The God of the Philosophers?
By John C. Peckham
Strict Classical Theism
While there are many different philosophical conceptions of God, when Christian theists speak of “the God of the philosophers,” they typically have in mind an understanding of God called classical theism. According to a strict form of classical theism, God must possess the following attributes (explained further below): divine perfection, necessity, pure aseity, utter self-sufficiency, strict simplicity, timeless eternity, strict immutability, strict impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. To differentiate them from others who self-identify as classical theists, I refer to those who subscribe to a strict understanding of these attributes as strict classical theists.
On this view, divine perfection means that God is the greatest possible being. God exists necessarily and is who he is entirely of himself (a se), without dependence on anything else relative to his existence or otherwise (pure aseity and utter self-sufficiency). God “exists independently of all causal influence from his creatures”; creatures cannot impact God or his actions. This is bound up with strict simplicity, which means (among other things) that God is not composed of parts and that there are no genuine distinctions in God.
This God is timeless. For God, there is no passing of time, no “before” or “after,” no past or future, no temporal succession. Accordingly, God is strictly immutable and strictly impassible. Strict immutability, meaning God cannot change in any way, follows from timelessness because change requires the passing of time—from prior state to later state. This rules out emotional change and suffering. Instead, God is strictly impassible, meaning that God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. Creatures cannot affect God, and thus God cannot become pleased or displeased by anything creatures do.
Finally, God is omnipotent, meaning God is all-powerful. God is omniscient, meaning God knows everything (typically explained in terms of God causing everything to be as it is). And God is omnipresent, meaning God's power is active everywhere, sustaining everything.
Process Theology and Open Theism
Alongside numerous other strong critics of (strict) classical theism, process theology posits an alternative “God of the philosophers,” rooted in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Characterizing classical theism as (in Charles Hartshorne's words) “metaphysical snobbery toward relativity, . . . responsiveness or sensitivity” and “worship of mere absoluteness, independence, and one-sided activity or power,” process theology advocates a nearly reverse image of strict classical theism, typically denying what strict classical theism affirms and affirming what it denies. Whereas the God of strict classical theism is utterly transcendent, the God of process theology is nearly entirely immanent. A form of panentheism (literally “all in God”), process theology maintains that the world (the physical universe) is in God such that God cannot exist without some world and is always in the process of changing and growing as the world changes.
While process theologians agree that God is a necessary and perfect being, many attributes that strict classical theists consider “perfections” are considered deficiencies by process theologians. According to process theology, the necessary and perfect being must be (1) essentially related to some world, not self-sufficient or a se; (2) temporal, not timeless; (3) always changing, not strictly immutable; (4) eminently passible, not impassible; (5) the most powerful being, but not omnipotent in the sense of possessing all power, capable of “acting” only via persuasion (never coercion); and (6) all-knowing relative to the present but not omniscient in terms of possessing exhaustive foreknowledge.
Open theism, another approach that has strongly criticized (strict) classical theism in recent decades, is often confused with process theology but differs in significant respects. While agreeing with process theists that God is temporal rather than timeless, neither strictly immutable nor impassible, and all-knowing relative to the present but lacking exhaustive foreknowledge, most open theists reject the view that God is essentially related to the world and affirm a more traditional concept of omnipotence. Accordingly, many open theists are closer to moderate classical theism (defined below) than to process theism.
Moderate Classical Theism
Many other theists identify as classical theists (in a broad sense) but deny or qualify some tenets of strict classical theism. Moderate classical theists affirm a common core of classical theism—divine perfection, necessity, aseity, self-sufficiency, unity, eternity, immutability (of some kind), omnipotence, and omniscience (typically understood to include exhaustive definite foreknowledge). While upholding an unqualified Creator-creature distinction such that God does not depend on or need anything with respect to his existence and essential nature (aseity and self-sufficiency), moderate classical theism departs from strict classical theism by affirming that God engages in genuine relationship with creatures that makes a difference to God (contra pure aseity). Further, moderate classical theism affirms that God experiences changing emotions (contra strict impassibility) and that God is immutable with respect to his character and essential nature but changes relationally (contra strict immutability) and therefore affirms some form of divine temporality (contra strict timelessness).
— John C. Peckham is Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Some of his recent books are Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Baker Academic, 2018), The Doctrine of God: Introducing the Big Questions (T&T Clark, 2019), and Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture (Baker Academic, 2021).
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