These articles first appeared in Primer 08, How Great a Being (FIEC, 2019) and are republished here with permission.
Early on in my training for Christian ministry, I was taught that the Bible was a story and that the key element to focus on, therefore, was the plot; the grand narrative from the Garden to the City. As a result, the questions that occupied much of Christian theology in the past (e.g. whether God is divisible, whether he can change) were peripheral at best. The focus of the Bible is on what God has done; his acts, not his being.
At the time, this seemed to be self-evidently true. Listening to a steady diet of expository preaching, my attention was drawn to the great works of redemption-history, and it seemed to make very little difference how I understood God’s relation to time or whether he could change – and I don’t think I ever heard the strange idea that God was ‘simple.’ Perhaps my experience was unusual, but my suspicion is that much of evangelicalism considers the doctrine of God to be, as I once heard said, “there in the Bible, but not particularly important.” Others are more critical still, viewing the traditional doctrine as little more than Greek philosophy in Christian clothes.
My thinking began to change when I attended a training day on Augustine’s Confessions. On the one hand, like so many, I resonated with Augustine’s account of his spiritual journey and yet, on the other, I was perplexed by the way Augustine places the unchanging and perfect nature of God front and centre in his reflections upon the spiritual life. For instance, in his opening pages Augustine writes,
"Who then are you, my God? … Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent, most merciful and most just, deeply hidden yet most intimately present, perfection of both beauty and strength, stable and incomprehensible, immutable and yet changing all things, never new, never old, making everything new and ‘leading’ the proud ‘to be old without their knowledge’ (Job 9:5); always active, always in repose, gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free of anxiety, you ‘repent’ (Gen 6:6) without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil. You will a change without any change in your design. You recover what you find, yet have never lost. Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains (Luke 15:7); you are never greedy, yet you require interest (Matt 25:27). We pay you more than you require so as to make you our debtor, yet who has anything which does not belong to you? (1 Cor 4:7). You pay off debts, though owing nothing to anyone; you cancel debts and incur no loss."
Augustine’s understanding of God has sometimes been called classical theism reflecting the fact that it has been the consensus position of the church throughout its history. Key figures as diverse as...
Athanasius, (4th century bishop of Alexandria in Egypt) the Cappadocian Fathers,
(two brothers: Basil the Great & Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus – 4th century bishops in what is now Turkey)
Anselm, (11-12th century medieval theologian and archbishop – see an extract from one of his works on page 30)
Thomas Aquinas, (13th century Italian preacher and theologian)
John Calvin, (16th century French pastor and reformer)
John Owen (17th century English pastor and theologian)
and Herman Bavinck (19th-20th century Dutch theologian)
...would all have recognised Augustine’s understanding as their own and it is reflected in the confessions of the English and European Reformation. Yet, to me, it was largely new and unfamiliar and raised significant questions.
First, is any of this really the focus of the Scriptures or is it the preoccupation of abstract philosophising owing more to Plato and Aristotle than to Jesus and Paul? • Second, if the Scriptures are concerned to teach about God’s essence, is this really what they teach? How does the idea that God is unchangeable fit with all the texts that speak of God changing in one way or another? Didn’t God change when the Son became a man?
My guess is that many contemporary British evangelicals share these questions and hesitations about the classical doctrine of God, and this is why our constituency tends to either neglect or modify it so that it plays a much smaller part in our spiritual lives than it did for Augustine and the Reformers. In this article, then, I want to answer the question of whether classical theism is compatible with the revelation of God in Scripture and in Christ and, if it is, what that means for how we understand Scripture and Christ himself.
Part 1 - Is the Doctrine of God a Biblical Concern?
We need to begin with this question: do the Scriptures really push us to consider God’s nature or is it a concern foreign to the Bible’s main concern of narrating God’s redemption of humanity in Christ? Discussions of God’s simplicity, his ‘pure actuality’, the distinction between person and nature, and so on, do not seem to spring naturally from the biblical text for many modern readers. There are, however, at least three points which might be raised in response to this question which explain why, for most of church history, believers reading the Scriptures have been drawn to reflect upon God’s nature.
First, while the bulk of Scripture narrates or reflects upon God’s actions in time and space, there are times when the vocabulary of Scripture forces us to consider what it means for God to be God. The most obvious, and widespread, is the use of the word ‘God’ (elohim in Hebrew or theos in Greek) throughout the Scriptures. What does the writer have in mind when he uses that word? Sometimes a verse pushes the question of God’s being more explicitly – what did Paul mean by ‘divine nature’ in Rom 1:20 or the word ‘deity’ in Col 2:9. We cannot call ourselves exegetes of Scripture if we show no interest in grasping the meaning and significance of these words. The text of Scripture itself leads us to these questions and to refuse to ask them is not to honour Scripture but to silence it.
Second, there are key moments where the actions of God are specifically tied to his nature. We might think of Exod 3:14, “I am who I am,” Heb 6:13-18, “since there was no one greater for God to swear by, he swore by himself,” or Mal 3:6, “I the Lord do not change.” Space prevents us from analysing these verses in detail, but the Scriptures make it clear that the redemptive acts of God, the faithfulness to his promises and long-suffering patience with his people flow out from his nature. This should be no surprise. What is done reflects the nature of the one doing it.
But third and finally, to sideline questions of God’s nature in favour of God’s actions is to misunderstand the biblical presentation of those actions. The Bible presents the end, the goal, of God’s redemptive purposes as the knowledge of God. “Now, this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” prays Jesus in John 17:3. Habakkuk 2:14 promises that one day “the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” To know God is the highest end of any creature. Of course, this knowledge is more than knowledge of God’s essence and attributes, but we have very little reason to believe it is less than that. Of course, we cannot know now as we will know then, but to refuse to ponder, reflect, and meditate on what God has revealed about himself suggests that we do not understand his redemptive purposes as well as we might think.
Part II to follow in an upcoming post.