What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.