Beating a Dead Horse that Has Nine Lives: Pure Being Theology and its Antidote in [Onto]Relational Theology Proper

I have written on this before, but I thought I would broach, once again, the issue of Pure Being theology as understood within the exegetical tradition of the Protestant Reformed church. Here Kooi and Brink offer an inchoate critique of Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of the tetragrammaton (the ‘I am that I am’ statement) in Exodus 3.14. Their mini-critique is one that I agree with, and then the constructive offering that they provide in the whole of the quote is worthwhile:

In accordance with the special character of the divine name, traditional dogmatics has ascribed the property of life (vita) to God. God is, first of all, the Living One. In actual fact we must say that only God lives in the true sense of the word and that our life is a derived and temporal existence that originates in “the fountain of life” (Ps 36:9; cf. Acts 17:28). In this connection Amandus Polanus remarks that in God vita and vivere—the noun (life) and the verb (to live)—coincide (Heppe, RD 5.10). This combination points to a dynamic quality, the same quality that strikes us in Exod 3. Those who with Aquinas (STh I.13.11) follow the Septuagint and render the divine names as “he who is” (qui est), and on that basis define God as the true being (ipsum esse), do not do full justice to this dynamism and make the image of God too static. It becomes quite clear from the context of Exod 3:14 that God promises Moses his saving presence and involvement. Today many Old Testament scholars see shades of meanings other than “being” and “living” in the stem of this verb but these also contain the same connotations of dynamism and involvement (e.g., Feldmeier and Spieckermann 2011, chaps. 1, 29).[1]

This is actually a common critique of Aquinas’s conception of God, and then as corollary, a critique of the Post Reformed orthodox conception of God; insofar as the Post Reformed orthodox pick up this understanding of God from their respective reception[s] of Aquinas’s doctrine of God—particularly as the idea of ‘being’ in the Aristotelian frame is used to fund the Post Reformed orthodox’s theology proper.

But so what? The reason I keep coming back to this over and over and over again is because I obviously think it is a very important point. Yes, contemporary classically Reformed theologians are clearly aware of this critique; as are neo-Thomist theologians. But they simply claim that this just is not so in Aquinas’s nor the PRo’s theologies. But I disagree with their assertion. My disagreement is based upon the reality that PRo theology must continuously refer to the decretum absolutum and the decretal conception of God in order to have the capacity to talk about God’s relationship to the world. In other words they don’t have the ability to speak of God/world relation, at a first order level, in a dynamic-relational grammar or conceptuality; and this is precisely because they start with a concept of God that is indeed necessarily static (at least ad extra or insofar as God relates to creation in the economy of his triune life).

Again, if this is so, at a practical or orthopraxis level, people will think of God and their relation to him, and his relation to them in like terms. In other words, they will think of God in ways that are not, at a first order level, relational or personal or intimate in orientation. Some people might think this is a good thing; that it helps to honor the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction by levying a buffer, as it were, between God and humanity—i.e. by elevating or emphasizing God’s transcendence over his creation. This might be so, and even necessary, if God was a philosophical monad who simply doted over his creation from the heavenlies. But this is not so, God freely chose, as all Christians recognize, to ‘come down’ to us; he chose to be for us, and he chose to be for us from his inner life as God. He chose to meet us from the inner reality of his life as Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as the Son in obedience to the Father elected humanity for himself so it could finally be said of God that he is: Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

The most fiduciary reading of God, as disclosed and borne witness to in the Scriptures themselves, then, would be as Kooi and Brink intone, to understand God in relational and dynamic terms; this would be against, in some important ways, the way Christians in the West, in particular, have come to think of God in the Aristotelian/Thomist frame.



[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 122-23.


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