Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists like Greg Boyd will definitively say, no.

But it’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not as person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquianas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immmutable, and simple. And yet she observes that the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the person of faith described by Aquinas is, “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).” After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).” So, if in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book. She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer because of prayers without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because in eternity), complex (because the results for us are in time) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

 

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.

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