Classical art, classical music, classical literature — yeah. Classical God?

G CIEL 1_025As you may have guessed by now, we’re interested here at An Open Orthodoxy in exposing and examining our deepest view of God and what consequences follow from it. To that end, we thought it would be helpful to describe what we have in mind when we speak of these different views of God (and the larger worldviews that form around them). We’ll start with the most popular and traditional Christian view of God, a view we’ve already referred to as “classical” theism. You’ll hear open theists and Process theists use the term and criticize the view incessantly. We’ll get into those criticisms later. For now let us state simply what we believe to be at the heart of this “classical” view of God.

Classical theism is a constellation of beliefs about God, but there is at its center the single and fundamental belief that God is actus purus or “pure act” (“pure actuality” if you like). Now, actus purus is Latin, and that places us in the Western or Catholic (Latin speaking) tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox. So the question arises, Do the Orthodox also believe God is actus purus? And the answer would seem to be yes. More later.

[Detour. By the way, it can be frustrating to follow a conversation in English when Latin and Greek terms are tossed about. There are several bad reasons why theologians throw these terms around, the worst of which is to appear smarter than they are. We’re guessing the only good reason for using such terms is to situate oneself properly in a conversation that is many hundreds of years old and which was (and is) carried on in Latin and Greek. It would be igorant to know of this conversation and choose to ignore it, which is why so many Evangelicals are ignorant. But for the record, we use the Latin or Greek terms only as GPS coordinates for those who wish to explore more a conversation whose topography for more than a millennium was (and still is) mapped in Latin and Greek. We’re not trying to impress anybody. Neither of us knows Latin.]

What does God’s being “pure act” mean, then? It means, as Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart reminds us, there is no potentiality in God. Write it in bold and in a font size that will stretch its truth from one end of the universe to the other — no unfulfilled potentialities/possibilities in God. God is always all God can be — every possibility actualized, every potential always already fulfilled. Other “classical” attributes that attend this belief (with respect to time, providence, evil, foreknowledge or what have you) all revolve at different distances around this one truth like planets under the gravitational pull of the Sun. All divine attributes incline in their orbits, their momentums, and their placement around this first and fundamental truth — God is pure act, void of all potentiality. That is the heart and soul of “classical theism.”

Consequences follow from this. For example, there is no ‘temporal succession’ in God, no “before and after” and thus no memory of things past and no anticipation of things future; nor are there any changes in states of mind, i.e. no thinking one thought after another and consequently no ‘coming to know’ what ‘comes to be’ as it comes to be. These consequences can all be gathered together underneath what theologians call ‘immutability’. In the case of “classical” theism, that immutability is absolute.

Isn’t God unchanging in any respect? Yes, he certainly must be. But do the senses in which God must be unchanging or immutable preclude the possibility of his being open to change in other senses? Interestingly, when the Orthodox explain why it’s important that God not be thought of as possessing any unrealized/unactualized potential, we (Dwayne and I) find ourselves agreeing with the values that motivate the Orthodox. That is, we agree that what it is the Orthodox wish to protect regarding God ought to be protected and maintained — whether it’s the unimprovable and undiminishable fullness of God’s life, his absolute freedom from Creation, his imperturbable triune delight, even his transcendence of time. In all these senses God is actus purus, pure actuality with no potentiality whatsoever. At this point some may be wondering how it is we are open theists at all. And you will find we disagree with many of our open theist colleagues in how we integrate divine transcendence with our open theism. But as we hope to show (and as we think Greg Boyd does show in Trinity and Process), God would suffer neither loss nor diminishment in any of the required senses were God also to experience the world in its temporal flow, be open to its contributions, and know its future as open.

(Picture from here.)

17 comments on “Classical art, classical music, classical literature — yeah. Classical God?

  1. Jacob says:

    That’s some beautiful use of metaphor, Tom. And I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how you put the pieces together. I was desiring the reconciliation of these poles before you started this blog.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Jacob: I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how you put the pieces together.

    Tom: So am I!


  3. Kurt says:

    How comfortable is Orthodoxy with presentism?


  4. tgbelt says:

    I don’t know of any who aren’t. Christopher Knight (British EO priest with a PhD in Astrophysics) is a presentist.


  5. kurtkjohnson says:

    How does classical theism arive at purus actus?


  6. tgbelt says:

    Kurt, I think Orthodox holds to simple foreknowledge. And that view is compatible with presentism. Where we’ll disagree obviously is that presentism, LFW, and EDF are all compatible.


  7. tgbelt says:

    That’s a great question, Kurt (how CT arrives at AP). I won’t attribute ALL of it to Greek philosophy. I think we are led by the Scriptures to a sense of the transcendent absoluteness of God against creation (there’s a post for the future). But I agree this gets shaped by Neo-Platonism so that the legitimate ways God should be seen as necessarily actual (and his necessity must be concrete, not just abstract) filled the entire picture and excluded from God all contingency and potentiality.


  8. Shane says:

    To butt in here…Kurt, if you dug up something on Aquinas’ metaphysics you could probably get the Pure Act argumentation sketched out more or less thoroughly. This might be helpful:


  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I came across today this citation from Milbank on impassibility:


  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom, I wonder how many Orthodox theologians actually speak of God as pure act. I know that Hart does, but I think he may be the exception. Most Orthodox theologians want to speak of God in terms of divine essence and energies. See Bradshaw’s *Aristotle East and West*.


    • tgbelt says:

      Fr Aidan, are there Orthodox you know of who believe there is unrealized potential in God (even if they don’t resort to the phrase ‘pure act’ to express it)?


  11. tgbelt says:

    True, Fr Aidan. Hart makes a lot of it, but I get the idea from Bradshaw that it’s not that simple. I’d love to hear more Orthodox chime in on ‘pure act’.


  12. tgbelt says:

    Great Milbank post too Fr Aidan. I’d give almost anything to get my hands on a copy of Mozley’s book. It’s out of print.


  13. tgbelt says:

    There’s a legitimate distinction between God’s ‘essence’ and his ‘energies’ that the Orthodox make which Catholics do not and which the Orthodox feel distances them from the sort of divine perfection Catholics wish to affirm through the use of the term ‘actus purus’. So while the Orthodox don’t express their views in scholastic Latin theological terms (and the essence-energies distinction IS a legitimate concern that distinguishes East and West), the Orthodox do (so far as we can find) agree there is no (unrealized) potential in God. Fr Aidan?


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