Relational Theism versus the Transcendent Creator
The book Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture by John C. Peckham (Baker Academic, 2021) is an excellent example of Evangelical biblicism in the tradition of Wayne Grudem and twentieth century analytic philosophy. It exemplifies the kind of biblicism that became dominant in twentieth century Evangelicalism and is slowly becoming fully detached from confessional orthodoxy. This book fails to engage the deep logic of the trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the early church with understanding. As a result, it ends up arguing that the entire church, (including Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), totally misunderstood the fundamental doctrine of God for over 1500 years until the Enlightenment. The entire church believed in the false God of Aristotle even though it totally contradicts the Bible, and nobody noticed for 1500 years! According to Peckham’s account, it has only been since the nineteenth century that the true, biblical doctrine of God has been discovered. This narrative requires us to believe that it was liberal Protestantism that began to “correct” the tradition by affirming relational theism after Hegel. Evangelical biblicism is now joining in this revisionist task even as the liberal denominations that pioneered it die out.
Much Evangelical theology in the twentieth century has operated in an ahistorical fashion due to a dangerous level of over-confidence. The working assumption of Peckham’s book seems to be that all one has to do is read the Bible and then one can engage in high-level dogmatics using only a concordance and modern analytic philosophy. In so doing, the assumption is that we can and should correct the creeds of the ancient church and the confessions of the Protestant churches, which teach an unbiblical doctrine of God taken over by mistake from Greek philosophy. Peckham, like many others whom he quotes, rejects the catholic doctrine of God as the one, simple, immutable, eternal, self-existent, perfect, First Cause of the universe.Evangelical biblicism is now joining in this revisionist task even as the liberal denominations that pioneered it die out. Click To Tweet
Of course, he denies that he is actually rejecting it; he claims to be just “modifying” it. In place of the orthodox doctrine, he substitutes what he calls a modified classical theism, which has strong similarities to open theism. This idea of God is one of a number of theologies including theistic mutualism, theistic personalism, social trinitarianism, open theism, dynamic panentheism, pantheism and process theology that I group together under the label “relational theism.” The key difference between all forms of relational theism, on the one side, and classical theism, on the other, is not that God speaks and acts to judge and save through covenants in the history of redemption because both classical and relational theism affirm that. During the entire 1500 years of church history from Nicaea to the Enlightenment, orthodox Christianity affirmed the sending of the Son and Spirit in the missions of Incarnation and Pentecost to redeem the fallen creation. Historic orthodoxy has no problem affirming that history is real and that God acts in history. Where the difference comes is that all forms of relational theism, unlike classical theism, say that not only does God change the world but also the world changes God.
This goes to the heart of what God is. Can God change? In classical orthodoxy God is the transcendent Creator of all that is not God including space and time. God is not “in” the cosmos in the sense of being limited by creaturely categories in any way. All times are simultaneously present to God and all locations are simultaneously present to him. He can act so as to make his presence manifest to creatures, or he can act so as to be imperceptible to them. When we say he acts now this way and then that way, we are speaking anthropomorphically, which is the only way we can speak. As creatures we cannot comprehend the infinite God as he is in himself, so the only way that we can speak of him is to use analogies drawn from our creaturely experience to speak of God as if we were a being like us in certain ways. But, in doing so, it is crucial to remember that we speak this way in fear and trembling lest we demean God by inadvertently bringing him down to our level. This is why Calvin referred to the human mind as a factory of idols. We naturally – in our fallen condition – tend to reduce God to an idol of our imagination. Only the Word of God can overcome our sin, correct our mistakes and give us pure knowledge of God. Historic orthodoxy has no problem affirming that history is real and that God acts in history. Where the difference comes is that all forms of relational theism, unlike classical theism, say that not only does God change the world… Click To Tweet
Peckham distinguishes between what he calls “strict classical theism” and what he calls “moderate classical theism.” (22-23) He says that upholding the Creator–creature distinction does not require us to embrace strict classical theism. He then engages in a cavalier redefinition of key attributes of God. Immutability is redefined as God only changing when he decides to allow it rather than being changed against his will. Eternity is redefined as everlastingness. God is in time with us, but he has always existed and always will. But for God, as for creatures, the future is still the future. He claims that God is not Pure Act, but then also claims that God is self-existent, without seeming to appreciate the contradiction. No mixture of actuality and potentiality can be self-existent; such a being must be actualized by something else. Self-existence is defined by Peckham as everything else depending on God and God not depending on anything else for his existence or his ‘essential nature.” (46) By qualifying God’s nature in this way, Peckham opens the door to a denial of God’s simplicity and unity. God’s nature, if his qualification is to make sense, must consist of his “essential” nature that does not change plus, presumably, another part of his nature that does. So, God is composed of parts. As such, he would need a cause. Needing a cause makes such a god not self-existent. It also precludes his being the First Cause.
Peckham’s “covenantal theism” portrays a god who is in time like we are and essentially (that is, by nature not just by will) related to the cosmos. God acts to change the cosmos and God allows creatures to act in ways that change him. What are we to make of all this?
The first thing we have to ask is whether the transcendence of God has not died the death of a thousand cuts. God is certainly the highest being in the cosmos in covenantal theism, but God is capable of being changed by the creatures he has made, which means that God is engaged in a back and forth with them that puts creatures, in a very important sense, on his level. The way in which God and creatures are on the same level in covenantal theism is not a matter of will but ontology. God and the creation share the same kind of being to the extent that both are able to effect change in the other. The difference is one of comparatives and superlatives, but not a difference in kind. He seems to think all natural theology is modern perfect being theology and never really discusses the Aristotelian and Thomist proofs for God’s existence and their implications for God’s attributes.The power to cause change goes only one way. God creates; we are created. God is the One who causes the creation, but the creation cannot cause God. This is the reason why Divine-human interaction is always a matter of pure grace. Click To Tweet
Can transcendence – in the sense that the Bible means it in teaching the doctrine of creation ex nihilo – be understood without coming to the conclusion that God’s being is utterly different in kind from creaturely being? If God’s being is utterly different from created being, then it is greater and higher than the created being it causes. The power to cause change goes only one way. God creates; we are created. God is the One who causes the creation, but the creation cannot cause God. This is the reason why Divine-human interaction is always a matter of pure grace.
Grace is the key. It seems to me that the view of God taught in Peckham’s book – and many other Evangelical works – is the necessary outworking of a synergistic view of salvation. In Arminianism, the bottom-line doctrine that is prized above all others is the teaching that we must – by an act of sovereign, undetermined will – choose to believe and be saved. Arminianism cannot allow that basic act of repentance and faith to be anything but the sole act of the creature. There can be wooing, pleading and enabling from the Divine side, but the final decision must originate in and be under the control of, the creature. In other words, the creature must in some way affect (or change) God.
In Reformed theology, the implications of God as transcendent Creator and sovereign Lord of history, as taught in Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis, John and Romans (and other parts of Scripture), are fully worked out and applied to the ordo salutis. God is not like the other gods because he is the transcendent Creator and this means that his actions in both creation and redemption are always a matter of grace. God creates, judges, saves, restores and makes all things new. Creatures are created, judged, saved, restored and made new.
In all the pagan religions of the world, it is a matter of God and humans negotiating terms. There are sacrifices understood as gifts and bribes designed to win the god’s favor. In the Bible God, himself provides himself as the only sufficient sacrifice. Humans are given laws, which they break. Humans are brought into covenants, which they fail to keep. Humans are given revelation in nature and then via special revelation, which they proceed to distort. Human inability is the constant theme of the Bible and Divine grace is the answer.
The main reason why the Reformed faith is truly catholic is that Calvin, Luther and the Protestant scholastic traditions that followed them took the catholic doctrine of God, which had been preserved in the Western church up to the sixteenth century and used it to purify the church of doctrinal confusion surrounding issues of soteriology and ecclesiology. The Roman Church went too far in assuming to itself the power that belongs to God alone to give grace to sinners. And in so doing, it compromised the transcendence of God as the Redeemer.God creates, judges, saves, restores and makes all things new. Creatures are created, judged, saved, restored and made new. Click To Tweet
The Reformation was an uphill battle against the ubiquitous human tendency to assert itself as equal to God in at least some respect. That tendency reasserted itself in the Arminian denial of the purely gracious nature of regeneration taught by the reformers, that is, monergism. We should not be surprised that teaching pure doctrine has been such a struggle for the church; the history of Israel in the Old Testament is given for our instruction (1 Cor. 10:6), and what we learn from it is the prevalence of human sin and pride and how quickly and easily it asserts human equality with God. As Paul so beautifully puts it, in Philippians 2, the humility of the Messiah in lowering himself and making himself nothing is the antidote to the pride and self-exaltation of man. In humbling himself even to the point of death on a cross, the Messiah did the opposite of what Adam and his children did. And in so doing, he revealed the gracious nature of God.
The nature of God is to act graciously to create, judge, save and redeem his creation. The Gnostics drove a wedge between creation and redemption, but the church rejected Gnosticism. The medieval church affirmed God as the transcendent Creator but began to allow semi-Pelagian ideas to worm their way into the church’s teaching. Some began to teach that salvation comes by the cooperation of the human will with the Divine grace mediated through the sacramental priesthood under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The Reformation responded with the recovery of justification by faith alone through the grace given by Christ alone in the preaching of the Word. The gracious character of God the Redeemer is rooted not in the will of God, but in the nature of God. Thus, the catholic or universally received doctrine of God – expressed in the trinitarian and Christological dogmas of Nicaea and Chalcedon – became authoritative once again for the church’s understanding of salvation. The gospel of salvation is rooted in the nature of God. God is sovereign in both creation and redemption, and he is sovereign by nature.
This is why contemporary Evangelicalism is in danger of losing catholicity and drifting off into sectarianism as liberal Protestantism has done already. The danger is not so much losing the gospel as it is twisting the gospel into a religion of salvation by the joint efforts of God and man with both operating on the same plane of reality, that is, synergism. The denial of salvation by grace alone requires drastic alterations in the doctrine of God, changes that turn God into a being among beings within time who both changes humans and is changed by humans. This notion of God is more similar to that of the gods of the nations surrounding Israel than it is like the biblical revelation of the transcendent Creator of Genesis 1 and the transcendent Redeemer of Exodus 3. God is sovereign in both creation and redemption, and he is sovereign by nature. Click To Tweet
Relational theism is the doctrine of God that follows logically from the denial of the doctrines of grace. In a sense, the situation today is even worse than it was in the sixteenth century. Then the heresy was soteriological – the denial of grace in salvation. Now, however, the heresy is the nature of God itself. To be consistent, we must affirm that God is a God of pure grace in creation as well as redemption. One might say that in the sixteenth century the third article of the creed was at stake, but today the first article is at stake as well.
The paradox Isaiah grappled with was how a holy God could keep his covenant promises to such an unholy people as Israel. If the Davidic covenant of 1 Samuel 7 and the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 12 are going to be kept, then blessing must come to the nations through One who would sit upon the throne of David forever. But if the sin of Israel must be punished since God is by nature holy, how can this occur? The mysterious, incredible answer is difficult to understand but profoundly determinative of salvation history. Once it is given the Incarnation has become an absolute necessity. The answer comes in Isaiah 43:3 “For I am the LORD your God, the holy One of Israel, your Savior.”