Tradition, Divine Transcendence, and the Waiting Father

William Hasker

In his reply William Hasker urges that while the theological tradition is worthy of respect, the kind of deference to tradition insisted on by Freddoso is excessive and unreasonable; in the past, such deference might well have prevented theological developments now recognized as beneficial and important. It may be desirable to characterize divine transcendence in a “deep” metaphysical way, but the lack of such a characterization by no means leaves the interpreter of Scripture at the mercy of subjective prejudice. Finally, he argues for the superiority of the reading of the parable of the good Samaritan offered by the open view of God in comparison.


It is a pleasure to continue a discussion with my friend Fred Freddoso that has been going on for a number of years, and from which I have profited greatly.[1] Fred has rightly discerned [2] the general nature and purpose of The Openness of God–and it is, of course, unbelievably gracious of him not to take us to task for the many faults he enumerates! Furthermore, he indicates quite accurately the nature of the issues which he between us. In reading over his critique, I am reminded of the subtitle of the book: “a biblical challenge to the traditional understanding of God.” To be sure, it would be an oversimplification to regard our differences as simply a matter of “Scripture versus tradition.” Yet that element does enter into our disagreements, as we shall see.

Tradition

I’ll begin my response by underscoring what I wrote about Augustine in my article. Reading the Confessions and other works by him was for me a major spiritual as well as intellectual experience, and It brought about in me a love for Augustine that persists to this day. I can’t testify to a similar personal and spiritual impact from the writings of Thomas Aquinas, but I have nothing but respect and admiration for his enormous achievements in both philosophy and theology, as well as for his deep piety.

The difference between our approaches to these two men lies principally in the fact that I am, and Freddoso is not, willing to contemplate the possibility that, despite their sanctity and intellectual eminence, either or both of them may have been mistaken about some fairly important matters. I really have no choice but to think this possible, in view of my unavoidable rejection of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination (a doctrine, incidentally, that Freddoso also rejects, though apparently less vehemently than I do). I also reject Augustine’s contention that we humans, in dealing with tragic situations in life, ought to abstain from feeling grief over the suffering and death of persons close to us — an inference he draws from the doctrine of divine “impassibility.” (Fortunately, Augustine’s rich emotional nature prevented him from fully carrying out his own injunctions in this matter.) [3] And I emphatically disagree with the doctrine of both Anselm and Aquinas that God’s compassion consists in the fact that “God acts as we would expect a compassionate person to act-but the feeling of compassion forms no part of the divine life and experience.”[4]

I must confess I don’t see why it is so shocking to suggest that the writings of these two men are affected by “philosophical elements contrary to the Christian Faith.” [5] Anyone who engages with philosophy at all is bound to come into contact with ideas originating from pagan thinkers. (Even if one decided, unwisely, to read only Christian philosophers, one would still be affected by the pagans at second, or third, or fourth hand.) Augustine was under no illusion that Plotinus was a Christian, nor did Thomas suffer from such an illusion concerning Aristotle. What this meant was, that both of these men needed to make a conscious effort to correct those elements in the philosophers’ teachings that were contrary to the faith–and the eminence of Augustine and Aquinas as Christian thinkers testifies to their considerable success in this endeavor. But to insist that no “philosophical elements contrary to faith” remained, is to insist that they were 100% successful in every case in removing all “alien” elements and in transforming the pagan systems of thought into something that is Christian without remainder. And that is a great deal to ask, even of such wise and holy men as Augustine and Thomas.

Permit me the luxury of a historical conjecture: If Thomas had been as deferential towards the past in his own day as Freddoso thinks we now ought to be, he would never have been able to carry through his major achievement, that of welding together Aristotelian philosophy and Christian thought into a unified system. This is no idle supposition. The new-fangled Aristotelianism of the thirteenth century was in conflict at important points with the tradition of Platonized Christian theology stemming from Anselm John of Damascus, and the Greek Fathers-and from Augustine. [6] In 1277, just two years after Thomas’s death, the bishop of Paris condemned a long list of “Aristotelian” propositions, including some endorsed by Aquinas. Even after Thomas had been canonized, the dominant Augustinian tradition continued to resist and to reject many of his most important insights. The preeminence we now attribute to Aquinas is more a product of retrospective appreciation than it is an accurate reflection of the actual situation at the time. [7] What a good thing, then, that Aquinas refused to be intimidated by those who reproached him for “setting aside some of the principal metaphysical claims” of the “brilliant and holy men” who were his predecessors!

Divine Transcendence

One of the things Freddoso finds lacking in the book (and indeed, in analytic philosophy of religion generally) is “a philosophically rigorous account of God’s transcendence.” It is important to see just what Freddoso is complaining about here. He is not denying that contemporary analytic philosophers have devoted energy and attention to producing careful, detailed, and sophisticated analyses of the various divine attributes, the characteristics which distinguish the divine being from all actual and possible creatures. In fact, an enormous amount of work has been done along these lines (some of it by Freddoso himself), and this work is reflected in The Openness of God to the extent that it contributes to the book’s purpose [8]

What Freddoso finds lacking is rather a “forceful metaphysical account” of God’s transcendence, one that would be comparable to Aquinas’s description of God as pure actuality (derived from the Aristotelian tradition) and as unparticipated being (derived from the Platonic tradition). Such notions as these characterize the ontological divide between creator and creatures in a “deep” metaphysical way, and they provide a principled basis for deciding which scriptural descriptions of God should be taken as literal and which as metaphorical. Lacking any such deep metaphysical account of transcendence, we proponents of divine openness are very much at the mercy of our own (highly fallible) metaphysical predispositions (or, to put it more plainly, our prejudices). “Why, for instance, do they cling to the idea that God is immaterial and thereby relegate a whole host of Scriptural descriptions of God to the realm of the metaphorical, given that immateriality is just another one of those ‘Hellenistic’ divine attributes that has little appeal for the modem mind.”

I must admit that I do not, at present, have any such deep metaphysical account of divine transcendence to put forward. And on the other hand, I am not of a mind to dismiss such a project as chimerical. At this point Freddoso’s reminder that analytic metaphysics is of fairly recent appearance on the philosophical scene is very much in point. So I am willing to accept his suggestion that the formulation of such an account deserves a place on the agenda of analytical philosophers of religion. [9]

But given that we are, for the time being, lacking such an account, does this leave us at the mercy of arbitrary prejudice? I think not. Somewhere, I have heard, it is written that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”; God is also referred to as “the King of ages, immortal, invisible.” [10] Even in the Old Testament, most of the biblical descriptions of God as possessing bodily parts seem to have been consciously metaphorical. There is, in fact, a fairly clear and consistent biblical tradition supporting the immateriality of God–something that emphatically cannot be said of the metaphysical attributes championed by Freddoso. There is not even a hint in Scripture of anything like the scholastic doctrine of divine simplicity, and the same is true of divine timelessness, in spite of misguided attempts to read this doctrine into such texts as Exodus 3:14 and John 8:58. [11] And the biblical affirmations of divine changelessness do not by any means support the metaphysical doctrine of immutability espoused by classical theologians; rather, they attest to the reliability of God, the fact that he, unlike changeable mortals, can be relied on to remain true to his intentions and constant in his character and capabilities.

I don’t mean to suggest by this that the search for a penetrating philosophical understanding of the various divine attributes is pointless; far from it. Nor do I mean to imply that all is clear sailing for those who seek in the Bible for an account of the nature and attributes of God. There is much difficult and demanding work to be done here, and on many points legitimate differences of opinion may remain. (As one says, the theory is underdetermined by the data.) My point is simply this: lacking such a deep metaphysical characterization of divine transcendence as is given by Aquinas, one is not left at the mercy of sheer prejudice; there remains the option-rather, the indispensable necessity-of interpreting Scripture by Scripture. And if we find, as I think we do find, that the formulas of the classical theologians force us to relegate too much of the scriptural witness to the realm of metaphor, then we need to look for better formulas-or if need be, to five for a time without formulas.

The Waiting Father

Finally, let us turn once again to the parable of the Prodigal Son — or as some have called it, the Waiting Father. As Freddoso correctly observes, “Hasker invites us to conclude that if the traditional conception of God is correct, then the parable of the Prodigal Son is at least in part misleading, since it portrays the father as having certain traits which are of central importance to the story and yet which a divine being could not possibly have.” As Freddoso views the matter, the key question here is whether, if God were to become human, he would be like the father of the parable. He observes that, if we knew of God only what has been said by philosophers ignorant of the Christian revelation, we would find it incredible that God in human form would be like the father. But as Christians “we have a pretty good idea of what our transcendent God would be like as a human being – namely, exactly like Jesus Christ.” And as a result, “We Christians hardly need to invent an ‘open’ conception of the divine nature in order to marvel at the ‘folly’ of a risk-taking, passible God; all we need to do is to contemplate Christ crucified.”

This strikes me as peculiar reasoning. In the first place, the issue with regard to the parable is not what God would be like if he were to become human, but what God is in fact like quite apart from any consideration of his becoming human. Jesus told the story about the Father, not about himself, and he told it to hearers lacking the faintest notion of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

But suppose we waive this point, and view the parable as Freddoso suggests. What exactly does he think we should learn from it? Apparently, we are to find in Christ crucified “the ‘folly’ of a risk-taking, passible God.” So, we learn from Christ that God-is indeed capable of suffering, and that God is a risk-taker? But that is exactly what the open view of God affirms; it can’t possibly be what Freddoso has in mind. Perhaps, then, the following sentence will give us a better clue: “According to the traditional Christian understanding of God, it is precisely in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ that the impassible, immutable, eternal and ineffably transcendent God becomes passible, mutable, and time-bound.” These words seem to suggest that God, who prior to the Incarnation was impassible, immutable, and eternal, underwent a change after the conception and birth of Jesus, so that now, if not before, the suffering and vulnerability of the father in the parable come to characterize the divine nature. But that can’t be right either; immutability, unchangeableness, is precisely one of the attributes Freddoso is most concerned to uphold. But in that case, what shall we understand him to be saying?

What is intended, of course, is that in Jesus we see God suffering and taking risks because Jesus is God; the human mind and body of Jesus constitute the human nature of the eternal divine Logos, the second Person of the holy Trinity. So far there is agreement between Freddoso and the friends of divine openness. But here is the question: What does this tell us about the divine nature itself? Freddoso’s answer to this has to be: virtually nothing. The divine nature – the nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-is and remains impassible and immutable. The humanity of Jesus is the human nature of the eternal Son. But Jesus’ sufferings concern only his human nature; the impassibility of the eternal Son means precisely that the sufferings of Jesus form no part of the divine life. In the end, the most Freddoso can say about the Waiting Father is what Anselm and Aquinas said about the divine compassion: God acts as such a father would act, in that he remains ready to forgive and restore the errant sinner, but the anguish, the hopefulness, and the emotional risk experienced by such a father play no part in the life of God.

But if the meaning Freddoso intends for his words is in the end unsatisfying, the words themselves suggest something much better. Indeed we have no need to “invent an ‘open’ conception of the divine nature.” But we may need to rediscover such a conception, and if so we can do no better than heed Freddoso’s advice and contemplate Christ crucified, holding fast to the deep conviction that in Christ’s sufferings we are coming to know the very mind and heart of the everlasting God.


[1] For earlier stages of the discussion, see my review of Luis de Molina, On Divine Foreknowledge (Part IV of the Concordia), translation and introduction by Alfred J. Freddoso (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), in Faith and Philosophy 7 (July 1990), as well as his review of my God, Time, and Knowledge, cited in his fn. 3.

[2] See the second section of his Reply.

[3] See Openness, 130.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See the first section of Freddoso’s “Reply.”

[6] For a penetrating analysis of the conflict, see Alasdair Maclntyre, “Aristotle and/or/against Augustine,” ch. 5 of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

[7] See MacIntyre, ch. 7, “In the Aftermath of Defeated Tradition.” MacIntyre writes, “my account of Aquinas’s work as the culmination and integration of the Augustinian and Aristotelian traditions is not at all how Aquinas was understood by much the greater part of both his contemporaries and his immediate successors” (p. 151).

[8] See especially 135-38 in Openness.

[9] In fact, a candidate for such a characterization already exists. In Richard Swinburne’s book, The Christian God (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1994), he argues that the divine properties jointly entail, and are entailed by, a single property expressed by saying that God is “a substance who has necessarily pure, intentional limitless power” (p. 157). 1 am not at present prepared either to endorse or to reject Swinburne’s formula.

[10] John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17.

[11] It is not clear to me whether or not Freddoso means to endorse divine timelessness. He states his preference for calling God “eternal” rather than “timeless,” but he clearly holds a view different from the conception of God as temporally everlasting endorsed by the open view. Perhaps he thinks there is a third conception of divine eternity distinct from both timelessness and everlastingness–but if there is, I have never seen it intelligibly stated.

William Hasker

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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