Divine Transcendence and the Nature of History
How Philosophical Naturalism Changes the Doctrine of God
Something very big changed in the history of Western intellectual thought during the period of the European Enlightenment, which can be dated from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Wars of Religion, to the death of Kant in 1804. Actually, many things changed and books like Peter Gay’s magisterial, two-volume work on the Enlightenment struggle to articulate those changes adequately. As a theologian, I am particularly concerned with the effect of the changes in modernity on the doctrine of God. To get to the heart of what changed, I think, we can say that after the Enlightenment what was lost was the transcendence of God.
Throughout the history of Christian thought from the church fathers to the period of post-Reformation scholasticism, God was understood to be one, simple, immutable, eternal, perfect, self-existent, First Cause of the cosmos whose existence is intuitively grasped by all people and also can be demonstrated with certainty by reason. If coming to know the First Cause was the first step, the second step was to proclaim that this same One has spoken through the OT prophets and become incarnate in Jesus Christ. God, therefore, was understood to be prior to or above history, and outside of time, that is, not subject to time as are all created things. In a word, God is transcendent.
Faith in the veracity of Scripture is required to believe that the one, simple, immutable, eternal, perfect, self-existent First Cause of the cosmos has spoken and acted in history. This is not demonstrable by reason, although there are historical arguments, such as miracles, to support the Gospel proclamation that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Faith does not require believing a logical contradiction or going against reason, but faith goes beyond reason to accept in reverence the mystery of the Triune God’s self-revelation in history. Faith and reason go together in theology.
There is thus a vast gulf between the being of God in himself and the speech and actions of God in history (theologia and economia). It is the same God in both cases, but Divine transcendence means that, while we can say true things about his eternal being on the basis of what he has said (for example in naming himself) and on the basis of what he has done (saving and judging in history), we can never comprehend God’s being or fully describe it in univocal, creaturely terms.
In the Enlightenment David Hume brought the criticism of the proofs for God’s existence to a climax by denying the principle of causation. The Aristotelian proof, as developed by Thomas Aquinas, began with the indubitable fact that change is occurring right now in the world and used the principle of causation to reason that all change requires a cause. The causal chain must have a beginning, or it would not be working now and that beginning – the First Cause – must itself be unmoved or uncaused. All potential is actualized by a cause that is at least partially actual and the causal chain must terminate upon a First Cause that is pure actuality, thus requiring no cause itself.
Now, at this point, human reason reaches its limit. All creatures, including humans, are mixtures of potentiality and actuality and we cannot even imagine what a being that is pure actuality would be like. It simply is beyond our comprehension. Aristotle thought the First Cause or Unmoved Mover was part of the cosmos, but Thomas Aquinas and the Christian tradition has identified the Creator of Genesis 1 with the First Cause of the cosmos. Pagans and Christians agree that there must be a First Cause, but Christians say that special revelation in Scripture tells us that the First Cause is not immanent within the cosmos but rather is transcendent of the cosmos. In other words, Christian theology teaches that God created the world ex nihilo at a point by his will and power. Thus, he cannot be part of the creation. All being is divided into two parts: divine being and created being. The Christian doctrine of creation says that all that is not God has been created by God. So, John Webster calls the doctrine of creation a “distributed doctrine” by which he means that it conditions every other doctrine that describes things in relation to God.
Therefore, the history of the creation is determined by the fact that it is the creation of the transcendent God and this means that history has certain characteristics that distinguish the Christian view of nature and history from the pagan view. Since creation had a beginning, so it also has an end or telos. History is created though Jesus Christ and is moving toward its telos in Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus Christ is the center or hinge of history. All history leads up to him (the incarnation) and flows from him and yet also toward consummation in him. For Christianity the meaning of history is transcendent not immanent because that meaning resides in the Creator.
We should note that Hume’s desperate attempt to refute the Aristotelian-Thomist proof for the existence of God required him to take the drastic step of denying the principle of causality, which undergirds science as well as theology. Irrationality was introduced into modern science at this point and the wheels were set in motion by which ideology, technology and pragmatism came to dominate the Western mind rather than the pursuit of truth through classical philosophy and science. After Kant became convinced that Hume had refuted the classical metaphysics of the central Western tradition, he thought he could save the day by rebuilding the foundations of science and morality on the basis of his critical philosophy. But, beginning with Hegel, the working assumption for all subsequent philosophy was naturalism, which dictates that the meaning of the cosmos must be assumed to lie within the cosmos. The 19-20th centuries witnessed the gradual working out of various ways to think of the meaning of the history of the cosmos after the rejection of Divine transcendence.
The whole balance between the One and the Many was revised. Instead of the principle of unity in the cosmos being transcendent and the creation itself being many, both the One and the Many had to be thought of as residing somehow within the cosmos itself. The meaning of history must be immanent within history and God, if there is to be a God, must be within the cosmos in some way as well. Prior to the Bible, in all the world’s great cultures, there existed a doctrine of pantheism and a doctrine of polytheism. This was how the great mythological cultures thought of the relation between the One and the Many. The One is simply the cosmos as a whole, while the many are the individual beings within the cosmos. Neither the Cosmos (with a capital “C”) or the beings within it are transcendent. So, it is necessary to see the 19-20th centuries as a reversion to pre-Christian and pre-Jewish mythology.
Two Theological Responses
There are two basic types of theology: orthodox and revisionist. Orthodox theology prizes continuity with the Great Tradition and, inevitably in an age such as ours, finds it necessary to concentrate on projects of retrieval as it attempts to shore up its continuity with the great creeds of the early church and confessions of the Reformation era. Revisionist theology, on the other hand, sees the great need of the hour as making Christian doctrine comprehensible to moderns and seeks to justify Christian doctrine as compatible with the neo-pagan worldview of post-Enlightenment, Western modernity. Revisionist theology may take relatively conservative or relatively liberal forms and it ranges from theistic personalism, which conceives of God as a person existing within time, to panentheism, which conceives of God in basically pantheistic terms but with some personal attributes as well. In theistic personalism God is basically like the gods of polytheism except that there is just one (or three in the case of social trinitarianism). Neither the theistic personalism of conservative Evangelicalism nor the panentheism of liberal Protestantism presents a fundamental challenge to the reigning philosophical naturalism of the contemporary West. Both see God within the parameters set down by Hume, Kant and Hegel in the early 19th century; that is, both see God as part of the eternal cosmos rather than as prior to it, above it and totally different from it in being. It is to be expected in such a situation that doctrines like simplicity, immutability, impassibility and eternity, which express the utter uniqueness of Divine being, would become incoherent to contemporary theologians, and this is exactly what we see happening. These four metaphysical attributes (and others) are being modified and/or denied by revisionist theologians across the theological spectrum from conservative to radical.
The affirmation of divine transcendence is less and less prominent in theology today and this explains why something as basic to Christianity as classical theism is so controversial. There can be no transcendence without classical theism. Any doctrine of God that rejects classical theism – in whole or in part – must inevitably describe God in ways that are incompatible with the transcendence that we find taught in Scripture from Genesis onwards. History is not the framework in which the God of the Bible exists; it is his creation, and he directs it to its telos in Christ by his providence. All modern, revisionist theology finds it impossible to understand the relationship between God and history in terms of Creator and creature because it sees history as prior to and as including God within itself. If God is at one point in time at a time, then all times are not simultaneously present to him. A god that exists within time can have foreknowledge, but such a god cannot know all things past, present and future in one eternal act as the God of classical theism does. We need to remember that the past, present and future are only past, present and future to us because we are time-bound creatures who exist within time not outside of time. We cannot sovereignly transcend time as finite creatures, but the God of orthodox theology can and does.
History is nothing but the creation existing in time and any god who is part of history is part of the creation. This god may be one of many, like the gods of mythology, or this god may be unitary and mysterious, in which case it is typically worshipped through intermediaries. The issue between revisionist and orthodox theology today comes down to the issue of the relationship of God to history. Is God the creator and sovereign Lord of history or is God part of history? Does God create history or does God have a history?
In orthodox Christianity, the true interpretation of the Bible, God is the transcendent Creator and sovereign Lord of history who alone is worthy of worship. The point of the incarnation is not that it reveals to us that God has been passible and changeable like creatures all along. No, the point of Chalcedon is that God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ without ceasing to be the one, simple, eternal, immutable, perfect, self-existent First Cause of all that is not God. The point of the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ is that the incarnation does not mean that God changed. It means that the incarnation happens without God changing.
This is a great mystery, but there is no mystery about what Chalcedon means to assert: our faith is that God simply is and cannot change and yet we have encountered God in Jesus the Messiah. We believe that not because we can reduce it to rationally comprehensible propositions, but because it happened! We are just describing what we believe took place in the life, death and resurrection of Christ when we do Christology. But we are most definitely not saying that the incarnation teaches us that God was in time all along and we just didn’t see it.
Divine transcendence means that God created history and guides history and is in control of history as the First Cause of all the secondary causes now operating freely in the world. All this is possible only because God is not part of history or subject to the limitations of time. Revisionist theology that gives up divine transcendence in order to fit into the post-Enlightenment neo-paganism of 19-20th century Western modernity is selling its biblical and orthodox heritage for a bowl of pagan porridge.