How Classical Theism Has Shaped My Spiritual Life
Baptism by fire is one way to learn theology and this was certainly my experience as I waded into the waters of seminary. I grew up never knowing a day apart from Christ and did not have many questions about God or salvation. I read my Bible and was blessed by having two parents who loved and pointed me to Christ. But as I waded into my seminary education the calm waters quickly turned turbulent. I had a couple of professors who were intent on waking students from their dogmatic slumber to rethink chief tenets of Christian doctrine. One professor regularly bandied about quotations and observations from Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. He railed against the historic doctrine of God because it was supposedly captive to Greek philosophy. More than false assumptions about God, I pondered whether I actually knew the God I professed to trust. Click To TweetI took three different courses from another professor who, in eighteen months, never brought a Bible to class. If he wanted to quote the Bible, he would borrow a student’s copy of the Word. But one book he regularly brought to class was Clark Pinnock’s The Openness of God, which promoted the idea that God had surrendered his sovereignty and omniscience when he created humans so that they could be free to will and choose apart from divine interference. Day after day the unrelenting artillery barrage against my understanding of God took its toll. I wondered whether I was entrenched in unchecked error. More than false assumptions about God, I pondered whether I actually knew the God I professed to trust.
Scripture and Classics
Looking down the barrel of these challenges caused me to hunker down in the Scripture and in classic Christian theological works. In addition to the reading for my classes, on my own I devoured Augustine’s Confessions, John Calvin’s Institutes, the first volume of Francis Turretin’s Institutes, the works of Jonathan Edwards, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, as well as many of R. C. Sproul’s books. In different ways these works all pointed in the same direction—the God of historic Christianity was very different from the God of Moltmann, Pinnock, and my professors. I had to determine whether the historic or this novel doctrine of God was correct. Click To TweetI had to determine whether the historic or this novel doctrine of God was correct. For me, the first and easiest step in this investigation was to reject the absurd idea that God surrendered his sovereignty and omniscience to make room for human freedom. The clincher was comparing two very different ideas of God’s knowledge: Open Theism vs. the Bible. The Openness of God explores the practical implications of denying God’s omniscience as it relates to seeking his guidance in life. The book states, “Since God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.” The book then gives the following example: “Given that God may not know exactly what the state of the economy will be over the next five or ten years, it is possible that what God in his wisdom believes at present to the be best course of study for a student may not be an option that will allow her after graduation to pursue the profession for which she had prepared” (165). What’s the point in praying to God, then? Why not consult an economics expert or a bookie in Vegas?
Sovereignty and Suffering
The Openness of God stands in direct conflict with passages of Scripture too numerous to list, though Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is certainly exemplary: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). God both ordained the crucifixion of Christ and held the “lawless men” accountable for their sinful actions. Peter succinctly reports that God is sovereign, and humans are responsible. Peter succinctly reports that God is sovereign, and humans are responsible. Click To TweetIn the words of Stephen Charnock, “God executes nothing in time that he had not ordained from eternity whereby it should be brought about—as the determination of our Savior to suffer was not a new will but an eternal counsel and wrought no change in God” (Existence and Attributes of God, 504). God’s sovereignty is a doctrine that appears on every page of Scripture and is a great source of comfort and assurance to believers because nothing happens for the “hell of it,” or because God has turned away so that humans can have their freedom. The Bible assured me of the historic Christian theology from Augustine, to Aquinas, to the Reformers, to Charnock, and all the way to me as I sat in my dorm room pouring over the Word. What was stunning to me, however, is that God has not only ordained all things but that he has also submitted to his own providence through the incarnation and ministry of the Son. As Dorothy Sayers has astutely observed, “That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God and find him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed.”
The second, and to me, more challenging question surrounded my professor’s claims about the Unmoved Mover versus Moltmann’s suffering God. This was a question that vexed me for several years. When I left seminary, I finally had the chance to study Moltmann’s The Crucified God, and I was very disappointed. My seminary professors spoke so much and highly of the work that I expected to encounter a devastating critique of traditional, orthodox, theology (proper). Instead, the book left two impressions on me. First, it was exegetically very thin. Second, I sensed that the book was inaccurate, especially about the claims regarding Martin Luther. My suspicions about Moltmann’s historical claims were later confirmed by David J. Luy’s Dominus Mortis, which persuasively argued that Luther affirmed the traditional, catholic, doctrine of God—rather than a passibilist God as Moltmann and others have claimed, Luy argues that Luther taught the doctrine of God’s impassibility. On the first issue regarding the exegetical and theological rationale for the immutable and impassible God, the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Change? and Does God Suffer?, Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, and Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, helped me navigate the theological issues to understand and appreciate that classical theism carefully traces the lines of divine revelation to present an accurate picture of the triune God.
The Impassable God
Some people might recoil at the thought of an impassible God, a God who does not and cannot suffer, and yet the scriptural truth of God’s impassibility deepened my love and thankfulness to God. God is utterly transcendent and unlike humans. As Balaam instructed Balak, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num. 23:19). God is immutable. Or in the words of James, God is the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (1:19). God neither changes in his being nor eternal felicity. Why? Because as Aquinas explains, passion is either the “effect of action,” or what we can call a reaction. God neither changes in his being nor eternal felicity. Why? Because as Aquinas explains, passion is either the “effect of action,” or what we can call a reaction. Click To TweetOr, “any kind of change, even if belonging to the perfecting process of nature” (Summa Theologica, Ia q. 97 art. 2). Stated in the simple yet profound language of the Westminster Confession: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions” (II.i). God affirms his immutability as the foundation of his unchanging plan to save Israel: “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6). If God was mutable and subject to passions, then he might change his mind about everything and anything. But his immutability and impassibility tell us that his love for fallen sinners is immovable.
People still might question an immutable love because, how can God truly love me if he is remote and distant from my suffering? What good is a love that is remote and aloof? Yet, this is the amazing thing that classical theism highlights—the utterly transcendent God has drawn near to us in the person of the Son, he who is fully God and fully man. This is the amazing thing that classical theism highlights—the utterly transcendent God has drawn near to us in the person of the Son, he who is fully God and fully man. Click To TweetAs Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Likewise, “Although he,” Christ, “was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). God has drawn near as a man and the person of the Son has suffered as a man—God is not remote but is Immanuel, God with us (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). The truth of the incarnation of the Son, who is at the same time “very God, and very man, yet one Christ” (WCF VIII.ii) thrilled my heart. God’s immutability and impassibility guarantees the fact that we love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and his love for us does not and will not change. If God does change, however, then tremble at the thought that God may change his plan because something has disrupted his eternal felicity. Blessedly, this cannot happen, and we can rejoice in knowing that the impassible God has taken on a passible nature by coming as a man to save us from our sins. To quote the words of John Wesley, “Amazing love how can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me”‽ Classical theism has deepened my love and appreciation for who God is and what he has done for me, miserable sinner that I am.