A Non-Scholastic, Personalistic Doctrine of Divine Simplicity?

dogFollowing up the discussion of the doctrine of divine simplicity from Monday, one of the most frequent criticisms of the doctrine, certainly of its harder forms, is that it is not something derived from biblical considerations, but almost wholly from non-biblical, or even un-biblical philosophical presuppositions drawn from Platonist, Aristotelian, and other philosophical traditions. This charge is particularly leveled against the forms found in accounts like Thomas’ and those following in the Aristotelian tradition of reflection. For a good example of one of these accounts, I’d point you to this short post by my friend Steven Nemes.  For a good, much longer example of this sort of criticism, see Paul Maxwell’s recent, serious ETS article on the subject.

While I’m not going to try and defend or answer objections to this kind of account, I did recently run across John Frames’ account of divine simplicity in his The Doctrine of God (pp. 225-230) in which he argues that some form (probably falling somewhere in the first 5 senses of the term we listed out recently) should be attributed to God. What makes his account worth highlighting is that he’s trying to make the argument from within a theological methodology that he himself describes as “something like biblicism”, with a somewhat unsympathetic take on medieval and Reformational scholastic metaphysics. In other words, he’s kind of a prime suspect for rejecting the doctrine, and yet here he tries to find a way of salvaging and affirming it according to a “more scriptural” logic.

How does the argument work? Well, it begins simple enough. Frame notes that Scripture uses the language of attributes to describe God as “spirit” (John 4:24), “love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and “light” (1 John 1:15). Scripture says not that God has these things, but that he is these things. These are three different ways of describing God that are perspectives on the whole divine essence. What’s more, he notes that the Lord swears by his own holiness (Psalm 89:5, Amos 4:2), with the insinuation that his holiness is nothing less than himself. The same sort of logic is at work when we consider God’s truth, which distinguishes him from false gods (Jeremiah 10:10), as well as Lordship and so forth. In the case of all of these attributes, Frame says that we can’t imagine God being God without being characterized by this quality.

Frame says that while we don’t find a clear passages showing that “all of God’s attributes are necessary to his being and thus perspectives on that being, but they do provide a pattern and a way of thinking about divine attributes to which it is hard to find plausible exception” (pg. 229). From there he asks “But does this pattern justify talk of simplicity?”

It’s here that things get interesting. Frame says that if we think that the different attributes are still perspectives or angles on the one reality of God, then we’ll have to admit at least a relative simplicity even while confessing some sort of complexity. The attributes are not separate in God and so therefore we begin to see that “attributes have attributes”: God’s love is holy, his righteousness is wise, his “mercy is eternal”, and so forth. Still that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that the attributes are simply synonymous. It’s not that his justice just is his power which just is his love and so forth. Though the attributes are all together and mutually determining they are also truly distinguishable. For those who know what to look for, it’s beginning to sound like a Scotist account of the sort Tom McCall writes about in Forsaken; it allows for formal distinctions between the attributes by which they are inseparable, but really distinguishable in themselves, not just phenomenologically (or, just in our heads).

Still, despite pushing for a recognition of real distinctions between the attributes, he invites us to remember that God is a person, and so when we speak of the “divine goodness”, for example, we’re really just “referring to everything that God is”, not some abstract property. “For everything God does is good, and everything he is is good. All his attributes are good. All his decrees are good. All his actions are good. There is nothing in good that is not good” (pg. 229). When we praise his goodness, or his justice, or his beauty, we’re not praising some external standard to which he conforms to, possesses, or participates in, but rather just what he is.

At the heart, then, of Frame’s account of simplicity is the recognition that the biblical God is a “personal God.” He is not a bundle of attributes, but rather a whole person that relates to his creation as such. “The attributes merely describe different things about him. They are a kind of shorthand for talking about that person. Everything he says and does is good, right, true, eternal, and so on” (pg. 230).

Leaving a treatment of the Trinity and simplicity until later, Frame concludes:

It seems to me therefore, that there is a legitimate biblical motive in the doctrine of simplicity. We may be surprised to find that it is not an abstract, obscure, philosophical motive, but a very practical one. Those emerging from the murky waters of scholastic speculation maybe surprised to find that the doctrine of simplicity is really fairly simple. It is a biblical way of reminding us that God’s relationship with us is fully personal.

So the simplicity of God, like all his attributes, sets forth his covenant lordship. It reminds us of the unity of our covenant Lord, and the unity that he brings into our live as we seek to honor him and him alone. The Christian is not devoted to some abstract philosophical goodness, but to the living Lord of heaven and earth. (pg. 230)

Now, for some this will sound great. “Woohoo! We don’t need the philosophical speculation, or need to decide whether Aristotelian distinctions between essence/existence, form/matter, etc. are relevant in order to proclaim a simple God!” On the flipside, I can imagine some people sitting back and thinking, “Well, I suppose we can go that far, but then again, how is that any different than a really aggressive doctrine of the unity of God?”

At that point I don’t really have an answer, but I figured the train of thought was worth pursuing, sharing, and inviting comments on.

Thoughts?

Soli Deo Gloria

 

What Has Chicago to Do With Nicaea? Or, “Inerrancy Isn’t In the Bible”

inerrancy viewsOne of the frequent complaints against the doctrine of inerrancy is that, not only is a theological novelty taught nowhere until the 19th century, more than that, “it’s not in the Bible.” Nowhere is there a verse that says the “Bible is completely true in all that it affirms in history, theology, etc. in the original autographs” and so forth. So how then, if we’re Sola Scriptura Protestants, can we go about insisting on it, or other variations like “infallibility” (which, is actually the more comprehensive term), as a sort of de fide doctrine?

As you may know, I’ve been reading the Counterpoints Five Views on Inerrancy book that just came out. You may also know that I unashamedly love Kevin Vanhoozer’s work in this area–and, actually, any area to which he speaks. There’s no surprise, then, that I found his comments on the issue particularly helpful.

In his main essay, he has a number of sections dealing with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In one, he deals with the charge that the CSBI unnecessarily elevates the doctrine as well as redeploys a distinction used in his Drama of Doctrine, between a judgment of Scripture and it’s conceptual expression, to clarify how a doctrinal can be biblical without being mentioned explicitly in Scripture:

Article 16  [of CSBI] states “that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.” It also denies that inerrancy is “a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.” To refute the claim that the doctrine of inerrancy was “invented” by nineteenth-century Princeton is also to rebut the objection that inerrancy, along with the Chicago statement, is a provincial and parochial concern. Can it be done? A full-orbed demonstration of inerrancy’s historical pedigree is beyond the scope of the present essay. Others have been there, done that. I propose instead to compare and contrast the Chicago statement to the creedal statement on the Trinity of the Council of Nicaea. To be sure, the framers of the Chicago statement explicitly say in the preface that they do not propose to give the statement “creedal weight,” but this is not the salient feature of my comparison. I propose to focus instead on a certain parallel between inerrancy and homoousios.

Chicago is not Nicaea: the gospel itself is not directly at stake in inerrancy, nor is it clear whether there was in Chicago a counterpart to Athanasius. I am nevertheless struck by four similarities: (1) the notions of homoousios and inerrancy both arose at a time when the truths they express— in the one case, the full deity of the Son, in the other, the divine truth of the Scriptures— were being challenged; (2) both homoousios and inerrancy are technical terms that have proven to be stumbling blocks to many; (3) neither term is biblical, in the sense of occurring in Scripture; yet (4) both terms reflect underlying biblical convictions or judgments.

My thesis, in brief, is this: while the term inerrant or the concept of inerrancy may be new, the underlying judgment is not. I owe the concept/ judgment distinction to David Yeago, who in a seminal article developed it in connection to Nicaea. Yeago thinks that Paul’s language in Philippians 2: 6, about the Son’s isos theos (“ equality with God”), is saying the same thing as Nicaea’s very different concept homoousios (“ of the same substance”). It is essential “to distinguish between judgments and the conceptual terms in which those judgments are rendered” so that “the same judgment can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms.”  Similarly, I submit that inerrancy is saying (nearly) the same thing as John’s language in Revelation 21: 5 about the Word of God being pistoi kai alethinoi (“ trustworthy and true”).

The doctrine of inerrancy expresses a nonidentical equivalence to what Scripture teaches about itself. The problem with concepts, however, is that they gradually acquire a medley of associations, each of which affects the core meaning. Although it expresses a biblical judgment, the concept of inerrancy also shows signs of its cultural and historical locatedness. The challenge, then, is to affirm the underlying judgment together with the concept of inerrancy, provided that we can free the latter from unhelpful cultural accretions in order to free it for ministering the whole counsel of God.

–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), pp. 212-213

In other words, inerrancy expresses a Biblical truth in different terms, in a similar way that the word  homoousios, or even ‘trinity’ does.

Of course, Vanhoozer goes on to actually make the case from Scripture that his rendition of inerrancy, an “Augustinian, Well-Versed Inerrancy”, actually is consistent with what we find there. Still, the concept/judgment distinction helps us see that the issue of whether or not a doctrine is “biblical” isn’t a simple matter of looking it up in a concordance, or finding an adequate proof-text.

Soli Deo Gloria

(Also, for what it’s worth, Vanhoozer points out that not even Chicago gives inerrancy creedal weight the way some proponents would. It’s not de fide for everybody.)