Friday, August 01, 2014

Can Lister keep the balance?

So, in this short series on current modified theism, we come full circle, returning to Rob Lister’s work on divine passion. Lister’s book may be said to be more ambitious that either Oliphint’s covenantalism, involving covenantal properties, and Frame’s idea of a God who changes while he remains unchanged. For his distinction between divine impassibility and his impassionedness is of general theological importance, not least because he endeavours to show that this is the dominant position in the main spine of a Christian dogmatic history. I very much doubt that this is the case, for to show it Lister would have also to show that the idea of God at first eternal and then temporal, or that God is both eternal and temporal (depending on which alternative of those mentioned in fn. 25  of page  222 Lister takes) played a significant place in earlier Christian dogmatics, and there is little sign that it does. The historic tradition is almost uniformly atemporalist in its understanding of God.

Looked at another way, Lister’s dogmatic proposals have a conservative purpose; his innovations are meant to clarify the tradition in a way that those who contributed to it did not do for themselves, though they might have done so, and also in a way that neither Oliphint nor Frame are attempting. But since this series of posts is not concerned with historical theology I shall leave this matter to one side.

The dogmatic proposal

In elucidating the dogmatic side of things, providing us with a ‘model’ of God, we come to section headings such as ‘Transcendence and Immanence Rightly Related’ (222) and ‘Timeless and Temporal’ (226). These elucidate the language of a divine ‘duality’ and of a godhead which is ‘two-pronged’, and we find ourselves in familiar territory (that is, if we are habitués of modern evangelical theology). Efforts to make it habitable (so far unsuccessful) have been made by Bruce Ware, (Rob Lister’s dissertation supervisor) as well as by Scott Oliphint and John Frame, and I dare say by others. 

We need to note the steps in the argument. 

There is first of all the deployment of the Creator-creature distinction. Lister notes that the distinction involves both an ontological and an ethical distinction or ‘distance’, and that we cannot therefore understand what it is like for the eternal Creator to possess emotional states (this expression is meant to be concessive but not so concessive as to beg any questions) of an immaculate kind. Secondly God ‘nevertheless opens up a pathway of relationship to us in covenantal condescension'. 

Then comes a significant move, clothed in quoted words from Michael Horton. ‘God, it is true, is other than the world. But unless we affirm just as emphatically that God has fully involved himself, and not only an appearance of himself in our world of time and space the most important features of the Christian proclamation must be either surrendered or at least said tongue-in-cheek’. (From Lord and Servant. The italics are Horton’s)

The 'balance'

Well, we might affirm just as emphatically both that God is other than the world and that he has fully involved himself in our world of time and space, but we would be unwise to give these two claims the same kind of sense; that God is other than the world and in our world in the same sense. After all God is other than world even if there was no world.  Suppose, reversing the expressions, we say that God is involved in what is other than our world and is in our world. Would that do as well? It would not. God is involved in our world though not being in our world which is after all a place of time and space, and God is not in time and space but transcends the space-time cosmos. Balancing the requirements of the Creator-creature distinction has to do justice to its asymmetry.  God is involved in the creation, the world of time and space that he has made. How can he be involved? By creating the world, and sustaining it, by loving the world, delighting in it, by appearing in it through spoken words, through his servants the prophets, by visions and theophanies, by miraculous actions, and by becoming incarnate in his second person. Have men and women truly related to God through such ways down the centuries? Yes they have. This is God in relation to his creation, unchanging even as his creation changes.  There is a ‘balance’ to use Lister’s word (223) to be achieved in our thinking of God’s immanence and his transcendence, but it is not a 50-50 affair, as if one leg of God is transcendent and the other immanent in his creation.

We can also use the words ‘voluntary condescension’ to characterise God’s immanence, which is not ‘needy’. (224) And also say that the sinful condition of his creation ‘draws forth God’s ire’. (225) But we surely go too far if we speak of God ‘inhabiting the creatures’ time and space’. In this discussion Lister rightly affirms that God exists eternally and enters into relationship with his creation contingently, at least in the sense that the creation and all that it contains is dependent on God. But where can we find that in Scripture, that having created, God then occupies time and space? As Lister develops his theological ‘model’, an unfortunate word, in any case, it is a strange mixture.

What is at work here becomes clearer in Lister’s remarks on God and time.(226) He thinks that God’s voluntary condescension means that God in in se atemporal, that is timelessly eternal, and also that he is at all the times of his creatures as the universe unfolds in time, omnitemporal in re as he expresses it, a ‘biblical duality’. There is the same emphasis in John Frame, as we have seen, which makes it necessary for God to be timeless and in time, both spaceless and in space, and to distinguish this duality from the bi-polarism of Process theism. And like Ware, and like Frame, (and like Millard Erickson?) Lister introduces discussion of God and space at this point as well. And so the idea is, that God is both timeless and in time, and both spaceless and in space. (227) God’s intrinsic spacelessness is compatible with his acting in space – obviously so. Why would anyone think that given God’s spacelessness he is locked out of his creation? His decree has spatial and temporal effects for those who are in time and space. But God himself cannot be in time and space, for obvious reasons.  Most certainly he cannot be in time and space while being eternal and spaceless. Transcendence and immanence are not in this kind of balance.

As  already mentioned, in a footnote on 266-7 Lister refers to various views of God and time, especially William Lane Craig’s and John Frame’s, and traditional eternalism, commenting that they are especially helpful, compelling, and more accessible to a wider readership than other views. They are different, but their common point is that given the creation God is in time. In Frame’s case, God is both. In Craig’s case God is timelessly eternal ‘until’ the creation, thereupon ceasing to be eternal and coming to be in time.

So what is Lister’s motivation for a modified theism? It is to do justice,  to the needed (as he sees it) 'balance' between divine transcendence and immanence


It occurs to me that in this convergence of views in the direction of what is called ‘modified classical theism’ there is the makings of a theology for the ‘big tent’ of evangelicalism, a formula for providing space for the various disparate theological elements that go to make up modern evangelicalism, - de-confessionalized Reformed congregations, Wesleyan, Pentecostalist, and so on. Here is a theology that says that God is other than his creation but he is equally - in a parallel way - in the creation, There is little or no need to resort to metaphor, simile and accommodation to interpret biblical language about God – literalism will suffice. It can be treated not as ‘pretty packaging’ of revealed truth but as the literal truth about God in time and space. Is that fanciful?  But is not such a theology troubled by incoherence? No more that the various ecclesiastical elements jostling under the  Big Top present consistencies to the watching world (if, that is, the world is watching.) I do not mean that any, and certainly not all, the contributors to this series on neoclassical-theism intends their theologising in this way.  But then human history. including church history, is filled with unintended consequences.