General

What Is Classical Christian Theism?

The purpose of The Classical Blog is to help the contemporary church reclaim its biblical, classical, and historical vision of God’s unsearchable greatness. So it stands to reason that we should begin things by defining and describing what that classical vision is. In other words, we will define and describe “classical Christian theism.”

Simply put, classical Christian theism is the biblical and historic model of Christian theism committed to upholding the confession that God “is infinite in being and perfection” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1; cf. Psalm 145:3). As James Dolezal puts it, “the underlying and inviolable conviction [of classical theism] is that God does not derive any aspect of His being from outside Himself and is not in any way caused to be.”[1] “Classical theism” refers to an entire system of theology proper (the doctrine of God) which springs forth from reflection on the Bible’s teaching of who God is. As such, it will be helpful for the remainder of this essay to consider some of the distinctive claims of classical theism which make up that larger system of theology proper. What follows will be a brief survey of four such distinctives: the Creator-creature distinction; divine incomprehensibility; human language about God; and God’s incommunicable attributes.

Distinctives of Classical Theism

Creator-Creature Distinction

The first distinctive is called the Creator-creature distinction. The Bible begins by saying, “In the beginning, God created . . . ” (Genesis 1:1). From the very outset, the reader is confronted by the Creator-creature distinction, the reality that God is utterly distinct from and different than creation. From this text we conclude that the Creator is of a completely different order than creation. We might say that “before the beginning,” God existed in His perfection and plenitude. But what does it mean for a time-bound creature to say “before the beginning”? This concept is unintelligible to us because we are finite and temporal; we are created and therefore dependent beings. But the very first verse of the Bible clearly implies that God is infinite and eternal; He is the uncreated and self-existent “fountain of all being” (Westminster Confession of Faith 2.2). In other words, God is completely unlike us.

If this claim is not the fuel for our theological train, then we are bound to derail. As Peter Sanlon notes, “A fundamental starting point for faithful theology is that God is not a creature.”[2] It is not an understatement to say that everything we think and say about God revolves around our understanding of the Creator-creature distinction. If we get this distinctive wrong, then everything else we say will be wrong to that degree. We must always remember: “the most basic truth of theology is that there is a God, and you are not him.”[3]

Divine Incomprehensibility

From the Creator-creature distinction flows the next distinctive of classical theism: divine incomprehensibility. In the words of Sanlon, “the Creator-creature distinction reminds us that we should expect God to be profoundly different from us, and at a fundamental level beyond our comprehension.”[4] This comes as no surprise since God’s “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). God’s infinite perfection, beauty, and majesty are so far beyond our finding them out that the Psalmist says proclaims that they are unsearchable. If “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” God (1 Kings 8:27), how much less our feeble, fickle, finite minds?

Divine incomprehensibility is not merely an intellectual exercise reserved for ivory tower theologians, however; it is imminently pastoral and relevant for the Christian life: “it is precisely the incomprehensibility of God that makes Him able to comprehend our every struggle and grief, the unsearchability of His understanding that enables Him to search us out and know us from our mother’s womb (Ps. 139).”[5] God’s incomprehensibility, seen in this light, guards God’s “Godness” and, though it humbles us, also causes us to worship the God who can actually meet our needs precisely because He is not like us.

Human Speech about God: Neither Univocal nor Equivocal

We come now to the third distinctive which flows from the first two: the analogical nature of human language when speaking about God. There are three general ways in which we can speak about things: univocal, equivocal, and analogical. Univocal literally means “with one voice,” so univocal language means that words have the same meaning in each context. So if I say that I have a black hat and a white hat, I am using the word hat univocally; that is, the word hat means the same thing in both instances. Equivocal language, on the other hand, means that words have two different meanings in each context. So if I say, “I need to book a hotel room, but I would rather read this book,” I am using the word book equivocally; though I am using the same word, I mean two different things in each context.

The reason that this matters for the way we talk about God is that neither of these two ways of speaking applies to our speech about God because God is not a created being. He is not a creature, so creaturely language cannot be expected to search Him out completely (as would be expected if we spoke of Him in completely univocal terms), but neither is our language so futile that we are forced into agnosticism (as would be expected if we spoke of Him in completely equivocal terms). In other words, when we say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), we don’t mean that God is love in the same way that we might experience love from a creaturely perspective, but neither do we mean something so radically different than our creaturely experience of love that this claim (“God is love”) becomes utterly unintelligible to us.

So we must speak in terms of analogy: there is something true communicated in the claim that “God is love,” but this creaturely claim does not fully exhaust the infinite divine being. We are neither left with complete agnosticism regarding the nature of God, but neither is our human language capable of bridging the infinite gap between Creator and creature. This helps us safeguard the utter independence of God and the utter dependency of creatures upon Him: “Due to the Creator-creature distinction we must be very wary of assuming that observations about human relationships can be applied to God.”[6] In other words, speaking of God analogically reminds us that God is not just a bigger version of us. We cannot ascend to heaven and drag Him down to our level (which would be the result of univocal language about God), but we are not left entirely to ourselves in ignorance (which would be the result of equivocal language about God).

God’s Incommunicable Attributes: Perfection, Simplicity, Immutability, Eternality, Infinity, and Aseity

Finally, we come to the fourth distinctive of classical theism: an emphatic confession of God’s infinite being and perfection. Though we cannot treat them here, God’s incommunicable attributes of perfection, simplicity, immutability, eternality, infinity, and aseity all function to mutually-reinforce each other and establish our confession that God is absolute (cf. Exodus 3:14), standing in need of nothing since He “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). We do well to recognize Paul’s worship-filled reflection: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” (Romans 11:33). Classical theism is committed to upholding this reflection precisely because it is committed to upholding the biblical confession that “from God and through God and to God are all things. To Him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). Upon this basis, then, may God grant us hearts which are set ablaze by this classical vision of His unsearchable greatness.

References

[1] James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 1.

[2] Peter Sanlon, Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), 131.

[3] Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 1:69.

[4] Sanlon, Simply God, 61.

[5] Bradford Littlejohn, “Introduction,” in Bradford Littlejohn, ed., God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), x.

[6] Sanlon, Simply God, 130.

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