Christian monotheism


Christian monotheism

Monotheism is the view that there is only one God. In the time of ancient Judaism, people believed there were many Gods and there are verses from the old testament which reflect this: “There is none like thee among the gods, O Lord” (Psalm 86:8). Each tribe, group of people or nation was thought to have its own God.

Around the time of the Israelite prophets, belief in monotheism emerged, as seen by God’s proclamation in Isiah: “Before me no God was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isiah 43:10).

Judaeo-Christian monotheism is ethical monotheism, meaning not only that there is one God but additionally that God is the source of goodness. In Judaism this came in the form of the covenant – an agreement between God and the Jewish people that God would have a special relationship with the Jews if they followed his moral commands, such as the 10 commandments.

In Christianity, ethical monotheism is best illustrated by Jesus, in his response to the question of which commandment was the greatest, he replied “The lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … you shall love your neighbour as yourself … there is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31). The claim that God is one God, paired with ethical commands, is what makes Christian monotheism ethical monotheism.

Exodus 20:3-5: “You shall have no other Gods before me …. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God”.

God as omnipotent creator and controller of all things

Descartes’ voluntarism

A tiny minority of theologians and philosophers, most notably Descartes, argue for ‘voluntarism’; the view that God’s omnipotence involves the power to do anything, even the logically impossible. Descartes gives the example that God could have made it false that twice four makes eight. He thinks that God has the power to change mathematical, geometric, logical and moral truths. We may be unable to imagine 4 plus 4 not equalling 8, but that doesn’t mean God lacks the power to have made it so:

“It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power”

Descartes’ argument is that because of God’s ‘immensity’ “nothing at all can exist which does not depend on Him.” This includes maths and logic.

Descartes concludes that logic is a human limitation, but not a limitation for God on which all things, including maths and logic, depend. Thus, the rules of logic are decided by God and they then emanate from his mind

Responses to the problem of evil seem to be undermined by a voluntarist view of God’s omnipotence. The reasons usually given for why God allows evil is that it’s not logically possible for God to eliminate evil without contradicting his divine justice (Augustine), taking away our free will (Augustine & Plantinga) or opportunities for growth from evil (Irenaeus & Hick). However, if God can do the logically impossible, then it seems he could eliminate evil without removing our free will or opportunities for growth. So why hasn’t he? Descartes’ Voluntarism therefore seems to undermine defence of God against the logical problem of evil.

Aquinas on omnipotence

Aquinas argued that the correct definition of omnipotence was the ability to do any logically possible thing. He argued that God’s power is founded on God’s infinite divine nature which “possesses within itself the perfection of all being”. Therefore, God’s omnipotence can only bring about things consistent with the perfection of being.

That does not include things which are logically impossible: “that which implies being and non-being at the same time” cannot be brought about by God “not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing.” So, God cannot create something which both exists and does not exist because it is not consistent with being, the perfection of which his power is founded on. Aquinas concludes:

“it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.”

Even though God cannot create impossible things, that is not a limitation of his omnipotence, once properly understood as power founded on the perfection of being.

The paradox of the stone provides a criticism of Aquinas. It is the question of whether God could create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it. This is problematic for omnipotence because if God can create the stone, there is something he cannot do – lift the stone. If he can’t make the stone, there is something he cannot do – make the stone. It looks like Aquinas’ definition of omnipotence struggles to address this. It’s easy for Aquinas to dismiss whether God can create four sided triangles as that would be logically impossible. Creating a really heavy stone doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task though, so surely God should be capable of doing it. In that case, he cannot lift the stone though, which equally doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task. So, there is some logically possible action which God cannot do, thus invalidating Aquinas’ definition of omnipotence as being capable of doing all logically possible actions. Descartes doesn’t have this problem because he would claim that God can create a stone too heavy for him to lift and then he can also lift it. That is a logically impossible solution, but that’s no issue for Descartes’ view of omnipotence.

Mavrodes defends Aquinas here by arguing that in fact the stone is logically self-contradictory if we notice the full context. It’s not just a really heavy stone – it is a stone ‘too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift’. Since by definition an omnipotent being could lift any stone, there is no such thing as a stone too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift, and thus it is in fact a logically impossible thing, just like a four-sided triangle. Therefore, the answer to the paradox is that God cannot create the stone and the reason is that it is logically impossible, but that doesn’t detract from God’s omnipotence according to Aquinas’s definition which is therefore still valid. So, Aquinas would say God can’t make the stone but that’s because it can’t be done, just like making a square circle.

Self-imposed limitation

Self-imposed limitation is a third way of resolving issues regarding omnipotence. It suggests that the only limits on God’s power are limits God chose. God still has the power to do anything he chooses as God is only limited by God’s own choice. So, God is still technically omnipotent, despite being limited, as it is a self-imposed limitation.

One reason God might self-limit is that that when creating the universe, God made it logically consistent and orderly. This means that if he did something logically impossible within the universe, that would disrupt the logical order of universe and make it chaotic, probably uninhabitable. Since God does not want to do that to his creation or to humans, he must have limited his ability to do logically impossible things within the universe.

Another reason God would self-limit is because of God’s intention for humans to have free will. It is typically considered important in Christianity for our salvation that we have free will so we can choose good over evil. However, our having genuine free will, or what Plantinga would call ‘significant’ free will, requires that God does not intervene to stop us every time we do something wrong. If God did that, we would have free will in a technical sense, but it would not be significant because it would be prevented from having an impact on the world.

Does it really make logical sense for an omnipotent being to be capable of limiting itself? Arguably genuine limitation requires actual inability which seems to require an inability to throw off or discard that limitation. Yet in that case, it seems God would be reducing the number of things he could do, so he wouldn’t be able to do everything he previously could, making him not omnipotent.

However if it’s merely that God chooses to limit his power to logical actions when acting within the universe, technically he isn’t actually limiting himself, just choosing not to do certain things, which seems perfectly consistent with omnipotence.

Process theology: omnipotent creator and God as the controller of all things

The key feature of process theology is a challenge to the traditional view of what omnipotence is.

Omnipotence and Genesis. Traditionally, most theologians agree with Aquinas’ view of omnipotence, which is that God has the power to create any logically possible state of affairs. This view is based on Creatio ex nihilo, which means ‘creation from nothing’. Since God created the universe from nothing, he must be powerful enough to do anything logically possible. This is based on Genesis 1:1-3:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Griffin rejected creatio ex nihilo. He pointed to an alternative translation:

“In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth being without form and void, and darkness being upon the face of the deep”

In this second translation, it suggests that the earth already exists, as it is ‘being’, but in a formless state. This suggests that matter has existed eternally in a simple chaotic formless state and God’s act of creation was to give form and order to it, but not to actually create it from nothing.

For Griffin, the bible therefore does not suggest that God has the power to do absolutely anything. God’s creative act introduced into the universe the process of increasing complexity. Turning chaos into form was the first step. The process of evolution is also part of this process, increasing the complexity of living things over time. This allows for beings like us to exist which has the benefit of allowing good experiences, but brings with it the downside of the possibility of suffering.

Coercion vs persuasion. Process theologians argue that the traditional view of God’s omnipotence is coercive, meaning it is a form of domination that simply overpowers resistance and forces a thing to do what God wants. This seems to be incompatible with free will however, since a human being who is truly free cannot be controlled, otherwise they would not have free will. Process theologians argue that viewing God’s power as coercive is thus incompatible with free will. Griffin claims it is a ‘common notion’ that we do have free will, and therefore we should view God’s power as persuasive, not coercive. This means that God cannot directly coercively control things in a way that would prevent evil. The best God can do is attempt to persuade things to be better which takes a long time.

Griffin claims that the universe is in God, which is called a panentheistic relationship. God therefore is not a transcendent being with direct coercive control but is the ‘soul’ of the universe. Just like our minds cannot control everything going on in our body, but can encourage things in a more positive healthy direction long-term. This also means that God suffers with us when we suffer from evil.

Natural evil results from what Griffin calls ‘low-grade’ material things like molecules, which are very difficult for God to influence since they lack the mental ability to respond to persuasion. God can only affect such things through long-term influence of beings that have free will who might then affect the ‘low-grade’ things into a better order. Therefore, God’s power over us is not absolute and so he does not have the power to coercively prevent moral evil.

God there does not have coercive omnipotence so he does not have control over all things. The most God can do is persuade things.

Roth’s critique of process theology

Roth argued that a God who lacked the ability to stop the genocide at Auschwitz would not be worthy of worship because there is no point worshiping a being who cannot save us from terrible situations. Roth claims that, for Griffin’s view of God, “the best that God could possibly do was to permit 10,000 Jews a day to go up in smoke”.

Griffin responds that it is better to worship a God who lacked the power to prevent the holocaust than to worship one who had the power but didn’t. Griffin argues that this shows the differences in what people find worthy of worship; for Roth it is simply brute power whereas Griffin argues that is not the message derived from the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Griffin concludes “Roth finds my God too small to evoke worship; I find his too gross”.

We’ve got two choices – believe in a God who could’ve but didn’t or a God who would’ve but couldn’t.

The issue of process theology vs the bible

Process theology vs the bible. God is presented as having coercive power in the Bible.

Liberal view of the Bible can counter this view.

God as transcendent and unknowable

God being transcendent means that God is beyond space and time. This means he is not a physical thing. The Bible suggests that God is beyond our understanding. “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11).

Otto claimed that experience of God is experience of something “Wholly other”, meaning utterly different from anything else.

Hick & the epistemic distance. Hick argued that there needs to be a knowledge distance between us and God otherwise, if we knew for sure God existed, it would corrupt our moral intentions because we would all obey God’s moral commands out of fear rather than out of virtue.

The Trinity

Corinthians 8:6. “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”.

The importance of the doctrine of the trinity

Jesus’ role in our salvation shows he was divine and highlights the importance of the trinity. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life to save us from our sins is called the atonement and is something only a divine being could do. A mere human could not save us from our sins. It’s only if Jesus was God that his sacrifice would have the power to save us from our sins, and it’s only if he was human that he would have something (a human life) to sacrifice. Only the trinitarian view claims Jesus was 100% God and 100% human, so only the trinitarian view can make sense of the atonement.

The moral exemplar theory of the atonement, such as the version proposed by Hick, doesn’t require that Jesus’ death had a literal and direct effect on our sinful state, so his theory of the atonement undercuts the importance of the trinity for salvation. Hick claims that Jesus was just a human and so certainly died, but that the power of his sacrifice was merely as an example of moral life so inspiring that it influences us to be better and thereby saves us from our sins in that sense.

The trinity is important as it enables personal relationship with God

God is transcendent, but the Son and Holy Spirit can be immanent. The trinity thus allows for a personal relationship with God despite God’s transcendence.

Liberal views of the bible and Jesus as just a human would not regard the trinity as important since they do not believe in it.