objection bears witness to the deep truth that the God of Israel, the God who became human, is God precisely as the God who is involved in this history of his covenant. However, the doctrine of immutability, properly understood, need not be rejected wholesale from a Biblically-rooted doctrine of God. Immutability speaks to the constancy of God. In the Biblical idiom, God is faithful to his promises. Even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful to his covenant. Is this not a laudable characteristic of God? Can such a belief really be dismissed as a "Greek philosophical concept" foreign to Biblical faith? Is not the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, precisely the God who is faithful to his promises in history. The term "immutability" bears witness to the fact that God's involvement in history doesn't undermine his trustworthiness. He is trustworthy within history.

Alternative View:

I think this response is a sufficient reply to the objection as stated. However, the form of the reply reveals that there is more than one way to talk about immutability. First and foremost, there is the question of the means by which we come to know whether God is immutable. Is immutability the mere negation from the creator of the mutability of creation? Or is it a characteristic of the history of God's self-revelation in history? Which is the more reliable method? This question, of course, applies to all the NOTs. But it is still a good question to ask.

More specific to immutability is the question of the referent. When we say God is immutable, does this refer to his nature or to his will? Are we saying God's nature is so constructed that he is incapable of change? Or are we saying that God's will is immutable, insofar as what he wills corresponds to what he does? Here is where the thought experiment comes in. What if immutability is a characteristic of divine willing? God wills to be certain way, and he is that way. God wills a covenant history, and it is enacted by his initiative. God wills a law to guide the life of his covenant-partners, and it is upheld (even in the face of our willing against it). God wills to become human, and so it comes to pass despite the apparent logical difficulty of an incarnation. The immutability of God's will seems to secure God's action in history, in contrast to the immutabily of God's nature which seems to contradict (or at least condition) God's action in history.

Of course, even if this thought experiment succeeds, the question remains open: in addition to the immutability of his will, is God's nature also immutable? But this raises a deeper question: does God will his nature? Does God decide what he will be like? Or is his character defined by something else (logical deduction, contrast with the world, etc.)? And if God is so defined, is this God really God? I must admit that an appeal to God's will when speaking of his attributes can be a bit scary. But it may be the way to go if the God of whom we are speaking is really God and not just a figment of our imagination (or, perhaps worse, the result of an equation).

Any Thoughts?
Is my initial explanation of divine immutability clear?
Do you concur with the spirit of the common objection?
Does the reply satisfy the concerns of the objection while retaining an affirmation of divine immutability?
What do you think of my reformulation of divine immutability along the lines of God's will rather than his nature? Is this a wise road to go down, or are their consequences that I have not yet appreciated? What might those consequences be?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Attributes of God (II) - Infinity

Although the discussion of divine simplicity continues on the comment board, I will move along my series on the Attributes of God here. Feel free to participate in either or both discussions.

First, a note on the organization of the series as a whole. We are beginning (following Thomas Aquinas, the inspiration and silent conversation partner for this series) with the "metaphysical" attributes of God. These are what we shall call the "NOTs" and the "OMNIs". The "NOTs" are those attributes which remove from God properties belonging only to creatures, such as simplicity (not-composite), infinity, immutability, impassibility. The "OMNIs" are those attributes which are partial in us yet complete in God, such as omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. These two categories of attributes are "metaphysical" in that they describe God in some relationship (whether negative or positive) to the physical world. I am not necessarily committing myself to the procedure of beginning with these; actually, I intend to perform a little reformulation of these by offering an alternative term for each. But alas, we must begin somewhere, and the NOTs and OMNIs are often what folks first think of when one mentions the attributes of God.

God is infinite. Infinity does not mean God is really, really big, although that is often what comes to mind. Infinity is not the enlargement of a known quantity, but its negation. Infinity means not-finite. In order to understand this attribute, then, we must understand what it negates.

What does word "finite" mean? "Finite" is the word we use to set limits on reality. The related term "definite" brings out this meaning. A "definite" table means this or that table, rather than just tables in general. Finite has an even broader use, however, in that in encompasses ideas too. The idea or concept of a "table" is finite; it does not include every possible idea, but only the ideas pertinent to the concept of "table." Given this definition, we can see that creation as a whole is finite. Finitude is an attribute of creation.

If creation is finite, and God as the creator is other than creation, then God must be infinite. So the logic goes. It seems true enough. But a question must be raised at this point: Is God here being defined by creation? Is our knowledge of God utterly tied to our knowledge of the world? If so, how do we know which things in creation ought to be negated? Surely some aspects of creation are held in common with God rather than opposed to him. How do we know which is which? Also, if infinity draws its meaning from contrast with the world, does this mean God needs the world in order to be infinite? Furthermore, what if a created infinity were discovered? Would this too be God? If not, then what does infinity really tell us about God if it does not identify him in distinction from the world? Finally, how are we to know whether this infinite being is the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

Although I think these and other serious problems can be raised, there is still something true about divine infinity. If God is truly the Lord, then he certainly cannot be contained by anything, unless, of course, he chose to be so. More to the point, infinity could be regarded as a conceptual restatement of the Biblical praise that God is great. "Great is the Lord," says the Law. "Great is the Lord," says the Psalmist. "Great is the Lord," says the Prophet. "Great is the Lord," says the Apostle. The greatness of God is a biblical theme. The God of the covenant is a great God. Greatness is a fitting attribute of God. It does indicate a comparison (God is greater than humanity, greater than other gods). But it is not limited to comparison. God is great whether or not there is anything small around with which to compare him. God simply is great. It is an attribute of his being. All his other attributes can be modified by this attribute: God's love is great, God's power is great, God's wisdom is great. [Note: this mutual modification of divine attributes is the payoff of the doctrine of divine simplicity]

I suggest that most of what is said about God with the term "infinite" can be said with the term "great." I also might say that what can be said by "infinite" that cannot be said by "great" should not be said at all. In other words, "infinity" may try to reach beyond the God who has revealed himself in the history of the covenant with Israel fulfilled by his Son Jesus Christ. This God has called himself "great." That's good enough for me.

Of course, as a traditional term, the burden of proof lies with one who wishes to reject it. I do not feel compelled to reject infinity as an attribute of God, although I am dubious about how we come to know his infinity. But don't be surprised if you find me saying "great" a little more often than "infinite." And when I say "infinite," I may be thinking "great."

Any thoughts?
Is my definition of infinity sufficiently clear?
What is your initial reaction to the notion of divine infinity?
How do we know whether God is infinite?
If one were to drop the language of divine infinity, what would be the ramifications for theology?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Attributes of God (I): Simplicity

I'm going to start a series of indefinite length on various attributes of God. This series is inspired by a seminar I am taking on Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of God. However, I will avoid any technical discussion of Thomas, and simply explain the attributes as classically formulated and raise a few questions about how they may be developed, reformulated, and in some cases rejected. So here goes...

When speaking of God, we must organize our thoughts into distinct attributes regarding his nature. But once we begin to distinguish these attributes, we run the risk of introducing a division within our talk of God that does not correspond to God’s singular unity. Nevertheless, we must speak discursively -- prodding along from point to point. In order to ensure that our discursive God-talk does not degenerate into a mere montage of irreconcilable attributes, we must choose our starting point wisely. Aquinas believes that divine simplicity is the best place to start, as it determines our understanding of all the attributes of God.

To see why simplicity is a good place to start, we must understand the meaning of divine simplicity. This attribute does not mean that God is simplistic in contrast to complex. God is certainly complex in the current sense of the word! Rather, simplicity classically conceived is set in contrast to composite. To be composite is to be an assembly of different parts; to be simple is to be wholly and completely what one is. God is simple (aka non-composite) because God is wholly and completely what he is, not admitting of parts or degrees.

The implications of divine simplicity for God's nature are far-reaching. Simplicity implies that the rest of God's attributes do not describe parts of God, but rather indicate God's whole character. So God's love does not describe part of God and his justice another part, nor does God move successively from love to justice, but God is his own love and is his own justice. Love and justice characterize his being. More precisely, one might say that God characterizes his own being in terms of his love and his justice. The same can be said of another other divine attribute.

The question for us today is whether simplicity is a good idea. Is it a genuine attribute of the God revealed in Scripture? Is it a useful conceptual tool for describing the God we worship? These normative questions immediately raise the question of method: How do we determine its appropriateness? Does it need to be explicitly stated in Scripture? Or may it be implied by other Biblical affirmations (monotheism for instance)? Is it simply sufficient that is does not contract Scripture? Because of its significance in the Christian tradition, the burden of proof lies on the one who wishes to reject divine simplicity. Yet, like any human affirmation about God, it is open to criticism -- at least in principle.

Any thoughts?
Is my defenition of simplicity sufficiently clear?
What is your initial reaction to the notion of divine simplicity?
On what basis might we evaluate the claim that God is simple?
If one were to reject divine simplicity, what would the ramifications for the rest of theology be?