A Random Blog Post on Classical Theism

Classical theism is not a monolithic thing, it comes in many shapes and sizes; typically that is associated with the period classical theism is developed within and associated with. Most notably though for Western Christians, particularly us Protestants in the Reformed tradition, classical theism takes much of its shape from Thomas Aquinas. I thought it would be instructive to see how Bruce jesusglory.jpgMcCormack defines classical theism; he writes:

Classical theism presupposes a very robust Creator-creature distinction. God’s being is understood to be complete in itself with or without the world, which means that the being of God is “wholly other” than the being of the world. Moreover, God’s being is characterized by what we might think of as a “static” or unchanging perfection. All that God is, he is changelessly. Nothing that happens in the world can affect God on the level of his being. He is what he is regardless of what takes place—and necessarily so, since any change in a perfect being could be only in the direction of imperfection. Affectivity in God, if it is affirmed at all, is restricted to dispositional states which have no ontological significance.[1]

I think it safe to say that even Karl Barth could fit his understanding of God into this definition provided by McCormack, albeit with qualification. Someone who could not fit into the classical tradition would be Moltmann and the death of God theologians.

Anyway, just a random blog post about classical theism. There are good ways to appropriate and engage with it, and there are bad ways. And of course there are some readings of Barth that would repudiate the hard metaphysicalism in the definition provided by McCormack. In other words some interpretations of Barth don’t allow for the type of metaphysical antecedent theology (like Divine aseity) that classical theism entails. So that is not an uncontroversial point, at least in North America, when it comes to reading Barth.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 186-87.

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10 comments

  1. Bobby, do you see any coherence between McCormack’s description of classical theism, particularly as it pertains to the strong Creator-creature distinction, and the analogia entis operative in Aquinas and much of the Western tradition? In other words, wouldn’t the analogia’s supposition regarding the ontological continuity between the Creator and the creature (i.e. differing in degree rather than in kind) contrast the ontological discontinuity that McCormack highlights in the classical view?

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  2. I think the dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council was still active in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, if not for all later Thomists; “For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.”

    Thomas tried to hold together a very strong Creator-creature distinction with the conviction (also based on Scripture) that creation reflects the glory of its Creator and that humans in particular are made in God’s image. There is a certain tension present but not contradiction.

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  3. This does not deny the fundamental point, however, deriving from Fourth Lateran Council itself, that however great may be the dissimilarity, there is still a recognition of some measure of ontological similarity (signified by the phrase ‘analogia entis’), and it is this that creates the conflict. According to the Fourth Lateran Council, there is no absolute, unqualified distinction between the Creator and the creature. The God predicated by the ‘analogia entis’ is not ‘wholly other’. Thus Barth’s famous “Nein!” to natural theology (and, by the way, also to Brunner who tried to find a conciliatory median between the two).

    Although not directly addressing this issue, I find Bobby’s essay in the EC book is helpful in this regard, although of course the EC view goes beyond simply a Creator-creature distinction and wants to subsume this discussion within a trinitarian conception of the God who reveals himself in Christ primarily as ‘Father’. As Athanasius observed, even the Greek pagans could acknowledge an unoriginate god as ‘creator’; only the God revealed in the Son can be known as ‘Father’.

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  4. I really disliked my chapter in our EC book, but it does cover this type of material.

    I am much happier with my forthcoming chapter on assurance of salvation in our EC2 book :-).

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  5. Jonathan, you say, “According to the Fourth Lateran Council, there is no absolute, unqualified distinction between the Creator and the creature. The God predicated by the ‘analogia entis’ is not ‘wholly other’.”

    On the contrary, the intent of the Fourth Lateran Council and of later Roman Catholic thinkers (who, it should be said, developed the ‘anaolgia entis’ far beyond anything found in Bonaventure or Thomas Aquinas) is precisely to uphold the Creator-creature distinction. That creation or aspects of creation resemble God in some way is undeniable; even if one rejects the stronger ‘vestigia trinitatis’ formulations of Augustine and Bonaventure and even if one follows Barth in rejecting all natural theology the doctrine that humans were created in the image of God remains. The point of invoking analogy is to say that no matter what resemblances, vestiges, or images of God exist in creation, they do not bridge the absolute, qualitative gap between God and his creation. On the other hand, neither is God’s absolute transcendence of and difference from creation an obstacle to be overcome.

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  6. Bobby,
    Now I’m curious, why do you dislike your chapter?

    Nathanael,
    Unfortunately a comment thread does not lend itself to careful nuance. I don’t want to belabor the point, except to say that I think distinction can be made between what might be, on the one hand, good intentions in developing and articulating certain positions and, on the other, the logical outcome of those positions. Case in point are many classical Calvinists who insist that their views of the decrees, divine causality, etc. are meant to provide assurance to believers but in reality do quite the opposite if taken to their logical end.

    Regarding the resemblances of creation to God, I would appeal to passages such as Colossians 1 that assert that all things were made through Christ and for Christ. The imago dei, in particular, is understood as grounded in Christ inasmuch as in Romans 5:14 Paul holds Adam, the ‘original’ image-bearer as the “type” of the one to come. In Romans 8:29, it is Christ who is the “firstborn among many brothers” and to whose image we are predestined to be conformed. We cannot think, therefore, of creation, much less the imago dei, as providing semblances of God in a general sense, for these things are all, in the words of Torrance, “proleptically conditioned by redemption” in Christ. It is Christ who as the incarnate God-man is the sole mediator between the two (1 Tim. 2:5) in whom the ontological gap is overcome.

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  7. Jonathan, not because of the material content of my chapter, but because I think it could’ve been written better. I think I could’ve developed material on Aquinas better; and made things more crisp. 🙂

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