Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Gods: An Historical Overview

My friend and theologian, Dr. Baxter Kruger, recently published a post entitled, "Two Gods,", Jan 22, 2010. My post for today is intended to contribute to that ongoing conversation. In order to make the post understandable for non-theologians, I will be using general rather than technical terms (so this is one you can share with your spouse without appearing too weird!)

As Baxter notes, Paul Young's book, The Shack, is spreading like wildfire around the world, selling multiple millions of copies. Thank you, Jesus! This book strikes a chord in the human heart as it unveils a winsome portrait of the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - the God revealed in Jesus to be, by nature, a God of self-emptying love who pours himself out in sacrificial self-giving for the cosmos he has created.

Paul Young's portrait of God is far different from the ugly monstrosity that historically has been passed off as God in much western theology. In harmony with Baxter's post, I want to offer a general historical overview of how the western church lost the portrait of the loving Father painted by Jesus and replaced it with a monstrous distortion of the face of God painted in the opaque colours of pagan philosophy.

In the fourth century, as a result of heretical attacks on the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Fathers were compelled to inquire into the eternal, intradivine nature of God. Prior to this time, theologians such as Irenaeus, as well as the community of faith at large, were generally content to develop their thinking about God solely in terms of God's historical, redemptive self-revelation in the history of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Yet, heretical attempts to reduce Jesus Christ to a created intermediary between God and the world forced the Fathers to think about the eternal nature of God rather than restricting their inquiry to God's historical self-revelation in Jesus and the Spirit. Consequently, and no doubt unintentionally, theologians began to focus on the nature of God apart from God's self-revelation in the historical Jesus.

The formulation of a doctrine of God apart from God's historical self-revelation in Jesus was particularly evident in the trinitarianism of Augustine, who, for better or worse (mostly worse in my opinion), is considered by Roman Catholics, as well as many Anglicans and Protestants, to be the "father" of western Christianity. Augustine turned away from God's three-fold self-revelation in time and space to develop an analogy of the Trinity based on the processes of the human mind. This is Augustine's famous "psychological analogy" of the Trinity.

What drove Augustine to turn away from Jesus, the incarnate Son, to develop his trinitarianism based on the human mind? First, because he spoke Latin, not Greek, he was not thoroughly versed in the trinitarian thought of his predecessors, the Greek Fathers, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians, wherein the Triune Persons-in-relationship constitute the being of God. Secondly, he was thoroughly enamoured by Neo-Platonism, a form of pagan thought wherein the world is regarded as passing and relatively unimportant - even evil (in contrast to the biblical view, "and God saw that it was good."). The Neo-Platonists regarded the human mind as that place wherein a "spark" of divinity is imprisoned in the (evil) human body. Thus, because he regarded matter - including the human body - as inherently evil, it would be difficult, if not repugnant, for Augustine to develop his trinitarianism on the incarnation, that is, the "em-body-ment" of God in Jesus Christ. Given his pagan assumptions, including a disregard for the body and the elevation of the mind as the repository of divinity, it seems quite natural for Augustine to develop his trinitarianism based on a psychological analogy of human cognitive processes.

The overwhelming problem in Augustine's trinitarianism, however, is that in turning inward to the human mind to develop his trinitarian thought he turned away from God's redemptive self-revelation in Jesus! In turning away from God's self-disclosure in time and space (i.e., the incarnation), Augustine focused attention on the eternal nature ("substance") of God considered apart from God's triune self-revelation in redemptive history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (I cannot over-emphasize the importance of that statement). In very non-technical terms, as the hidden, impersonal substance of God gained importance, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were lost like bits of bad potato in a cosmic vichyssoise!

In the expansive wake of Augustine, western medieval theologians focused more and more on the eternal nature of God considered apart from God's historic self-revelation. They begin to think of the nature or "substance" of God as the "real" God. The "substance" (being, nature) of God became the all-important "fourth-something" underlying the Triune persons. As Baxter often says, the "deepest truth" about God was thought to lie hidden in the unrevealed, hence, mysterious, impersonal substance of God. Are you getting the picture? It ain't pretty!

Commensurate with the resurgence of Aristotelian (pagan) thought in the western medieval church, Thomas Aquinas (another "doctor" of the Roman Catholic Church), built on the Augustinian emphasis on the unrevealed substance (nature) of God. Aquinas formally split the western doctrine of God into two treatises. This had never been done before, even though we are now more than one thousand years into the history of the church! First, Aquinas developed a major treatise entitled, "On the One God." In this treatise, he built on Augustine's emphasis on the hidden substance of God by painting a portrait of God based on human reason and the observation of nature. His thinking is based on the assumption that a cause (God) can be known by its effects (the varied phenomena of the universe). (As an aside, Karl Barth, and later T.F. Torrance, blew out of the water the assumptions underlying this method. We'll have more on that in future posts). Aquinas followed Aristotle and Greek philosophy in general to draw a number of conclusions about God. His thinking ran something like this: The world is changeable and passing away; therefore, God, who is perfect, must be unchangeable (immutable). The world is full of suffering; therefore, God, being perfect, must not suffer; that is, God is impassible (what does that do to the passion of Christ?). Human beings have power and wisdom; therefore, God being perfect, has all power (omnipotence) and all wisdom (omniscience). The world is finite; therefore, God, being perfect must be not-finite (infinite), etc. Aquinas bequeathed the western church the infinite, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient God of western Christianity, aka, the omniGod. The essential point is that in developing a doctrine of God derived from human reason and the observation of the cosmos, Jesus was once again left out of the picture!!!

After he develops a major treatise on the one God, Aquinas developed a second, relatively minor treatise entitled, "On the Trinity." The problem is, as Colin Gunton has observed, by the time Aquinas finally got around to the Trinity, it appeared that everything worth saying about God had already been said in the first treatise ("On the One God"). The Trinity was reduced to a relatively minor appendix to a thoroughly developed doctrine of the One God. As a result, in post-Thomist medieval Scholasticism ("How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?), the Trinity was hardly studied at all! In terms of everyday piety, Jesus was so far removed from the doctrine of God that the ordinary believer had no choice but to venerate the saints. After all, with Jesus out of the picture, who else can you pray to!

In dividing the doctrine of God as he did, Aquinas left the western church with two versions of God: one based on natural theology and human reason (the One God) and another based on revealed theology and faith (the Triune God). All the hype has gone to the One God and the Trinity has been reduced to an interesting but confusing distraction in the western doctrine of God.

In bequeathing the western church with two versions of God, the Augustinian-Thomist tradition has created a deep dualism (split, divide, disjunction) in the heart of western Christianity. Faith is pitted against reason, creation is separated from redemption, and the Father is separated from Jesus! This sad state of affairs has produced the "theological schizophrenia" (Torrance) that has plagued and terrorized the western mind in regard to God.

Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs was not corrected in the Reformation. Because the Reformers were occupied with the important issues of "justification by faith" and "ecclesiastical authority," the Augustinian-Thomist distortion of the character of God passed right into Protestantism, as evidenced by Charles Hodge, who wrote a 2,300 page systematic theology and devoted only four pages to the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, as T.F. Torrance has noted, this "un-Christian" (his word) doctrine of God was enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, otherwise known as the constitution of Calvinism. No wonder most Calvinists are so grim!

With a few notable exceptions (e.g., John McCleod Campbell, George MacDonald), such was the sad state of affairs in the western doctrine of God until, in the twentieth century, the great Karl Barth roared, "Nein!" The echo of his mighty shout is growing ever louder throughout the western church thanks to theologians like Torrance, Gunton, Jenson, Kruger, Rahner, LaCugna, and many others and to popular writers like Paul Young. Slowly but steadily, the western church is throwing off the bonds of its Augustinian captivity and learning to live in the joyous freedom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who pours himself out in self-giving love for all humanity. Amen.

For a much more detailed account of the above, complete with many references, simply go back through my old posts, beginning with the earliest. I intend to present a more formal, academic paper on the above when I get around to it. You know how that goes!


  1. Good stuff, Martin! I intend to share this! Thank You Father, Son and Holy Spirit for refusing to be delegated to a "minor treatise!"

  2. This is a wonderfully clear (and I think accurate) summary of a complex issue. Thanks Martin.

  3. Thanks Jerome and Ted. I appreciate your ongoing interest in this blog. That's what keeps me going!

  4. At first I thought how desperately sad for Western Christendom, the Augustinian-Thomist alliance ... and shuddered at the thought of piety in the Saints outside of Christ. Then I thought , well, for generations , there were no light bulbs and electricity. And how much of God's Word are we currently still lacking in understanding? Then i thought, well, revelation is disclousure, not discovery and discovery is what we do in science, so the idea of unmittegated sadness came creeping back once again. A similar effect of impotence or human ineffectualness comes through in an allied and deep historical confusion, namely that of the treatment of women. Where what is at issue was there in the text of the Bible all along, if eyes were to see! It is just as well God does not run out of patience for us. I am wondering and hoping that the pendulum does not swing too far away to the other extreme away from the omni-God, namely toward a God who is so nice and so not in need of overthrowing evil, that we hear little of evil, and sin and so on. Unfortunately there always appears a weak-link in our chain of thought, and i would hazard a guest, that central as Christ is, if we don't 'do Adam' well enough, then the 2nd Adam, namely Christ, will not appear fulsomely and winsomly. And that is the problem in our culture of wrestling with evolution, natural science, etc. still current buring issues for some believers.

  5. Dear Rev. Davis:

    Thank you very much for this article. First it is good to know there are kindred spirits out here. 2nd, my friend and brother Bobby Grow has been working on this stuff at for some time, but you have put it together so concisely in words this plebe can understand. I am begining to grasp the Trinitarian God as never before. I am beginning to behold His other-centered love as never before, and I can not adequately relate to you what seems to be going on inside of me (not, at least without appearing foolish). For the 1st time 1 Cor. 13 means what it says, because God does not do anything except out of love, within the Trinity and reaching out in His Incarnation, and through the Holy Spirit. This Christian of 32 years will babble on like a teenage girl in love, so I will sign off. I will tell Bobby you're here, in case you don't already know each other.

    Duane Watts


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