Over the last several years, as I’ve defended some of the essentials of “classical theism” in print and in the classroom with my students, I’ve made an argument that goes something like this: The classical tradition tells us that God is simple, immutable, eternal, impassible, and so on. God isin the fine phrase of Stanley Hauerwas, which I never tire of quoting“not part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe.” And the main way we see the exegetical roots for statements like these is by returning to the Old Testament, with its emphasis on the transcendence, freedom, and sovereignty of the God of Israel. As D. Stephen Long has expressed the point, “[T]he doctrine of God’s simplicity is . . . biblical, for we are commanded not to turn God into a creature, into an idol of our own making.”
More specifically, I have often gone to particular texts like Exodus 3 to try to demonstrate that the classical “attributes” of God flow from biblical affirmations. When God announces to Moses that he is who he isor he will be who he will beGod thereby indicates his difference from creation. Coupled with other affirmations of divine transcendence, such as Isaiah 46:510, we can see an organic link between the Old Testament’s portrayal of God and what later Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions came to describe with the language of the divine attributes.
Then, when it comes time to talk about the incarnation, I have often said that the truly radical teaching of the New Testament is that it is this Godthe transcendent God of Exodus 3 and the prophetswho hands over his name to Jesus Christ. It is precisely our unswerving commitment to defend the simplicity, aseity, and majesty of the God of Israel that allows us to understand the seismic significance of Jesus’s being included in the story of that divine identity. Long again:
The Old Testament is necessary to understand the New. The divine name given to us in Exodus 3:14 is the Name that Jesus also bears and thus we can worship him without fear of violating the commandments revealed to Moses. If we lose the name, if which the Impassible One is a logical extension, then we will lose the ability to recognize in Jesus a way of signifying that leads us to something which is more than finite, temporal, and composite.
Lately, though, since reading Robert Sokolowski’s long-acclaimed book The God of Faith and Reason, I have been wanting to qualify this line of argument. If, in the past, I have wanted to say that the Old Testament teaches us that God is simple, immutable, and impassible, I now want to maintain that it is the New Testament, just as much or even more than the Old, that pushes us towards these affirmations. It’s not adequate to say that the Old Testament defines the divine nature for us, and then the New Testament indicates that that nature belongs to Jesus. The matter is more subtly complex than that.
Consider this paragraph from Sokolowski:
The sense of God that comes forward for us in [the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection] is that of the God who could become part of the world, as man, without disrupting the integrity of the world and of nature; he must therefore not be one of the kinds of being in the world. . . . There are many statements in the Scriptures that assert the independence and the dominion of God, but the full force of such statements is appreciated only when they are taken together with the events that were accomplished in the life of Christ. . . . God is more radically contrasted to nature [in the New Testament] than he is in the Old Testament. The doctrine of the incarnation, with its emphasis on the integrity of the human being in Christ, brings out this deeper sense of God as creator.
In other words, it is only when we grapple with the New Testament’s truth that the Word has become flesh without ceasing to be God and without overwhelming or altering what it means to be human that we can grasp the Creator-creature distinction in its full depth and glory. Both parts of the canon of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, are necessary if we’re going to talk about the exegetical basis for classical theism.
This illustrates, once again, the danger of a “proof-texting” approach to Scripture. Doctrines like divine simplicity, aseity, or impassibility can’t be read off one or two passages of the Bible, even if those passages are venerable, prominent ones like Exodus 3 or Isaiah 4055. Doctrines, rather, are synthetic judgments, arising from a consideration of the full panoply of Scriptural genres, affirmations, and implications. As the Baptist systematic theologian Steve Holmes has put it,
Theology is not primarily an exercise in collating Scriptures, although good theology is certainly attentive to that. In a sense, real theology is what you do after the Scriptures have been collated. . . . [Theology] is, in the classical tradition, mostly the task of trying to imagine what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true. It is a creative task, requiring great efforts of imagination, as well as careful exegesis and precise logic.
In this particular case, the classical doctrine of God may be seen as the result of trying to articulate what must be true of God if everything in both Old and New Testaments is true.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.