Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

“God is nothing”; “God does not exist”; and other Christian claims

I am reading a fascinating book on the otherness of God (The Otherness of God in Christian Theology by Barry D. Smith. Pickwick, forthcoming). It delves into the Hebrew Bible and Hellenistic roots of the classical Christian tradition that God is utterly unlike anything in creation.

God is literally nothing — no-thing. God is not an object in the world; not a being. God does not exist in a manner like anything else but in a fundemantally different, unique mode. Indeed, some orthodox strands of the Christian tradition went so far as to deny the category of existence to God because that would put God on the same level as creation. Etymologically “to exist” is it stand forth or to stand out (against some presupposed background) but such a category only applies to created things and not to the Creator. On this view

  • God is not a being
  • nor even The Supreme Being

For then God would be “like us but bigger.” But God is not simply a SUPER-super-hero.

But for the radicals God is not even “Being itself.” God is “beyond being,” and utterly transcendant. Literally nothing can be known of God-in-Godself.

Must confess that I find myself squirming at this point. It’s not simply that  saying “God does not exist” is open to easy misunderstanding (Oh! So you’re an atheist!) but that the level of agnosticism (i.e., 100% agnosticism) about God does not sit easily with biblical revelation.

But those who took this view were also adamant that we do indeed know the works of God in creation — we are not agnostic about that. We know that God rescued Israel from Egypt, that God-made-flesh died on the cross for sin, and so on. We can know the Trinity in the divine economy of salvation. What we are agnostic about is not the divine acts in creation but the divine essence — not God-in-creation but God-in-Godself.

But I am still squirming. Of course, there is a high degree of agnosticism we must have about the immanent Trinity but if the economic Trinity is a real revelation of God it must tell us something about God-in-Godself.

So I am happy to say that “God is no thing” and that God is not “a being” and even that God is not “The Supreme Being.” I am happy to live in deep darkness when it comes to God . . . yet . . . I would prefer to retain the language of existence for God (while noting that God’s existence is a radically different mode of existence from the existence of created things: as non-composit God’s existence is identical with his essence) and I am keen to say that the revelation of God in the divine economy reveals true truth about God, even if only in a glass darkly.

(As an aside: on the doctrine of divine simplicity see James Dolezal, God without Parts. Pickwick, 2011. It’s a terrific book.)

So the church today, especially evangelicalism, needs a lot more agnosticism about God . . . but, at the other end of the scale, one can take the darkness of unknowning God to an extreme that threatens to unravel Christian theology itself. That, I fear, may be to saw off the branch we are sitting on.

21 Comments

  1. Sounds like a really good book, Robin. I’ll put it on my (increasingly long) reading list.

  2. Glad to know this book is in the pipeline, Robin. I’m very interested in this particular claim in Christian theology, and I’d love to see what Smith does with it. At any rate, it’s good to know what makes you squirm!

  3. Strikes me that this ‘Christian Atheism’ is one of the most profound arguments we have against neo-Atheism. The God Dawkins doesn’t believe in is precisely a very big, very causally potent, ‘thing’, alike unto other things. It also strikes me that God being ‘no thing’ is the implication of a strong doctrine of creation ex nihilo – the proper recovery of which is another necessity in the face of neo-Atheism.

    And, as for the problem of God not being known in God’s essential being, there is a strand in the Patristic tradition that would argue that no essence, not yours nor mine, is in fact knowable as such. So, the predication of mystery into the being of God passes over into a recognition of mystery and unknowability at the heart of all being. Perhaps, to the extent that God does become a ‘thing’, we all become ‘things’ instead of persons; whereas the utter otherness of God keeps a space open for the otherness of more immanent others.

  4. Brett,

    absolutely. That is precisely my problem with the new atheism: the God it rejects is not the God of Christian faith but an impostor. But Christians so often speak of God as if God was a giant version of themselves. That does not help.

    A good understanding of creatio ex nihilo and secondary causation would go a long way in what are often confused discussions in science and faith based on a misconstrued doctrine of divine action.

  5. Very interesting!

    I have to wonder though, with this view of God, what does it mean that we are made in His image?

  6. James

    Good question — one I have been pondering myself. Of course, it is not a simple question to answer on any view of God.

    Robin

  7. Certainly the god of onto-theology (God as merely a being among others) ought to be avoided, but don’t you think the Thomistic language of analogy is useful here?

  8. That is such a good post I have mentioned it on my blog themorningflight.com.
    As a Pentecostal preacher I have been trying to declare recently that God is more than can be put into words, yet alone comprehend.
    I have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the smallness of the God too often proclaimed by Christians, the same one rejected by atheists. I too reject the God the atheists reject – too small!

  9. I think Joshua hits the nail on the head. That we must avoid the “univocity of being” and “ontotheology” doesn’t mean we can’t speak meaningfully by analogy. But that we speak by analogy reminds us that we don’t “own” God with our language.

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