An Open Orthodoxy turns 1: Fr Aidan Kimel

This month marks one year for An Open Orthodoxy, and to celebrate we’ve invited a few friends to contribute whatever thoughts they feel relevant, challenging and/or celebratory. Our first guest is Fr. Aidan. Fr Aidan is an Orthodox priest retired and living in VA. We met on a Facebook discussion site and have stayed in touch since by email and an occasional chat on the phone. We’re so pleased he’s agreed to contribute this very challenging post for open theists.

You can also read Fr Aidan’s post over on his blog Ecclectic Orthodoxy.

13309573511112670181decorative-lines-2_largeI wish to thank Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk for inviting me to write an article in celebration of the one-year anniversary of An Open Orthodoxy. I have learned a great deal from their contributions to the theological blogosphere and have found their articles on open theism particularly interesting.

Twenty years ago I read The Openness of God. I was immersed at that time in the writings of Robert W. Jenson and Jürgen Moltmann. Both strongly believe that the Church’s understanding of the God of the Bible has been corrupted by Hellenistic philosophy; both see their task as liberating triune divinity from the constraints of classical theism. I was thus more than a little sympathetic to the assertion of an open future and the reinterpretation of divine omniscience. But in recent years I have become increasingly skeptical of this reading of Christian doctrine and more appreciative of the traditional understanding of God as advanced by the Church Fathers and medieval doctors. Hence I now find myself viewing open theism as representing an unfortunate return to an anthropomorphic construal of divinity (described by Brian Davies as theistic personalism), a construal that ultimately undermines the core doctrines of the Church and thus renders the claims of the gospel implausible. This is a harsh statement, I know. I also admit that it is a statement that I am unprepared to defend. But if I can’t convincingly defend my critical stance, perhaps I can at least mention what lines of argument I might wish to develop if I were a real theologian and not a mere blogger.

In my judgment the critical weakness of open theism is a failure to grasp the radical transcendence of the Almighty Creator. Please note: I am assuming that the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo belongs to a proper understanding of the Christian God and the world. Without the creatio ex nihilo the trinitarian and christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries make no sense. Precisely in the gospel’s confrontation with the Hellenistic apprehension of divinity, the theologians of the Church found it necessary to simultaneously assert the radical transcendence God and the absolute gratuity of creation: God is not an inhabitant of the universe, nor does he exist in interdependent union with the world—he is the absolute, unconditioned, and ineffable source of all that is. Theologians did not learn the creatio ex nihilo from the Greek philosophers. They found it hidden, if you will, in the tohu wa bohu of Gen 1:1-3, as they sought to proclaim the God of the gospel within a Hellenistic world (see “The Christian Distinction“).

As a way of unpacking the difference between the Deity of open theism and the Deity of the classical Christian tradition, I thought I would direct our attention to an incisive essay by the Roman Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” included in his book God Matters. McCabe reasserts the traditional understanding of God, particularly as articulated in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. He disallows any separation of the God of the Bible and the God of classical Christian metaphysics:

One of my first claims, then, is that the God of what I have called the ‘tradition’, the God of Augustine and Aquinas in the west, is precisely the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is not a god, not a powerful inhabitant of the universe, but the creator, the answer to the question ‘What does it all mean?’, ‘Why anything anyway?’ This was essentially the question asked by the Jews, at least from Second Isaiah onwards, the question which, once asked, could not be unasked (except with great philosophical ingenuity), and this is the question which for mainstream Christian tradition gives us meaning for the word ‘God’. (p. 42)

Not a powerful inhabitant of the universe! In my reading of recent atheistic critiques of theism and Christianity, I have been struck by the assumption that Christians really believe that God is some great sky-Person, just larger and more powerful than created persons. Why do atheists think this is what Christianity believes? Probably because that’s what popular Christianity too often teaches. It’s as if the first 1500 years of theological and metaphysical reflection have been suppressed, all in the name of recovering so-called “biblical” religion. Consider the difference between the Deity of pulpit and Sunday School and the God of the Creeds and Fathers, as described by Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart:

To speak of God properly, then … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means that totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. (The Experience of God, p. 30)

All this is who God is and must be if he is the transcendent and infinite Creator of heaven and earth.

Hence we should not be surprised when we find McCabe criticizing recent presentations of the suffering God. The God of classical Christianity, precisely because he eternally exists as pure actuality and the plenitude of Being, exists beyond suffering and passivity. He does not “learn from or experience the world and, in general, cannot be affected by it” (p. 44). When we read something like this, we begin to worry. Does this not make God indifferent to the human plight? Does it not distance him from the world? Yet we raise these questions, says McCabe, only because we do not truly understand what it means for God to be God:

Our only way of being present to another’s suffering is by being affected by it, because we are outside the other person. We speak of ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, just because we want to say that it is almost as though we were not outside the other, but living her or his life, experiencing her or his suffering. A component of pity is frustration as having, in the end, to remain outside.

Now, the creator cannot in this way ever be outside his creature; a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator. If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its center holding it in being. In our compassion we, in our feeble way, are seeking to be what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend. We can say in the psalm ‘The Lord is compassion’ but a sign that this is metaphorical language is that we can also say that the Lord has no need of compassion; he has something more wonderful, he has his creative act in which he is ‘closer to the suffering than she is to herself’. (pp. 44-45)

The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings, if not physically then at least emotionally, betrays the profound anthropomorphism that drives much of contemporary Christianity. To speak of God as “experiencing” the world immediately posits the world as external to God: Deity becomes a being who stands alongside the created order, as an “other.” But the infinite and transcendent God knows the sufferings of every creature, not as a being external to creatures, but precisely as the eternal act that sustains every creature in existence. “The God of Augustine and Aquinas,” McCabe writes, “precisely by being wholly transcendent, extra ordinem omnium entium existens, is more intimately involved with each creature than any other creature could be. God could not be other to creatures in the way that they must be to each other. At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act (ST 1a, 8, 1, c). … So I think it makes perfect sense to say both that it is not in the nature of God to suffer and also that it is not in the nature of God to lack the most intimate possible involvement with the sufferings of his creatures. To safeguard the compassion of God there is no need to resort to the idea that God as he surveys the history of mankind suffers with us in a literal sense—though in some spiritual way” (pp. 45-46).

I have to admit that when I first encountered the above argument it really shook me. Had I so misunderstood the classical understanding of God? The answer was … yes … and now I am playing catch-up.

But if God cannot suffer in his divine nature, what about the cross? Doesn’t God suffer as the man Jesus? And the answer is an emphatic affirmative. If God has truly united divine nature and human nature in the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, then, following the Council of Chalcedon, “we can say quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death. We can say these things because the Son of God assumed a human nature in which it makes sense to predicate these things of him. In other words, the traditional doctrine, while rejecting the idea that it is in the nature of God to be capable of suffering, does affirm literally that God suffered in a perfectly ordinary sense, the sense in which you or I suffer” (p. 46).

And this brings us to the third part of McCabe’s essay, which should be of lively interest to open theists. If Jesus Christ is the Incarnation of the divine Son in human history, then we may properly speak of his life in Judea and Galilee as the story of God: “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story” (p. 48). And it is this story that reveals the immanent life and eternal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is all fairly traditional, though articulated in a modern idiom. But then McCabe makes a surprising claim: “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ” (p. 49). What the heck But we need to be patient and hear out the theologian. McCabe acknowledges the orthodox intent of pre-existent Christ-language, but he believes that the language betrays a confusion of divine eternity and created temporality:

To speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. (p. 49)

Oops. I do not know how often I have preached and taught about the Incarnation in this way. I think it is quite normal to do so, though. “God became Man,” we confess. This is the diction of Scripture and the creeds. And yet underlying this way of talking is the assumption that we can speak of the eternal life of God in temporal terms, without acknowledging the inappropriateness of our language. We sound like we are referring to a “before” and “after” in the Godhead: once there was a time when the eternal Logos existed in a discarnate state, and then he stepped into the realm of time and entered into a new and different way of being. McCabe then continues:

I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless—for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course, be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God. From the point of view of God, then sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. (pp. 49-50)

Time belongs to the created order. As Einstein might have put it: “Time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.” God, as God, does not live in time, nor can his eternity be literally described in temporal terms. To speak of eternity is not to understand anything positive about God but simply to deny the importation of temporal movement into the Godhead. Even when we speak of the Deity as apprehending all of history in an eternal “now,” we have to be careful. Is not “now” qualified by “before” and “after”? We have all heard God’s relation to time characterized in this way:

But it’s only an image. When we speak of divine eternity, we really do not know what we are talking about. Speculate as we may, we cannot conceive the relationship between God in his timelessness and the world in its timefulness. It’s infinitely more difficult than trying to imagine the encounter between two- and three-dimensional beings. “Eternity” is an apophatic term that introduces us to the incomprehensible mystery of the uncreated Creator. When open theists speak of God not knowing the future, do they really know what they are talking about? Does not this way of talking insert God into the flow of created time?

And this brings us to McCabe’s second criticism of the “pre-existent Christ.” Let’s place ourselves back in history when Moses was alive. From Moses’ point of view, it makes perfect sense to say “Jesus does not exist” or “Jesus of Nazareth is not yet.” It makes perfect sense, because the conception and birth of Jesus has not yet happened. The future does not exist, which, as McCabe notes, “is what makes it future” (p. 50). (And for this reason, it makes no logical sense to say that “the future already exists for God.” That would to attribute to God a philosophical mistake.) And just as Moses can literally declare, “Jesus does not exist,” so Moses can also simultaneously declare, with equal literal truth, “The Son of God does exist.” Given Moses’ specific location in time, both propositions are true.

But now consider the difference between saying “The Son of God exists” and “The Son of God exists now.” As we have seen, Moses could have spoken truly the first statement; but he could not have spoken truly the second. That little “now” makes all the difference. This second proposition, “which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God,” could only become true, within history, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. When Moses lived, it was not yet true that the Son of God now existed. He had not yet enfleshed himself in time as a created being. McCabe concludes: “The simple truth is that apart from incarnation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’” (p. 50).

I do not have the philosophical smarts to unpack McCabe’s arguments relevant to the questions of divine omniscience, foreknowledge, and predestination, though I think he would immediately jump on the “fore-“ and “pre-.” In fact I know he would. Consider what he says about predestination in his book God Still Matters:

Certainly, a race or a fight that is fixed beforehand is a bogus race or fight; and a human life that has been fixed beforehand is a bogus human life. What has happened here is that we are taking the ‘beforehand’ too literally. Predestination is not something we have from birth, from way back, ‘beforehand’. We do not have predestination at all; it is the plan in the mind of God, it is nothing whatever in us. Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre’ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of God. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)

I hope others will read Herbert McCabe and perhaps begin to think these matters through. Of course, I suppose we could all spend the next decade or two reading the Summa Theologiae.


41 comments on “An Open Orthodoxy turns 1: Fr Aidan Kimel

  1. T. C. Moore says:

    More “ineffable” god propaganda? Wow. It’s so very boring to read a self-effacing “blogger” who’s “not a real theology” wax on and on about a god who is “ineffable.”

    When anyone claims that nothing can be known about the “transcendent god” and then goes on to tell you all about the transcendent god, you can be sure they are a Gnostic. They have secret knowledge about their god who dwells in the “spirit” realm, and not this material prison. They are enlightened. Ha!

    I wish Kimel would familiarize himself with the Bible. If he did so, he would be familiar with the Letter to the Hebrews (which is in the *Christian* canon!):

    “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” – 2.14-18

    But Kimel says, “The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings, if not physically then at least emotionally, betrays the profound anthropomorphism that drives much of contemporary Christianity.”

    I wasn’t aware Hebrews was reflecting “contemporary” Christian anthropomorphism. That’s insightful!

    Kimel also quotes McCabe in the affirmative who says this: “…every action done has to be an act of the creator”.

    Wow! Good, old-fashioned Fatalism! Now there’s some Good News! “You are nothing!” “You don’t matter!” “You think you’re performing actions, but you’re not! god is!”

    Kimel seems to think that Creation Ex Nihilo logically necessitates that God *Does Not* “…exist in interdependent union with the world”

    I guess Kimel’s god is not a Covenant-cutting God like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… like the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Covenant is precisely that “interdependent union”.

    So, so summarize, Kimel worships an 1) Ineffable god he alone knows all about (Gnosticism!); 2) a god who is not share our experiences at all, contrary to Hebrews; 3) a god who controls every action of humanity (Fatalism!); and 3) a god who does not cut covenant with humanity, contrary to all of Scripture.

    What a despicable and wretched god. I’m glad that god doesn’t exist.


    • Jeff says:

      T.C., I, too, am lost when someone appeals to the very scripture that says we’re made in the image/likeness/similitude of God and then claims that anthropocentric thought about God is wrong because of a “radical” transcendence of God.

      But if the transcendence is so radical that we aren’t in the image of God in any sense, then scripture per se can’t tell us anything about God. Either some or all of the human categories that render language communicative are “valid” sans creation, or language per se communicates nothing about God sans creation. But if it tells us nothing about God sans creation, must we argue that God’s pre-creation nature changed with creation?

      On the other hand, if the transcendence isn’t utterly radical, then how do we come to know in what senses we ARE in the image of God? If scripture per se is of no aid, fine. But then why keep quoting verses? I’m at a loss.

      It seems as though the constant refrain is simply “disregard the law of non-contradiction; it has no value.” But isn’t that just another way of saying that language per se can’t express anything about God? And if so, are even non-canonical theological communiques just “lyres” used by God, as David Hart claims of scripture, such that God reveals the “truth” to whom He will independent of the conventional meanings of words in those communiques?

      If so, then scripture, interpreted as language, is not only of no help, but it leads us astray. For per conventional language, Paul tells us that when believers speak in tongues to other believers, there needs to be an INTERPRETER so that there can be edification–and this because tongues were given for a sign to UNbelievers! But if theological language never conveys meanings determined by conventional language exegesis, it’s hard to see what Paul is trying to say? For God can use any language as a “lyre.” Surely that much is intelligible about God, huh?


      • Jeff says:

        What I see as the fundamental error in this kind of thinking is the same error the atheist makes. Both the atheist and the radical-transcendent-theist speak as if warranted belief has discernible meaning whether or not the rational, moral order we infer is a teleological order, with the teleological agent simply being what we call God (as per Rom. 1, etc). But to conceive of God in terms of the teleological category is to conceive of Him as other than utterly transcendent.

        But for the life of me I don’t see how they can make their case. IOW, they seem to think bona-fide knowledge (which is a species of warranted belief) exists even if teleology is false. But inevitably even knowledge about anything at all ends up being acquired in a radically individualistic and seemingly arbitrary way per these world-views. And this means that there can be no bona-fide human mode of attaining agreement non-serendipitously on anything at all.

        But alas, the reality of God as creator is the ground of any creaturely knowledge at all. For the theist to deny this is to render God pretty irrelevant. But to admit it is to deny that God is utterly transcendent if the law of non-contradiction has any relevance to human truth-apprehension.

        No doubt scripture says God imparts wisdom to SOME with words taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2) because they are ready for it (i.e., “perfect” or “complete”). But that same author (Paul) immediately proceeds to say that those very Corinthians (who were supposedly Christians) were yet carnal and had to be talked to as babes in need of milk (i.e., not in those words taught by the Spirit). Some truths are, per conventional language exegesis of scripture, acquired by human modes of knowing, not utterly individualistic modes.

        The problem the radical-transcendent-theists have with a teleological world-view is that it means, as scripture claims in conventional language over and over, that God creates for Himself, at least. They see this as problematic. They prefer an utterly disinterested God that can’t experience even two distinguishable sentient states such that one could be preferred by God over the other if it could be attained risk-free.

        The cost of this is seemingly the lack of any analogy by which to conceive of the universe as the product of what we call an intention or libertarian choice. And this is seemingly because what we mean by intention is entailed in the very category of the teleological causal mode. One can’t strip away from a category and have anything left with which to analogize.

        But this insistence that God doesn’t create for Himself is just another sense in which scripture, per conventional language exegesis, is misleading if the “lyre” mode of truth acquisition is the predominantly real mode. Because per the “lyre” mode, we come to understand, using conventional language exegesis, that God is not the author of confusion only to realize that conventional language exegesis is confusing us if we assume that God uses it in CONJUNCTION with the level of one’s spiritual growth to teach us.

        So, with T.C., it’s hard for me to even make sense of such a God as benevolent. He seems like the ultimate confuser.


      • pcm2fchris says:

        You cut right to the heart of the matter. I think the only answer is that we must abandon terms like “radical transcendence” if they lead us to where we must abandon our own reason and ideals. We’re stuck with “analogical” knowledge which comes through experience and we must keep intact the law of non-contradiction (we cannot help but to even if we think we can chuck it). Expressed poorly via communication, for sure, but there is I believe transcendent images that come through that really do define God. I think we must say – and the simpler language we use the better – that although we can’t *fully* comprehend God, we can understand him in better and worse ways. But alas, we all end in difficulties in the end!


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        St Thomas Aquinas, who is sometimes accused of scholastic rationalism, begins his Summa Theologiae with this statement:

        When we know that something is, it remains to inquire in what way it is so that we may know what it is. But since concerning God we cannot know what he is but only what he is not, we cannot consider in what way God is but only in what way he is not. So first we must ask in what way he is not, secondly how he may be known to us and thirdly how we may speak of him. (ST I.3)

        He then went on to write the rest of his very long Summa, thus demonstrating that the apophatic premise does not entail that we are reduced to absolute silence before the divine Mystery. In the course of his reflection he presents a sophisticated analysis of analogical and metaphorical speech about God. McCabe talks about this at various points in his essays.

        The important point for this thread is that recognition of the incomprehensibility of the divine essence has nothing to do with abandonment of reason: it is human reason recognizing, both on the basis of the reading of Scripture and reflection on what it means for God to be Creator, the limits of human reason before the divine Mystery and thus the limits of our discourse about God. In the words of Evagrius of Pontus: “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. pcm2fchris says:

    TC – I resonate with your comments. Are you an open theist?


    • Jeff says:

      Fr Aidan 1: quoting Aquinas:

      “When we know that something is, it remains to inquire in what way it is so that we may know what it is. But since concerning God we cannot know what he is but only what he is not,” (ST I.3)

      Fr Aidan 2: The important point for this thread is that recognition of the incomprehensibility of the divine essence has nothing to do with abandonment of reason: it is human reason recognizing, both on the basis of the reading of Scripture and reflection on what it means for God to be Creator,

      Jeff. If we take words in their conventional sense, Aidan, you are continually contradicting yourself. You can’t consistently agree that “we … only” know “what he is not” while also claiming to know God is the “Creator” of the universe we infer. You either know something about God or you don’t if the law of non-contradiction has any relevance to human knowledge per se. And if the law of non-contradiction has nothing to do with human knowledge, knowledge can’t be expressed/conveyed to another with language.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Jeff, the matters we are discussing are complex and not easily presented in a short blog article. It’s also possible that I have not expressed myself well. I think the best thing for you to do is to actually spend some time in the Summa Theologiae and seek to understand what Aquinas has to say on both the unknowability of God and on the nature of theological language. To get you off on the right start, I commend to you this essay by Gregory Rocca: “Aquinas on God-Talk.” Have fun.


  3. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    Reblogged this on Teología Eclectica.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    T. C., well, that certainly was a, well, passionate response!

    I certainly cannot apologize for God for being such an ineffable Creator. It sort’ve goes with the territory. He is God, and not a god, after all. But it might interest you to know that the Church Fathers learned of the divine incomprehensibility precisely by reading the Holy Scriptures. St John Chrysostom, e.g., delivered a series of exegetical homilies on this subject. It was not a matter of subjecting theology to some alien philosophy but precisely the reverse.

    I’m not sure where you have gotten the idea that the classical teaching on God makes it impossible for God to enter into covenant with people or hear prayers or in any way diminishes his personal activity. The Church Fathers certainly believed that the divine timelessness was compatible with God’s salvific interaction with humanity; indeed, it is precisely the divine transcendence–God’s radical difference–that makes it possible for God to be radically immanent with his creatures, without violating their creaturely integrity. McCabe discusses this in several of his essays.


  5. John Stamps says:

    What honest to goodness puzzles me is, What we were missing in our theological educations that suddenly causes us to “catch up?” Is it because the Question of God has become so laser-focused that now we read, for example, St Thomas, with very different eyes? I recently finished not one but two books by Denys Turner — his new book on St Thomas and his relatively older but exceedingly excellent, “Faith, Reason and the Existence of God.” Why didn’t I know this stuff before? Were Thomists (peeping and otherwise) making these same responses to, for example, Process Theologians 20-30 years ago? Was I just not paying attention? Did it take that long just to clarify the questions so that answers retrieved from the ancient tradition now make sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • tgbelt says:

      Absolutely love Denys Turner.


      • pcm2fchris says:

        Hey Tom. You don’t know me but I became a member of the evangelic universalist forum and ran across some of your posts. Actually – I am a bit embarrassed – it seemed like you were addressing *specifically* certain points that I was wrestling with. You were arguing with Aaron who believed (as I did at the time), that everything was determined by God, even evil (because I saw no other alternative), all to bring about a greater good otherwise impossible. But the question I had was *why* an omnipotent, all good God needed evil in his creation at all in order to attain his end. Why is that good “otherwise impossible”? If God contains nothing but goodness, *how*, logically speaking, can he make anything that has evil in it? Where does it come from? This led to a sort of metaphysical dualism within God and makes him dependent on evil in some way. Again, where could it come from if God determines all, if all that God makes is an outflowing of what he already “has”, if not himself? Either that or we are forced us to deny that there is evil at all, which I cannot believe.

        Anyway, that discussion you had with him led me to read nearly every post you wrote. I became an Open Theist – bought Greg Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil – and had a “gestalt shift” (which was not the most comfortable emotional experience!) in my understanding of God. I messaged many members on the EU board to ask if they had your contact info, and none did. But Fr. Akimel posted on one of my topics (“A Short Argument for Open Theism”), which I followed, and immediately recognized your username.

        But there are many issues I still have with OT, and I find it difficult to find Open Theists who actually understand my questions.

        The question I have for you concerns “miracles”. I’m of the view that “before” God created the universe – and even ongoing every moment in the present – God “self-limits” himself such that he is not able to actualize certain states of affairs *unless the creation does such and such.* Jesus wasn’t *able* to do miracles or convert certain men due to the acts of their freedom. How, specifically, do you view this sort of decision making process going on in God’s mind? In other words, do you think he has a sort of “utilitarian” notion of the universe as a whole, or is it more individualistic? I’m thinking about certain horrible things that happen that seem to have no reason for being “permitted”. A father, for instance, accidentally runs over his toddler as he’s backing out the driveway. What hypothetical reason could there be for God “allowing” this. Is it not true, despite what Boyd tries to say, that there is still some sort of “greater good” that is being sought when God chooses not to interfere in horrible acts? In short, if miracles are *ever* justified, what are those reasons? The initial “parameters” that God establishes, as well as his own knowledge of “how he will act if such and such happens” are the core ideas that need elucidating and further application. Suffice to say that he would never create the world such that things could become *irrevocably* bad (for either a single creature or the entire creation).

        But the above scenario seems to mean that, of the two possibilities, it would be worse for God to interfere and prevent the toddler being backed over, and we, if we could see the universe as God sees it, ought to conclude that we would not interfere either. We would, that is, let the father accidentally back over his child.

        It seems to me possible to say that every bad act which takes place which God “allows”, is itself a risk taken in order to draw the most people possible (or to draw the people who are morally worse off at the moment) freely to him. In other words, the toddler that is ran over, as well as the family involved, are *sacrifices* of a sort for all the evil/lost/morally depraved agents that can possibly be effected by such an event. In that way, they are like Christ. They are martyrs (and will perhaps be united to God in glory in a way otherwise impossible?) In these cases, however, does it not follow that it is better for God to show mercy to the sinner, than the righteous? Is not the whole scenario an act of sacrificing the innocent *for the benefit of* the guilty?

        Could it be that it is the sum total of sinful agents have “tied God’s hands” as it were? As if to say, I hate to make my son turn himself in for murder, but now that he’s told me what he’s done…

        Just some thoughts that I’ve been struggling with. I’d love to hear your reflections.


      • tgbelt says:

        I’m guessing it’s Chris (pcm2fchris), right?

        Great to hear from you. I remember those chats with Aaron. Wow!

        Your question isn’t exactly on the topic of this thread, and it deserves more attention than we can give it here, but I think in the end Boyd’s point (and it’s not particular to open theism) is that in Christ (seen as God-Incarnate suffering for the world) we have something we can understand which is reason enough to trust God in times of suffer we can’t understand or explain. The kind of suffering you describe (the senseless death of a loved child who is accidentally run over) is as painful and challenging as it gets for a parent. As you say, why would God not simply prevent such accidents? It’s not an evil effect of free moral choice. In that sense it’s a ‘natural’ evil (like mudslides and earthquakes). Boyd’s view, as you know, is that there is no such thing as natural evil. All of it is an effect of the misuse of ‘will’. In the case of tornadoes and earthquakes, he supposes fallen angels at work perverting the physical laws and material creation contrary to God’s designs. I’m not sure what Boyd would do with a father’s accidentally running over his child. Would he concede it really is just an ‘unintended accident’? That would seem to contradict his whole project which, as I understand it, is based on there being no ‘unintended’ evil/suffering. So maybe he’d say some demon pushed the toddler under the car. I don’t know.

        But I do agree that in the end we have reason enough, based on Christ and his cross, to trust that this is what God is supremely good and loving, which I take to mean that God always, everywhere seeks to maximize love and well-being and minimize evil given his overall loving purposes for creation. This doesn’t mean WE will always be in a position to judge all the relevant factors that went into determining specific outcomes. It does seem to me (following C S Lewis) that the material world has to be a suitable context in which material creatures such as ourselves are free to make choices that have their full effect. As a rule, God doesn’t step in to keep us from subbing our toes or tripping on slippery surfaces, etc. However it turned out that we have a world in which we slip and trip and hurt ourselves and other unintentionally, those things do happen, and the Cross does declare God’s unconditional and infinite love for us all. Given that love, we’re safe to conclude I think that (a) God isn’t pushing all the buttons determining everything but (b) is always at work to bring maximize love and well-being and minimize evil. Beyond that I don’t attempt a detailed theodicy, but I’ll try to get back atcha in a bit! Gotta run. Blessings!


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Regarding theodicy, may I recommend the little book by David B. Hart: Doors of the Sea. Hart confronts the difficult question of natural evil head-on. There are no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all except Pascha.


      • tgbelt says:

        My first exposure to Hart. Wonderful book.


      • pcm2fchris says:

        I’m not sure how to directly reply to your response to mine, so I just made another. But I want to clarify my concern and say a few quick things.

        The problem is not the accident of running over a child in itself. One could always attribute *all* unintentional acts like that to ignorance which is itself an effect of the Fall – i.e. the sinful effects of an agent extending negatively to another. What is difficult to understand are two things. a) The reason these things are permitted is because of a respect for creaturely freedom. However, the very effects themselves seem to interfere with this freedom. Which leads to b) how, in fact, does God view his creation? It seems there are two incongruous thoughts here: the individual’s freedom and the “sum total” freedom of all beings. Does God utilitarianly look at the creation as a single entity and sort of “weigh out” the positives and negatives of the entirety of creaturely freedom and decide “I shall let this act come to pass”? But if so, what does this mean for those who are negatively effected? It seems that there is a sort of privileging of the guilty at the expense of the innocent. A young girl is “allowed” to be kidnapped and raped “out of respect for” the rapists freedom. How, in other words, does God evaluate the allowance of such an act?

        Which leads me to this: Lewis and others suggest we must be given a context in which our effects are really possible (i.e. slipping, stubbing our toes, etc.). But God *does* step in on occasion (if we are Christians and not Deists). Miracles do occur. My question is, how does God valuate whether or not he will step in and preform a miracle? May it be that some miracles would actually totally destroy the type of freedom God cares about – i.e. if I really did see an angel descend from heaven, I may no longer be psychologically capable of following God “freely”. But certainly certain things have happened before – at least according to the Christian faith. Is there, then, a certain point one must come spiritually, perhaps by having freely built themselves such a compatibilistic will, that we are “ready” for miracles, visions, etc.?

        Just some thoughts I’m spilling out here. But I will leave with my favorite quote regarding the problem of evil – which echoes Fr. Akimel’s thoughts.

        John Adams of the American Revolution was writing Thomas Jefferson, pondering why there is grief at all in life, asking whether “we could have the rose without the thorn”, and ended with this.

        “After all, as grief is a pain, it stands in the predicament of all other evil, and the great question occurs, what is the origin, and what the final cause of evil? This perhaps is known only to Omniscience. We poor mortals have nothing to do with it—but to fabricate all the good we can out of all inevitable evils—and to avoid all that are avoidable, and many such there are, among which are our own unnecessary apprehensions and imaginary fears. Though stoical apathy is impossible, yet patience, and resignation, and tranquility may be acquired by consideration, in a great degree, very much for the happiness of life.”

        A very practical conclusion, then, perhaps is most appropriate. Such questions lie beyond our ken *in very principle*. Maybe it is best to keep silent about them and fabricate all the good we can? I know this is a punt to mystery – but, for that, can we conceive the essence of God; the limits of space; what is consciousness or the spiritual realm; the beginning of existence, the beginning of time; the divisibility of matter?

        Again, just some thoughts.


      • tgbelt says:

        Chris: The problem is not the accident of running over a child in itself. One could always attribute *all* unintentional acts like that to ignorance which is itself an effect of the Fall – i.e. the sinful effects of an agent extending negatively to another.

        Tom: I’m not sure how all unintentional acts that result in suffering could be attributed to ignorance which is an effect of the Fall (as extending negatively). I don’t personally think the pre-Fall world was free of such suffering. In other words, I think slipping, tripping, and falling from a tree, or accidentally (unintentionally) harming another all characterize the world entirely apart from ‘sin’ and its effects.

        Chris: What is difficult to understand are two things. a) The reason these things are permitted is because of a respect for creaturely freedom. However, the very effects themselves seem to interfere with this freedom.

        Tom: It seems you’re defining ‘freedom’ as unobstructed access to the fullest employment of our natural capacities, as if the freedom that matters here is interfered with if, say, a child is crippled or blinded when run over. I agree this certainly limits their options—they can’t choose to become a basketball playing or what have you. But I don’t see this is problematic.

        Chris: Which leads to b) how, in fact, does God view his creation? It seems there are two incongruous thoughts here: the individual’s freedom and the “sum total” freedom of all beings. Does God utilitarianly look at the creation as a single entity and sort of “weigh out” the positives and negatives of the entirety of creaturely freedom and decide “I shall let this act come to pass”? But if so, what does this mean for those who are negatively effected?

        Tom: Ah, I’m following ya. Right. The ‘one’ and the ‘many’, or the highest good and well-being of the individual compared to the most good and well-being achievable across the board (distributed out among all the individuals). Can the well-being of the one ever be sacrificed for the larger maximization of good socially speaking? Are God’s purposes/ends ever conflicted in this way? That is, does God ever find himself in the situation where the well-being and good of some individual (immediately considered) is not compossible with the well-being or many other individuals?

        Some thoughts:

        1) Yes, I do think the relative good of individuals can be conflicted in this way. That is, sometimes I think the well-being of the many conflicts with the well-being of the one. Can WE always make this judgment? No. But I do suppose God in his wisdom is able to weight the options and make the most-loving choice.
        2) Why individual goods should be thus conflicted is not God’s idea specifically, but it does seem to be entailed in the risky sort of free world he created. The risk of harm and suffering precedes and does not depend in its entirety upon a moral failure to unleash it.
        3) Ultimately, God is the highest possible good of creatures, and his availability to us cannot finally depend upon circumstantial evils. Accidents may deprive me of my eyesight and other abilities, but “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And whatever risks curtail the full enjoyment of our capacities in this life, no conceivable suffering (Rom 8) “can compare to the glory that shall be revealed in us.” As the summum bonum, the experience of God in resurrected glory shall relativize all human suffering to meaninglessness.

        Chris: It seems that there is a sort of privileging of the guilty at the expense of the innocent. A young girl is “allowed” to be kidnapped and raped “out of respect for” the rapists freedom. How, in other words, does God evaluate the allowance of such an act?

        Tom: Let’s not suppose the young girl is the only one suffering here. It’s part of our own failure to appreciate God as our highest good that keeps us from perceiving the suffering of despair that defines the rapist. He most definitely suffers. How’s God evaluate the world as the sort of place where such things are possible? Well, God is the ground of those possibilities. To actualize them by creating the world must mean (a) that freedom (those possibilities) are themselves the necessary price tag to free and responsible human becoming (which becoming is itself the metaphysical path to getting created being into free and fully formed partnership with God).

        Are you wondering why—within this larger framework of freedom and risk within the world—God sometimes manages to prevent the rapist from succeeding in his plans and others times doesn’t? If so, then I don’t know the answer to that. All I can say with relative confidence is that whether and if so how God is able to maximize love and minimize evil to the extend God wishes is not dependent solely upon God. There are a host of other factors that contribute. Sometimes WE cannot begin to imagine why the heck there must be some ‘factor’ that accounts for God’s permitting a car to back over a child, etc. But what we DO have is reason to trust that whatever happens, it is always the case that God does all God can do, given the world he created and his purposes, to maximize the good and minimize evil.

        Chris: Which leads me to this: Lewis and others suggest we must be given a context in which our effects are really possible (i.e. slipping, stubbing our toes, etc.).

        Tom: Precisely.

        Chris: But God *does* step in on occasion (if we are Christians and not Deists). Miracles do occur. My question is, how does God valuate whether or not he will step in and preform a miracle?

        Tom: I have no idea how God does that. I’m confident that he does do it, i.e., all created possibilities are known to God, and this act of knowing a possibilities is itself knowing its value relative to his purposes. That possibility just is its contribution to (or diminishing of) God’s purposes. But what a ‘possibility’ even is includes all the relative relationships, impact, consequences, etc.

        When it comes to theodicy, Chris, I think all we ultimately need to know is that we have in Christ reason enough to trust that God’s love and wisdom define all God does always on every level. Whether and how the good of the one may ever conflict with the good of the many, or why the rapist is sometimes stopped and sometimes not, is the mystery of God’s will at work within the creational factors that define the context in which God works and moves. God alone does not define that context, nor is that context always MERELY the secondary causal agency by which God’s intentions are brought about (contrary to so much of classical theism).

        In other words, Chris, once you’ve got Christ as your definitive demonstration of God’s love and concern, do you really need a blow by blow account of specific evils? If so, why? If we have some scenario which absolutely contradicts God’s love and concern for us, then that’s worth exploring. But for those of us who concede God’s unconditional love at work within a risky providence based on creaturely freedom, there’s no benefit to be had in having specific, detailed accounts of why on THIS occasion the rapist was prevented while on THAT occasions he was not prevented.

        Love the John Adams quote! And he knew suffering as well (daughter who died of cancer, son who died from consumption, etc.).


      • pcm2fchris says:

        Could it be that “suffering” as such is not *really* something that violates our freedom – at least the type that God cares about by allowing us to harm one another?


      • pcm2fchris says:


        I really, really appreciate your comments.

        In regard to the pre-Fall world and other comments you made: do you believe suffering is a natural – i.e. unavoidable – consequence of finite being? It seems to me that all suffering must somehow be the result of creaturely free wills. Otherwise you have God creating a universe in which he directly causes suffering, and I see no reason why an omnipotent and all-good God could or would do such a thing. Now, one could say that such suffering is not “evil” in itself but only the metaphysical manifestation of created, finite being, but that seems to stretch it a bit much. Surely there can exist *metaphysical imperfection* without suffering? But I’m not quite sure what you mean by “suffering” since you equate it to tripping, stubbing one’s toe, etc., examples which, to be fair, I’m not sure many would identify with such a word.

        You flesh out an interesting ambiguity in my reasoning. I do conclude that the rapee’s “freedom” is severely curtailed on account of the freedom of the rapist. But, as you point out, perhaps the type of “freedom” that is a necessary requirement of creaturely becoming – and the only thing that makes evil possible – cannot really be destroyed by suffering (physical or otherwise). In other words, you seem to be saying that although the girl may be limited in many *physical* ways, she is not any less disconnected from God spiritually or in terms of her capacity to exercise her own free creaturely becoming. Or at least, if she is prevented at times – perhaps through great physical suffering – from exercising her creaturely becoming, say if she is under so much pain she has lost that ability; even in such times, it may be maintained, she is never using it “in the wrong way”. As such it does not create the sort of negative that would prevent God’s permission of such an event. Does this provide justification for God “allowing” such evil acts to go on? If the “good” of creaturely becoming is still intact, if, indeed, suffering cannot totally squelch it or detract from that capacity’s positive potential, is allowing great evil then worth the risk?

        I’m not quite sure I empathize with your point regarding the rapists suffering, however. As true as it may be “behind the scenes of his consciousness”, as it were, the girl, at least at the moment of the rape, certainly *experiences* more suffering. I mean the rapist is after all engaging in one of the most physically pleasurable acts we’re capable of. But I do see your deeper point: i.e., that there are many factors to consider in God’s allowance of such acts, one of which is the particular impact the rapists free act will have on his psyche and his actual – rather than physically experienced – separation from God. Another interesting thought is thinking about how much *God* suffers in such situations. If God’s love towards us is the highest imaginable, he must suffer unspeakably at any of the suffering of his creation.

        I concede your point about that the good of individuals may sometimes be in conflict with the good of the whole, and also that, if indeed creaturely becoming into heavenly glory is such that it annihilates or makes infinitesimal any previous suffering, then “risking” by allowing certain evils to continue to go on is worth it.

        I think what you said here is particularly insightful: “God alone does not define that context, nor is that context always MERELY the secondary causal agency by which God’s intentions are brought about (contrary to so much of classical theism).”

        I take that to mean that, ultimately speaking, it is incoherent to give a “one sided” answer for the explanation of any event in the created universe. That is, it is incoherent to give God alone or one creature alone, or even 99% of the creation, as an answer for why such and such happens. The truth is that it is just this relationship between everything, this sum reciprocity, this dance between all that is, that is the answer. This is full-blown syngery, which, I suppose until now, I’ve never really thought through to the end. CS Lewis has a beautiful line in letters to Malcolm, talking about the “two way junction” between created being and creating being. “Which drop comes together to form the rain streak on the window pane” he asks. Or again, St. Paul captures the paradox perfectly: work out your own salvation in fear and trembling – for it is God who works in you.

        As you say, if we indeed suppose that God has created the universe in order to “help it” become ITSELF perfect – that is, by it growing and coming into and eventually being Godlike – then the entire God-universe relation is such that he is always acting as perfectly as he can, constantly influencing the best way he can. And this influence is such that it cannot be directly caused: else the thing becomes God himself doing it which not only undercuts his motives from the beginning but also removes an entire side of the equation – the creation itself! Perhaps this “gap” then, between God and us, is constantly closing more and more? But once we see that THIS is the project God has taken on, and that neither the creation itself alone nor God himself alone is responsible for what actually “is” or goes on, we can perhaps see that, though the bigger picture defies comprehension, it does not defy our morality. We cannot understand because it is too big, not because it is morally “transcendent” or beyond our ken. Again, as Lewis says, it makes there much to be puzzled about, but nothing to be *worried* about.

        Anyway, more thoughts – if you’re still reading! – which I am very grateful for for you stimulating. You have certainly given me meat to chew on for a while.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, as for me, I think I fell in love with specific contemporary theologians back in the late 70s and 80s. The Church Fathers only interested me to the extent that my favorite theologians found them interesting (T. F. Torrance/Athanasius; Robert Jenson/Gregory Nyssen). But I enthusiastically accepted the claim that the older Hellenistic-based theology needed to be radically corrected. So now I am trying to catch up and will probably spend the rest of my life in catch-up mode.


      • John Stamps says:

        I have one gripe, not so much about St Thomas, but about Thomists who use St Thomas to deal with whatever ideological winds tend to be blowing at the moment. As I understand Vatican I, St Thomas became the weapon of choice to answer Cartesian Subjectivism (see Fergus Kerr’s After Aquinas, pages 19-20). But Neoscholastic Thomism was ill-suited to deal with Post-Modernity, so now a new St Thomas arises, poised to deal with Theistic Personalism (or whatever intellectual problem du jour arises).

        “Rationalist” Thomism gives way to apophatic Thomism. Maybe St Thomas really is One Big Swiss Army Knife, ready for whatever problems we encounter. Or are Thomists actually shape-shifters, ready to change identities and perspectives on St Thomas at a moment’s notice?

        OK, my second gripe — St Thomas seems to represent a high-point of Medieval thought, a snapshot of spiritual, intellectual, and theological lucidity. But it quickly unravelled from there. The problem is, if St Thomas really represents the high-point of Catholic theology and philosophy, why did Western thought go off the rails so quickly into a nasty streak of theological voluntarism? Why did Scotus or Ockham swap St Thomas’ analogy of esse for their own univocity of being? Why wasn’t Scotus convinced by St Thomas?


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        John, isn’t what you write true for every great theologian? Theology never stands still. Questions always remain. New questions are posed. New reflections are advanced. etc, etc. It seems to me that this is a consequence of being historical beings … and of course there is also human sin …

        The mark of a great theologian, whether it be St Athanasius, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Thomas Aquinas, St Gregory Palamas, Martin Luther, or Karl Barth, is their capacity to speak to the theological questions that are raised hundreds of years later. So of course there will be a scholastic Thomas and a Wittgensteinian Thomas and some future Thomas. A theologian like McCabe doesn’t just repeat the words but tries to think the thoughts of Aquinas in perhaps a very different situation.


  6. Kim Fabricius says:

    Hi Aidan,

    T. C., well, that certainly was a, well, passionate response!

    You are too kind, if typically gracious: the response was rather tonally unpleasant. So I will disagree – more pleasantly!

    I am certainly with you that, finally, Open Theism is an unsatisfactory departure from classical theology. The Open Theists are not, strictly speaking, Process Theologians, and they insist that they do not deny the creatio ex nihilo, but they are Arminians (not that I am a Calvinist Calvinist!). Nevertheless, they do address real problems with classical theology, for which I think we need a better departure, specifically from its metaphysical heritage, not no departure at all – pace Hart and McCabe – the former I admire, the latter I adore – as well as, say, Thomas Weinandy and Stephen Long. Here I am indebted to Jenson and Moltmann, as well as to Barth, Jüngel, and more recently, and inimitably, Alan Lewis. Above all, I think the recent proposals of Bruce McCormack are enormously generative (see especially Chapter 10, “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism”, in Engaging the Doctrine of God [2008]). Two things (all too briefly).

    First, a critique of divine impassibility. “There can be only one Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, and this subject is the Logos. That the Logos suffers humanly goes without saying. Suffering is made possible only through the assumptio carnis. But it is the Logos who suffers, for there is no other Subject… If the Logos is the Subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine life – which also means that the divine ‘nature’ cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from this event. The divine nature can rightly be defined only by this event.”

    Second – and note well – this theologic does not lead to an abandonment of the doctrine immutability. It does, however, lead to an understanding of immutability that is not controlled by the classical – but quite unbiblical – notion of divine impassibility. “God,” as McCormack puts it, “is immutably determined for suffering.” (And here we enter the disputed territory of the logos asarkos!)

    God’s “timelessness” is another locus, McCormack avers, where the Open Theists are right that something is wrong with classical theology, though, as with immutability and impassibility, he balks at their recalibrations – not Christological enough. For McCormack, as for Barth, it’s Christology, Christology, Christology (which, of course, is to say Trinity, Trinity, Trinity). For me too.

    Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful – and thought-provoking – posts


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Kim, thank you for your comments. As you no doubt have guessed, one reason I composed this article was precisely to encourage folks to read brilliant theologian. I’m sure that you have a much better handle on McCabe than I, but like you, I find him exceptionally insightful. Quite honestly, until I encountered McCabe, I never thought that St Thomas Aquinas had anything much to teach us moderns.

      As you know, I am in an ad fontes mode. Maybe it’s just my age, but I find I need to return to the Church Fathers and learn what they taught, as opposed to what my favorite 20th century theologians told me they taught. And that means reassessing how the Church Fathers understood attributes like divine simplicity, impassibility, immutability, etc. I simply do not buy the narrative that they were all just captive to an alien philosophy. I have found John Behr, Lewis Ayres, and Khaled Anatolios particularly help here. And Stephen Holmes’s book on the Quest for the Trinity has raised further questions for me about what I have believed about the Trinity. I really did swallow Jenson/Moltmann/Pannenberg hook, line, and sinker back in the 80s. I certainly do not regret what I learned, but a reassessment is now needed.

      But McCabe especially has taught me the importance of a proper understanding of the divine transcendence as necessary for the mystical life of grace and prayer, the sacramental mysteries of the Church, the trinitarian and christological dogmas. I believe that McCabe can help open theists to open their eyes to the theological tradition.

      Regarding divine impassibility, have you read Paul Gavrilyuk’s book The Suffering of the Impassible God?


  7. tgbelt says:

    Many thanks to Fr Aidan for a thoughtful and challenging contribution. I’ll have more to say later, but for now I just wanted to say thanks for your friendship and the time you take to chat with me.

    Thanks to others for responding as well! Thank you Kim F for dropping in. Nice to see you. I run into you whenever I visit Ben Meyers’ blog. I think a series of posts on McCormack’s chapter (on Barth/Open theism) would be great. It’s been on my back burner for some time.


  8. Chris Green says:

    Fr Aidan, thanks for your reflections, as always. As you know, this bit of McCabe is particularly interesting to me so I was delighted to see you engage it at length. Like you, I’ve a theological debt to Moltmann and (especially) Jenson. Like you, I tried Open Theism and found it unsatisfying. Like you, I found better alternatives to Open Theism (and Motlmann) in Hart and McCabe. Unlike you, I found Jenson’s proposals about divine being and suffering the most convincing.

    Now, to the substance of what you’ve said here:

    (A) I think it’s risky to talk casually about “the Church’s understanding of God” and “classical theism” as if there are not deep and deeply consequential differences not only b/w, say, Augustine and Aquinas, but also b/w the Augustine of Confessions and the Augustine of De Trinitate. (The same problem surfaces when we talk about Open Theism as if there is a coherent system of thought gathered under that heading.)

    (B) I don’t think Jenson and Moltmann can be grouped so neatly, although of course I understand why it’s tempting to do so. On my reading, however, Jenson is not critiquing “classical theism” per se—as you know, he affirms the dogmatic tradition explicitly, again and again. Instead, he is calling into question the metaphysics assumed in most of the articulations of that dogma, the metaphysics that were so to speak smuggled on board with the dogma. That last difference, in my judgment, makes all the difference.

    (C) McCabe is as revisionary as Moltmann or Jenson (or, for that matter, most Open Theists)! He’s not re-stating Aquinas and Augustine. He’s reconstructing the classical tradition on his own terms (that I happen to adore, to use Kim’s word!). He seems to be more traditional largely because the constraints of his order and the Catholic tradition require him to do his reconstruction differently.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Chris, for your comment.

      (A) Point taken. But even given the differences between Augustine and Aquinas (and Gregory Nyssen and (Pseudo-)Dionysius, do they not have enough in common to group them together under some broad category (“classical theism”) for purposes of comparison with modern proposals of God?

      (B) Interesting take on Jenson. I agree with you on his serious commitment to the dogmatic tradition. I think he may be more critical of the classical tradition than you think, but if you can persuade me otherwise, I’d be delighted. I’ve been away from his writings for several years now.

      (C) I have to disagree with you about McCabe being as revisionary as you suggest, though I’m sure you are correct that he is not giving us straight Aquinas.

      I hope we have an opportunity sometime to discuss all of this further! You, me, Tom, and Kim should get together at the Bird and Baby for a pint and a long evening of theological discussion! 🙂


      • John Stamps says:

        I’m reading Marcus Plested’s most excellent Orthodox Readings of Aquinas (Oxford, 2012). Plested used to be at the Cambridge Orthodox Institute, now he’s at Marquette — he replaced Golitzin.

        Plested has a fascinating quote from St Gregory Palamas on apophatic theology: “Apophatic theology does not oppose or do away with cataphatic theology but shows rather that cataphatic statements about God are true and made in an orthodox manner but God does not possess such things in the way that we do.” (p.44n42)

        This could almost have been a direct quote from Denys Turner!

        “eadem est scientia oppositorum” –affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge


        The other fascinating point that Plested makes is his quick survey of the “Reception History” of St Thomas — neoscholastic Thomism, Analytical Thomism, Transcendental Thomism, Existential Thomism, the Dionysian Thomas, and so on. “If reception history has taught us anything it is that texts are never received as raw data, as neutral archive material.” We cannot go back to some unvarnished Ding-an-Sich.

        Hope everyone has a blessed Holy Thursday.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        The book is too darn expensive for an ordinary mortal to buy and libraries are presently unwilling to lend it out through ILL. I really do want to read this some day.


      • tgbelt says:

        Fr Aidan,

        On your question in (A), whether the named have enough in common to group them under a broad category named ‘classical theism’ for the purposes of comparing them to modern proposals, I think there is one thing they have in common, and my sense is it is the sine qua non of ‘classical theism’, and that is viewing God as actus purus, i.e., the denial of all potentiality in God.

        On the Bird & Baby, just name the time!

        Be blessed,


  9. John Stamps says:

    Not Gregory Nyssa but Gregory Palamas! RE: Plested’s stinking expensive book, I got it through interlibrary loan (ILL), as you suggested.


    • tgbelt says:

      My bad. Palamas!


      • John Stamps says:

        Hi Tom,
        Your previous posts on Denys Turner are marvelous. I need to get my hands on “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason.” Turner is no longer at Yale. He bounced back across the Atlantic and surfaced in London!

        If you’re Eastern Orthodox, you get used to oscillating back and forth between apophatic and kataphatic theology.

        For example, take the following statement from St John Chrysostom’s liturgy:
        “It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.” — “ineffable, invisible” and so on are all classic alpha-privatives — Σὺ γὰρ εἶ Θεὸς ἀνέκφραστος, ἀπερινόητος, ἀόρατος, ἀκατάληπτος.

        Or take St Basil’s liturgy, right before the Great Entrance, that we’ve been praying through Lent:
        “Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable.”

        If it makes sense to say this, this is a prime example of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The apophatic and kataphatic theology contained in these liturgies is a a prayed theology. It’s not epistemology, although I’m not per se denying epistemological implications. Perhaps there are some. I muse that God must exorcize us from epistemology, perhaps more than once.

        That demon doesn’t come out except by prayer and fasting, and maybe a purgative dose of Wittgenstein.



      • tgbelt says:

        Alas, I’m not Orthodox. Dwayne and I are reluctant evangelicals/open theists who love a great deal about Orthodoxy and started this blog basically to bring the two into conversation with one another.


      • John Stamps says:

        Besides a generous helping of aggravation on any number of levels, we Eastern Orthodox do get apophatic theology for free.

        Returning to aggravations briefly, Marcus Plested’s book is a real eye-opener. You read something somewhere and you think it makes sense and then you start repeating it as Gospel truth. Except it’s not true, except perhaps in a heuristic sense.

        For example, there is a great gulf fixed between Latin Essentialist versus Greek Personalist-Existential views of the Trinity. Except it’s not true.

        Or borrowing from Fr Theodore de Regnon, Latins start with De Deo Uno and then transition to De Deo Trino, but Greeks do the opposite. Except it’s not true.

        Marcus Plested warns us such categories are misleading in the extreme. The history is otherwise, if only we had paid attention to the history, but our assumptions screened out what was right there before our very eyes.

        I need to go back now and re-read e.g. St Augustine on the Trinity with a bit more of an open mind. The same with St Thomas. I truly enjoy pondering these “classic” treatments about God, for example, His impassibility or His simplicity. I thought I understood them and had rejected them for good reason. Turns out that I didn’t understand them at all.

        We really need to do a better job of trusting what we read or think for ourselves, even if we can’t slot it into neat categories, even if some highly-esteemed secondary source says otherwise.

        My $.02.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        John, I swallowed the East begins with the Three and the West begins with the One decades ago. I learned that not from Orthodox polemicists but from some of the new trinitarian theologians–who of course learned it from de Regnon. Lewis Ayres has been a real eye-opener for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading Augustine’s de Trinitate, but at least I won’t be repeating anymore misrepresentations of Augustine’s trinitarian theology.


      • John Stamps says:

        I know scholars are trying to answer important questions like “Why did the Christian West or the Christian East turn out the way that they did.” Who can we blame? Is it St Augustine’s fault?

        We want to make intellectual sense of our history.

        But all-too-frequently, these distinctions stop useful thought rather than promote it. Or they function as excuses to stop thinking and start building barricades.


  10. Bobby Grow says:

    So what do you think of Radical Orthodoxy, Alvin? 😉


  11. […] Tom and Dwayne hosted a guest post by Father Al on Open Theism and the Church Fathers’ commitment to God’s ineffability. […]


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