The Monad’s Banqueting Table: On Classical Theism’s Affectionless God

Classical theism is once again a hot-topic. If you scroll through theo-Twitter you will find an in-house debate on the entailments of a classical theism. But this isn’t just reducible to the debate between the Reformed Baptists, and the impact that Thomas Aquinas has had upon the development of their respective types of Reformed and/or Calvinist theology. This debate is ongoing amongst philosophical theologians like Ryan Mullins, Steven Nemes et al., and whatever their alternative offering might be—whether that be an ‘open theistic’ understanding, or something more phenomenal. And then of course we have the charge against folks like Barth, Torrance, and even me, that we are modern theistic personalists; that is, that we construe God in a way wherein he has passions, feelings, emotions, affections, so on and so forth. Theistic personalists, in certain ways, could be construed by way of appeal to a spectrum. The classical theists who pejoratively charge people like me with being theistic personalist, see us on the same spectrum alongside the open theists, and anyone else who isn’t stridently classical theistic in thickly Thomistic ways.

All of that is fine and dandy, but what in fact do these so-called classical theists see as their hallmarks in regard to thinking God? Let’s allow post-Barthian, Bruce McCormack to give us a nutshell summary of the entailments of a classical theism:

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]

The above reflects Thomas’ [Aquinas] synthesis of Aristotelian categories with the sacra doctrina of the Holy Church. R. Michael Olson comments with reference to Aristotle’s thinking of God as the ‘Unmoved mover’:

Aristotle conceives of God as an unmoved mover, the primary cause responsible for the shapeliness of motion in the natural order, and as divine nous, the perfect actuality of thought thinking itself, which, as the epitome of substance, exercises its influence on natural beings as their final cause. These two aspects of God reflect the two defining aspects of Classical Greek Philosophy: the experience of the intelligibility of the natural order and the search for the first principle(s) responsible for its intelligibility, on the one hand, and the experience of nous both as the capacity to behold nature’s intelligibility and as the source of order in the human soul, soul itself being a source of shapely motion in the natural order. This article comments on each of these aspects of Aristotle’s conception of God, indicating that he finds evidence for his speculative-metaphysical conception in the experience of the rational soul.[2]

The point being that the Aristotelian God, or its Thomist iteration, even as that is received by the Post Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, and as that has funded the thinking of the Westminster Reformed, and as that is now being recovered by various Reformed Baptists, particularly those committed to the London Baptist Confession of Faith (the Baptist version of Westminster), is a God who reposes in monadic pure being (actus purus) and actuality (i.e., ‘Actual Infinite’).

For an example of how this type of classical theism has been received and articulated by a Post Reformed orthodox theologian, here we have William Perkins speaking to God’s election vis-à-vis His “affections,” or, as the case is, lack thereof:

Object. Election is nothing else but dilection or love; but this we know, that God loves all his creatures. Therefore he elects all his creatures. Answer. I. I deny that to elect is to love, but to ordain and appoint to love. II. God does love all his creatures, yet not all equally, but every one in their place.[3]

Further:

I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure.[4]

No matter, whether you’re a Westminster Federal Calvinist, or a Reformed Baptist who affirms the London Baptist Confession of Faith, the above, as reflected in Perkins’ thinking is how you must speak God. God has no affections in the classical theistic schemata. This is what classical theists claim corresponds univocally with the God of the Bible, the God Self-revealed and exegeted in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.

Some folks are okay, even jubilant, triumphant about proclaiming the Good News of the Monadic god of the scholastics and the philosophers. You will find them fretting about, moving to and fro with haste all over the interwebs; especially these days on Twitter. If you’re okay with worshipping the Unmoved mover, believing in the Actual Infinite of pure being, then you might want to look this type of classical theism up. They will freely receive you, with an abundance of affection, even if their god won’t. But the above is the naked reality. I don’t think many initiates have really gone down history enough to grasp what in fact they have signed up for. Some have, surely the theologians who are peddling this notion of God have; but I think many of them even have simply been led like innocent lambs to the Monad’s banqueting table, not ultimately realizing there are better ways to be theologians of the Word (or more simply, Protestant).

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

[2] R. M. Olson (2013), “Aristotle on God: Divine Nous as Unmoved Mover” in: Diller, J., Kasher, A. (eds) Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities (Springer, Dordrecht https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-5219-1_9).

[3] William Perkins, Golden Chaine 1. 109, cited by R. N.  Frost, 62.

[4] William Perkins, God’s Free Grace 1.723, cited by Frost.

3 thoughts on “The Monad’s Banqueting Table: On Classical Theism’s Affectionless God

  1. There are, indeed, better ways to be theologians of the word… and a better feast that is put before us, in Christ.

    “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ ” (Matthew 2:26-29)

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  2. Here in FL we have learned to prepare; and then to seek the Sovereign God of compassion and mercy for the sake of those who do not know either his Sovereign power or his love as represented by his Son. May God help us all… especially those who who know him not… that they might find him as shelter in this storm!

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