A number of recent evangelical theologians have reshaped and redefined one of the most central doctrines of Christianity: the doctrine of God. In particular, the dogmas of divine simplicity, eternality, infinity, immutability, impassibility, and triune relations of origin have been widely redefined and even rejected.
Yet these doctrines have been a mainstay of biblical Christianity for centuries, for millennia. These teachings appeared in Christian confessions and in the great writings of Christian theology. Until the twentieth-century, almost every Christian thought they were biblical. But that is no longer the case.
This change confronts us with the question: can we trust our theology? Is it correct? Why are we biblical now but not then? What makes us right and them wrong? What confidence can we have in unshakeable revealed truth if we cannot agree on the central topic of Christianity anymore, namely, God?
Before answering that question, consider the following proofs for the above statements. The following paragraphs list the doctrines mentioned above and then cites evangelical theologians who either redefine or reject these doctrines. Afterward, I will reflect briefly on what this means and whether or not we can still trust evangelical theology. (Preview: we can)
Divine simplicity traditionally meant something like: God is without parts, passions, and possibility. Today, some deny or redefine this doctrine. The two main arguments against divine simplicity are: (1) it is not biblical and (2) it is incoherent.
John Feinberg, for example, writes, “There is no verse that explicitly teaches that God is simple.” (2001: 327). While this is not his only argument, this probably makes up the primary reason that he rejects the doctrine. Thus, he can conclude, “It seems clear that we cannot hold the static view of God that so many within the classical Christian tradition have held” and “there is ample reason to reject simplicity” (2001: 266, 335).
John Frame also denies or at least modifies divine simplicity. He writes, “My concern is simply that Scripture does represent God as a complex being. He performs innumerable acts for innumerable reasons. He has innumerable thoughts and plans. His love has innumerable objects. Are we supposed to deny all of these biblical teachings for the sake of the simplicity doctrine?” (2017).
Wayne Grudem redefines divine simplicity without rejecting its classical formation. Actually, he does not mention the classical definition. No discussion of act and potency exists in his Systematic Theology. Instead, he calls the doctrine “unity” and affirms part of the traditional definition of simplicity but bypasses the metaphysical implications of simplicity (1996: 177).
Alvin Plantinga finds two philosophical objections to the doctrine. He explains, “In the first place, it is exceedingly hard to grasp or construe this doctrine, to see just what divine simplicity is. Secondly, insofar as we do have a grasp of this doctrine, it is difficult to see why anyone would be inclined to accept it; the motivation seems shrouded in obscurity” (1980: 28).
Nicholas Wolterstorff tries to explain why divine simplicity should seem so incoherent to modern philosophy. He concludes that we simply have different “ontological styles” than the medievals did (1991: 535). On this, he is right as Charles Taylor, Alisdair McIntyre, and others have demonstrated.
The traditional doctrine of eternality affirms that God has no beginning nor end and does not exist in time since he experiences no change. This doctrine follows from simplicity and immutability.
As might be expected, once the former two doctrines lose their force, so does this one. Feinberg thus concludes, “I believe that the best way to understand God’s relation to time is to see God as temporal” (2001: 427). John Frame writes, “Scripture often presents God as acting in time, so it certainly is not possible to exclude God from time altogether” (2013: Loc. 10136-10145). Both theologians believe Scripture teaches this view.
Part of the reason why is the conviction that what we see in Scripture directly applies to God. John Frame explains, “Eternal life is life without end, in fellowship with the eternal God. So one would naturally think that the term has the same meaning when applied to God” (2013: Loc. 10145-10155). While both do not deny anthropomorphisms, they do start with events as we experience them and then reason upwards to God’s experience of them.
Wayne Grudem does not quite go so far, yet he does not affirm the traditional doctrine of eternity. He writes, “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.” (1996: 168). Later on, he claims that God exists in time but in a nuanced way (1996: 172). For Grudem, God sees the progress of events as he rules time (1996: 172).
The traditional doctrine of infinity affirms God’s boundless existence which transcends all being; God has no spacial limits nor can anything circumscribe him.
John Frame denies the traditional conception of infinity citing Psalm 147:5 as the only biblical evidence. He adds a further caveat that Psalm 147 talks about the infinity of God’s understanding and only is portrayed as such in the KJV (2013: loc. 10070). He thus finds no biblical reason to affirm the infinity of God at least as traditionally defined.
He hints that the traditional view is too Greek: “In Greek philosophy, infinity is either a negative concept (absence of definite characteristics) or a positive one (existing so far beyond reality that it cannot be named. Both of these concepts reflect what I have called the non-Christian view of transcendence, and as such they are alien to biblical thought” (2013: loc.10070-10079).
Frame thinks infinity means something like perfection (2013: Loc 10079). And so he uses it to express that God is “free from the limitations implicit in creaturely existence” and “God’s attributes are supremely perfect, without any flaw” (2013: loc 10079).
Wayne Grudem agrees. He sees infinity as meaning that God has no limitations as we do (1996: 167). Of course, this makes sense since Grudem sees God as somehow existing in time in some nuanced fashion.
Immutability traditionally meant that God cannot change because he does not move through time and because he is pure act (simple). But many now affirm that God changes in some way.
John Feinberg, for example, redefines traditional immutability because he sees it as unbiblical. He explains, “So, a nuanced notion of immutability is needed to accommodate biblical theism, but such a nuanced notion won’t fit atemporal eternity” (2001: 432). Elsewhere he writes, “if one defines immutability as I have, so that God can change his relationships, then it isn’t clear that an immutable being must also be simple” (2001: 328). Since traditional views of God demand a sort of coherence between his attributes of simplicity and immutability, Feinberg rightly sees the need to redefine immutability to ensure that God is not simple.
It is worth pointing out that the reason why he denies immutability is because he works from human experience up to God’s experience: “My contention is that in order to choose a notion of divine immutability that best fits biblical data, we must delineate ways an individual might change and then see which of those ways could apply to God without destroying something essential to the biblical concept of divine immutability” (2001: 267). So we can understand how God changes by thinking about how we do.
But this leads to him denying the traditional notion of immutability: “It is not necessary to understand divine immutability either as classical Christian theists like Aquinas and Anselm did or as process theists or open view proponents hold it in our day. While my position bears some affinities to the process and open views of divine immutability, there are significant differences” (2001: 276).
Wayne Grudem does not quite go so far. Yet he also affirms a sort of mutability in God: “God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations” (1996: 163). Elsewhere, he justifies God changing his mind through the idea of God presently doing so, which suggests a sort of temporality to God. Further, he affirms that God responds differently depending on the specific situation (1996: 164). In this way, God may change.
John Frame affirms that God can truly enter into new covenantal relationships with people because Scripture so. Hence, he writes, “This is the Gospel, and I determined not to accept any metaphysical premise that compromised this covenantal relation between God and man” (2017). God’s ability to change or at least enter into new relationships plays a central role in his understanding of the Gospel. It is necessary for him; the Gospel relies on God changing in his covenantal relationship.
Impassibility traditionally meant something like: nothing can change how God loves because God’s characteristics do not change nor can any created thing change his unchanging nature.
Wayne Grudem understands God’s emotions as being different than ours, yet God still has some emotional change in him. He writes, “The idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture, and for that reason I have not affirmed God’s impassibility in this book. Instead, quite the opposite is true, for God, who is the origin of our emotions and who created our emotions, certainly does feel emotions (1996: 166).” At the level of definition, it does not appear that he correctly understood the traditional view of impassibility which focuses less on emotions and more on creation’s ability to effect a change in God.
Since impassibility is a corollary to divine simplicity and immutability, it stands to reason that Feinberg, Frame, and others would want to nuance their understanding of the doctrine or perhaps deny it.
Triune relations of origin
Christians traditionally affirmed that the Son differs from the Father through eternal relations of origin. For example, the Son eternally begets from the Father. This doctrine too has come under scrutiny.
Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, John Feinberg, and many others have reworked the doctrines of eternal generation. They have also affirmed a relationship of eternal submission between the Son and Father. I have documented this elsewhere, and will simply point to this article.
One citation will suffice to illustrate the point. John Feinberg, as an example, finds the doctrine of trinitarian relations in God as being nonbiblical and incoherent: “In sum, it seems wisest to abandon the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. They are shrouded in obscurity as to their meaning, and biblical support for them is nowhere near as strong as supposed” (2001: 494). Suffice it to say, this denial of trinitarian relations contrasts sharply with the Christian tradition.
What changed that could allow certain beliefs of Christianity to somehow no longer seem plausible? And more than that, why have so few people lobbied a complaint? What led to the questioning of God’s simplicity, eternality, immutability, infinity, impassibility, and triune relations?
Here is one answer that we can derive by examining ourselves: if our approach to the Bible does not lead us to conclude that divine simplicity is a biblical doctrine, then we probably have a different approach to Scripture than nearly all Christians have had throughout history.
We differ from our earlier fathers and mothers in many ways. We differ in ways of viewing the world (cosmology), things in the world (ontology), and the essence of those things (metaphysics). We differ in our approach to Scripture in that we define literal interpretation quite differently than our forebears. We differ in our approach to theology and how to understand theological meaning from biblical texts. In short, we do not just differ; but we differ greatly.
The sooner we recognize this the sooner we can overcome the current crisis in evangelical confidence. We have moved the flag. We do not stand with our forebears here. We do not agree with them on the question: what is God.
The only way forward is to go backward. We need to reinhabit the thought world of earlier generations to see whether or not their theology plausibly made sense of Scripture. We need to abandon, in the language of C. S. Lewis, chronology snobbery.
If we go backward and sympathetically try to understand our forebears and their theological interpretation of Scripture and find them wanting, so be it. But until we do, our plausibility structures will continue to prevent some of us from affirming what I consider to be foundational biblical truths.
God is simple, immutable, impassible, infinite, eternal, and distinguishable through three subsisting persons in one simple essence. Any other view wrongly grasps the theological meaning of Scripture. Evangelical theology does have a future. We can restore confidence in our theology. But the way forward is to go backward.
And thankfully, by God’s good providence, a new generation of biblical and faithful theologians have arisen who have once again claimed a biblical vision for God. This new generation has begun to walk in old paths again. For this reason, evangelical theology has a future. It just needs to keep going backward to realize it.