Classical theism


On and offline I’ve been following discussions for and against classical theism. Some of these discussions proceed without having established precisely what counts as classical theism. Some make the wild claim that Dwayne and I are classical theists. So if it helps those interested in the question, I’d like to clarify. It’s not that difficult a vision of God to state.

Back a while ago I stated (hear and hear are examples) what seemed to me to be the sine qua non of “classical” theism, and engaging the questions surrounding this has only confirmed things as we’ve focused on understanding and appreciating the classical tradition as best we could. The fundamental conviction of classical theism is:

  • God is actus purus (“pure act,” by which is meant, among other things, that there is no conceivable unrealized potential in God).

Certain things follow from this, most importantly:

  • God is simple (that God is not composed of parts, spatial, temporal, or metaphysical, which any attempt at qualifying would need to be expressed with extreme caution, since no sane theist can suppose God to be assembled from more fundamental parts).

From these of course other traditional affirmations follow:

  • God is absolutely immutable (unchanging in every conceivable way, possessing no accidents).
  • God is impassible (which for the Orthodox, by whom I mean the tradition that produced the Creeds and Fathers, means firstly that God is never passive with respect to knowledge or emotion in relation to the world; i.e. he is never acted upon or determined by creation in any conceivable sense. Typically debates about divine passibility/impassibility proceed as if what is at stake is whether or not God has feelings or emotions at all, but the issue is bigger than that.)

More could be said (about omniscience, essential benevolence, etc.) but not much that a non-classical theist need disagree with. As one pushes beyond these to what is thought to be implied by them the opinions become diverse. But at classical theism’s defining center is the commitment to God as actus purus, admitting no accidents, no experience of temporal sequence whatsoever, and never in any conceivable way being acted upon or determined by creation.

To any working intelligence, Dwayne and I aren’t classical theists. We deny actus purus and its entailments as classically held.

Far on the other end of the theistic spectrum of beliefs is Process theism. If classical theism’s defining center is actus purus (pure act), Process theism can be reduced to the opposite metaphysical claim, namely, that God is processu operis (a “work in progress”). God is “temporal becoming” par excellence. He is the One whose existence and perfections are without remainder historicized, constituted in and as the ever-changing process of ongoing relations with creation, relations which are as consequential and self-constituting for God as they are for the world.

There are theists in both these camps who see these two options as jointly exhaustive of the theistic options. But the vision and burden of this site is to challenge the claim that our theological options are exhausted by these two visions and to suggest that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute God’s freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity, are absolutely to be maintained, but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se (if carefully stated), but then also to suggest that these traditional perfections needn’t per se threaten or undermine the sense in which open theists view God as knowing and engaging the temporal world.