The Strange Language of Classical Theism
Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14)
Suppose you asked me to tell you about my wife, and I said, “She’s a finite, corporeal, mutable, composite, contingent being – a bipedal hominid composed primarily of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen.”
What would you think?
You would probably think it's incredible that any woman actually agreed to marry me.
Why? Because, although all of the things mentioned above about my wife are true, this is not how any normal human being talks about someone he or she loves. It's certainly not the kind of thing you write inside a Valentine's Day card. In a normal conversation, if you asked me about my wife, I would tell you about her kindness and her loving personality, her way with children, and many other such things. To speak about her as in the example above would strike most people as profoundly odd at best.
This is true because, on earth, the only ones who would ever be having this conversation are fellow human beings, and we all share those characteristics I used to describe my wife. It simply isn’t necessary to tell you those things about her unless there is some suspicion that my wife is some other kind of being. In short, this kind of answer to the question about my wife would only be relevant if it was asked somewhere like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, a place where various kinds of creatures from all over the galaxy congregate. If someone there were to ask Han Solo about his first mate, it would be relevant to mention what kind of being Chewbacca is.
What does any of this have to do with classical theism?
When classical Christian theists talk about God, they will talk about God in terms of things such as necessary being, self-existence (aseity), simplicity, infinity, incorporeality, and immutability. Many Christians instinctively recoil at this. But why? In part, because they find it strange to speak of our loving Father in heaven in such seemingly impersonal language. Scripture speaks of God as One who interacts with His people, who loves them and covenants with them, who disciplines them and redeems them. He’s not some kind of impersonal force or metaphysical abstraction.
Classical Christian theists acknowledge the way Scripture speaks about God, and they insist that it is true. Why, then, do they insist that we also need to speak of God in terms of aseity, pure actuality, simplicity, etc.? Because this is the nature of the Being of the God who reveals Himself in Scripture. It's a good and necessary consequence of the meaning of Genesis 1:1.
Such terminology is necessary because human beings are prone to creating God in their own image. Christians often read the biblical language about God and conceive of Him as a big old man in the sky. In other words, Christians often start to think of God in the same way the Greeks and Romans thought about their gods. They forget the Creator-creature distinction that is such a fundamental part of biblical teaching.
The terminology used in classical theism is necessary because we have to be reminded that God is not merely a more powerful version of human beings. His Being and our being are altogether different. His Being is self-existent. Ours is created and continually dependent on Him to remain in existence. His Being is necessary. Ours is contingent. His Being is infinite. Ours is finite. His Being is simple. Ours is composite. His Being is immutable. Ours is mutable. The God who loves us and covenants with us, redeems us and cares for us is this kind of Being (Creator), not that kind of being (creature).
Classical Christian theism is under attack today as it has been for generations. The difference today is that the attack is coming not only from outside the church but also from within, by those who profess to subscribe to confessions of faith that teach classical theism. By rejecting and attacking classical Christian theism, they are chipping away at the Creator-creature distinction – a distinction that is taught explicitly in Scripture from Genesis 1 onward.
The biblical doctrine of God is related to every other biblical doctrine. If we get the doctrine of God wrong, everything else will be distorted. As believers we must remain faithful and steadfast to the truth of Scripture. We cannot let the biblical doctrine of God be compromised by watered-down versions of process theology.
The terminology used by classical Christian theists may initially sound odd or off-putting, and it can be if it is abstracted from the way the biblical writers speak of God. But if we remember that what it teaches is deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence, and if we remember the reason for its necessity, it drives us to our knees before the awesome glory and majesty of the Maker of heaven and earth.
*Image is a public domain Hubble photo of the Bubble Nebula