‘God by nature is technically indifferent towards Creatures’: Worshipping the God of the Philosophers Rather than the God of the Bible

The Bible uses metaphors, analogies even, when referring to God. One of those, the one I think is most apropos for the topic of this post is: Rock. The idea of ‘rock’ connotes thoughts of immovability, hardness, strength, stability, security so on an so forth. The Christian classical theistic tradition likes to emphasize these realities about who God is—and rightfully so. But as we have covered so many times here there is a problem, from my perspective, with the metaphysic classical theism, by definition, has chosen. Before we go further it is important for me to qualify that I recognize that there are different instantiations of classical theism. That is to say, at some level all Christian theological tradition, particularly with reference to the development of a theology proper, must engage with some sort of metaphysical tradition; I am not a proponent of the thesis that anyone has actually achieved a post-metaphysical approach when engaging in theological endeavor. Further, whilst (I’m American so I use ‘whilst’ under advisement) metaphysics are necessarily the case for the theologian; some do better than others in ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ (h/t Peter Leithart for that phraseology). Recognizing that there is a certain continuity that has accrued in the Christian theological trad, I do not believe that this means that say medieval classical theistic development, most prominently undertaken by Thomas Aquinas, is equal with other or earlier classical theistic development under the ecumenical councils, or other theologians like Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor et al. I know people will disagree with me on just that point, but we will have to disagree. I believe Aquinas, for example, elevated Aristotelian categories in ways that other classical theists hadn’t prior to his unique and even genius movements of thought. While Aquinas was virtuoso I think he helped supply subsequent appropriations of his movements, such as we find in iterations of Post Reformed orthodox theology, with wrong emphases in regard to how we think God.

After the long qualification and sketch I just offered, what I want to do now is quote someone I respect and consider a friend, Steve Duby. Steve did his PhD on the very issues we have just been addressing, particularly with reference to the medieval classical tradition and how that impacts a doctrine of God. What I want to highlight, in particular, is how appeal to the classical theistic trad, so understood, affects, and more, correlates, or doesn’t, with the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As Protestants we like to assert that we are subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture, as one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation; but in practice I often think that this assertion gets negated. In other words, in our attempt to, in good-faith, explicate the inner-logic (or theology) of Scripture, we end up affirming traditions that at the end of the day transmute God into a deity that I would contend does not fit well with the God Self-explicated in Jesus Christ. In this attempt we end up allowing the metaphysic we have adopted to do this type of heavy lifting for us to transgress the prior principle we say we are committed to when we assert that we are committed to the categorical authority of Holy Scripture. We allow the metaphysic and its categories to ‘essentially’ dictate to us what the categories of God must be even if those categories are not concurrent with the God we continuously encounter as we turn the pages of Scripture.

To help illustrate what I have been blathering on about further, let us now hear from Duby on God. I will appeal to what he has written in an effort to make clear what I have been asserting in regard to what happens when a faulty metaphysic is appealed to in a good-faith attempt to grammarize and articulate God for the church (no easy task to be sure!). Here is what Steve writes; for those familiar you will notice the Aristotelian over and undertones as the informing categories.

In His perfect actuality, the triune God freely creates a contingent world. The concern that we noted earlier in theologians like Moltmann and Torrance about preserving the contingency of the world should not be brushed aside. At the same time, that contingency is grounded, not in a divine temporal succession in which God might exist in temporal priority to creation, but rather in God’s fullness and completeness that entails, in scholastic terms, His “liberty of indifference” (freedom to create or not to create the world without any fulfillment or declension of His being hanging in the balance). Given that God is already actively fulfilled in Himself in trinitarian fellowship, He needs no external counterpart or external object of love. In choosing to create the world and in performing the act of creation itself, He does not fulfill a potency in His being but instead generously directs or turns His essential actuality toward the world. It may be asked whether God accomplished His outward action by His essential actuality would mean that the outward action is just as necessary as God’s own act of being. Why should God’s outward action still be taken as ontologically subsequent to His (necessary) act of being? My response is simply to clarify that the argument here does not posit a total identity of essential actuality and outward action. The former is complete in itself and absolutely necessary in God, while the latter is a matter of the application of the former toward creatures. Since the former is perfect in God’s triune life, God is by nature “indifferent” toward creatures in a technical sense (unable to be improved or attenuated by willing to create or not to create). His outward action is thus located under an externally directed, free application of His essential actuality, which then entails a distinction between the (contingent) action or egression and the necessary essential act of God.[1]

We can see that Duby is attempting to offer a treatment of God that appeals to classical theistic categories within a discussion about a God-world relation in a doctrine of creation. We also see appeal to, in particular, the categories of immutability and impassibility; the ideas that God cannot be moved from an extraneous reality to himself, and similarly that God has no passions contingent upon external sources such as human agents represent; indeed God has no passion given his fully actualized state, according to this iteration of the classical tradition. Duby earlier in the chapter notes that it is possible to arrive at such categories about God by way of ‘general revelation’ outwith the special revelation provided for by the Bible or more specifically, Jesus Christ; Duby writes, “. . . various authors in the Christian tradition have (justifiably, in my estimation) gleaned from general revelation that God is “pure act” (never inactive or having any unrealized potential in Himself) . . . .”[2] And this gets us to the nub of my concern. Why would we, as Christians, by way of theological method, want to affirm that we could arrive at ‘basic’ conclusions about God without first giving priority to the categories we are confronted with by the disclosure of Holy Scripture and the Revelation that grounds that in Jesus Christ?

I emboldened the primary point of illustration I wanted to make from Steve’s treatment. Beyond the various scholastic distinctions being made between God’s actuality, potency, and how that works in an ostensibly Christian doctrine of creation, what I wanted to highlight is how that cashes out when it is applied to a Father/Son-humanity relation. ‘Technically God is indifferent towards creatures’ for the Dubyian account because God’s actuality, his impassibility must remain intact; in other words the Creator/creature distinction must be maintained such that any suggestion that God might be contingent upon his creation for his being must be ameliorated. I would agree that we don’t want to make God contingent upon creation, this would be the worst type of pantheism; but if we must use the classical theistic categories in order to arrive at this conclusion is something lost? I would contend: Yes, something is lost!

All throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments, God is referred to in the most relational of terms; not just in anthropopathic terms, but in real existential (and ontological I would argue) terms. He ‘walks in the cool of the garden’ in fellowship with the prelapasarian Adam and Eve; He is the Father of Israel; He is the Shepherd of Israel; He broods over Israel as a Mother Hen broods over her chicks; He weeps; He is the Father of all comfort; He cries for His people; God is love. My point: Scripture does not offer us with a conception of God that is ‘technically indifferent towards creatures,’ in fact just the opposite! This is what I mean when I speak of a metaphysic that offers us a conception of God that is discordant with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Why would we want to affirm such categories to do such heavy lifting that in the end does something to God’s character that God himself according to Scripture does not emphasize about himself; at least not in the terms that said metaphysic requires?

 

[1] Steve J. Duby, “Divine Action And The Meaning Of Eternity,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 2227, 2235, 2242 kindle version. [Emphasis mine]

[2] Ibid., Loc. 2107.

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12 thoughts on “‘God by nature is technically indifferent towards Creatures’: Worshipping the God of the Philosophers Rather than the God of the Bible

  1. It is unclear to me how it is possible to altogether reject any possible meaning of the phrase “technically indifferent towards creatures” while still holding that God is not contingent on creation. Seems like an attempt to create a meaningful difference from a semantic undesirability.

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  2. Why is that, Caleb? Seems to me that it’s possible to think outside of the system you seem to presume is the only way for affirming biblical things about God. Why do you assume that to be the case? Do you think it is possible to reify the old language with better more biblically attuned theological material and apparatus? I do. It’s not semantics; do you really believe that?

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  3. My point is that the statement used above about God’s “indifference” toward creatures seems to overlap semantically with all possible orthodox meanings of the denial that God is contingent upon creation without necessarily *adding* any more problematic metaphysical claims in the process.

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  4. I saw your “point,” but of course there is context which informs the meaning of indifference by its usage in the passage I share and its broader theological context. So, again, your desire to globalize this to an issue of semantics or all orthodox meanings doesn’t fare well given the context of ‘indifference’; which oddly is sort of the whole point of my post!

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  5. Who said anything about “changing his mind?” Look at the ethos of my blog, I think you’ll find the answer there. My affinity for Barth and his doctrine of election answers all of your concerns while remaining very ‘orthodox.’

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  6. Hmmm, So if I were to say God in not contingent, I would say God in His essence is oriented towards the good of the creature, he is not indifferent, but rather is overwhelmingly for the creature in his immutability

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  7. He is consistent with who he is in himself for the creature. If he is first love in himself—in his self-givenness for the other in se—then consistent with this reality as he creates he is first love for the creature in his grace. There is no need for collapse or contingency in God’s life in order to affirm this. There is also no need to presume that God constitutes his life by a free choice to not be God without his creation. There is the antecedent pre-temporal pre-destined choice that God takes to be for his creatures (based in who he has always already been), and then its actualization in the incarnation. Why ‘indifference’ must be required to secure God’s impassibility/immutability is only an artificiality produced by a felt need to a priori affirm a certain appropriation (and repristination) of a certain understanding of the trad.

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  8. Okay I seen the point 🤔, when we work on our theology with the incarnation as it’s basis we wouldn’t need To use as much philosophy to explain it, especially at the expense of biblical themes

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  9. It’s not necessarily the ‘philosophy’ but how that gets reified and pretexted and retexted; how it gets retooled under the pressure of revelation. So I want to see the revealed categories have the primacy, and I think much of what is being “recovered” these days inverts so that the philosophy the ‘general revelation’ has the primacy w/ a depersonalising effect vis a vis scripture/Revelation.

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