God Is a Rock and Often Cries: The Pressing Need to Recalibrate Classical Theism

Ryan M. Hurd
Friday, February 12th 2021
“Describing God in bodily pictures is the most fitting way of doing it.”

Thomas Aquinas, I Sent d 34 q 3 a 1 resp

There is an opportunity which is incipient to the current surge of classical theism; it is one to be seized and to be hopeful about. However, I am acutely concerned at an abort of the heavy labor involved in increasing understanding whilst this movement still lags in infancy. I am especially distressed at letting things go slack now that lots of people know they are to say God is simple, for example; and in fact I am even more disturbed because lots of people know to say God is simple (and related true statements).

The main edge to my anxiety is that the opportunity for significant errors to breed verges toward the infinite precisely when these points of theology are introduced, or in this case reintroduced to the discipline of theology, rather than deduced from the requisite principle in whose light alone they can be allowed to operate in a theological system. The situation today is primarily the former and hardly the latter. To merely introduce something that really is a theological conclusion, particularly when the context is redressing the slippage of orthodoxy and so everyone’s nerves are strained and raw, suggests that its use in theology will be unnatural, feigned, and overall at odds or at least unhooked from the principles of theology whence we are actually to elucidate our theology. The de facto result? These points become the new principles and then theology dies. This I believe is the natural outgrowth of where classical theism sits today. To deduce something (assuming this is performed with the intelligence required to actually perform the deduction, rather than merely say it) means not only that one has hands on the principles but also the means or reasons for the conclusion as well as therefore some understanding of what that conclusion is and does for theology on the larger scale. In such a case, these conclusions remain in their proper focus and are apt to be sorted within the unity of systematic insight according to their proper weight.

The current milieu on the whole lacks an adequate grasp of the higher principles of theology to be able to even mention “simplicity” without extreme likelihood of its misuse by either its chief proponents or their hearers (I continue to use “simplicity” here simply as a stand-in; other things could be supplied). I must express that because of this I am deeply sympathetic to those who have been resistant or outright opposed to classical theism precisely because they recognize where much of its current version defaults to (i.e., a bad place). Their unease is not surprising, and I resonate with it entirely. The conclusion that God is in every way not composite is a judgment of negation that was achieved after hundreds of years of synthesizing theological work and the contributions of some geniuses. Present today and floating in the air without the theological vantage required to draw this conclusion out into the healing light of truth, the dogmatic point is a scarier threat in many ways than those who suppose God is composite in some way, particularly in the carefully parsed “metaphysical” ways most popular in non-classical theist “models,” as they like to call them (e.g., analytic theism versions of simplicity). Speaking pragmatically, sometimes being wrong with some understanding of the true is better than being right without much understanding. But if we continue to press to increase some understanding, the payoff is extraordinary–and not, on the whole, where most people are looking for it. The true punch and efficacy of “classical theism,” if it prevails unto maturity, will not be in its manipulation of negative names like simplicity, but as the older catholic theology from which it stems, in the animated and bracing ability to obtain insight into what God is positively (no matter analogically), to allow some names to signify the divine essence, to have set methods and procedures for turning any and all creatures to the good and holy use of divine praise, and in short to incorporate “all of goodness and being among creatures” into the treatise on He Who Is and to wield it with viv and nerve.

Here in the remainder of this short remark I want to simply expound Thomas’s statement that I set out at the start; and I have brought it out because it is one way to remind gently that the actual theological system and principles within which “simplicity” operates would likely be surprising in its main features and contours to much of classical theism today. Said otherwise, I have brought forward the authority of Thomas here because sometimes we require a reminder that the greatest masters of theology quite often break the very bonds that classical theists are so sternly forging today. I will confess and repent that I translated the line rather cheekily; a closer, perhaps better translation would be, “It is highly fitting that divine things be designated for us with bodily similitudes” (convenientissimum est divina nobis similitudinibus corporalibus designari)—but this just lacks the snaz of an opening line.

But if this line were found in the wild of the internet scroll, it would likely be attributed to a personalist of the rankest sort and subject to many a sneer. And indeed, many non-classical theists get the feeling, and are often justified in it, that classical theists have crossed their fingers behind their back when they recite a whole lot of Bible verses, or have their consciences pricked when they inform their dew-eyed children that God knows owies too. Everything from God is a rock to God often cries has to have a footnote, or a whispered negation after a conversation has concluded. And I think that if one is tempted to flinch at these and other statements unveiling God in the bodies of creatures, then one is to take it as evidence of his need to transcend to the place where theology is yet alive.

The dogmatic truth is this: it really and truly is extremely fitting for us to display what is in God in physical ways taken from the material world and suited or open to the sensory powers of human persons. Whereas in this article (I Sent d 34 q 3 a 1) the authority of Dionysius stands sufficient, in the article following, Thomas cites the obvious data of Scripture where we frequently find the names “even of brute animals” set forth God to us. This is then a dogmatic point immediately footed upon divine authority, and no metaphysical achievements about the divine simplicity are in any way out of step with that.

Regarding this claim to truth, this affirmation that it is so, Thomas then provides a fourfold explanation for how this is so, driving for understanding of what or why it is that has been said as so. The explanation itself is adopted from Dionysius, in his Celestial Hierarchies and his Epistle to Titus. These rationes are not “proofs” of the point; they do not lend greater confirmation or predispose (or afterward dispose) us to accept this dogmatic point. They are an expression or elucidation of what is and what is given and what has been received as given.

The first and principle explanation is this: this judgment is true “due to the height of the matter, which exceeds the capacity of our intellect.” Citing this “double responsibility,” as we might term it, has a long history both in Thomas as well as in the tradition. The technical, highly precise version? It is not only on the part of us, and in that sense it is also in some way (aliquomodo) on the part of God (ex parte Dei) (cf., e.g., the famous I Sent d 2 q 1 a 3). Put roughly, there is something in God that renders it the case, namely the divine essence itself, and something in us, namely the narrowness of our intellect. “Hence, we are not able”—notice the “inability” is tied up with us—“to comprehend the truth of divine things according to God’s mode, and thus it is requisite that the truth be proposed to us according to our mode.”

The point here is of course basic to theology and transcends the localized issue of names whose regular intention is toward creatures embodied. We proceed in theology only in our way, purely analogically; as God is known, thus is he named; what is known is in the knower in the mode of the knower, or what is received is received according to the mode of the recipient; and many other cardinal maxims that are to be invoked here. Everything in theology proper, not just the statements, “God is a rock,” is pierced through with this method. It proceeds in the way that is “connatural,” concordant, fitting, proportionate, adequate, i.e. matching exactly what we are. What we are makes what our knowledge process is, makes what our knowledge is shot through with: a progression by way of the sensible unto the intelligible. “And thus under the figure of sensible things the intelligible things are placed before us, so that from the sensible which we know the soul arises unto the unknown.” In this case, the unknown is God, who always remains as one utterly unknown in his every disclosure. And the most fitting method to know him, with respect to us, is out of the material world. As much as the material world is the wellspring of our knowledge of God, so much is the fittingness of our metaphorical names. Given all of our knowledge of God is from creatures, just as the apostle Paul says, so metaphorical names are the “most” or “extremely” fitting (convenientissimum, as Thomas says) in this respect.

The remaining three(fold) reason(s) are subordinate to this first chief and head explanation; in a certain sense, they further intensify it or are deeper intuits of its singular aim. The second explanation of what this truth propounds is: “Because there is a twofold knowing part in us (i.e., intellective and sensitive), divine wisdom took care so that each part, according to the way it be possible, might be led back into divine things.” We are not brought to God by leaving behind our bodies; we, are brought to God. Roughly speaking, in creation, God’s wisdom was not without forethought for our return to him in grace and the return of the whole of us. The sensitive part of man (encompassing the whole of his sensory powers, in each of their various degrees of perfection), is capable to receive the sensible which is its proportionate object of (sensory) knowledge, and so God condescends even to present himself to these knowing powers that are a part of man whom he desires. “Given this [twofold knowing part in man], God employed the figures of bodily things, which can be comprehended by the sensitive part [of man], because it could not attain the very intellectual things of divine matters.”

The third aspect of the explanation of this truth is, that we know of God in this life more truly (verius) what is not, rather than what is (quid non sit…quid sit). “Because it is to be understood of all things which we say about God, that they belong to him not in the same way as they are found among creatures, but through some mode of imitation and similitude, for that reason God’s eminence in these things was usually displayed more expressly through those things which are more clearly to be removed from him. And these are bodily things.”

The method is wise. Everything we say of God requires significant and sustained adjustment in order to employ it in theology; those things that are more obviously in need of our careful use in theology—like rocks—are that much more useful, in that they themselves prime us to undergo the long series of negative judgments that we are constantly to be using in all names of God. Not only laypeople but also theologians are forgetful of this regular, elongated process of redressing or adjusting via negation when it comes to higher perfections like love; but even children know there is something not quite right in thinking of God with hands and stopping there. And here is the nub, and another way of expressing why these names are “most fitting”: When one undergoes the adjustment process in seeing God in a stone, and does not intentionally perform that same process in seeing God in love, then one has in fact achieved higher knowledge of God in the first than in the second. For this reason, inasmuch as the name “stone” more readily prompts us to perform this correcting process, so it is more fitting to describe God with.

The fourth element of the explanation is: “On account of the hiddenness of divine truth; because the depths of the faith are to be hidden both from the infidels, lest they mock, and the simple, lest they take it as an occasion for contriving error.” It goes without saying that the concern is not for theology’s reputation here, but for concrete human persons: it is injurious to unbelievers to mock the faith, and to the faithful who are not only led into error, but then derive other things therefrom.

This is the frequent twofold care that Thomas returns to throughout his work. Today in an age of information access, the virtue of hiding knowledge by shutting up has been lost or worse, converted into a vice; but there is such a thing as sanctified refusal to disclose (John 16:12). It goes without saying that decision to withhold by deciding to be silent can only be encouraged as a virtue after the wisdom has been nurtured to do so. But that this is a desirable virtue to inculcate should be apparent to all. We do not tell our children many things, and should not. So doctors of the church are as so many nursing mothers: they spare the people of God from many things that would be harmful to them, perhaps permanently in this life, or perhaps till they come of age. As Thomas says in De Trin q 2 a 4 resp, “The words of a teacher are so to be moderated, that they profit the hearer, not harm him…. There are certain things, when declared openly, that harm the hearers.” This, he says, can happen in two ways; one, when the mysteries of the faith are laid rugged and bare before “infidels” i.e. non-believers who are still “abhorring the faith”; the other is “when some subtleties are proposed to those who are simple; they seize on them as matter for contriving errors, given they have not comprehended things perfectly.” One could readily bring to mind the divine simplicity. Thus, citing from Gregory, “One who in holy eloquence now understands the heights, should conceal with silence his sublime perceptions in the presence of those who are not currently grasping them. This is lest, given the scandal of heart, he destroy the faithful little one or the infidel who had been able to believe before.” The Christian theologian is always concerned both for the believing lambs in the church as well as for the unbelievers who, if not for the consequences of his indiscretion, had been able to believe.

Whereas there are many further qualifications one needs to make, and explanation for how to use metaphorical names in their incorporation within systematics, nonetheless the principle point stands. Not all is simplicity! Theology proper does not draw its lifeblood from negative names. It irrupts into us as a vision of God himself here below out of the goodness and being given by him and “held” by the world at large. We behold him in the mirror of being, to which we are first introduced when we are met with the material world and, for the record, as we return to it in intellectual reflection. Engagement with the creature in such a way that it becomes an engagement with God himself is a tricky business, but it is not a wholly different business if we kick up a stone than if we are enriched with the presence of creaturely love. May there always be: “ever-greater dissimilitude” (Lateran IV, 1215).

Ryan M Hurd is a doctoral student at the Theologische Universiteit Kampen, a teaching fellow in systematic theology at The Davenant Institute.

Friday, February 12th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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