Theistic personalism vs. classical theism, revisited

Fr. Kimel at Eclectic Orthodoxy has been posting a lot of great stuff recently on concepts of God. His most recent post contrasts “theistic personalism,” which views God as, essentially, a person writ large, with “classical theism,” which has a less anthropomorphic understanding of the divine being. He comes down, with some help from Edward Feser and David B. Hart, on the side of classical theism.

My one worry here is that the more you “de-personalize” God, the less clear it becomes how the biblical narratives can be truthful representations of who God is. The Bible clearly portrays God as acting in specific ways to bring about certain purposes, as loving us, as hearing our prayers., etc. I’m not learned enough to adjudicate this issue, but there seems to be a tension in classical theism’s efforts to combine biblical personalism with Greek-influenced metaphysics (this is hardly an original observation).

Maybe my impression here is due to the fact that the major theologians I’ve read most recently are Schleiermacher and Tillich. Both of their systems strongly emphasize the inadequacy of applying the categories of finite being to God. But both also end up with a God whom it’s difficult to imaging acting in specific ways or answering individual prayers. This could be an idiosyncrasy of their thought, or it could be that they are more thoroughly consistent as classical theists. I’m honestly not sure. Clearly theologians have always qualified some of the Bible’s more blatantly anthropomorphic images of God, and in fact Scripture itself seems to do this in various places. But at want point does the personal nature of the biblical God die the death of a thousand qualifications?

I’m less attracted to modern revisionist forms of theism (e.g., process theology) than I once was, but it still seems to me that they point to some genuine problems in the classical understanding of God.

(I wrote about this issue previously here.)

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21 thoughts on “Theistic personalism vs. classical theism, revisited

  1. The alternative view is that the question that the worthy gentlemen and clerics are attempting to answer is an absurd question. “The question ‘what is God?’ is impossible” (Rosenzweig). The biblical and other stories that seem to depict a simply personal God likewise could be said to traffic in impossibilities and, strictly speaking, falsehoods, but the prophet like the priest and the sincere believer escape the indictment, since applying a “strict” standard, or a philosophical standard, is merely another version of the same error, or the reverse error, from likewise mistaken presumptions, including the presumption that the words were uttered, or written, or are recited as though referring to the merely possible, rather than in regard to the ground of possibility or that which precedes possibility, or, to employ the inherently inadequate logical forms, that which makes possibility possible, questioning possible, or any “what” whatsoever a what at all or ever. In the linked post, Fr Kimel begins with the tentative assertion that “We all know what human persons are,” but that assertion is unacceptable, not just prejudicial to the inquiry but begging the question: it is not just a dubious assertion, it is another version of the same question. The inquiry into what we mean when we invoke the name of the deity would both determine and be determined by the result of the inquiry into what we mean when we refer to ourselves. They are nearly the same inquiry, or two different aspects of a single inquiry, which is at the same time an inquiry into inquiry – the possibility of inquiry at all and the point of inquiry at all. Put differently, to presume we know who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is, is already to presume possession of the answer, and to circumscribe and pre-determine the interpretation that would tell us who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is.

      • “Ultimately”? If there must be an “ultimate ground” (or “first cause”?) of the All, then it would be the ground of both self and being, since they both by definition “come after.” but I’m not sure that’s what you’re asking. I’m also not sure about the use of the word “mystic” to describe the premise as you refer to it.

        The problem of circularity is referenced in some of the comments below, especially Brandon Watson’s @ He uses terms from Christian doctrine to describe the interdependence or mutual conditionality of conceptions of the human and the divine, which further pre-suppose a third term, “world” or “reality” or “existence,” etc. Any “what’ – a posited being – would be a finitude, or a quantity, and the divine stands for the infinite, the unquantifiable. “Infinite” and “unquantifable” are both negations, however: They are the divine from the perspective of the non-divine, or they are the more and other than merely existent from the perspective of the merely existent. To require a “what” equivalent to God, or insist on the rationality of such a requirement, is already to have decided on a de-divinized All, or of God only as less than God would have to be able to be to be God. In this precise sense any question of the “existence of God” is absurd, like asking for the color of a thought.

    • Well, I want to be careful here. Everyone agrees that our language about God is “stretched” and does not apply literally. Classical theists certainly have an account to offer about how such language and images as “loving father” apply to God. The question (or a question, at least) is whether or not such an account is adequate to the biblical revelation.

  2. But the point of classical theism is not to de-personalize God; nor is theistic personalism required for holding that God is a person — it was, after all, classical theists who originally formulated accounts of what persons are in the first place, and it was classical theists who first characterized God in terms of personhood. That is to say, it is *only* because of classical theism that we talk about God being a person at all; ‘person’ is a theological concept that was first invented by people who were quite clearly classical theists to handle a particular kind of theological discourse. Prior to its invention, the things we place under the label were not necessarily seen as particularly relevant to each other; and talking about biblical personalism is already to talk about those things in the Bible that classical theists first established as relevant (literally or figuratively) to talking about God using this theological concept that had been developed long afterward. And from the perspective of classical theism, at least, the problem with theistic personalism is not that it attributes personal attributes to God but the way in which it does so: they see theistic personalists as treating God as little more than a man with superpowers; and what is more, to be doing so by re-defining an already existing idea whose re-definition they don’t properly justify.

    • But the usual criticism, at least as I understand it, isn’t that classical theism intends to de-personalize God, but that it does so as a side-effect of its metaphysical commitments. That is, if God is impassible, immutable, a-temporal, etc., then the way the Bible portrays God has to be significantly qualified or reinterpreted. And in this process, so the thinking goes, the sense of God as a “thou” with whom humans can enter into genuine, “personal” relationship is diminished. I recognize that this sense of “personal” may differ from that implied by the concept of “person” as it was developed by classical theists, but it has a certain intuitive plausibility, I think. (Which of course is a far cry from saying that the criticism is fatal.)

      • But, again, this overlooks the fact that it was classical theism that ‘personalized’ God, or more strictly, theology in the first place; the personalization of theology at all is itself a side-effect of classical theism’s metaphysical commitments. There’s no coherent sense in which classical theism ‘de-personalizes’ God. The difference is actually that theistic personalism makes a great many assumptions about what divine personhood and personal relationship requires, assumptions that classical theism (very deliberately) does not make. The typical classical theist, of course, completely denies that if God is immutable, eternal, etc., that He is in any way less capable of entering into personal relationship — indeed, the classical theist view is that it is because God is immutable, eternal, etc., that he is able to do so on a scale and in ways we can scarcely wrap our minds around, since he lacks all the things that limit our capacity to form personal relationships; and, likewise, the way the Bible portrays God doesn’t have to be significantly qualified or reinterpreted, in part because it’s a way — indeed, the primary way — it has actually been interpreted for as long as we’ve seen the Bible as saying anything about God qua personal.

        Of course, it is certainly true that theistic personalists, given their assumptions, see the classical theist view as not personal or Biblical enough, but I think on this point classical theism regularly suffers these days from being damned with false objectivity. The moment one talks about classical theism as de-personalizing God, or as requiring qualifying or reinterpretation of Scripture, one has *already* put the dispute in theistic personalist terms. (One rarely hears the dispute in the opposing terms: people don’t talk about whether we should “paganize” God like theistic personalists or reinterpret or qualify Scripture to fit their conception, despite the fact that this is exactly what it looks like to most classical theists.) Personhood and personal relationship are simply not at issue; the classical theists weren’t missing either of these ideas, and indeed the theistic personalists actually got these things from them. The question is really what conclusions you can draw downstream from this.

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thank you, Thinking Reed, for blogging on my article.

    To add on to Brandon’s comment: Why think that classical theism (and please understand, I am not advocating any specific form of classical theism–I suspect there may be several) de-personalizes the biblical God? I know this is what 20th century theology has told us, but might it not be the case that 20th century theology was reacting against a deformation of classical theism? At least that is what I think David Hart might say.

    Let’s assume for the moment, for example, that the Eastern Fathers were classical theists. Were they unable to preach the gospel? Did they proclaim a non-biblical God? Were they stymied from telling the biblical story?

    Perhaps what is needed now for us is to return to the Fathers and learn from them.

    I have also found the various writings and homilies of Herbert McCabe extremely helpful. There are times when he “corrects” certain readings of Scripture. He tells us, e.g., not to take literally stories that speak of God changing his mind or of God getting petulantly angry with us. But I suspect that a lot of theistic personalists do the same, but the classical theist stands on stronger ground for his “corrections.”

    • Thanks for commenting, Fr Kimel. I suspect you’re right that there are multiple classical “theisms” and that many of the standard criticisms may not apply to all of them. My views on this have been in flux for a while; I look forward to reading more on this (maybe I need to pick up David Hart’s new book).

  4. @Brandon: Thanks for that last comment. That’s very helpful to me. Any reading in particular you’d recommend on this, apart from the obvious classical sources?

    • I’ve been thinking for a few minutes, and I’m not coming up with anything. Part of the problem, I think, is that the issue tends to get handled either very, very generally, or only in specific details, and there’s not really enough cross-traffic among disciplines to handle the whole thing. To take just one example, theistic personalists and classical theists — at least any classical theists that take the Church Fathers seriously — necessarily differ on what is involved in being a human person; for the classical theist, yes, we are by nature temporal, mutable, etc., but we also in some way indirectly reflect or participate or image eternity, immutability, etc., first by being persons at all and then, to an even greater degree, by grace and then glory in heaven. So these things are not necessarily wholly foreign to us in the first place on the classical view, since fully understanding what it is to be a human person requires understanding how humans can reflect something of these things: and, on the other side, theistic personalism’s conclusions about personhood are as much about the nature of human personhood as divine. But I don’t know anyone at all who looks systematically at the dispute from the perspective of theological anthropology. And even if we look solely at theological discourse, I think we run into the usual problem of the modern age: the theologians make too many assumptions, the philosophers focus too narrowly, to do real justice to a topic so big.

      Although, in fairness, I haven’t done more than glance at some of the discussions of this topic in the past six or seven years, with occasional spurts of interest on particular issues; I sort of gave up on it, and so if there’s been any serious new contribution I might not be aware of it.

  5. Matthew Petersen says:

    It’s been years since I read it, but what do you make of Lewis’ claim that God is beyond personality? As far as I can remember, and tell from Amazon’s preview, he’s arguing (in a very abbreviated form) for for the Classical Theist position.

    • Hi Matthew, thanks for commenting and sorry for not responding sooner.

      I think CSL would almost certainly be classed as a classical theist, based for example on what he wrote about God’s timelessness. Lewis also considered himself a disciple of sorts of the classical philosophical tradition.

      Your reference to “beyond personality” raises an additional issue: the part of Mere Christianity that carries that title is subtitled “first steps in the doctrine of the Trinity.” The doctrine of the Trinity, for Lewis, suggests that you can’t simple think of God as “a person” in a unitary sense. It would be interesting, I think, to compare how classical theism and theistic personalism handle the Trinity.

  6. CK Macleod’s first comment here seems spot on to me.

    I wonder if the problem here may be that we are trying to limit God’s attributes. Perhaps there is a sense in which He is personal and a sense in which He is not. There always seem to be these contradictions to resolve with metaphysical questions. Finding the resolution seems to be the whole trick of it.

    • Yes, it’s always difficult to resolve this kinds of debates when you take into consideration the limitations of our language when applied to God. The classical tradition has a well-developed doctrine of analogy to handle this, but it’s less clear to me how literally “theistic personalists” think their descriptions apply to God.

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