Part of the delay in getting this blog together should be apparent from the title. I mean, how daunting is it to try and unpack this facet of reality in 1500-2000 words or less (which is what I’m trying to limit each of these entries to, since let’s be honest, most people don’t read this anyway and definitely are not going to endure anything beyond that). Part of this of course stems from the fact that our Creator is not simply a facet of reality to begin with, and the relationship of Creator to creature we are going to attempt to articulate here, in the words of Paul Helm, is such that
“There is no other relation that exactly parallels one which is both so close and yet so distinct, and which is so all encompassing, deriving from the fact that the Creator upholds all aspects and details of his creation by his power at each moment of its existence, and directs these details to an appointed end, and yet is not himself a part of creation.” (Providence of God, 163)
This provides a good summary statement of where we are going with our thoughts here. Between this blog and the next blog we are attempting to briefly unpack the metaphysical significance of what is termed “the Creator-creature” distinction. For Christian thought, this is the fundamental distinction that offsets a truly Christian philosophy from every other system of thought about the world. This even helps to distinguish errors in thinking of many who are Christian in name, but are not completely Christian in thought. To that extent that one centralizes the distinction between Creator and creature, and while not seeking to fully explain it, does presents it clearly enough to guard against false inferences, one has succeeded in articulating a truly Christian metaphysic. Given that kind of task, it should be rather apparent why I’ve dragged my feet a bit in getting to writing about this. But here we are, so let’s start unpacking.
We extracted four metaphysical principles from Genesis 1:1 in the last essay. They were again:
- The doctrine of the self-contained God (the ontological Trinity)
- The plan or counsel of this God pertaining to created reality
- The fact of temporal creation as the origin of all the facts of the universe
- The fact of God’s providential control over all created reality
This may seem a bit of a stretch to see all of this in Genesis 1:1, but given the other passages in the Bible that talk of creation, God, and providence, these implications from the idea that God created both the heavens and the earth, are a way of in effect saying “God created everything.” From this it follows that this God was self-contained and absolute prior to creation (don’t worry we’ll come back to that), he has a plan that pertains to all created reality, that all of the possible facts in the universe (or in other words all knowledge) were created at a point in time by this God, and that as Creator, he exercises providential control over all of his creation. People do not generally think about Genesis 1:1 so philosophically, but it seems fair to say that all of that is possible to extract from the simply idea that God created the world and everything in it. It also comes from reading Genesis 1:1 in light of the rest of the Biblical revelation which does support even more directly our 4 bullet points above. So, putting them into headings, let’s briefly unpack each (don’t worry, I’ve only got 1000 words left to work with, give or take 500 or so)
The doctrine of the self-contained God (the ontological Trinity)
This doctrine is going to get its own series (see outline in previous blog) so I’ll necessarily have to paint in rather broad strokes here. So to begin with, to say that God is self-contained is to say that God is in no sense correlative to, or dependent on anything besides his own being. God is entirely absolute, He is sufficient unto himself (Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 30).
God is absolute (self-contained)
Realizing the term “absolute” can cause confusion, I decided to look it up and when applied to God, it is a good summary word for who He is. Here are what seem to be the applicable meanings of “absolute” when speaking of God:
- free from imperfection; complete; perfect
- free from restriction or limitation; not limited in any way
- viewed independently; not comparative or relative; ultimate
- something that is not dependent upon external conditions for existence or for its specific nature, size, etc.
Specifically, we will apply the idea of absolute to God and say that
- God is absolute personality (in all four senses)
- God is absolute rationality (again in all four senses)
We’ll deal with rationality in the epistemology section, but as for personality, a quick quote from Bavinck may help to elaborate what we mean:
“…personality is a concept borrowed from the human realm and hence when applied to God, always to some extent falls short. The concept of personality when applied to God, is not fully adequate and in principle no better than all other anthropomorphisms [human ways of speaking of non-human things] we use with reference to God. The Christian church and Christian theology, it must be remembered, never used the word ‘personality’ to describe God’s being; and in respect of the three modes of subsistence in that being, they only spoke of persons reluctantly and for lack of better term.” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 50)
Basically, by personality we mean God has a mind, consciousness, and a will, and of course all three in the absolute sense, which would mean God has perfect and unlimited mind and mental abilities, a perfect and unlimited consciousness that knows all of his being at once, thus making his knowledge and being coterminous (meaning they have the same border and cover the same area); and a perfect and unlimited will (‘will’ meaning “the power of control a mind has over its actions”). This is then what we mean by God being absolute personality, “in God, being and essence are really coterminous…there is no distinction between absoluteness and personality, God does not merely have a personality, but is absolute personality” (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 346).
That is clearly a mouthful, so necessarily we will have to come back here in a later series, but now briefly, we’ll turn to clearing up what we mean by “ontological trinity,” before moving on to the next bullet point.
The ontological Trinity
Historically, “the church has emphasized that fact that the ontological Trinity, that is, the Trinity as it exists in itself, apart from its relation to the created universe, is self complete [see above], involving as it does the equal ultimacy of unity and plurality” (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 353). By saying that God is Trinity, we are saying (from Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith, with Questions for Theological Students, 84:
- That Father, Son, and Holy Ghost [Spirit] are equally that one God, and that the indivisible divine essence and all divine perfections and prerogatives, belong to each in the same sense and degree.
- That these titles, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, are not different names of the same person in different relations, but of different persons.
- That these three divine persons are distinguished from one another by certain personal properties and are revealed in a certain order of substance and of operation.
Again, we are coming back to a more extensive discussion of God as Trinity in a later series, although you can see my unpacking of this here. To speak of the ontological Trinity is to speak of how God is in Himself (keep in mind ontological is another way of saying metaphysical) so it is concerned with who God is, which precedes discussion of what God does, but the two are inexorably linked. Prior to creation, there was only the ontological Trinity, as opposed to now when we may also speak of the economic Trinity meaning how God is in relation to humanity and the world.
Looking at my word count, and considering the topic at hand and the need to not be too brief, let’s camp out for a bit longer and I will deal with the other three bullet points in the next essay (also because I am growing rather hungry and lunch time means leaving Starbucks in search of meatier pastures).
We have spoken of God as absolute (self-contained) and as existing as Trinity (far too briefly). There are a couple of more points to make in terms of how we can rightly speak of God.
We must necessarily avoid following Thomas Aquinas (who in turn was following Aristotle) in locating God and man on a similar scale of being. “When one begins with the abstract notion of the analogy of being [abstract here means the opposite of ‘personal’ or ‘concrete’], God and man are bound to come out of this vague sort of being as correlatives to one another [in a sense of both being placed on the same continuum] (Van Til, 333). Our choices then are to do either of the following:
- Start with a God that is self-contained and assert that humans are created analogues of him while he is the original and not the analogue of them,
- Or to say that there is a vague general being that divides itself by process of limitation into various modes [meaning that ‘being’ shows up in different forms or appearances, one of them happens to be divine and the others all human or animal].
The former is the truly Christian approach that we have taken, the latter is generally speaking the pagan notion of being articulated by Aristotle (who first proposed the analogy of being) and cannot be harmonized with the Creator-creature idea of Scripture (Van Til, 333). Thomas Aquinas proceeded to speak of God in this way of abstraction following the error or Aristotle (the former being a Christian should have known better, the latter, merely was brilliant in his unbelief) and we in turn will reject this form of philosophizing about God.
The ontological argument for the existence of God has attracted many followers and garnered much respect from even unbelievers. This alone does not make it suspect, but below we’ll see why this is not quite the acceptable way to talk of God in light of making a sharp Creator-creature distinction.
In light of speaking of God as being absolute rationality (as done above), we must be careful when then following this with saying that “God is that than which no greater can be thought,” (Anselm, Proslogion, chapter 2, the beginning of his ontological argument.) The reason for this is best expressed by a quote from Van Til (IST, 328):
“If we take the highest being of which we can think, in the sense of have a concept of, and attribute to it actual existence [as Anselm does in the conclusion of his argument by locating this being outside the mind], we do not have the Biblical notion of God [emphasis added]. God is not the reality that corresponds to the highest concept that man, considered as an independent being can think. Man cannot think an absolute self-contained being [although we can feebly articulate what that might entail as I’ve done above]; that is, he cannot have a concept of it in the ordinary sense of the term [which is ‘a general notion or idea’]. God is infinitely higher than the highest being of which man can form a concept.”
This is not to say Anselm’s contribution is not valuable, but merely that this type of argumentation does not give us the Biblical picture of God’s self-contained existence, but merely defines God according to a human concept, which is entirely unacceptable. This may be splitting hairs, but it seemed appropriate to mention the idea, that while we do have to start with a concept of God in some sense, God is not limited to that concept, and that concept will always be an analogical reproduction of the concept that God has of himself which is truly what is definitive of his being. Our concepts or notions must always be understood as finite replicas of God’s concepts or notions. This is not license to to proceed entirely by negation as some have done (we’ll come back to this later), but it just a boundary for us to work with later on in our fuller discussion of the doctrine of God.
We’ve covered far too much ground for a single entry here, but it was seemingly unavoidable to actually talk about God in laying the ground for discussion the Creator-creature distinction. Much of what we’ve said we’ll come back to in later entries specifically devoted to unpacking the Christian doctrine of God. In the meantime, the next essay will cover the other 3 bullet points we didn’t get to here and will pull some of the principles from this entry in order to do so. Hopefully this has not been too much to digest, I tried to incorporate as much material from other thinkers and very little of my own ideas, but for my part tried to explain where things may have been too muddy or too philosophical for the average reader to understand.