Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Grudem 11b: Incommunicable Attributes 2

... continued from Sunday
B. The Incommunicable Attributes
1. Independence
Grudem defines God's "independence" as follows: "God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy" (160-61). This is Grudem's sense of the classic doctrine of God's "aseity" or self-existence.  God does not and could not need the creation for anything (162). With regard to us, he is a necessary being (we could not exist without him existing) but with regard to him we are completely unnecessary (he can and does exist whether we exist or not).

On the other hand, it would be wrong to think that our existence is therefore meaningless.  On the contrary, "we are in fact very meaningful because God has created us and he has determined that we would be meaningful to him. That is the final definition of genuine significance" (162).  God's existence is qualitatively different from ours but our contingent existence is immensely significant because it is significant to God.

Grudem is completely on target with his sense of God's self-existence.  God does not need us to exist nor does our existence complete God in any way.  This is the classic view.  Grudem is also correct in believing that our significance is derivative from God. Humanity is immensely significant because God considers humanity--and the creation as a whole--to be significant.

The main critique again is Grudem's use of Scripture to "proof text" his claims.  God's self-existence is more a topic that arose in later Christian theology than within the pages of the Bible itself.  On the one hand, Acts 17:25 does point solidly in this direction.  God does not need human service.  Even though the Bible doesn't say much about God's self-sufficiency, surely the biblical authors would have agreed.

On the other hand, attempts to use Exodus 3:14 to do hard core theological or philosophical service are generally anachronistic.  This is the passage where YHWH reveals his name to Moses.  To make significant metaphysical claims out of it is almost always to import later philosophical categories, often categories that did not exist until centuries after Christ.

"Couldn't God have been thinking such things when Exodus was written?", one might ask.  Certainly!  But how would we know what God was thinking at the time of Exodus, if that's not what Exodus itself originally meant?  We would implicitly be claiming that God revealed this truth at some later point in church history.  I personally am fine with thinking, but we should be clear in such cases that we are claiming God continued to reveal key understandings even after the New Testament was written. By contrast, those who say such things are often trying to use a meaning from outside the Bible to argue for a meaning inside the Bible. You can't have your cake and eat it to.

2. Unchangeableness
Grudem defines God's unchangeableness, also known as immutability, as follows: "God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations" (163).  By unchanging "perfections," Grudem means God's attributes do not change (164).  By unchanging "purposes," Grudem means that "once God has determined that he will assuredly bring something about, his purpose is unchanging and will be achieved."  By unchanging promises, he means that God will be faithful to his promises once he has promised something.

Grudem addresses the impression we get from various biblical texts that God changes his mind.  Moses intervenes and God decides not to destroy Israel. Hezekiah prays and God allows him to live for fifteen more years.  Jonah preaches, Nineveh repents, God changes his mind and spares it.  Grudem explains that "God responds differently to different situations" (165).  Statements about what God plans to do in such cases are statements of his present intention given a present situation.  When the situation changes, God's present intention changes. Such statements are thus not part of God's unchanging purposes or promises.

Another topic in this section is the question of God's "impassibility."  Does God experience emotions or "passions." Grudem differs from the Westminster Confession and holds that "the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture" (166).

In this section he also dismisses process theology, a form of theology that believes process and change are essential aspects of true existence, and thus that God must change if he exists.  The evangelical view in God's unchangeability, Grudem responds, does not imply that God does not act in the world. According to the Bible, Grudem says, God is both infinite and personal, something true only of biblical religion, he says.

Grudem ends his section on God's unchangeability with what is at stake.  If God could change, then he could change for the worse--he could become evil.  If God could change for the better, that would mean he isn't already the best.  If God could change his purposes or promises, then how could we trust him?  Some of the things most important to us about God would be in jeopardy.  Rather, God is "infinitely worthy of trust" (168).

Grudem's treatment of God's immutability is orthodox and would be agreeable to most Christians. His use of Scripture, as always, is dubious.  For example, the verses he quotes in relation to God's unchanging character need to be read in terms of what specific characteristic of God each passage is talking about.  When God says in Malachi 3:5 that he does not change, he is talking about changing his opposition to adultery, to those who pay unjust wages, to those who oppress immigrants, and so forth.  It is not talking about the theological doctrine of immutability.

When Hebrews 1:12 says that Jesus will not change, it is primarily talking about the fact that he will continue to live forever and probably that he will continue as high priest forever (cf. 7:24).  The psalm Hebrews is quoting had a slightly different referent in its context even still.  The parallelism of Psalm 102:26-27 indicates that the psalmist was speaking of God (the Father rather than Jesus') continued existence for ever. In short, Grudem doesn't know how to read biblical texts for their intended meanings.

I believe Grudem is also inconsistent in what he is willing to consider metaphorical and what he takes literally.  So he insists we must take language of God's emotions literally.  Perhaps he would say that he takes language of God changing his mind literally too, but I don't think he does because he is interpreting "change of mind" to mean "respond in a predictable way to a new circumstance."  Surely this is not the normal sense of "changing one's mind."

A more consistent view, in my opinion, is to say that language of God changing his mind is anthropopathic language.  It is human-speak that helps us understand God but that should not be taken literally.  If God knows all things, then he cannot literally change his mind (or in my opinion, literally have emotions).  These become less than literal pictures of God that enable us to relate to him.  They are true analogies of a reality we could not possibly understand on a literal level.

So I believe Grudem is mostly right. God walks with us through time in the way he supposes.  Yes, God's responses are predictable given God's unchanging character.  Unlike Grudem, I would say God's emotions fall into this same category of anthropopathic descriptions of God's predictable responses.

Where Grudem is wrong is to suppose that the biblical texts already have such a philosophically worked out theology.  Following Grudem's hermeneutic, he should be an open theist.  Open theists are individuals who believe that God has suspended his foreknowledge so that he can truly change his mind, experience emotions, etc.  They take the Old Testament text in particular more literally than Grudem does.  I believe Grudem rightly appropriates the Old Testament through later Christian theological eyes.  I believe he wrongly thinks he is taking the Old Testament literally.

We can raise some questions about Grudem's sense of God's unchanging purposes.  Where do we learn these?  Grudem would no doubt say that we learn them in the Bible.  The problem is of course that he is being selective in what purposes are unchanging and which or not.  Reading Leviticus on its own terms, for example, we would conclude that animal sacrifice is part of God's unchanging purpose.  It is only when we read Leviticus in the light of Hebrews that we come to a different conclusion. So Grudem is not wrong to say that God's purposes are unchanging.  He is only unreflective in how he has come to arrive at a knowledge of which of God's purposes are the unchanging ones.

A final word is in order about process theology, which is different from the open theism mentioned in the previous paragraph.  One has to wonder what reason anyone has for continuing to believe in God at all if one becomes a process theologian.  It does not seem a position that an atheist or objective seeker would adopt.  Rather, process theology seems to be an attempt to hold on to some vestige of a Christian faith one has more or less lost or abandoned.

1 comment:

DBrothers said...

Ken - in light of the last paragraph, I wondered if you have engaged any of the writings of Tom Oord that works out of a modified process theology. Any thoughts?