The Most Real Reality and the Folly of the Cross

This is a bit of an in-house dispute among trinitarian theologians. But I don't much appreciate being lumped in with people who deny the transcendent omni-capable final reality of God as God, by a fellow trinitarian who appeals to concepts of impersonal classic theisms in order to defend his notion of the not-impersonal (??) theism of the Trinity of Persons from critiques that could only possibly have weight if God was in any way relevantly personal.

I know, that's... kind of spaghetti-ish. Sorry. If your eyes aren't crossing yet, and you dare to jump into 8-1/2 pages of some hardcore metaphysics, click here. Don't say I didn't warn you! {g}

Back before Easter (yes, my posting schedule is awfully backlogged!) the topic came up here on my friend Victor Reppert's "Dangerous Idea" web journal, as a sort of side effect of the question whether there was a general notion of an ultimate God.

One of my fellow trinitarians, a Roman Catholic pseudonymously posting as "BenYachov", rather tartly commented in the combox: "Classical Theism isn't hard people." Pointing to the following links at Edward Feser's web journal.

Those are useful articles; but whatever else they do, and even if the reader accepted all the arguments and claims, they demonstrate that "classical theism" is hard to nail instead of miss!

Unfortunately, I don't agree that Prof. Feser, although often a fine (and often an entertaining) Christian apologist, is going about his rebuttal to popular critiques of Christian theism in quite the best way.

I agree that if atheists want to play ball philosophically they had better grapple not merely with what they regard as mouth-breathing fundamentalism (and especially not at no-better-than-the-same popular level), but also with higher notions of theism held by educated and sophisticated philosophers, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish or pre-Christian.

I am somewhat less inclined to agree that there is an identifiable "classical theism" common to all such thinkers, of any sort that would be useful as a target for equally general criticism across all such thinkers.

And I am very much inclined to think that trinitarian theism would be rejected by everyone who wasn't a trinitarian theism for not being "classical" enough. Or rather for being too personalistic.

History bears me out on this, not surprisingly.

I can present the category disagreements here from two directions.

Christians, and particularly trinitarian Christians, usually think we have a superior notion of God compared to other theists very broadly speaking (because we are theists instead of polytheists or cosmological dualists);

compared to other theistic philosophers broadly speaking (because while they rarely if ever promoted the idea of an ultimate polytheism, or even that there could be such a thing, they did sometimes promote the idea of naturalistic theism or pantheism, which we do not);

compared to other supernaturalistic but non-Christian theists (like Jews, Muslims and any avowedly non-Christian deists);

and compared to other Christian theists (if we're trinitarian of some type instead of modalist or unitarian of some type).

And if we're orthodox trinitarian of some type instead of non-orthodox trinitarian of some type.

And if we're Western Orthodox trinitarian (usually in favor of the filioque) instead of Eastern Orthodox trinitarian (usually against the filioque).


I hope you can see my first point. As an orthodox trinitarian (western!) Christian apologist, I may or may not care to try to defend Sergius Bulgakov's attempt at (eastern!) trinitarian theology.

But I am not really all that concerned to defend Plato's notion of the Form of the Good, or some version of Averroe's notion of Allah, or Philo's Alexandrian Judaism, or the late Stoicism of Marcus Arelius' notion of the Logos, or Jefferson's nominal deism. I'm glad to agree where we can agree, which is often on a number of crucial points, but I'm not going to go to them where we disagree in order to borrow a position to help defend myself against a critique on my own position.

And I think Professor Feser is doing this. Which bothers me.

I don't think Professor Feser thinks he is doing this. This also bothers me.

I do think Professor Feser is prepared to put me in with the pagans, instead of with the "classical theists", if I insist on appealing to and defending the uniquely trinitarian characteristics of orthodox Christian theism. (Western or Eastern. But more Western in my case.) And that also bothers me.

Looking at the distinctions from the other way around:

In neither of those two articles does Dr. Feser really grapple with the fact that most of the "classical theists" in his list would reject the notion that God would reveal Himself in the way He does in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. (Muslims would be an exception, but even they regard the Jewish scriptures as being too "personalistic", in the derogatory sense Dr. Feser means, much moreso the Christian scriptures, compared to the Qu'ran.)

Nor would most of those people in that list (Christians and Jews excepted, and perhaps some of what Dr. Feser would consider the 'cruder' Muslims) regard God as acting in any 'good' or 'moral' way that is even relevantly analogous among humanity. In most cases the Deity would be a static standard or example for humans to pattern themselves after if they want to live better (or not if not). Or if the Muslim God declares Christians have to be dhimmi, it doesn't matter if Christians can argue on any conceivable principles that this is unjust. Too bad. Allah has spoken, and His ways are so different as not to be understood by man. Submit.

(Which by the way is quite different from how and when similar expressions are used in the Jewish scriptures, quoted by Paul in his epistle to the Romans: the prophets referenced by St. Paul report God saying such things to critique people who, one way or another, don't believe God will save His own enemies from their sins. "Who are you to answer back to God, O Man" for doubting that God will save sinners at last? "The potter can do whatever He wants to with the clay", specifically remake it on the wheel if it is spoiled, and even remake it if the pottery must be shattered--for what is impossible with man is possible with God.)

And even more of the people in those categories would reject the idea of God manifesting Himself in the natural world in any way, whether in a humanoid fashion (eating with Abraham for example) or not (as a pillar of smoke and fire, or as glory in a temple.) Even Jewish philosophers tend to reject such things in concert with Greco-Roman philosophy. But these would definitely be the sorts of things Muslims would feel more comfortable assigning to the angel Gabriel or whoever, acting as the not-God messenger representing God.

And even more of the people in those categories would reject, beyond manifestation, the idea of God Incarnating in nature with a fully human as well as fully divine nature. (As Jewish non-Christians typically reject even the possibility of; but if not the possibility at least the propriety.)

It goes without saying--but I feel it must be said--that everyone in that list except the Christians would even more strenuously reject the Passion (as even docetic Christians rejected and, in a few cases, still reject.)

To "classical" theists, whether Jew or Greek, the cross would be folly to attribute to the Most Real Reality.

Even among Christian groups, only one (although very large) group of Christians believe God is a Trinity of Persons in one single monotheistic deity: God self-begetting and God self-begotten and God proceeding; but one God not three Gods; yet distinctly three Persons in an active relationship not merely three modes of God which happen to relate to us as 'Father, Son and Spirit' like 'Husband, King and Judge'.

It would not be much of an exaggeration, rather, to say that the whole point of orthodox trinitarian Christianity is that it combines the metaphysical rigor of ideal classical theism (insisting on divine simplicity for example) with the personalism of a God Who sacrifices Himself for the sake of even His worst traitorous enemies, sharing the suffering of both the innocent victims and the guilty victimizers--whether or not they are repentant yet for their sins. "Is Ephraim [rebel Israel] My dear son? Is he a delightful child? Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I surely remember him still! Therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy on him!" God doesn't only comfort righteous Israel in her lamentations (figured as Rachel) over her children slain as rebels by God; He Himself laments for them, and promises Rachel that He will bring them home! "They shall return from the land of the enemy!"--even though she refused to be comforted "because they are no more!"

This may seem undignified, both in wrath, and in mercy for those against whom God wraths--it would absolutely be regarded as undignified by any classical theist!--but it is no more undignified to the glory of God than that God should somehow accomplish this restoration by "a woman encompassing a man" in some new way.

When Dr. Feser lumps what he calls "theistic personalism" in with theistic concepts that deny the transcendent omni-capable reality of God as God (as open theism and process theology both do in somewhat different but related ways), he's throwing under the bus everything that a nominal (much moreso a minimal) deist (for example) would reject in Christianity precisely as a proponent of Greco-Roman classical theism. Trinitarian Christianity, however, which Dr. Feser is supposed to be advocating and defending, keeps both the transcendent omni-capable reality of God as the Most Real Reality, and the messy details involved in the woman drenched in blood, the robes drenched with blood not His own, the robe that was divided up by lot instead of being drenched in God's own blood, and the restoration of blood and sinew to dried-up punished skeletons: punished by the very God Who shares their punishment, too, rising Himself from the grave to which He descended with them so that, although punished in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit together with God as men: for He Who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to their mortal bodies through His Spirit indwelling them.

(It gets weirder when Dr. Feser includes deism itself in the list with process theism, open theism and theistic personalism! At that point I start to suspect ideological bias.)

Christianity only distinguished itself from the expectations of Greco-Roman classical theism, by striving to hold to what it recognized was proper in metaphysics (such as stressing divine simplicity), while also stressing the strong personalism of the Judeo-Christian scriptural testimony.

There has to be a both/and here, not an either/or--or there can be no orthodox trinitarian theism at all.

Dr. Feser sort of acknowledges this in his second post, yet still wants to treat theistic personalism as being not only categorically distinct from classical theism (“The theistic personalist claims that the conceptions are incompatible, which is why he rejects classical theism.”), but also mutually distinct from orthodox trinitarianism, which he categorizes as entirely on the side of classical theism over-against theistic personalism.

But the theisms being rejected by orthodox trinitarian Christian theists are not only the pagan polytheisms which are typical of theistic personalism, but also the impersonal monotheism(s) held by the classical pre-Christian philosophers; and the somewhat more personal monotheism held by Muslims, non-Christian Jews and unitarian or modalist Christians, where an active personal relationship is still not what God in God’s ultimate foundational reality essentially is.

God cannot be essentially love if God is not a personal relationship at the fundamental level of God’s own self-existence. And Dr. Feser ought to be aware (because he brings up the topic himself in the first post) that this relationship cannot be what God merely happens to do. It has to be what God essentially is.

But then God is in fact personalistic, in a way that does not void divine simplicity--or else there is a major inconsistency with trinitarian theism as all other actually "classical" theists would insist.

The difference is between positive aseity (God’s self-existence is an eternally active self-begetting) and privative aseity (God’s self-existence is a statically uncaused eternal non-action.) The classical pre/post/alt-Christian theists leaned much more strongly toward privative aseity, not least to avoid the vulgar notions of the only ‘living’ ‘personal’ gods of which they were culturally familiar. Christian theology (and implications of the Jewish theology of the Living God “I AM THAT I AM”) affirmed positive aseity--until Christian theologians, wanting rightly to respect the intellectual rigor of their cultured non-Christian predecessors, tried to pick up and run with privative aseity instead.

There really shouldn’t be any problem with positive aseity though, except insofar as a unity of real Persons in and as the single substantial foundational realty, might inadvertently suggest God being constituted of Persons in parts or something like that. Which of course is one of the classic complaints by classical theists about trinitarian theism being classified among classical theisms! But we’ve had a lot of rigorous practice working on the metaphysics of that. (Yes, Roman Catholic theologians, too.)

So, what is really the problem with “theistic personalism”, so long as it is also “classical theism” (except recognizably and meaningfully personal instead of basically impersonal or alien to anything we would recognize as personal)? Dr. Feser, as a trinitarian theist, ought to be insisting that both categories cogently obtain for orthodox trinitarian Christian theism, not siding with non-Christian classical theists (and misguided or non-Christian theistic personalists) who insist that only one or the other can be true.

After all, however one wants to interpret the “literal” anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Jewish scriptures, the Incarnation itself involves just those sorts of literal anthropomorphic descriptions--and yet the material body (from His mother) of God’s Incarnation is not originally existent within and as the fundamental reality of God. God is not self-existently Incarnate, but (in relation to God’s eternal self-existence) became Incarnate.

That’s an action different from the self-existent action of God, but it isn’t forced on God, or what God needed in order to become (or even be) God or to be more God. Yet it’s still a different action from God’s self-existence, as is any creation of not-God reality at all.

It may of course be true that “person” in the context of the original trinitarian disputes translates Greek philosophical terms 'prosopon' and 'hypostasis', neither of which (as Dr. Feser says) was intended to convey the idea of a “person” in the sense in which a human being is a person. But the pre-Christian philosophers from whom we derived those terms would have said that this means God is impersonal, which Dr. Feser himself is at pain to deny. And there can only be a useful distinction in that denial (either way) by reference to some kind of personality recognizable and relatable to us humans as such.

The God understood by the various pre-Christian “classical” theisms takes no special interest in man, and is rarely considered to act in justice, mercy or active love (or even in will and intellect per se).

The God of the Bible does. Granted, I don’t (as a metaphysician) need the Bible to reason that God is intrinsically essentially concerned to act in justice, mercy and active love: that’s practically what it means for trinitarian monotheism to be true instead of some other theism, and I can arrive at ortho-trin theism by straight metaphysics without Biblical exegetics.

But then, I am going to be looking for justice to be the fulfillment of fair-togetherness between persons, and for true love to be action toward fulfillment of fair-togetherness between persons.

And that opens a line of criticism as to whether some other claims about God are true or have been properly interpreted: if a proposed action of God results in final non-fair-togetherness between persons, that would be a claim of unrighteousness about God. Or in popular parlance, it would be a claim that God is actively “unloving” or “vicious”.

And now we’re back to Dr. Feser’s central critique of atheistic critiques of theism: “An atheist could intelligibly deny that such a God exists at all (just as he could intelligibly deny the existence of Platonic Forms), but to suggest that the God of classical theism might [thanks to various things claimed by theists about Him] be morally deficient merely shows that such an atheist does not understand the view he is criticizing (just as an opponent of Platonism who suggested that the Form of the Good might be unloving or vicious would only show thereby that he doesn’t understand what sort of thing a Form is supposed to be).”

A Platonist who suggested that the Form of the Good might be loving, however, would also only show thereby that he doesn’t understand what sort of thing a Form is supposed to be. But that impersonal notion of God (and of the Good) is what pre-Christian classical theism was generally about!

Appealing to that subcategory of classical theism over-against critiques that a notion of theism involves an unloving or vicious God, only succeeds by removing God from any notion of active morality, or really of any action at all. Plato’s “Form” doesn’t actually do anything; and it is very debatable whether Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover acts to move anything either. (There is a reason why he insisted on a Prime Mobile which wasn’t itself the final reality.) The God of Plato's classical theism would not act virtuously any more than act viciously or with any ethical quality (or maybe even) at all. It’s only a standard.

That’s probably why Dr. Feser himself goes on to acknowledge that “God is not a Platonic Form”. But then by the same token, when someone critiques the moral standard proposed by a theist as being actually immoral, punting back to the unintelligible amorality of the Platonic Form of the Good as a supposedly legitimate comparison is not and logically cannot be the solution.

The proper solution must keep the personalism, and especially the unique personalism, that distinguishes orthodox trinitarian theism from classical theisms, along with keeping the logical rigor involved in discussing nothing theologically less ultimate theism.

The self-sacrifice of the Most Real Reality on the messy natural injustice of the cross, in order to fulfill all justice, is the solution to the charges that the Christian God is personally vicious.

Throwing out God's personalism to avoid the charge of God's viciousness (especially while keeping the doctrinal points on which the charge of viciousness was founded to begin with!) can only be folly.

Or can only be less than orthodox trinitarian theism.


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
David said…
Hi, Jason. The thing I found weird is that you found it weird! I think really it comes down to a terminological issue. Certainly Feser thinks that God is personal (tri-personal, in fact!), but "theistic personalism" is a jargon term; I don't think it's at all a good one, and I daresay Feser would have never come up with it himself, but like lots of bad descriptions, it seems to have stuck. "Classic theism" in this context clearly doesn't refer specifically to some "classical" Greco-roman idea, but to theology in general as developed by reason and philosophy, as opposed to anti-intellectual strains of theology. Feser is first and foremost interested in getting people away from the propaganda that theology and religion are based in "blind faith" (which is always just called "faith" these days) and not in reason, as has always been the traditional Christian approach. To be sure, the doctrine of the Trinity adds to what natural theology could come up with by itself, but even there, it is not opposed to reason, and as you indicate, there is an awful lot of philosophy behind it. I don't think there's any way Feser can be said to be throwing out God's personalism; only the idea that He's a human-person-except-bigger. (Ironically, that could be called "classical theism" in the sense that pagan gods from the classical age were really just "super-humans", but again, we're stuck with the jargon the way it is.)

(The question of God's impassibility is a fascinating one. I want to read Gavrilyuk's book, but it's not cheap and I haven't found it in any libraries yet!)
Jason Pratt said…
David: {{I don't think there's any way Feser can be said to be throwing out God's personalism; only the idea that He's a human-person-except-bigger.}}

The point to my critique may have gotten a bit lost in my comparative accounts of ortho-trin's combination of personalism and the ontological rigors of classical theism (or theisms rather).

What bothers me is that in these two articles from 2010, Prof. Feser appeals to the effectively impersonal attributes of the divine in classical theism as defense against moral criticism of God. When he compares Christian theism to the Platonic Forms (for example) in order to nix a criticism that God behaves viciously, suggesting that such critics therefore don't know what they're talking about, that throws huge warning flags for me: there are very strong conceptual differences between ortho-trin and Plato's Form of the Good, and those differences make a relatedly huge difference in why no one who understood Plato's notion of the Good could ever accuse It of behaving "viciously" or otherwise being "morally deficient".

This is why I wrote, "I'm not going to go to [non-Christian classical theisms] where we disagree in order to borrow a position to help defend myself against a critique on my own position." Dr. Feser defends critiques by atheists that God is morally deficient by appealing to Plato's Form of the Good as a proper parallel; but Dr. Feser presumably knows better than to appeal to Plato's Form of the Good as a proper parallel when claiming that God is loving and benevolent--because Plato's Form of the Good is not inherently or even by a useful legal fiction loving and benevolent. It wouldn't act virtuously any more than It would act viciously.

No surprise then that Dr. Feser acknowledges God is not a Platonic Form. But he does that when he wants to advocate positions he doesn't expect to be morally critiqued by atheists (or by deists for that matter--which Dr. Feser then weirdly places with the theistic personalists, when they're exactly the modern proponents of "classical" theism!) When faced with moral critique he demonstrably appeals to that which behaves neither morally nor immorally.

I just think we have much better replies to such critiques, specifically as orthodox trinitarian Christian theists, than to pretend God is relevantly like the amoral Platonic Good (which would neither behave morally nor immorally but only exists as a standard).

David said…
Well, certainly God is different from the Form of the Good, but as I read it, Feser could have compared calling God "moral" to calling the number three "blue". To make either claim is to be very confused about something. However, God can be called "good" in a way that doesn't mean "morally good", and The Good makes a better comparison for this, because it is (presumably) clearer that the Form of the Good can clearly be correctly called "good" although it still isn't virtuous or vicious. I don't see a problem with that as far as it goes.

I'm not sure if you want to claim that God does act morally (and thus such claims should be defended directly); Feser's point is that God most certainly does not act "morally" because He transcends morality. Moral behaviour can make sense only in the context of some moral standard, and there is no standard above or beyond God (or He would not be the ultimately transcendent God). Although for human beings, there is overlap between "love", "benevolence" and "morality", they aren't the same thing, and God is loving and benevolent, but not moral. And of course, Feser does have to defend God's love and benevolence in a way that distinguishes God from the Form of the Good.

As for "deists", again the terminology is bad (etymologically it should simply be a synonym for "theist" — I really should look up where the term first came from); but I don't think deists are anything like modern proponents of classical theism. Certainly "deism" is taken to refer to a sort of superior being who could do things like make the universe, but then "go away", or not have to care about us at any rate. Such a god might have one level of transcendence above the physical world, but it is definitely not the classical ultimate ground of Being Itself. I think Feser places deists alongside the "theistic personalists" because they represent flip-sides of the modern(?!) God who is "infinitely big" but not truly transcendant.
Jason Pratt said…

Modern deists (who yes took a term that ought to just be synonymous for "theist") admittedly divorce God from acting as the ultimate ground of being in the proper sense (by proposing in effect that Nature thus created can thereby be thereafter its own final ground of being). But their error is to make God too metaphysically transcendent: they carry the uncaring inaction of the classical Greco-Roman philosophical theisms too far.

Most modern proponents of "classical theism" are Jews, Christians and Muslims, who all (even the Muslims although they're otherwise the most disconnected of the group) affirm more intentional interaction with creation by God than the Greco-Roman classical theists typically did: Judeo/Christian/Muslim theism would be (and was) far too personalistic for those classical theists to accept.

(And for better or for worse, Jews and Muslims reject orthodox trinitarian Christianity for being far, far, faaaarrrrr too personalistic per se; as I stressed above and feel it necessary to stress again. {lopped g})

Jason Pratt said…
(Part 2 of 3 to the reply. {shaking fist at Blogger comment limits!} {g})


I think I can at least agree that to compare calling God "moral" to calling the number three "blue" is to be confused about something, since even Dr. Feser agrees that God acts in ways ("loving" and "benevolent" for example) which have some kind of relevant topical connection to morality, whereas I'm having a hard time figuring out any relevant topical connection between "the number three" and "blue".

I would never, ever, ever intentionally disconnect God descriptively from morality that way; and I'd be awfully careful not to do so inadvertently either.

{{I'm not sure if you want to claim that God does act morally (and thus such claims should be defended directly)}}

I am extremely sure I want to claim that God does act morally, even if that leads to difficulties in defending that claim. The Form of the Good does not act morally (or immorally, or even amorally) because the Form of the Good does not act at all (only statically exists); but if God acts yet does not act morally or immorally then God must only act amorally.

What exactly is supposed to be the objectively and independently real standard of morality if God only ever acts amorally?? It cannot be God: God would not be acting in accord to God's own self-standard, which is preposterous! A completely fictitious Form of the Good would be a morally better standard to follow (conceptually speaking) than such a God.

(This is completely aside from the fact that the Judeo-Christian canon routinely declares and stresses God to be "good" and "righteous", in clearly moral senses not merely in a superlative notion of "good", including in declarations from the Father and the Son. The moment I accept the canon as being relevantly inspired on the topic, I had better be at least as interested in claiming and defending the moral goodness of God as Jesus when He challenged the rich young ruler to answer why he was calling Jesus good when "One there is Who is Good, even God"!)

Jason Pratt said…
(Part 3 of 3)

David: {{Moral behaviour can make sense only in the context of some moral standard, and there is no standard above or beyond God (or He would not be the ultimately transcendent God).}}

Agreed: consequently, either God Himself is the moral standard and acts in context of His own foundational reality as such (which is exactly the conceptual strength of trinitarian theism compared to any other theistic proposition); or else the moral standard--the standard of interpersonal fair-togetherness (or "righteousness" as the term is usually translated into English)--is less than God. Which would either mean God is not an interpersonal unity of persons acting to fulfill fair-togetherness with one another (i.e. not even binitarian theism is true, much less trinitarian theism), or else the proposition would be that the standard of our interpersonal fair-togtherness with one another is intrinsically (or perhaps by God's declarative fiat) less than the foundational fulfillment of fair-togetherness between persons which exists as the ultimate ground of all existence.

Since on other grounds I am convinced that trinitarian theism is true, I prefer the theological coherency of going with the moral theory that affirms and does not deny or render morally irrelevant trinitarian theism.

Whereas I have to agree that Feser's point also seems to me to be instead "that God most certainly does not act 'morally' because He [the One Who is love and justice, the One Who is Good] transcends morality."

{{And of course, Feser does have to defend God's love and benevolence in a way that distinguishes God from the Form of the Good.}}

I agree that his logic seems to add up to doing so by denying that God (unlike the mere Form of the Good) is morally good (though no doubt superlative in other ways).

{{Although for human beings, there is overlap between "love", "benevolence" and "morality", they aren't the same thing, and God is loving and benevolent, but not moral.}}

I have less than no interest in an amoral (and much less again an interest in an immoral) loving benevolence. Much of the whole point to trinitarian theism, on the contrary, is that "love", "benevolence" and "morality" are the same thing.

"Little children, let no one deceive you!--he the one doing justice is just in accord as He [Who is God] is just!" (1 John 3:7)

"One thing God has spoken
"These two things I heard:
"That power belongs to God
"And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord!
"For You do kindly pay [or complete] a man
"according to his work!" -- Psalm 62:11-12

(the root verb there being {shawlam}, to make safe, related to the word for peace, an involving by metaphorical application several actions with beneficial intentions and goals for the one being acted toward, such as fairly paying, completing, saving, being friendly, making amends, to perfect, to make good, to make prosper, to make a peace treaty)


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