The Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is very important in Christianity. But people who are not Trinitarians, even non-Trinitarians who believe in the Bible and in Jesus, might wonder, what’s the reason for believing in the Trinity? Is the idea of the Trinity motivated from Biblical texts or was it something that came out of Greek philosophy or Greek culture in early Christianity? How did Christians come to understand things in this way? And why has this understanding persisted in Christian history?

With this episode I’d like to get into some more systematic theology. In a previous episode I went over the nature of God as it has been formulated in the theological and philosophical tradition of classical theism. The topic of this episode, the Trinity, is also about the nature of God but more especially about the uniquely Christian understanding of the nature of God as the triune God, God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity is very important in Christianity. But people who are not Trinitarians, even non-Trinitarians who believe in the Bible and in Jesus, might wonder, what’s the reason for believing in the Trinity? How did Christians come to understand things in this way? And why has this understanding persisted in Christian history? Is the idea of the Trinity motivated from Biblical texts or was it something that came out of Greek philosophy or Greek culture in early Christianity? Or even more basic, what is the doctrine of the Trinity, really? I think these are good questions and quite common questions. So it’s a topic worth looking at.

I’ll go through this topic in seven sections: (1) a definition of the Trinity, (2) some misinterpretations of the Trinity, (3) the scriptural motivation for the doctrine of the Trinity, (4) some of the cultural and philosophical background, (5) some useful theological terms, (6) some history of the development of the doctrine, and (7) the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity to the whole Christian faith.

Definition

One definition of the Trinity I think is quite good is one with the following seven parts.

The Father is God.
The Son is God.
The Holy Spirit is God.
The Father is not the Son.
The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
There is only one God.

I picked up this definition from Phillip Cary in his Teaching Company course The History of Christian Theology. And he adapted this from Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). This definition is quite straightforward, I think. And we’ll see later how there are scriptural motivations for each of these statements. Each of the statements, taken individually, isn’t hard to understand. It’s trying to understand how they can all fit together that gets challenging. And that’s where a lot of the additional terms and concepts come in; like substance, persons, generation, and procession. But the most basic content of the definition, which all these other concepts are based on, consists of these very basic ideas. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of them is God. They are not the same person. And there is only one God.

Misinterpretations

That’s what the Trinity is. It’s also good to understand what the Trinity is not. There are two major misunderstandings of the Trinity, that make the mistake of either confounding the persons or dividing the essence. These two misinterpretations are modalism and tritheism.

Modalism is the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person. That each is merely a mode that God can take on. One proponent of this view in history was a man named Sabellius in the third century A.D. So this idea is also sometimes called Sabellianism. I think this is a pretty common misunderstanding of the Trinity, for both non-Trinitarians and even many Trinitarians. It’s easy to see where this comes from. If there’s only one God and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, then just say they’re all the same person. But this is quite clearly scripturally untenable, as we’ll see in the next section. We shouldn’t try to imagine that Jesus prayed to himself or spoke of himself in the third-person as if he were his own Father.

Tritheism is the view that there are three Gods: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s also easy enough to see where this comes from. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, then just say there are three Gods. But this is also quite clearly scripturally untenable. Monotheism is one of the most emphatic teachings of both the Old and New Testaments. Granted, the Ancient Israelites were not very good at following this and were almost irrepressible relapsing polytheists. But the prophets of the Lord were uncompromising and zealous monotheists, continually reproving the people and calling them to repent and to forsake polytheism. While there are other divine beings like angels in the Bible, they are subordinate to the one creator God. There’s no room for three such capital G Gods in the scriptures.

Scriptural Motivation

More than any other source, more than tradition, reason, or culture, the most important and authoritative source of doctrine in Christianity is in scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Bible. But the doctrine is scripturally motivated. If we ask, “what is it that motivates Christians to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity?” we can find those motivations in scripture. It doesn’t come from nowhere.

There are two main groups of scriptures that motivate the doctrine of the Trinity. First, scriptures that affirm that there is only one God. And second, scriptures that affirm that Jesus is God. Other kinds of scriptures include those that affirm that the Father is God, that the Holy Spirit of God, and that they are not all the same person.

The most significant of the monotheistic passages is the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”

This is a kind of first article of faith for the religion of Israel. It’s the one Jesus called the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:38). The first of the Ten Commandments are similar.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:2-3)

Among the Old Testament prophets Second Isaiah is especially emphatic in his monotheism:

Isaiah 43:12
“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
Nor shall there be after Me.”

Isaiah 44:6
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the First and I am the Last;
Besides Me there is no God.’”

That’s the monotheistic foundation. One God, the Lord God of Israel. As we come to the New Testament we find passages of scriptures that indicate that this same God is actually three persons. After his Resurrection, at the moment of his Ascension, Jesus commissioned his apostles in Matthew 28:19.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Interesting that it’s the name, singular, ὄνομα (onoma), of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, rather than the names. This baptismal formula calls for baptism in the name of the three persons of the Trinity. We see elsewhere that the three persons are invoked in blessing, as with Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:14.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

In the scriptures Jesus doesn’t ever say explicitly, “I am God”. Some conclude from this is that the early Christians actually didn’t believe that he was God and that this idea developed later. I don’t think that theory works, but that’s another topic. Even without that kind of direct statement there are many reasons to conclude from the scriptures that Jesus is God.

The Gospel of John opens placing Christ at the Creation of all things in the prologue of John 1:1-5.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

Paul also taught of an exalted origin when he quoted what appears to have been a very, very early Christian hymn about Jesus, in Philippians 2:5-11.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That’s quite exalted language. The name which is abovery name. Jesus Christ is Lord. Lord is the word traditionally substituted for the name of God, YHWH. “Jesus is Lord” is probably the earliest Christian confession. Essentially another version of “YHWH is Lord”.

Paul has similarly exalted language for Jesus when he says in Colossians 2:9.

For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

In the Gospel of John Jesus makes a number of conspicuous “I am” statements, basically invoking the name of God as revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM THAT I AM”. For example in John 8:58.

Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

And Jesus’ disciple Thomas actually calls him God in John 20:27-28.

Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

In John Jesus also teaches about his oneness with the Father. In John 10:30.

“I and My Father are one.”

And in John John 14:9-11.

He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.

This unity notwithstanding, it is clear from multiple instances in the scriptures that the Father and the Son are not the same person. For example at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:16-17.

When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all spoken of distinctly here. Jesus is also always praying to the Father, with no indication that he is in any way praying to himself. Even in their intimate unity there is distinction, as shown wonderfully in John 17:20-23.

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

These and other scriptures indicate that: there is only one God, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, and that they are not all the same person.

Cultural and Philosophical Background

Christianity developed in a highly Hellenized, Greek-speaking environment. Even important Jewish leaders of early Christianity, like Paul of Tarsus, spoke and wrote in Greek and were immersed in Greek culture. The Jewish scripture for many outside of Judea was the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. An important Jewish theologian and philosopher of the time period, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 50 A.D.) wrote all his works in Greek and he was well-versed in Platonic philosophy.

There is a line of thought that Greek culture and philosophy was the real source of many Christian theological developments, rather than scripture. One prominent proponent of this view was Adolf Von Harnack (1851 – 1930). I happen to think this position is overstated and agree with Robert Louis Wilken that “the time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack” and that rather than positing the Hellenization of Christianity “a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism” (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, xvi). Greek culture and philosophy are sometimes thought to have invaded and supplanted the original Hebrew foundation. But this world was already immersed in Greek influence, even the Jewish part of it. Certainly Jews and Christians drew from the ideas available to them in the surrounding culture, but in a way that was subordinate to and in the service of scripture. Robert Louis Wilkin made this observation of the writings of the Early Church Fathers:

“To be sure, many of the best minds in the early church were philosophically astute and moved comfortably within the intellectual tradition of the ancient world… But if one picks up a treatise of Origen or Basil of Caesarea and compares it with the writings of the philosopher Alcinous or the neo-Platonist Plotinus, it is apparent at once that something else is at work. For one thing… they turn always to the Bible as the source of their ideas. No matter how rigorous or abstruse their thinking–for example, in dealing with a complex and subtle topic like the distinctive identity of each person of the Trinity–Christian thinkers always began with specific Biblical texts. I have found that it is not possible to read the church fathers without the Bible open before me. The words of the Scriptures crowd the pages of their books and essays, and their arguments often turn on specific terms or phrases from the Bible. But one can detect something else in their writings, at once closer to experience yet more elusive. On page after page the reader senses that what they believe is anchored in regular, indeed habitual, participation in the church’s worship, and what they teach is confirmed by how they pray.”

This has also been my experience in reading the Early Church Fathers.

Something interesting that we get from Greeks are philosophical ideas that are quite amenable to monotheism, converging on a similar idea that we get through revelation in the Old Testament. Greek pagans, among the regular folk, were polytheists. But the more educated, intellectual, and philosophical Greek pagans tended to trace everything back to some single ultimate source. For Plato (c. 428 – c. 348 BC) this was The Good, for Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) this was the Unmoved Mover, for Plotinus (c. 204 – 270 AD) this was The One. Both reason and revelation pointed to the reality of a single first principle or God over all things. Early Church Fathers well-versed in both scripture and philosophy, like Justin Martyr (100 – 165), Origen of Alexandria (185 – 253), and Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215), could find both sources quite harmonious. Both reason and revelation were important sources in support of the foundational idea of the doctrine of the Trinity: that there is only one God.

Terms

It’s possible to define the Trinity in very simple terms, like the seven listed earlier. Those simple terms are sufficient for many purposes. They certainly were for the earliest Christians. Still, as Christians have thought more deeply about the Trinity they have found it helpful to expand their vocabulary to cover more sophisticated concepts and to distinguish them from heretical views. Before people had these terms available to them they might ask questions about the Trinity like “one what?” and “three whos?” What kinds of things are we talking about here? There weren’t terms available to tag these sorts of concepts to get a hold of them. There aren’t terms in scripture to use for these sorts of philosophical questions. But they are interesting questions. They’re terms that we can use if we want to take things to the “next level”. Let’s look at five such terms.

Substance, Homoousion, Essence

This is a term for the “one what?” question. The Greek term οὐσία (ousia) is essence or substance. The Council of Nicea used this term to describe what it is in their essence as God, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share. They are the same in essence, ὁμοούσιον (homoousion), one ousia.

Persons, Hypostases

Hypostasis (ὑπόστασις) is a term for the “three whos?” question. This is an especially good example of a term that was appropriated and repurposed to make a fine distinction that wasn’t conceptualized previously. (It’s quite interesting how language can extend our thinking in this way). Hypostasis had meant something very similar to ousia. But it was later made distinct to refer to that in the Trinity which should not be confounded, the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Using the terms ousia and hypostasis the Trinity can be described as three hypostases, one ousia; three persons, one essence.

Perichoresis

Perichoresis (περιχώρησις) is a term to used to refer to the relations between the three persons of the Trinity. It means “going around” and when used to describe the Trinity it refers to their particular interrelation or interpenetration. As used historically in the writings of theologians like Maximus Confessor (c. 580 – 662), Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), and John of Damascus (c. 675 – 749) it conveys a sense of motion, dynamism, even a kind of eternal dance between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This idea has special currency for the mystical side of Christianity, in pursuit of direct, experiential, and personal relationship with the Triune God.

Eternal Generation, Eternal Begetting

The Nicene Creed states that Christ is “begotten, not made”, γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα (gennethenta, ou poiethenta). The point being that the Son is not a creature, not created by the Father. But he is begotten, or put another way, generated by the Father. Is this a distinction without a difference? No. Unlike any created being, the Son exists necessarily and eternally, just like the Father. Each has life in himself. “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself”. (John 5:26) There’s a relation of begetter and begotten. But this is something more akin to a logical process than a process in time.

A geometrical analogy of generation that comes to mind is the relation of the center point of a circle to all the points on its circumference. By definition all points on a circle are equidistant from the center of the circle. In a sense the center point generates all the points on the circle. But which part comes first? Well neither really comes first. The relation doesn’t even come to be in any kind of temporal process. There’s a relation there but it’s just there, without needing to have ever started, much less one part before another.

One philosophy contemporary with the Council of Nicea, Neoplatonism, certainly provided intellectual tools to come up with this kind of idea. In the metaphysics of Plotinus (204 – 270) all things are understood to derive from a single great source, an absolute One. The first level of emanation from this One is the Divine Mind. The One eternally generates the Divine Mind in a way very similar to the way Christian theologians understood the Father to generate the Son.

Procession

In the Nicene Creed it is said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”, τὸ ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἐκπορευόμενον (to ek tou Patros ekporeuomenon). Catholics and Protestants also say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. Filioque in Latin. One example from scripture for this idea is John 14:23,

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

History

A key historical moment for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was the Council of Nicea in 325. The Council was a response to the teachings of Arius (265 – 336). Arius taught that the Son, Jesus Christ, was a creature, a creation of the Father, the first and greatest of God’s created beings, but still a created being. The key idea of this doctrine was that “there was a time when he was not”.

Arius’ teachings were very influential, not just among clergy and theologians but even among regular folks. Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395) described the controversy in this way:

“The whole city is full of it, the squares, the marketplaces, the crossroads, the alleyways; rag dealers, money-changers, food-sellers, they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask, “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.” (“On the Deity of the Son” PG xlvi, 557b)

Πάντα γὰρ τὰ κατὰ τὴν πόλιν τῶν τοιούτων πεπλήρωται͵ οἱ στενωποὶ͵ αἱ ἀγοραὶ͵ αἱ πλατεῖαι͵ τὰ ἄμφοδα· οἱ τῶν ἱματίων κάπηλοι͵ οἱ ταῖς τραπέζαις ἐφεστη κότες͵ οἱ τὰ ἐδώδιμα ἡμῖν ἀπεμπολοῦντες. Ἐὰν περὶ τῶν ὀβολῶν ἐρωτήσῃς͵ ὁ δέ σοι περὶ γεννητοῦ καὶ ἀγεννήτου ἐφιλοσόφησε· κἂν περὶ τιμήματος ἄρτου πύθοιο͵ Μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ͵ ἀποκρίνεται͵ καὶ ὁ Υἱὸς ὑποχείριος. Εἰ δὲ͵ Τὸ λουτρὸν ἐπιτήδειόν ἐστιν͵ εἴποις͵ ὁ δὲ ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων τὸν Υἱὸν εἶναι διωρίσατο. Οὐκ οἶδα τί χρὴ τὸ κακὸν τοῦτο ὀνομάσαι͵ φρενῖτιν ἢ μανίαν͵ ἤ τι τοιοῦτον κακὸν ἐπιδήμιον͵ ὃ τῶν λογι σμῶν τὴν παραφορὰν ἐξεργάζεται.

So the Church had to ask, what do we say about this? Is this right? The First Council of Nicea (325) and the Nicene Creed were the result. The Nicene Creed was later adjusted further in the First Council of Constantinople (381) to the version in use today. In response to Arius the Nicene Creed affirmed that Jesus Christ is:

“Begotten of the Father; Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”

The key being that Jesus is God. That was the line drawn.

There were also some very significant theologians and texts written following the council that have been important in the history of Christian theology, especially theology of the Trinity. Some theologians of special note are

Athanasius of Alexandria (296 – 373)
Basil the Great (330 – 379)
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)
Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389)
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
Hilary of Poitiers (310 – 367)

Arianism continued to be a prominent view, sometimes supported by the Roman Empire. And many of the Barbarian kingdoms in the West were Arians. These theologians worked diligently to teach the orthodox view against Arianism.

One of the most significant texts of this period was Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity (De Trinitate). It’s not only an impressive theological defense and explanation of the Trinity but it also ends up being a fascinating work on the philosophy of the mind and personal identity. This was because Augustine pursued the idea that human beings, being created in the image of God, must be created in the image of the Trinity and therefore bear features of the Trinity in themselves and in their minds.

Significance

In his Intercessory Prayer in John 17:3 Jesus said to the Father:

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Knowing God is foundational to Christian life. This means knowing both the Father and his son Jesus Christ. And also the Holy Spirit, who testifies of both. This brings home the importance of Jesus Christ to Christian faith.

This is what makes Christianity unique. There are other monotheistic religions and even monotheistic philosophies. But the unique and special revelation of Christianity is the one we find in Jesus Christ.

The Unintelligible Remainder

Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle? How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness? A look into the philosophical issues of being and knowing with John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Joseph Ratzinger, and David Bentley Hart.

“Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle? How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”

This is a question posed by David Bentley Hart in his recent book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. I think it’s an interesting question and it touches on some of the most foundational issues in philosophy.

I’ll call that which could never be either perceived or thought of the “intelligible remainder”. It’s that which is left unperceived and unknown in all our perception and knowledge of things because it is intrinsically imperceptible, unknowable, and unintelligible to intelligent beings. To frame this idea it’s helpful to refer to the philosophy of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The concepts of subject and object are important to both. Philosophically, a subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and unique personal experiences. An object is something that the subject observes, perceives, or relates to in some way. Both Locke and Kant concerned themselves with how thinking subjects relate to the objects of their experience, and in particular the limitations, or unintelligible remainder, of the subject’s grasp of the object.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke introduced what he called the primary and secondary qualities of things. As an example, for a light wave or a sound wave one primary quality would be its wavelength. Those are things that are in the objects themselves, independent of our perceptions of them. A secondary quality, by contrast, would be like the color of light or the pitch of a sound. These secondary qualities are not in the objects themselves but are products of our modes of perception. Secondary qualities are our own quirky human ways of perceiving things.

Immanuel Kant had some similar ideas. Instead of primary and secondary qualities, in his Critique of Pure Reason he used the terms noumena and phenomena. The noumenon is the thing-in-itself, the object as it really is, independent of our perception. The phenomenon is what we perceive of it. Kant stressed that we cannot know the noumena, the things themselves as they really are. We can only know the phenomena. Our knowledge of the world outside our heads is necessarily filtered or mediated.

Sometimes you might hear this in the form of the claim that we never actually see things themselves. What’s really happening is our brains are responding to a series of physical processes and biochemical reactions, as photons impinge on our retina and induce phototransduction in photoreceptor cells, resulting in a cascade of signals carried via the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and so on. In effect we are several layers of mediation removed from the world outside our heads. And a lot is left out in the process of translation.

What I call the unintelligible remainder is a feature of this kind of philosophy in which there is a gulf between things in themselves and our perceptions of them. There’s always something inaccessible to us. A remainder that is inaccessible or unintelligible. To put it in the form of a conceptual equation.

Things In Themselves – Our Perceptions of the Them = The Unintelligible Remainder

The unintelligible remainder is what’s left over; the aspect of things that remains inaccessible and unintelligible to us. What would that unintelligible remainder be? Well, it’s impossible to say because it’s intrinsically inaccessible and unintelligible to us. But then there’s another question. Why should we think that there is such an intelligible remainder? Why should we think that any such remainder exists if it’s something we can never really know anything about?

Let’s break such remainders down into two different types:

1. Things that we don’t know about but could know about
2. Things that we don’t know about and never could know about

How different are these? Maybe the difference is slight. Or maybe it’s huge, even ontological. 

We can reason inductively that there are a lot of things that we don’t know about but that we could know about because in the past there have been things that we didn’t know about at one point but later came to know about.

For example, even though we’ve always been able to see light and color we weren’t always aware of the quantifiable spectrum of wavelengths, and that it extended into wavelengths that we can’t see with our eyes, like with infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. But we can quantify and detect those wavelengths now. The fields of optics and quantum mechanics have further increased our understanding of light.

We can reason that we will continue to come to know about more things that we don’t currently know about. For example, we’ll certainly continue to learn more about the nature of light. Such things are obviously knowable and intelligible because we have come to know about them.

But we can’t reason inductively in the same way about things that we could never know about. Trivially, we’ve never come to know about something that is unknowable. Obviously. Why should we think that such unknowable things exist as an unintelligible remainder?

I think the reasoning about these two kinds of remainders is quite different so I want to dwell on this difference for a bit.

In the case of things that we don’t know about but could know about, we can reason that such things exist through inductive reasoning. We know this is how things have worked in the past. There have been aspects of things that we didn’t know about before that we’ve come to know about later. For any particular thing we can’t conclude deductively that there’s nothing left about it that we don’t know. But we kind of expect that there’s more there because that’s how it’s always been before.

But this kind of inductive reasoning doesn’t work for things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Why is that? Because we’ve never come to know about something that we could never know about. So it’s completely different.

But we kind of want to say still that things exist that we could never know about. Or that there are aspects of things that we could never know about. Why is that? Part of it may be a spill-over effect of our inductive reasoning about things that we didn’t know about but later came to know about. It seems like if there’s all this unknown stuff there should be stuff that we could never know about. And maybe there is a lot of stuff that we never will know about. But that’s different from stuff that we never could know about. Maybe another reason is humility, recognition of our own finitude and limited capacities. Humility is certainly admirable. But I’m not sure it’s enough to make that kind of positive claim. The only way I can see that we could really conclude that there do exist such unknowables would be some kind of indirect argument of impossibility, similar to the halting problem or Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I don’t know of any such argument of impossibility for unintelligible remainders but it’s an intriguing possibility.

What about the alternative possibility that there is no unintelligible remainder? That everything that exists is intrinsically intelligible and could be perceived and thought of? Are there reasons to think that could be the case?

We can call the foregoing picture with Locke and Kant one of the “Cartesian subject”, which owes its name to the philosopher Rene Descartes. The basic model is of me here “inside” my head as a thinking subject, receiving sense data from objects “outside” in the world. So there’s this stark division between subject and object. This model of the Cartesian subject is quite powerful and intuitive. And it fits with the idea that there is an unintelligible remainder to the objects in the outside world, albeit inconclusively as previously discussed. But there are alternatives. I’ll talk about two: the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the classical philosophy of Logos.

Martin Heidegger was working out of the field of phenomenology, which is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. But his primary focus was ontology, the philosophy of being. His work was an effort to explain the meaning of being, what it means for a thing to be. In Being and Time he first approached this question through the being of human beings, what he called “Dasein”, a German neologism for “there being”. He discarded the concept of the Cartesian subject, a subject separated from the world of objects, with its split between subject and object. Instead, for Heidegger we are “being in the world”.

The philosophy of Being and Time and Heidegger’s later philosophy is extremely vast so I’m only sticking to a few key points related to my topic. One way he describes being is as disclosure, as things being revealed. Many of his circumlocutions have the effect of keeping the active role away from any kind of Cartesian subject. Instead of us as subjects perceiving objects there is disclosure and being revealing things. Another interesting concept of his is the “clearing”, like a clearing in the woods. In the dense forest it is dark and obscure but in the clearing there is space to see things. I am like a clearing in the woods, a site of disclosure and revealing, where things are revealed around me. It’s a very unusual way of speaking but these circumlocutions have the aim of directing our thinking away from the subject-object split. 

Another important Heideggerian idea is that the disclosure of being to us comes in terms of our projects and interests. Things like tools are disclosed to us in the first place as tools rather than as atomic facts that we then deduce to be tools in a secondary way. Heidegger’s example is a hammer. In the Kantian view we’d receive raw sense data, percepts, that our minds would use “categories”, sort of like mental modules, to process into concepts. We’d see the raw sense data first and then our minds would process that it is a hammer. But Heidegger rejects that idea. For Heidegger we’re not isolated in our own minds looking out at the world, receiving raw sense impressions. We’re already in the world. We’re already in the workshop, smelling the sawdust, engaged in the activity of building something. The hammer is a tool for hammering as part of our project. We may not even “see” it when we’re using it if we’re really in the zone. It’s just part of a seamless flow of activity. This is a very different way of thinking.

One of the fascinating things about this is that it has very tangible implications in the field of artificial intelligence. If you think about the different approaches I’ve described here you can imagine that it will make a really big difference whether you approach AI in a Lockean, Kantian way versus a Heideggerian way. And I think this is actually one of the best ways to approach Heidegger’s thought. One of the major players in 20th century artificial intelligence was the Heideggerian philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. Here’s his account:

“In 1963 I was invited by the RAND Corporation to evaluate the pioneering work of Alan Newell and Herbert Simon in a new field called Cognitive Simulation (CS). Newell and Simon claimed that both digital computers and the human mind could be understood as physical symbol systems, using strings of bits or streams of neuron pulses as symbols representing the external world. Intelligence, they claimed, merely required making the appropriate inferences from these internal representations… As I studied the RAND papers and memos, I found to my surprise that, far from replacing philosophy, the pioneers in CS had learned a lot, directly and indirectly from the philosophers. They had taken over Hobbes’ claim that reasoning was calculating, Descartes’ mental representations, Leibniz’s idea of a ‘universal characteristic’ – a set of primitives in which all knowledge could be expressed, – Kant’s claim that concepts were rules, Frege’s formalization of such rules, and Russell’s postulation of logical atoms as the building blocks of reality. In short, without realizing it, AI researchers were hard at work turning rationalist philosophy into a research program.”

“…I began to suspect that the critical insights formulated in existentialist armchairs, especially Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s, were bad news for those working in AI laboratories – that, by combining rationalism, representationalism, conceptualism, formalism, and logical atomism into a research program, AI researchers had condemned their enterprise to reenact a failure.”

“…To say a hammer has the function of being for hammering leaves out the defining relation of hammers to nails and other equipment, to the point of building things, and to the skills required when actually using the hammer – all of which reveal the way of being of the hammer which Heidegger called readiness-to-hand.”

“…It seemed to me, however, that the deep problem wasn’t storing millions of facts; it was knowing which facts were relevant in any given situation. One version of this relevance problem was called ‘the frame problem.’ If the computer is running a representation of the current state of the world and something in the world changes, how does the program determine which of its represented facts can be assumed to have stayed the same, and which would have to be updated?”

I think that’s quite fascinating and one of the best examples I’m aware of where we can see that the opaque writing of a Continental philosopher is not just meaningless gibberish or gratuitous navel gazing without any actual implications. If we ever end up creating artificial intelligence with true self-consciousness – and I think we will – I suspect that one of these approaches will work and the other will not. And in the process that will tell us a lot about the generalized nature of self-consciousness as such, including the nature of our own self-consciousness. It may also tell us about the nature of being itself, what it means for things to be.

How does this relate to the question of the unintelligible remainder? I don’t think Heideggerian ontology addresses that as much as the approach I’ll be talking about next but I think there are some interesting things here to think about. What I see with Heidegger isn’t as much the elimination of a remainder as much as the presence of certain indispensables. And these are indispensables that in other frameworks seem less real or fundamental to the being of things; in other words, quite dispensable. We might think that what a hammer “really” is is a meaningless collocation of atoms. But in Heidegger’s ontology this is not how the being of the hammer is revealed to us. Far from it. That may not seem like a big deal. Why should the way we see things be so important or say anything about the way things really are? But here I’d go back to AI. For a self-conscious AI certain things are going to be indispensable for it to make its way around in the world. AI without the indispensables won’t work. And I’d say that’s because it won’t approach the world correctly. A self-conscious AI will have to see the world in terms of projects, activities, and interests, populated with things in terms of these interests. Those are the indispensables that make up the reality of our world. So in a reverse sort of way it may be that the Lockean-Kantian approach does have a remainder that the Heiderggerian approach is able to account for. 

The second alternative to the Cartesian subject I’d like to talk about is the classical philosophy of Logos. I talked about this in some detail in a previous episode, “Logos: The Intellectual Structure of Being”. Logos has its roots in Greek philosophy but has since been most developed in Christian philosophy. The two philosopher-theologians I’ll refer to here are Joseph Ratzinger and David Bentley Hart.

Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, gave an excellent overview of Logos in his book Introduction to Christianity, in which he calls Logos the “intellectual structure of being”. He says, “All being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought.” What implication does this have for the way we perceive and understand things? Ratzinger says: “There is also expressed the perception that even matter is not simply non-sense that eludes understanding, that it too bears in itself truth and comprehensibility that makes intellectual comprehension possible.” That’s the key. With the Logos all of reality is intellectual or, in other words, thought. There can be no unintelligible remainder to things when all of reality is itself thought in its innermost structure.

The process of perceiving the world in this view is not one of processing mere matter with our mental faculties. It’s a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself. As Ratzinger says: “All our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand.” As we conceive of the world through thought we are retracing the thought that comprises its essence. “The intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative pre-meditation, to which they owe their existence.”

Does this kind of intellectual structure to all of reality entail the existence of God? Ultimately it may. But I think there are a couple other ways to think about it. Consider three possibilities:

1. The rationality of reality is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in reality.
2. The rationality of reality is independent of any intelligent beings.
3. The rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality.

Only the third requires God.

In the first option the rationality of reality is a conditional feature, a feature that reality would have if certain conditions were met, even if they are not otherwise actualized. Something of the form:

1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.
2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.
3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.

This is probably the option that seems most immediately plausible and straightforward.

The second option moves away from a subjective understanding of rationality to an objective understanding. We can think of this just as consistency. For intelligent beings instrumental rationality is consistency between actions and intentions. But apart from intelligent beings we could think of consistency between states of affairs. At a most basic level, noncontradiction. For some state of affairs, S, it won’t be the case that both S and not-S.

Ratzinger calls this kind of objective consistency “objective mind”. There is at least an “as-if” quality to the intelligibility of reality. It is structured “as if” rationally constructed. I think it’s possible to work within that framework. But ultimately I follow Ratzinger in his view that “objective mind is the product of subjective mind and can only exist at all as the declension of it, that, in other words, being-thought (as we find it present in the structure of the world) is not possible without thinking.”

Let’s turn now to David Bentley Hart and his discussion of this in his book You Are Gods. He says:

“We are accustomed, here in modernity’s evening twilight, to conceive of our knowledge of the world principally as a regime of representation, according to which sensory intuitions are transformed into symbolic images by some kind of neurological and perceptual metabolism, and then subjected to whatever formal conceptual determinations our transcendental apperception and apparatus of perception might permit.”

This is a restatement of the fundamental problem at hand. As a thinking subject, I’m stuck inside my head, separated from the world out there, receiving and processing raw sense data, and trying to come up with a picture of the objects out in the world as best I can. But that picture is always incomplete and eludes intelligibility. As Hart says:

“Being in itself possesses an occult adversity or resistance to being known. All that we experience in experiencing the world, then, is an obscure, logically inexplicable, but unremitting correspondence between mind and world, one whose ontological basis is not a presumed primordial identity between them, but rather something like a pre-established harmony or purely fortuitous synchrony—or inexplicably coherent illusion.”

Some opaque language here but I’ll explain. What Hart calls the “occult adversity or resistance to being known” is what I’m calling the unintelligible remainder. As I sit isolated inside my head looking out into the world putting a picture of it together, the picture that I see has order and regularity. But why? Ratzinger says it’s because the world is intrinsically rational. If that were not the case the order and regularity would be remarkable indeed. This is what Hart means when he says it would be “purely fortuitous synchrony–or inexplicably coherent illusion.” But Hart rejects that idea and, like Ratzinger, sees reality as intrinsically rational. Like Ratzinger he understands our perception and knowledge of things to be a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself.

“Mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”

“Being and knowing must, then, coincide in some principle of form.”

Being and knowing are fundamentally linked in such a way that ontology, the philosophy of being, and epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, “coincide as a single event of manifestation, of Being’s disclosure, which is to say also, of the full existence of what is made manifest.” There are some interesting similarities here with Heidegger in Hart’s idea of the “disclosure” of Being. In Hart’s view, being and knowing are ultimately one and the same. He’s very skeptical of the idea that the way things “really” are is something intrinsically unintelligible that we could never access or perceive.

“Under the regime of representation, the intelligible is a veil drawn before the abyss of the unintelligible, and the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.”

This is the view he is going to criticize. That the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.

“But what would it really mean to say that something exists that is, of its nature, alien to intelligibility? Can Being and knowing be wholly severed from one another without creating an intolerable contradiction? Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?”

“In principle” is a modifier that should not be overused but I think it’s appropriate here. The issue is not whether something currently is or can be perceived and thought of by finite human beings. As I said before, there’s been a lot of stuff that we haven’t been able to perceive or know about in the past that we’ve since gained the ability to perceive or know about by extending the reach of our innate capacities. Our innate capacities are the same as those of our ancestors 10,000 years ago. The things that are, in fact, perceivable and knowable to us were, in principle, perceivable and knowable to them. By analogy, there are things that are, in principle, perceivable and knowable to us that are not currently perceivable and knowable to us, in fact. With that in mind, Hart is asking if, with this most expansive possible understanding of the perceptive and intellectual capacities of intelligent beings, could anything exist that eludes them? That would be the unintelligible reminder. And he asks:

“How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”

I’ll bring up again my distinction between things that we don’t know about but could know about and things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Certainly the first of these is distinct from absolute nothingness. We can reasonably conclude by inductive reasoning that lots of things exist that we don’t know about. But we cannot conclude with that same kind of inductive logic that there are things that exist that we never could know about. We might want to say that there are such unknowables out of humility. Or maybe we can reason toward their existence through some kind of argument of impossibility. But Hart thinks that: “The more rational assumption is… that in fact mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”

“It certainly seems reasonable to assume that Being must also be manifestation, that real subsistence must also be real disclosure, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable, and that to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness.”

Why is that the more rational assumption? Hart doesn’t really explain that but I don’t disagree. Everything we do know about the world indicates that it is rationally structured and we have no knowledge of anything that isn’t. That’s not an absolutely conclusive reason but I think it’s a compelling reason to think that everything that exists is rationally structured, perceivable, and intelligible.

“So long as any absolute qualitative disproportion remains between Being and knowing, then, Being cannot become manifest, and so is not. Being must be intelligible, or even intelligibility itself. The perfectly unintelligible is a logical and ontological contradiction.”

There are some interesting ideas here that I think could use some further development. If the perfectly unintelligible, what I’ve been calling the unintelligible remainder, really is a logical and ontological contradiction that would be a compelling refutation of the existence of the unintelligible remainder. It looks like that argument for such logical and ontological contradiction would involve a demonstration of the necessary connection between being and manifestation, or being and disclosure as Heidegger put it. That what it means for something to be is a process of unconcealment and disclosure.

So going back to the opening question. “Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?” Is there an ineliminable, unintelligible remainder to all our knowledge and perception? I don’t think there is. I suspect that a great deal falls into the class of things that we don’t know about. Probably the vast majority of the things that make up reality. Nevertheless, I think they are all things that we don’t know about but could know about because all of reality is rationally structured and mind and world, thought and being, flow in parallel from the same source.

Classical Theism

A brief introduction to classical theism. Classical theism is a systematic understanding of God shared among many Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Muslim, and Hindu thinkers throughout history. It is primarily philosophical rather than scriptural in origin, but it also opens up an intellectual space for understanding theism as a plausible and reasonable way to see reality. And so it makes for a useful point of entry into the world of scripture and religious experience.

With this episode I would like to do some systematic theology and focus on the most foundational subject of theology: God. Systematic theology is theology that pursues an orderly, rational, and coherent method. There are benefits to the systematic, orderly approach, which I want to take advantage of here. But it is admittedly not characteristic of the texts of scripture, which are often disorderly, uncanny, and occasionally contradictory. The systematic approach is a convenient way to understand and analyze theological concepts, but it’s usually not the way we actually encounter these things in religious experience. I’m reminded here of Blaise Pascal’s statement: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers.” There’s much to be said for that sentiment. Nevertheless the systematic approach still has significant utility for comprehension and analysis. In talking about God in this systematic way the understanding of God I will take is that of classical theism.

In what follows I just want to lay out what classical theism is. I won’t get too much into arguments or proofs for God or for classical theism. That’s another topic. But I hope that just presenting what classical theism is will show it to be a very plausible and reasonable thing to believe. Even before taking any steps to argue for it or prove it.

First some definitions. Theism is the belief in the existence of God or gods. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. Classical theism is the belief that God is the source of all things. In more technical terms classical theism is the belief that God is metaphysically absolute. Classical theism is a form of monotheism but it’s more theoretically developed. It takes the belief that there is only one God and analyzes what that means, the way in which there is only one God, what this one God must be like. This is what makes it systematic, theological, and philosophical.

What does it mean for God to be metaphysically absolute, the source of all things? There are two major ways for there to be only one God. They are quite different and imply very different things about God’s nature. One way is for there to be a pre-existing reality in which God exists, a reality that is independent of God and prior to God. There’s a universe that happens to have a God in it and there’s only one God. The other way, the way of classical theism, is for God to be prior to everything. There is nothing without God. All reality depends on God for its existence. We could think of these loosely as God being inside all reality versus God being outside or beyond all reality.

In classical theism all of reality derives from God and depends on God. It’s even possible for God to be the only thing that exists. But it’s actually not possible for God not to exist. This is to say that God is absolutely necessary. Nothing else is necessary in this way. Everything else is contingent. It is possible for everything else not to exist. But it is not possible for God not to exist.

Classical theism tends to be philosophical, trans-religious, and trans-scriptural, meaning that it spans many religions and the texts of many religious traditions. Throughout history classical theists have been Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu. Obviously classical theists in each of these traditions disagree on a lot. But they tend to agree in their classical theism and in their understanding of God’s primary attributes, even if they disagree on the specific things they believe God to have done in human history. Pagan classical theists include Plotinus and Proclus. Jewish classical theists include Philo of Alexandria and Maimonides. Christian classical theists include Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Muslim classical theists include Ibn Sina, and Ibd Rushd. I also think that many of the ideas of Hindu thinkers like Shankara and Ramanuja have much in common with classical theism.

What’s interesting about classical theism is that it basically starts from the premise of God’s metaphysically absolute nature and derives God’s attributes from there. These attributes often coincide with scripture, albeit not always perfectly, which is an important theological issue. But that’s also a topic for another time. The attributes of God in classical theism include the following:

Aseity
Necessity
Simplicity
Eternity
Immutability
Immateriality
Omnipotence
Omniscience
Perfect Goodness

Aseity is not a well-known term but it’s very important to the topic. The word comes from Latin “a se” meaning “from self”. Aseity is the property by which a being exists of and from itself, and not from anything else. God’s aseity means that God does not depend on anything else for his existence; not on the universe, not on anything it all.

Necessity is when something cannot fail to be the case. For example, logical truths are generally considered to be necessarily true. An example would be the proposition “If p and q, then p”. This would seem to be necessarily true. It couldn’t be otherwise. Philosophers might still debate that but it should at least be clear what we’re talking about with necessity. God’s necessity means that God cannot not exist. Understanding why that is and arguing for it is a bigger topic. But understanding the claim that God is necessary is key to understanding what classical theism is.

Simplicity means not having any parts. According to classical theism God is simple in this way. God is not composed of parts. Put another way, God is not composite. Composite is the opposite of simple. Many philosophers consider divine simplicity to be the most important concept of classical theism and hold that all of classical theism derives from it and is ultimately equivalent to it. To understand some of the motivation behind this, anything that is composite, made up of parts, has to be put together in the way that it is put together. But composition of this kind makes it dependent on whatever it is that puts it together. So it wouldn’t be the first or source of all things.

Eternity refers to what exists outside of time. Eternity, as understood in classical philosophy, is different from how the word is commonly understood. There is the notion of things being everlasting, existing within time but lasting forever, for an infinite duration. But this is different from the kind of eternity in classical theism. God’s eternity is his existence outside of time itself. Time, in fact, would be one of the things created by God. We can imagine God looking at the passage of time as we look at the passage of time for characters in a book. For the characters in a story, if they were real, they would experience time sequentially. But for us as readers we can look at the story as a whole, all at once, because we are outside of the time of that story. Like the characters in that story, we experience our time sequentially. The past is behind us. The future is ahead of us. Only the present is before us. But for God it is all present and equally before him.

Immutability is the impossibility of changing. There’s definitely a relation here to eternity. God could hardly change across time since he exists outside of time itself. This brings up an interesting question about whether God, being immutable, will seem the same to us at all times. Not necessarily. Even if God doesn’t change, we do. For example, God is perfectly good and that doesn’t change. But our morality varies significantly. The way we perceive God will vary significantly depending on whether our conduct is mostly moral versus mostly immoral.

Immateriality, as the term suggests, is the quality of not being material. Even without a technical definition I think we all have a good intuition what materiality is. In fact, it’s more difficult to think of anything that isn’t material. It’s the material that makes up our immediate experience. Matter is the stuff that, when you kick it, it kicks back. Material things exist in time and space. If we refer to more modern chemistry and physics, matter is composed of particles, waves, and fields. Particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons have mass, particles like photons do not. But they’re all material. Material things interact with each other. They exchange momentum; they attract or repel each other through electric change. Photons induce chemical reactions. But God, being immaterial is not like any of these things.

How could any thing be immaterial? This was a question that Augustine had. He was finally able to conceptualize immaterial entities by way of Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, which have a lot to say about immaterial forms. Today we most commonly come across immateriality in the form of abstract, mathematical, and logical objects. The philosopher Phillip Cary uses the example of the Pythagorean theorem. The Pythagorean theorem is not something that exists in space and time. It’s eternal, necessary, and omnipresent. It didn’t ever start being true and it will never stop being true. It cannot not be true. And it’s true everywhere. It’s not made up of particles, waves, or fields. It’s not something you handle or that kicks back. That gives an idea of what an immaterial thing can be like.

God is not an abstract, mathematical, or logical object. But he is immaterial in classical theism. He’s more like an abstract, mathematical, or logical object than he is like an electron, proton, or magnetic field.

Omnipotence is the quality of having unlimited power. This is very related to God’s nature as metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. All things come from God and are the way they are because of God. There is no other source for all that is and no other power in serious competition with God. God is able to do anything that it is possible to do. What kind of constraints does that condition impose? What would be impossible for God? Contradiction certainly. Even God cannot make something to be the case and not be the case. You’ve probably heard the question, often asked in jest, “Could God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” Well, no. That would be a contradiction. Other constraints imposed by consistency may be more subtle. Like, why does God permit human history to proceed in certain ways, especially ways that we would much prefer that they didn’t? Here again, self-consistency probably plays an important role. Human free will is an important constraint. And there are likely other, unknown constraints, resulting from God’s unrevealed purposes.

Omniscience is the quality of knowing everything. This is also very related to being metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. As the cause of all things God also has knowledge of all things. If we imagine all things that can be known as a book God knows all things in that book, not only because he has read it, but also because he wrote it. He is the author of all that is. Many of the foregoing points about omnipotence apply here as well. There’s a classic concern about the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will. If God knows everything, including everything that we will ever do, can we really be said to freely choose to do those things? That’s a complicated problem and a whole topic in itself. Without actually resolving that question I’ll just make an observation using the analogy of the author. There is a sense in which the author of a story is constrained by the story itself. Authors can arbitrarily impose nonsensical decisions on their characters. But good authors don’t. Good authors follow their stories where they naturally lead. Their characters, even though they’re fictional, have a kind of free will of their own. That’s just an analogy but I think something similar applies to God’s authorship of all things and his knowledge of them. On the one hand he is the author and cause of all things. But this authorship and resulting knowledge is not just arbitrary. The evolution of all things, especially of human history, make sense and have a narrative coherence to them.

Finally, God is perfectly good. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates actually placed “the form of the Good” at the highest point on his spectrum of entities, the Divided Line. Goodness is not incidental to God’s nature but is absolutely intrinsic to who he is. One of the oldest problems in moral philosophy is whether God decrees what is good because it is good or whether it is good because he decrees it. This is a form of the Euthyphro Dilemma, based on another of Plato’s dialogues. Put another way, the question is whether God is prior to goodness or goodness prior to God. But in classical theism this is a false dilemma. God and the Good are not distinct at all. God is the Good.

Apart from classical theism the great worry with the Euthyphro Dilemma is that if goodness is merely whatever God decrees it to be then God could decree horrendous evils to be good. And they would have to be good. But under classical theism this is not possible. God is the Good. Neither God nor the Good are arbitrary. Horrendous evil cannot be made good and God cannot and will not decree them so. To do so would be to contradict his own nature.

All of the foregoing is principally philosophical rather than scriptural or based on revelatory religious experience. Though it has been most developed by Christians the foundations come largely from Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, for example from Plotinus’s Enneads and Proclus’s Elements of Theology. Whether that is a weakness or a strength is a matter of perspective. I think it’s a strength but it also means that for Christian theology classical theism is a starting point rather than an end point. But I also consider it a great strength to see that classical theism spans so many traditions and schools of thought.

One of the best modern books on classical theism is David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. In that book he makes the following point:

“Certainly the definition of God I offer below is one that, allowing for a number of largely accidental variations, can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, various late antique paganisms, and so forth (it even applies in many respects to various Mahayana formulations of, say, the Buddha Consciousness or the Buddha Nature, or even to the earliest Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to certain aspects of the Tao…” (p. 4)

I find the Hindu convergences especially fascinating. Shankara (circa 700 – 750) was an interpreter of Vedantic Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta to be specific. A central concept in that tradition is Brahman, the highest universal principle, the ultimate reality, the cause of all that exists. In Advaita Vedanta this is identical to the substance of Atman, the Self or self-existent essence of individuals. Ramanuja (1017 – 1137) had a different interpretation called “qualified non-dualism” which makes greater distinction between Atman and Brahman. But Brahman, the ultimate reality behind all that exists, is central to the thought of both.

There are four modern authors on classical theism that I really like. These are David Bentley Hart, Edward Feser, James Dolezal, and Matthew Barrett.

I already mentioned David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart is an Orthodox Christian and also has an interesting affinity for Hinduism. In fact, the subtitle to his book – “Being, Consciousness, Bliss” – is a nod to the Hindu concept of Satcitananda, a Sanskrit term for the subjective experience of Brahman, the ultimate unchanging reality. Satcitananda is a compound word consisting of “sat”, “chit”, and “ananda”: being, consciousness, and bliss. These three are considered inseparable from Brahman.

Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs for the Existence of God goes through five proofs that he reworks from the ideas of five individuals: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. Each of the five proofs is classically theistic in nature. Later chapters in the book also go over the classical theist understanding of God’s nature in great detail.

James Dolezal’s major book on this subject is All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Dolezal pushes back on what he perceives as some drift away from classical theism in Evangelical theology. I mentioned earlier that some theologians place simplicity foremost among God’s attributes. Dolezal is one of these. Simplicity is central to his thought.

Matthew Barrett is a delightful theologian to read. He is editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. One of his common themes on Twitter is the need for Protestants and especially Evangelicals to take seriously the thought of Aquinas, the Church Fathers, and classical theism. His major book on the subject is None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God.

Why talk about classical theism? To lay all my cards on the table, I desire for all to believe in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I am enthusiastically Christian and desire for all to be so as well, because I believe it is true. One of the first steps in this direction is belief in God. But in modernity belief in God is hardly a given. It might even seem implausible. How is believing in God any different from believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Well, it’s actually extremely different. And I think that to really understand classical theism is to understand this difference.

God is not just an invisible being that we have to believe in, just because. Blind faith. Classical theism is much more philosophically reflective than that. To think about God is to think about and have some interest and curiosity about everything that exists, why it exists, and why it is as it is. It is maximally inquisitive and critically so. I believe that classical theism is very plausible and reasonable. That’s not actually why I believe in God or in Christianity. I attribute my belief to revelation from the Spirit. But intellectual openness and receptivity preceded that Spiritual revelation. Seeing classical theism to be a plausible and reasonable way to understand reality broke down intellectual and cultural barriers to spiritual receptivity. And that’s why I think it’s a topic worth talking about.

Ontological Pluralism

Jared and Todd talk about ontological pluralism: What exists? How do we categorize what exists? Are those categories intrinsic or man-made? A related idea is perspectival realism. We discuss the ideas of William Wimsatt and Scott Page, among others. Is reality monistic, dualist, pluralistic? Is the question even meaningful? And what (if any) practical implications would there be?

Outline – Ontological Pluralism

  1. People
    1. William Wimsatt
    2. Scott Page  
    3. Johannes Jaeger
    4. Lawrence Cahoone
    5. Spencer Greenberg 
  2. Ideas
    1. Rainforest Ontology (Wimsatt)
    2. Realms of Truth (Greenberg)
    3. Perspectival realism
      1. Meta-modernism (post-postmodernism)
  3. Ontologies
    1. Monism
    2. Dualism
      1. Matter
      2. Mind
    3. Trialism (Penrose)
      1. Physical world
      2. Mental world
      3. Platonic mathematical world
    4. Pluralism
  4. Reductionism
    1. Ontological: reality is composed of a minimum number of kinds of entities and substances
    2. Epistemological: reality is best explained by reduction to its most basic kinds of entities and substances
    3. Todd: in-principle epistemological reductionist but not an ontological reductionist. Everything that happens in a physical system evolves according to physical laws but those physical processes don’t constitute all there is.
    4. Can a macro-scale entity really be completely inexplicable in terms of micro-scale entities?
    5. Micro-scale events may only make sense in terms of macro-scale events.
      1. Ex: Enzymes and reactants
        1. Enzyme is larger and more complex than the reactants
        2. The speed of the reaction only makes sense by accounting for the enzyme
        3. But the enzyme is still explained in terms of smaller-scale entities (amino acids, atoms, etc.)
  5. Seven Realms of Truth – Spencer Greenberg
    1. Some things “exist” in the sense that they are in physical reality, like atoms (in “Matter Space”).
    2. Other things may “exist” in the sense that they are real experiences conscious beings have, like the taste of pineapple (in “Experience Space”).
    3. Still, other things may “exist” in the sense that they are shared constructs across multiple minds, like the value of money (in “Consensus Space”).
    4. Other things may “exist” in the sense of being conclusions derived from frameworks or sets of premises, like consequences of economic theories (in “Theory Space”).
    5. Some may “exist” in the sense that they are represented in systems that store or process information, such as the information in a database (in “Representation Space”).
    6. If universal moral truths “exist” (e.g. objective facts about what is right and wrong), then we can talk about moral rules existing (in “Morality Space”).
    7. Finally, if supernatural entities “exist”, such as spirits (meaning that not all beings inhabit Matter Space), then these beings are in a different realm than us (in “Supernatural Space”).
  6. Tropical Rainforest Ontology (Wimsatt)
    1. Contra Quine
      1. Willard van Orman Quine once said that he had a preference for a desert ontology.
    2. Robustness
      1. Criterion for what is real
      2. “Things are robust if they are accessible (detectable, measurable, derivable, defineable, produceable, or the like) in a variety of independent ways.
      3. Local
        1. Criteria used by working scientists
        2. “The nitty-gritty details of actual theory, actual inferences from actual data, the actual conditions under which we poised and detected entities, calibrated and ‘burned in’ instruments, identified and rejected artifacts, debugged programs and procedures, explained the mechanisms behind regularities, judged correlations to be spurious, and in general, the real complexities and richness of actual scientific practice.”
    3. Levels
      1. Dissipative wave (pro-reductionistic)
      2. Sharpening wave (pro-holistic)
    4. Perspectives
      1. “As long as there are well-defined levels of organization, there are relatively unambiguous inclusion or compositional relations relating all of the things described at different levels of organization… But conversely, when neat compositional relations break down, levels become less useful as ways of characterizing the organization of systems–or at least less useful if they are asked to handle the task alone. At this point, other ontological structures enter, either as additional tools, or as a replacement. These are what I have called perspectives–intriguingly quasi-subjective (or at least observer, technique or technology-relative) cuts on the phenomena characteristic of a system,which needn’t be bound to given levels.”
      2. “What I am calling perspectives is probably a diverse category of things which nonetheless appear to have at least some of the properties of being ‘from a point of view’ or to have a subjective or quasi-subjective character.”
    5. Causal Thickets
      1. “This term is intended to indicate a situation of disorder and boundary ambiguities. Perspectives may still seem to have an organizing power (just as viewing a thicket or shrub from different sides will reveal a shape to its bushy confusion), but there will be too many boundary disputes.”