What is Classical Theism?: And what impact does this have on the American Church?

So what is Classical Theism? I often refer to it, and yet I do so without much explanation. This post, in part, will seek to remedy my dearth of explanation, and hopefully allow you to better discern how classical theism has seeped into the walls of your church, or into the Christian academic context in ways that I will contend have subverted the kind of Christian ‘depth spirituality’ that our Christian ‘Triune’ God has invited us to through his Son and by the Holy Spirit.

Classical Theism, in a nutshell, was given its most salient and popular form through the work of medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. At its most basic level Classical Theism (‘CT’ from this point on) is the integration of Aristotelian philosophical categories with Christian theology (this is often referred to as Thomism, which signifies that Thomas Aquinas is its primary proponent and developer in the history of the church). Princeton theologian, Bruce McCormack describes it in even more general terms this way:

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. [McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God, 186–87, cited by Bobby Grow in Evangelical Calvinism, 96.]

And Fuller Theological Seminary theologian, Veli – Matti Kärkkäinen cites process theologian David Ray Griffin’s description of CT, who describes it in similar terms to McCormack’s description, but with even more nuance:

  • Pure actuality: According to the philosophy of Aristotle, everything that exists is a combination of form and matter; thus, everything possesses both actuality and potentiality. Potentiality for Aristotle meant a lack of perfection; it implied that something was yet to come. Therefore, to preserve God’s perfect nature, Christian thinkers had to deny potentiality in relation to God. Consequently, God is absolute actuality, pure form, and there is no matter to actualize his potentiality.
  • Immutability and impassibility: While these two attributes are not identical, they are related. The former suggests that God does not change, while the latter refers to the impossibility of God’s being acted upon. Often—but not always—immutability was interpreted in the sense that God cannot be “moved” in a true emotional sense; where Scripture seems to suggest that God grieves or rejoices, such passages were considered mere metaphor.
  • Timelessness: God’s eternal existence is timeless, outside of time. While the majority of classical theists beginning with Augustine (according to whom God created time as part of creation) accept this statement as true, it has been and is a disputed issue. This element, therefore, is not a decisive feature of classical theism.
  • Simplicity: God is not composed of parts as is everything else that exists. This attribute of God is, of course, related to many others, such as his changelessness. If God has no parts, God cannot change, since there are no parts for him to lose or gain.
  • Necessity: This attribute has two aspects. On the one hand, God’s existence is necessary in the sense that it is impossible for God not to exist. Everything except God exists contingently (is dependent on God). On the other hand, necessity means that the divine essence itself—”the particular package of attributes God possesses”—is necessary. It is no accident, and it cannot be otherwise; God cannot be other than as he is.
  • Omnipotence and omniscience: These attributes follow from what has been said before. Omniscience means that God knows all truths and holds no false beliefs. Omnipotence means that within the “limits” of God’s own attributes, God possesses the capacity to do everything. [Veli- Matti Kärkkäinen citing David Ray Griffin in, The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction, 54-5.]

Does this sound like a God you know? This sounds exactly like the God that I knew for years, ever since childhood! But I had a paradigm shift in seminary. Like I mentioned in my last post, I was introduced to thinking about God in Trinitarian ways by Ron Frost; in ways that emphasize and think of God in personal, relational, filial, and loving terms that are given shape by pressing into the Christian truth that God is God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and in no other way.

All of these hallmarks, noted above, have been integrated into a theological and biblical format that stands behind the kind of Christianity that you as an American (or Western) Evangelical or Reformed Christian experience day in and out as you contemplate the God you are introduced to on Sundays, and whenever else you might listen to sermons, Bible teaching, or attend your local Bible College and/or Seminary (in general, and most likely!). Conceiving of God in this way, the predominate way, has drastic implications for how a person conceives of God, Christ, Salvation, the Church, Mission, and Spirituality (etc.). In other words, this affects everything!

So the question is: Do you want to follow a God who is philosophically conceived (and thus not very personal and intimate), or do you want to follow a God who has revealed himself to be a loving Father of the Son by the communion of the Holy Spirit? If the former, then you will adopt classical Arminianism, classical Calvinism, Open Theism (ironically); if the latter, you will most likely adopt what Ron Frost calls ‘Affective Theology’, or our Evangelical Calvinism, or even carefully nuanced forms of an evangelical Barthianism.

I will being writing more on this in the near future, but between this post and the last one, there is plenty to chew on.