These articles first appeared in Primer 08, 'How Great a Being' (FIEC, 2019) and are republished here with permission:
Part II - Does the Bible Teach Classical Theism?
If, then, we do think that the doctrine of God is a biblically-warranted topic, we still need to ask whether classical theism is what the Scriptures teach. Is God really an eternal being without body, passions and parts, unable to change? At first glance, “no” seems to be the obvious answer. Scripture is full of texts that speak of God changing, and responding emotionally. So how did the finest minds of the first seventeen centuries of the church, who read the very same biblical texts, arrive at the conclusion that, for instance, change is impossible for God?
The answer comes from understanding one of their foundational principles: God is Creator.
a). God as Creator
The classical doctrine of God begins with the principle that all reality exists in one of two ways – created or uncreated. In Rev 4:11 the twenty-four elders sing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Revelation 4:11
In doing so, the elders are summarising a thread of teaching about God that runs through from the very first words of Gen 1:1, that there is a distinction between Creator and creature and only God dwells on the uncreated side of that divide. He is the one who gives being to all and, therefore, receives his being from no one else. He is, as the four living creatures never stop saying in Rev 4:9, “the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” He is thus worthy to receive glory, honour and power as the uncreated Creator.
It is from this distinction that all the affirmations of classical theism flow – that God is unchanging, eternal, etc. – for they are all ways of saying, from various angles, that God does not receive being from his creation but is always the giver; he is never made, he is always the maker. The absence of any other power or entity that conditions or affects God is expressed in his self-identification in Exod 3:14: “I am who I am.” There is no limitation or restriction on the fullness of his life. He is, therefore, infinite, since nothing restricts him, and perfect, since nothing diminishes him. God’s infinite perfection means that he never requires anything, in any way, from his creation; he is never subject to it but is always, infinitely and perfectly who he is and is thus able to give to creation limitlessly from his fulness.
Christian classical theism, therefore, insists that its major claims are all derived from the first phrase of the Apostles' Creed, “I believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.” Yet, the question remains, if this is a necessary implication of the Bible, why are there so many texts that seem to flatly contradict it?
b). Accommodation and Anthropomorphism
The answer is that the doctrine of creation not only has implications for our understanding of God’s nature but also for how we read the Scriptures. Since we are created, dependent beings, limited by time and space, we can have no conception of what it is like to be uncreated, eternal, and independent. Therefore, for God to communicate to us, he must accommodate himself to our finite capacities. So the Scriptures speak of God having an arm or a throne or a face, to explain God’s actions and character to us, without committing us to believe that God actually possesses a body or wears a robe. The technical term for this kind of language is anthropomorphism, God speaks, as it were, in a human form. We should not, however, restrict the concept of anthropomorphism simply to those occasions when the Scriptures speak of God in bodily terms. Our entire existence is conditioned by our creaturely limitations, and so God’s revelation is, in Herman Bavinck’s words, “anthropomorphic through and through.” God reveals himself to us through the only means possible for creatures to know him: his creation. “In Scripture all heavenly things are portrayed to us in earthly shades and colours.” So Bavinck explains,
"Although we can learn to know God’s eternity only by and in time, his omnipresence by and in space, his infinity and immutability by and in the midst of finite and changeable creatures, yet these attributes do furnish us some – and even important – knowledge of God. Even though we cannot understand eternity in a positive sense, it means a lot to know that God is exalted above all the conditions of time. By means of that knowledge we, as it were, continually correct our notions concerning God. We speak of him in human terms and attribute to him a range of human qualities, but as we are doing this we are ever acutely conscious of the fact that all these properties pertain to God in a sense quite different from that in which we find them in creatures." (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:134).
Our knowledge of God is always conditioned by our creaturely limitations and God’s revelation comes to us in a form most appropriate for those limitations. Even when God’s revelation is at its fullest, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our knowledge of God does not escape our creaturely nature. Bavinck again:
"God himself comes to us through his whole creation and, in Christ’s human nature, pitched his tent among us. This human nature, certainly, was not a fully adequate organ for his deity; in fact, his glory was even concealed by it. Still the fullness of the deity dwelt in Christ bodily: those who saw him saw the Father." (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:107).
The fact that Christ’s human nature did not fully reveal his deity does not mean that knowledge of God is impossible, however,
"It is not contradictory, therefore, to say that a knowledge that is inadequate, finite, and limited is at the same time true, pure, and sufficient. God reveals himself in his works, and according to that revelation we name him. He permits us to speak of him in language that is weak and human because he himself displayed his perfections to us in his creatures. Hence, in actual fact, it is not we who name God. Where would we get the ability and the right to do that? It is God himself who, through nature and Scripture, has put his splendid names in our mouth." (ibid.).
Whenever we read Scripture, therefore, we must take account of the fact that the one who is uncreated is revealing himself through created means and to created people. That he does so should never lead us to make the mistake that he himself is subject to the same limitations as the created order, even as he uses “earthly shades and colours” to reveal himself.
That God’s revelation is accommodated to our creaturely capacities means that Scripture’s revelation of God is always by way of analogy. Analogy is a much-misunderstood concept and often viewed with hostility because it appears to diminish the clarity and power of God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. In reality, the reverse is the case. It is only because scriptural language is analogical that we can truly say that God is the one being revealed. How so? Analogy is based on the idea that Scripture’s language about God always travels across the divide between Creator and creation, between infinite and finite. While there is a relationship between the way we understand a term and how it applies to God, there is never a strict identification between them.
Sometimes this is more obvious that at others. When Scripture calls God ‘a rock’ we instinctively know that a kind of comparison is being drawn. There is a relationship between God’s steadfastness and the immobility of a rock, but it would be foolish to ask whether God is made of limestone or granite. The claim of those who say all our language about God is analogical is that this is true even when Scripture’s speech about God seems more direct.
For instance, when John says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) we might question whether he is speaking analogically. Surely here there is a direct correspondence between our love and God’s love? Surely God’s love is of the same species as our love? No. Even here, analogy is at play. Why? Because our experience of love, our knowledge of love, is only ever as finite, created beings. Even the highest expressions and experiences of our love are parcelled out over time, limited in their scope and extent. No human can give themselves exhaustively and infinitely in love in the way God can in eternity. Therefore, we have no direct experience of love which is eternal, infinite and uncreated due to our limitations of time, finitude and createdness.
What registers in our minds, therefore, when we read ‘God is love’ can only ever have an indirect relationship with, rather than exact correspondence to, the divine reality to which John refers. Does this mean that God has not revealed himself truly? No, because the love that we do know, limited and created as it is, is related to divine love, as an effect is related to its cause. Human love is a created effect of divine love and there is a connection between the two. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the eternal, infinite love of God and any love experienced by finite human beings.
There is, of course, a difference between saying ‘God is a rock’ and ‘God is love.’ The former is metaphorically true while the other is literally true. Love does exist in God’s eternal life, but rocks do not; calling God a rock, therefore, is only true at the point of comparison, namely steadfastness, while God really is, wholly and fully, love. Yet, given the difference between created and uncreated, finite and infinite, the love we know is still only analogically related to the love of God in eternity. John Owen captures this beautifully in his Communion with God, where he describes the difference between our love and God’s love,
"They differ in this also: the love of God is like himself, equal, constant, not capable of augmentation or diminution; our love is like ourselves, unequal, increasing, waning, growing, declining. His, like the sun, [is] always the same in its light, though a cloud may sometimes interpose; ours, as the moon, has its enlargements and contractions." (Owen, Works, 2:29-30. Text slightly updated).
Affirming that all our language about God is analogical does not make God unknowable. Instead, it insists that the one who speaks in Scripture really is God. A God who could be described in language that directly corresponds to created realities would himself be limited to that creation. But with analogical language, the eternal, infinite, and perfect God has made himself known. Only if we understand God’s revelation of himself as analogical can we really maintain that the infinite has spoken to the finite, that the Creator has spoken to the creature.
Analogy, accommodation, and anthropomorphism, therefore, are not a denial of divine revelation but its necessary ground, if the infinite God is to speak to finite creatures from eternity into time. Any doctrine of Scripture that dispenses with any, or all, of these concepts must implicitly deny either that God is infinite or that we are finite. That is to say, the alternative to recognising accommodation, anthropomorphism and analogy is either a God who exists within the created order or creatures that transcend it. Given the scriptural injunctions against idolatry (worshipping the finite) and human pride (denying our God-given limitations) we would be wise to steer clear of both.
d). Reading Difficult Texts with Calvin
How, then, do we interpret the texts that appear to show that God does change? Let us look at how one Scripture reader, John Calvin, handles some of those texts. Calvin is an appropriate choice because he is often viewed as someone who is committed to the text and as someone who stands apart from the rigid theological systems of later Calvinist or Reformed Theology. How, then, does Calvin deal with a verse like Gen 6:6, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled”? Does he affirm, on the basis of the ‘plain reading’ of the text, that God does indeed change and can be grieved? He does not. Instead Calvin writes,
"The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single consideration that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity." (John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, commenting on Gen 6:6.).
Calvin begins with a clear affirmation of what we have just discussed, that neither repentance nor grief can properly be applied to God. Why? Because God is eternal, so “nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen”, and impassible, and thus he “remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose.” Calvin concludes that the apparently ‘passible’ language of these verses have “reference to our understanding of him” since the “Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.” But to what end? How can it help us to know God if the Bible ascribes repentance to one who cannot repent or grief to one who cannot grieve? Calvin answers that the words teach us that,
"...from the time when man was so greatly corrupted, God would not reckon him among his creatures; as if he would say, ‘This is not my workmanship; this is not that man who was formed in my image, and whom I had adorned with such excellent gifts: I do not deign now to acknowledge this degenerate and defiled creature as mine.’ Similar to this is what he says, in the second place, concerning grief; that God was so offended by the atrocious wickedness of men, as if they had wounded his heart with mortal grief." (ibid.).
So Gen 6:6 does teach us about God: sin is so contrary to his character that it elicits from him an act that if we saw it in a human would lead us to describe that person as grieved and repenting. As he explains in his Institutes,
"What, therefore, does the word ‘repentance’ mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God to us in human terms… Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry towards sinners. Therefore, whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered." (Calvin, Institutes, I.17.13).
In the same section, and in a similar way, Calvin takes God’s ‘repentance’ to mean a change in the way he acts towards us from our perspective:
"Meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor." (ibid.).
Genesis 6:6 teaches us about God but, as Bavinck says, it does so, in “earthly shades and colours.” Do we see in Calvin, then, someone who is embarrassed about the scriptural language of God’s repentance and who uses his systematic framework to fit the text of Gen 6:6 into the procrustean bed of classical theism? No. Rather, we see Calvin reading Gen 6:6 in the light of the whole of Scripture, most notably the description of God as Creator in Gen 1, and seeking to understand the Scriptures as a coherent whole. Calvin’s approach offers us a model for reading the Scriptures in the light of the Creator/creation distinction and its implications. Yet, in this regard at least, Calvin’s approach is not unusual in the context of Christian history. Rather, it is the standard way that those who believe in the uncreated Creator, Father, Son and Spirit, have read and understood the Scriptures.
Part III to follow in an upcoming post.