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We need to talk about God

12 February 2016

David Bentley Hart tackles the limitations of language in defining the infinite and indefinable


In the beginning: The Creation by James Tissot (1836-1902)

In the beginning: The Creation by James Tissot (1836-1902)

IN THE parlance of Christian theological tradition, the “doctrine of God” encompasses primarily what can be said about the divine attributes from within the limits of natural human reason, and apart from the special revelation of God in Christ. Only secondarily does it move on to the particular ways in which the understanding of those attributes is inflected and modified by Christian belief.

There is an old scholastic distinction that is useful here: between theology de deo uno (regarding God as one), and theology de deo trino (regarding God as Trinity). The former concerns the God who can be known by all peoples at all times, and the latter, the Trinitarian life of God, known from within the unfolding history of salvation.

The work of a theologian belongs to the “doctrine of God” so long as it proceeds strictly in that order: opening out from the natural knowledge of God towards the embrace of God’s supernatural disclosure of himself.

Admittedly there are some Christian theologians who object to approaching divine things from that vantage point. But the vast majority of Christian thinkers over the ages have thought theological reflection on the natural knowledge of God not only a worthy task, but in fact a necessary moment in the mind’s rational assent to God’s self-revelation.

Those who have thought otherwise — especially in the modern period — have believed that no proper relation exists between the “God of philosophy” and the “God of faith”, or between (as they put it) the God of (fallen) natural reason and the God of (sovereign) divine revelation.

Invariably, however, every version of this principled opposition not only fails to accord with the explicit claims of scripture but, if subjected to scrupulous analysis, leads to one of two equally incoherent conclusions: either a division between the God of creation (whose nature is reflected in all his works) and the God of salvation; or an alienation of human reason (understood as at least a vestige of the divine image in us) from God’s revelation (understood as a rationally comprehensible manifestation of truth).


WHAT, then, are the “classical” divine attributes, as enumerated in theological tradition? Here, unfortunately, the best that can be offered is an all-too-hasty summary, which omits most of the reasoning behind those ascriptions. Even so . . .

To begin with, God can be known (so says St Paul, for instance) from the display of his power in creation. And this knowledge, as elaborated in Christian metaphysical tradition, is of God as the source of the being of all things.

That is to say, not only does the majesty and order of creation declare the glory of God, but the very ontological contingency of creation irresistibly indicates the ground of “necessary being” on which the whole shifting, fleeting fabric of created being depends. And we see this contingency in the impotence either of any finite thing by itself, or of the whole ensemble of finite realities, as a totality, to provide a rationally cogent explanation in itself for its existence.

Another way of saying this (and all classical divine attributions are merely different ways of saying the same thing) is that God must be conceived not as a discrete being among other beings, but as being itself in its fullness.

That is, God is not some particular thing embraced within — and so dependent on — a larger collection of things, but is the one inexhaustible source of the power of existence in which all things “live and move and have their being” (Acts 17.28).

If he were merely a being, he, too, would be a conditional and finite reality like any other, whose existence would itself require explanation by some yet-more-transcendent principle, some yet-more-original source.

In the terms preferred by many of the Greek Church Fathers, God is to ontos on (“being in itself”, “being, in the ontological sense”); in the language of Latin scholasticism, he is esse ipsum (“being itself”), or actus essendi subsistens (the “subsistent act of being”). And everything that exists, and even every possibility of existence, is a limited expression of and participation in what John of Damascus (c.675-749) called the “infinite ocean of being”: God understood as the inexhaustible plenitude of all reality.

As such, God is of course omnipotent, inasmuch as he is himself all power, all actuality, all truth. And he is omniscient, inasmuch as there is nothing that does not flow from, and depend on, him; nothing not always known by him in knowing himself. And he is omnipresent, inasmuch as all things exist only by virtue of being present in him and sharing in the existence that flows from him.


FROM all these admittedly rather abstract claims follows something like the entire logic of everything that is traditionally said about the divine nature. Perhaps the most comprehensive way of phrasing the matter is to say that God is not an instance of anything, but rather is the ground of the actuality of every instance of finite existence.

Or perhaps one might say that God belongs to no category, but is instead the unrestricted reality in which all the restricted categories of things are embraced.

This means, among much else, that the transcendent God is not a god. He is not the same “sort of thing”, like Zeus or Wotan, or any other limited being comprised within nature, or within any specific category (such as the category of “gods”). He is not any “sort of thing” at all — any more, say, than infinity is a sort of number, or existence a sort of object.


SOMETHING similar applies when we talk about God in terms of the so-called “transcendentals”: those evaluative “absolutes” that can, in varying degrees, be ascribed to all existing things: goodness, truth, beauty, being, unity.

We can describe God in terms of these classically defined perfections of being, but he must not be understood as an “exemplification” or “instantiation” of those perfections.

Just as God is not a being, but Being itself, so he is not someone good, but Goodness as such; not something true, but Truth as such; not something beautiful, but Beauty as such; and not something singular, or even simply unique, but Oneness as such — the unity in which each individual thing and all things together subsist.

And, in the special context of the Christian understanding of divine perfection, it is also correct to say not merely that God is loving, but that God is Love.


YET one more traditional way of saying all of this, if a particularly mysterious one, is that God is simple. In the most basic sense, this just means that God is not a composite reality, like a physical object, constituted by various parts or elements.

If he were, not only would he (at least in principle) be capable of dissolution, and not only would he be defined by internal limits and external conditions, but he could not be the one source of all things.

Any composite reality is a contingent reality, dependent on the extrinsic relation of its parts, and reliant, indeed, on some even more basic explanation for why those parts exist, and why they hang together. The doctrine of divine simplicity is (simply enough) that none of this can be true of God.

It also means, moreover, that God transcends all extension, both spatial and temporal. Just as his omnipresence is not a kind of limitless physical expansiveness, neither is his eternity an endless succession of moments; rather, all moments are present to him in an eternal now.

Of course, depending as we do on material images, we tend naturally to think of simplicity as a lack — as an incapacity, or poverty of faculties; but in this case, simplicity means the possession of all powers in such a way that they are not distinct from one another but rather, in their ultimate truth, are a single infinite reality.

Perhaps the best metaphor for this, or at least the most venerable, is that of pure white light, which “eminently” contains all the grades of the visible spectrum, and which can manifest itself as distinct colours when refracted through a prism (thus accommodating itself to a more limited medium), but which in itself contains all these differences as perfectly harmonious oneness. No metaphor, however, is adequate to make divine simplicity easy to imagine.


ALL of this having been said, it may seem surprising that, for all the confidence with which Christian tradition has assigned these attributes to God, it also insists that God in himself infinitely exceeds creaturely understanding.

Or, to put the matter somewhat differently, human reason may be able, by deduction or dialectic, to grasp many truths about the ways in which the divine nature transcends created things; but this does not mean that any created intellect can comprehend God in himself.

This is why so many of these attributes are essentially negative in meaning (“omniscient”, “omnipotent”, “omnipresent”, and so on, are all denials of forms of limitation, just as “infinite” means “without limit”), and why the rest merely point towards an absolute dimension of meaning that cannot be reduced to a simple concept susceptible to finite intuition.


WHAT happens, however, when these philosophical determinations are brought into the ambit of Christian revelation? The truth is that, while natural reason must always subordinate itself to divine self-disclosure, nevertheless that very act of surrender is the way in which natural reason makes its indispensable contribution to the human knowledge of God.

The relation is necessarily reciprocal. For instance, Christian faith overwhelmingly discloses a God of personal love, and any metaphysical prejudice that would exclude the real agency and love of the living God must yield before that truth.

At the same time, a coherent philosophical understanding of what is entailed by a proper concept of divine transcendence prevents one from mistaking God for a “person”, in the finite psychological sense that is appropriate to us: a limited and changing identity, defined by lack as much as by substance, loving and hating reactively, modified by encounters with other finite realities, and belonging to a larger category of personal “beings”.

And, when brought to bear on the doctrine of God as Trinity (a definition irresistibly arrived at by early Christian reflections on the order of salvation), this same metaphysical reserve aids one in recognising that God is not three Persons, in the sense that three human beings might be three persons (that is, three extrinsically confederated psychological subjectivities); but as an eternal “coinherence” of three inseparable but distinct moments within a single infinite act of being, knowledge, and love (again, as ever, employing inadequate language).

Simply said, natural reason belongs in essence to divine revelation, because it is only through the natural availability of reason to transcendent truth that anything can be revealed to finite intellects at all.


Dr David Bentley Hart is a Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. His most recent book is A Splendid Wickedness and other essays (Eerdmans, 2016).

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