Revisiting God and Odin: Classical Theism versus Theistic Personalism

When I wrote my “God is Not Odin …” it quickly became one of Eclectic Orthodoxy’s most frequently viewed articles, and I’m delighted that the reblog has also generated interest, presumably among those who missed it the first go-around. For those who have just discovered the piece, please note that it is one of a series, beginning with “The Christian Distinction.”

At this point I do not have much to add to the topic, except to reiterate that I believe that Christian theology needs to recover a classical Christian vision of divinity. I am increasingly persuaded that the analytic construal of divinity cannot sustain the central doctrines and practices of the faith. It’s unclear to me whether theology should move in the direction of St Thomas Aquinas or St Maximus the Confessor—probably both directions at once.  I certainly do not mean to suggest that all we need to do is repristinate the theologies of yesteryear. That would be a stultifying traditionalism—think, rather, of a creative retrieval and ressourcement.

If you are new to the topic, you may find the following books and essays helpful:

Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and ReasonThis is the book with which to begin. Sokolowski believes that a properly Christian apprehension of divinity came to expression through the gospel’s encounter with pagan philosophy and religion. He calls it the Christian distinction: “In the Christian distinction God is understood as ‘being’ God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world.”

David B. Hart, The Experience of God. The first chapters of this book may be read as a vigorous critique of a biblicist construal of divinity, which pretty much presents God as the most powerful being on the block. It is against this God the new atheists have directed their attacks. As Hart points out, the analytic construal of divinity, with its denial of divine simplicity and impassibility, reinforces the idea that God is just one being among many beings, what Hart calls monopolytheism. Analytic philosophers object to the characterization, and they no doubt have a point—but Hart’s point is more compelling, I think. If we think of God as simply a spiritual Person, however metaphysically necessary and however impressive his properties, the atheists will win every day of the week. For a glimpse into Hart’s understanding of God, see his article “God, Gods, and Fairies.”

Brian Davies, “Concepts of God.” This is a chapter from Davies’s book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. In this work he coined the term “theistic personalism,” which has become a standard descriptive term for the Deity of analytic philosophy. Davies helpfully contrasts classical theism and theistic personalism.

Denys Turner, “On Denying the Right God.” This essay is a good example of a contemporary interpretation of Aquinas, in response to contemporary atheist and deconstructionist critique. If God is ipsum esse subsistens, he is a very special being, if indeed it is even proper to speak of him as a being at all. This certainly does not imply that God is the impersonal Absolute, but he is most definitely more mysterious than we know.

David Burrell, Faith and Freedom. This collection of essays represent a sophisticated philosophical engagement with theistic personalism. I think I have understood maybe 20% of it (and that may be overly generous). I need to go back and reread (and probably re-reread) these essays. Burrell has read deeply not only in Aquinas but also the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and Islamic medieval philosophers. He addresses a host of topics in these essays—divine simplicity, eternity, creatio ex nihilo, divine foreknowledge, Molinism, existence, freedom, Scotism—but one discerns a common thread: How do we properly distinguish the transcendent God and the world he has made? If you find these essays helpful, then you will probably want to dip into Burrell’s Knowing the Unknowable God and Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions.

I wish I could have included in the above list something written by a contemporary Eastern Christian philosopher or theologian, but quite honestly, I can’t think of anything particularly germane. Few Orthodox theologians today do dogmatic theology, much less philosophical theology. The closest book that comes to mind is David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and WestBradshaw wields a pretty heavy anti-Western ax and would probably tell us that both the Thomists and analytic theologians get God wrong. Also see Bradshaw’s paper “The Concept of the Divine Energies.” Along similar lines, see Christos Yannaras, “The Distinction Between Essence and Energies and Its Importance for Theology.”

A helpful and accessible resource on all of this is Edward Feser’s blog. It contains several articles defending classical theism and critiquing theistic personalism. See, for example, his just-published article “Craig on divine simplicity and theistic personalism.”

What books and articles have you found helpful on this topic? What do you recommend to our readers?

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17 Responses to Revisiting God and Odin: Classical Theism versus Theistic Personalism

  1. But father you scare me 😃 If you have understood only 20%, and that generously as you point out, you of all people, what can be expected from us? Anything more palatable to recommend? I now reverse your question. Please.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Take a look at the Davies’ piece in the above list.

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    • Maybe us simpletons have more to offer than those sophists 😀
      I was talking with a Catholic deacon friend of mine. Very well-studied in Medieval studies mind you. I was talking to him about how I have been working with Alzheimer’s patients lately and he was telling me how Alzheimer’s patients tend to be more open to God and expressive of God than those of us who do not currently suffer from the disease (chances might be that when I get into my upper years, I’ll suffer the disease because my great grandmother also had Alzheimer’s and died from it). The problem when it comes to more intellectual theologians is that they try and analyze things too much. God is love though. This is something that the Alzheimer’s patients I work with show me quite well–love that is.

      So if an Alzheimer’s patient can be more expressive of God than an intellectual theologian, surely us simpletons have things we can offer 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Helpful books on subject of classical theism | Agnostic Christianity

  3. Grant says:

    Well Hart himself is Eastern Orthodox so there is him to represent someone from the Eastern Christian tradition who doesn’t have a major anti-Western axe to grind, so you have offered him and he is no small offering 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Quite right! What was I thinking?! I suppose I was thinking of someone who stands in the Palamite tradition.

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  4. Kevin Davis says:

    I’ve enjoyed these posts. I do not have a strong position one way or the other. I am still working through it all. One concern of mine is the lack of biblical scholars on this whole topic of personalism vs. apophaticism / classical theism. Your recommendations on this list are theologians and, indeed, theologians with a philosophical bent. I am particularly interested in how an OT scholar would contribute to this debate. What about Walter Eichrodt, Gerhard von Rad, Brevard Childs, Walter Bruegemann, John Goldingay, et al.? Would they recognize Hart’s God in the faith of Israel that sustained Israel for centuries?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, Kevin. I think that the principal reason you do not see biblical scholars in the list is because Scripture really does not address the metaphysical questions that are addressed by classical theists. I am quite certain that most theistic personalists are convinced that they have Scripture completely on their side—and in a sense they do. If one reads the Bible straight, God is a Person with various attributes that we can list. We can also list the various things that he is recorded as doing, including the creation of the universe.

      What the Bible does not and cannot tell us is what it means for God to be the one God and what it means for creatures to be creatures. What it does not do is philosophically distinguish Deity and the world. This only begins to happen after the apostolic period in the confrontation of the gospel with Greek philosophy and religion. Take, for example, the question of divine creation. Out of what did God make the world? Eventually the Church confessed creatio ex nihilo, but most biblical scholars today would dispute whether the doctrine is explicitly taught in Scripture.

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      • I would also suggest, a bit more polemically than Fr. Kimel, that modern Biblical scholarship is very limiting in its effects, and may sometimes blind scholars to things that may really be “in Scripture.” Of course, the question is precisely: “what does it mean for something to be in Scripture?”

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    • Dante Alighieri says:

      While the Bible cannot tell us what it means for God to be the one God and what it means for creatures to be creatures, the categories coming from Greek philosophy, I think the Scriptures inherited, when taken as a library of works, from late antique Judaism and, perhaps, Yahwism, to be distinguished from all the communities that practiced those faiths, do tell us that God is in fact One God and creatures are in fact creatures even if what that means philosophically had not been worked out. So, whatever “gods” exist (angels or spirits) are creatures that could die and had a beginning (Psalm 82:6-7; Deuteronomy 32:8). By contrast, whatever God is, God has been forever as the sole Creator: “Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world, from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God” (Psalm 90:2). As Fr. Kimel noted, however, the Jews were agnostic about where matter came from, and, since they didn’t think in terms of form and matter like the Greeks, it probably never occurred to ask that question until the Greeks came along.

      To get a sense of what late antique Jews thought about God’s corporeality, Andrei Orlov’s articles on Enochic literature is great. For ancient Israelites, Catholic biblical and Near Eastern scholar Mark S. Smith wrote an article called “The Three Bodies of God in the Hebrew Bible” (JBL 134, no. 3). He was largely working in view of an excellent book written by a Jewish biblical scholar Benjamin Sommer, “Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel.” I don’t agree with all the conclusions, but the appendix was fantastic, almost better than the book, insofar as it stressed the uniqueness of God of Israel in view of the writers of Scripture when taken as a canon. The Jews did not have the vocabulary to speak as classical theists, but they did stress that, whatever the substance of God, it is unknowable, radically unique to him and apart from creatures, and, in some cases, described as filling the entire creation in size. Sometimes, as described by Andrei Orlov from late Jewish visionary literature, the features of God are so absurd in terms of size, the number of eyes and wings and voices, the effect of his voice, the inability to see the infinite totality of God’s body, if at all, that the intent was not so much to describe God as to overwhelm the visionary and create doubt about the competency of the metaphors. At the same time, they were still no classical theists: while maybe not a strict body by this period, God in Jewish visionary literature had a unique material substance and form, albeit somehow omnipresent, and experienced time, even while knowing the future and past.

      The ancient Jews did not have the vocabulary or the same kind of thoughts to be classical theists per se, but I think they were reaching for an alternative, poetic vocabulary which got us to that point once we had the Greek vocabulary. Mark S. Smith wrote a beautiful, in all meanings of the word, reflection on Genesis 1 called “The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1.” He suggested that both Priestly strands of ancient Israel and later Judaism believed that all physical light was God’s own theophanic light, that the heavenly bodies were conceived as mirrors or holes in the sky-plate. And the OT could speak about “God of the Spirits of all Flesh” in that our life-breath, whatever makes us alive, was a participation in God’s own life-breath from Genesis 1. Rain and hail and, maybe, sea could be said to come from God’s “womb” (Job 38). Frost is the product of “God’s breath.” Clearly, as we understand it today, this is metaphorical, but I think there’s a degree of intimacy and participation that presages what God must be as “pure Being.”

      I was recently reading Nicholas Wyatt’s “The Mythic Mind,” an odd book of biblical scholarship, really, but one line struck me. While he has a great sense of myth, and, daringly, tried to recognize together a common cultural background of the Near East with Homeric Greece, and even Indian myth, he is a biblical minimalist historically, while I am more of a maximalist like F.M. Cross. He recounted how a friend once said to him: “all theology is anthropology.” Clearly, this is hyperbolic. But Wyatt used this as kind of apologetic for mythic language, and I think he’s right to a degree. As humans, we can’t help not using mythic language. Classical theism, and negative theology, kind of gets us behind the mythic language.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I love myth, narrative, and poetry and firmly believe that they enjoy a priority over metaphysical exposition and systematic theology within the Christian life and imagination.

        But sometimes myth needs to be demythologized if it is to be properly appropriated. I think it was David Hart (or perhaps David Burrell) who wrote that without a measure of genuine metaphysical reflection, we will inevitably remain trapped in a biblicist fundamentalism. It is precisely the question “How do we distinguish God and creatures?” that compels us (not me, of course, but some of us, like Hart and Burrell and Thomas Aquinas and Denys the Areopagite) to do metaphysics. This question lies, as Robert Sokolowski notes, “at the intersection of reason and faith.”

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  5. Anthony says:

    DBH has been such a heavy influence lately for me. I had been on that analytic bend for years now, and falling into the same traps that a lot of apologetically driven Christians do with reductionist views and understanding on doctrine. Thanks for this.

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  6. Dante Alighieri says:

    On classical theist readings I might recommend, and someone may have mentioned them before, these are the first that occurred to me:

    Since D.B. Hart has an interest in Hindu philosophy, there’s Stratford Caldecott’s excellent “‘Face to Face’: The Difference Between Hindu and Christian Non-Dualism.” Even though it says difference, he talks a lot about similarities, too.

    Stratford Caldecott. “Trinity and Creation: An Eckhartian Perspective.” It deals with Creator-creature distinction and participation. Also, he wrote a series of blog posts on his blog “The Christian Mysteries,” which is still up, about the philosophy of the early modern Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme, which is similar to this.

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  7. Jeff says:

    I think you would like ‘ a tale of two cronies ‘ in kvanvig’s book Destiny and deliberation

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  8. David Kontur says:

    Father Aiden-
    What about the work of Christos Yannaras? It seems that he deals with this in his book on The Orthodox Faith, stumping on the name.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, good suggestion. Thanks.

      I’m not a great fan of Yannaras because of his constant, heavy-handed polemic against Western theology, but you are certainly right to mention him.

      I do very much appreciate his little book of meditations on the Song of Songs.

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  9. Binky says:

    Austin Farrer (Philosophical theologian, C.S. Lewis’s pastor) is a widely ignored figure in modern thought. His Faith & Speculation (a rewrite of the earlier Finite and Infinite) is a must-read; so too his various sermons, and other theological/ philosophical/ Biblical books & essays.

    He was an intellectual Aristotelian high churchman; his great misfortune was reaching his prime in an immaturing church more enamoured of ‘radical’ bishops writing exciting books asking sophomoric questions, than serious theology connected to the previous 2000+ years.

    http://www.ebay.ca/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2050601.m570.l1313.TR0.TRC0.H0.Xaustin+farrer.TRS0&_nkw=austin+farrer&_sacat=0

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