God’s transcendence is beyond our power to imagine it. But even to make that statement we must have in our minds some idea of what the term transcendence means and how it might apply to God. Further, Scripture tells us that God is “high and lifted up.” Theologians and preachers have an obligation to expound this description of God along with all others. Indeed, it appears to be part of the meaning of the very word God that he transcends our existence and our thoughts. One can hardly claim to believe in God, much less to be a theologian, if he does not affirm in some sense divine transcendence.
In this paper, I will discuss two ways of understanding God’s transcendence that have been common in our theological history. I will argue against the first, in favor of the second.
The first model of transcendence is the model of “pure being.” This means that of all the beings in the world, God is the one most entitled to be called “Being.” He is not the only being, of course. But other beings are not pure being. In some measure they are metaphysically defective, so that they to some extent lack the fullness and perfection of being that only God has. To that extent, beings other than God are not completely real; they do not fully exist. Since God’s being is perfect and complete, it is “pure,” and in that sense God’s being is higher than the being of other beings. It is in that sense transcendent.
The idea of “degrees” of being, implying levels of higher and lower being, comes from Greek philosophy. The Greeks were not biblical theists, but they cared much about relations between being and nonbeing in the world. That was, indeed, their philosophical project: to understand the universe as being, being in some sort of relation to nonbeing.
It was a promising project, because it would seem that if anything can be said about the universe in general it is that the universe has being, that it is real. No thing, quality, or relation other than being is truly universal. So it would seem that if we could understand being we could understand everything.
But the project ran into some immediate roadblocks. For it quickly became evident that “being” could not be defined or described in any persuasive or helpful way. For to define “being” it was necessary at the very least to distinguish it from nonbeing. But if being is a truly universal predicate, if everything is being of some sort, then there is no nonbeing. Any time we try to define nonbeing (e.g. as “an absence of all qualities”), then that definition designates something in our world—i.e. a form of being. An absence of all qualities is, after all, something. It is something we can discuss and analyze in various ways. So nonbeing, so defined, is a form of being. But that means that there is no nonbeing, or that nonbeing (however defined) is a form of being.
But if there is no such thing as nonbeing, then there is not possible to contrast being with its opposite. It has no opposite. That implies that it is impossible to define being, or to form a concept of being. To define war, we must be able to contrast it with peace. To define “automobile,” we must be able to distinguish between automobiles and non-automobiles.
The lack of any possible contrast between being and an opposite created problems for the Greek philosophers. Parmenides (born around 500 BC) tried to develop a philosophy, a view of the world, in which there was being but no nonbeing. He was convinced that “nonbeing” was a bogus concept, a meaningless expression. For him, the world is entirely being, not anything other than being. But the world of Parmenides’ philosophy came out looking very different from the world of our ordinary experience. In Parmenides’ philosophy, nothing changes, because change is always a change from being to nonbeing or the reverse. Parmenides also denied that there was plurality in the world: there was only one thing, namely being. For if there is more than one object, one of them is “not” the other, and the difference between them is a form of nonbeing.1 Similarly, Parmenides denied that there was any kind of generation (change from nonbeing to being) or destruction (change from being to nonbeing).
Parmenides’ attempts to rid his worldview of negative elements provokes amusement. Pure being, he wants to say, excludes negation. But viewed objectively, his system is full of negation: no change, no generation, no destruction, no plurality. What can these negatives be, other than elements of nonbeing in a system that is supposed to exclude nonbeing?
So in the end Parmenides’ system proved unsatisfactory to his successors. And there were more difficult problems with the whole project of analyzing the universe as a form of static being. For Heraclitus (540-480) had argued (with a bit more confidence in sense experience than Parmenides had) that change is not only real, but universal: everything changes (the opposite of what Parmenides taught). So it seemed that a radically new approach was needed.
Plato (429-327 BC) tried to combine the philosophies of Parmenides and Heraclitus into one: a view of the world that was like Parmenides’ world in one portion, like Heraclitus’ in the other. He distinguished between a “world of Forms” and a “world of change.” The latter is the world of our experience, in which, as Heraclitus said, everything is constantly changing. But how is knowledge possible, if everything is changing into something else? Plato’s answer is that we can know the world of our experience because it is related to a higher world, the world of Forms. This higher world contains unchanging standards which serve to define objects in the world of change. We can identify a tree in our experience, because although it is constantly changing it measures up to a standard, an ideal tree in the world of Forms. Same for animals, humans, and abstract concepts like virtue, truth, beauty, and goodness.
For Plato, then, the concept of being was more complex than in previous philosophy. For him, there are “degrees of being,” rather than the binary division between being and nonbeing found in earlier philosophy. The Form of Manhood, for example, has more reality, more being, than any actual man; for, as the very definition of manhood, it is more “mannish” than any instance of manhood in the changing world. And the form of Goodness, Plato’s highest form, is more perfectly good than any instance of goodness in our experience. It is the very definition of goodness, and nothing in our world can perfectly measure up to it. But there is somehow a continuum between the Form goodness and goodness in our experience, so that the latter can be understood as in some sense the same thing as the former, and the former can be understood as the reality of which the latter is an appearance.
Parmenides would have complained that Plato’s system did not resolve the original problem, the problem of defining being as opposed to nonbeing. For what are “degrees of being” if they are not degrees of mixture between being and nonbeing? If the Form “man” is more real, has more being, than any man in the changing world, what can that mean except that men in the changing world have an admixture of nonbeing? And Parmenides would want to know, what is that? How can there be any such thing as nonbeing, in any kind or quantity? As in Parmenides’ philosophy, the nonbeing in Plato’s system is undefinable, for any definition makes it into being.
Plato was not a Christian, or even a theist in any way comparable to the biblical worldview. But the church fathers, like Justin Martyr and Athenagoras, studied Plato and asked whether the transcendence of the biblical God could be understood in terms of Plato’s degrees of being. Might it be possible to see God as the supreme Being on Plato’s scale? They appealed to some Scripture in this connection, particularly Ex. 3:14. In this passage, Moses at the burning bush asks God his name, and
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he [God] said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
Is it possible that in this verse God is identifying himself as pure being, the highest degree of being in Plato’s philosophy? For the church fathers, and to many later theologians, the temptation to read “I AM” as metaphysical being was great.
More recent scholars, however, have argued that this identification is a mistake. For one thing, the Exodus text is centuries older than the lifetime of Plato, and there is no reason to think that Moses had any interest in anything like Greek philosophy. In my own analysis, the “I am” of Ex. 3:14 is presented as the basis for the name Yahweh in verse 15, and that name (typically translated LORD in English Bibles) refers primarily to God’s covenant relation to human beings, including his special covenants with Israel and with NT believers.2
Nevertheless, many thinkers from the first century on sought to understand the biblical God in terms of Plato’s philosophy of being. Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, was a further influence on Christian thought at the time. Rather than divide the world into two realms as Plato had, Plotinus identified a single perfect being as the “One” and taught that that One emanated lesser forms of being into what we know as the world of experience, then received those lesser forms back into his (its) own being. Neoplatonism was a major influence on such thinkers as Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Erigena.
The use of Plato in Christian theology faced three major problems: (1) Plato’s forms were impersonal, and therefore were unfit to represent the God of Scripture. (2) In the systems of Plato and Plotinus, there is no clear distinction between creator and creature. The Forms of Plato and the One of Plotinus were not clearly distinct from the world of our experience. The difference between these levels of being is a difference in degree. (3) As I mentioned earlier, it is impossible, in Greek philosophy, to define or even describe being, since it cannot be intelligibly distinguished from nonbeing. Being in this context is not a coherent concept.
In these three respects, Platonistic Christian theology differed sharply from the theology of Scripture. In Scripture, God is personal; there is a clear distinction between him and creatures; and he is capable of revealing himself intelligibly to human beings, though not without some residuum of mystery.
But there is more to be said. Plato’s greatest student was Aristotle (384-322 BC), and Aristotle taught a somewhat revised form of Platonism that was also influential among Christian theologians. For Aristotle, the terms form and matter do not distinguish two different realms, as in Plato. Rather, there is only one world, and form and matter are aspects of it. Everything (except the Prime Mover, which I shall discuss shortly) has both form and matter. A book is made of matter (papyrus, parchment, ink, etc.), and also form (the shape into which the matter is made to accomplish the purpose of the object). A human being is similarly made of matter (various chemicals, food, water, etc.), and form (his body and mind).
But above the world of form and matter stands a being who is pure form, without any matter at all. Aristotle invokes this being (which he calls the Prime Mover, but whom he also addresses as divine) primarily to explain change. This being is the ultimate explanation of all change in the world, but it never itself undergoes change. When you pursue a chain of causation (A causes B, B causes C, etc.) that chain never goes on indefinitely. It comes to an end, and that end is the Prime Mover, the First Cause, the ultimate source of all motion. If the Prime Mover itself were subject to change, then there would be no first cause and therefore there would be no ultimate explanation for change in the universe.
The Prime Mover, therefore, is much like Parmenides’ Being: in him there is no change, no generation, no destruction, no plurality. Because he cannot be changed, he cannot be the effect of any cause. Therefore, he cannot be influenced by anything outside himself. He cannot know the world, because then the world would be causing changes in his thought life. For Aristotle, the Prime Mover did think, but he thought only about himself. In fact he thought only about his own thoughts: “thought thinking thought.” Similarly, the Prime Mover cannot love the world as does the God of Scripture. For Aristotle thought that if the Prime Mover loved the world that love can only be an effect upon him by the world, something outside himself. If the Prime Mover could be changed in any way by lesser beings, he would not be the first cause, and therefore he could not be a pure or perfect being. Lesser beings are affected by beings outside themselves. The fact that they can be changed shows that they are not themselves perfect beings. Only the Prime Mover is a truly perfect being.
Like the earlier Greek thinkers, Aristotle understood the supreme principle of the universe to be a perfect being. But he understood perfection somewhat (though not entirely) differently from Plato and Parmenides. For Plato and Parmenides, perfection was largely understood as the absence of negatives: no change, no plurality, no generation, no destruction. But for Aristotle, perfection was to be understood especially as aseity, the capacity fully to exist without dependence on anything outside the self. These two Greek approaches were not entirely different from one another. One could argue that each is implicit in the other. But there is a difference of emphasis.
Like Plato and Plotinus, Aristotle was well known to Christian theologians through the Medieval period. They made use of his writings in logic and science. But it wasn’t until later in this development that Christian theologians made full use of Aristotle’s metaphysical works, particularly the doctrine of the Prime Mover. When these writings were rediscovered in the West, in part through Arabic translations, the church at first did not know what to do. In a number of obvious respects, Aristotle’s teachings contradicted the teaching of the church. Aristotle believed, for example, that the world was eternal, that it did not begin in a moment of time as Genesis describes.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) faced this problem squarely, and his solution to it prevailed. He distinguished sharply between the realm of philosophy and the realm of “sacred doctrine.” Both these disciplines deal with theological concepts like the doctrine of God, but philosophy focuses more on the deliverances of “natural reason,” while sacred doctrine focuses more on revelation (i.e., Scripture and the tradition of the church). Natural reason is able to apprehend truth on its own, for the most part, but we need sacred doctrine if we are to attain salvation. And if natural reason ever conflicts with sacred doctrine (as when Aristotle claims that the world is eternal), sacred doctrine must prevail. Nevertheless, Aquinas said, we should not condemn the work of the Greeks, particularly Aristotle. We can learn much from them, as long as we allow to Scripture a kind of veto-power over what they say.
Aquinas was knowledgeable in all phases of Greek philosophy, including the Platonic tradition. But in his view, Aristotle was the master of “natural reason.” Aquinas often calls him, simply, “the Philosopher.” And Aquinas made most use of his work in the doctrine of God. Central to Aquinas’ thought was the “cosmological argument,” similar to the argument by which Aristotle proved the existence of his Prime Mover. Any chain of efficient causes, he argued, must end in a being who is the first cause, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover, the wholly noncontingent being. The First Cause is a perfect Being, who is in no sense dependent on anything other than himself. As in Aristotle, therefore, the chief mark of a perfect being is its aseity.
His aseity implies that he is pure actuality, with no admixture of potentiality. That means that there is nothing in him that needs to be further developed. He has eternally attained perfection. As with Parmenides, a perfect being can never change into something more perfect or less perfect.
That implies that he cannot be a physical being, because bodies are subject to change. And he cannot be composed of matter and form (as finite beings are, according to Aristotle) since matter embodies potentiality, which leads to change. By similar arguments, Aquinas concludes that God, the Prime Mover, is absolutely “simple,” without any kind of complexity. Everything in God is identical to God himself.
So Aquinas’s doctrine of God is a connected argument, beginning with the cosmological argument and inferring consequences concerning God’s being and attributes. Aquinas concludes that God is good, omnipresent, immutable, eternal, and one. Occasionally he quotes Scripture, but the nuances of these theological concepts grow out of the metaphysical argument rather than biblical exegesis. His main point is that we must construe the nature of God so that God will never be dependent on anything other than himself. He is “pure being,” “pure actuality,” devoid of any change.
In Aristotle, this kind of argumentation led to a conception of God as unable to know or love the world. Aquinas avoids those conclusions by saying that God knows the world by knowing his own thoughts and actions, and that he loves the world by loving his own plans, actions, and intentions for the world. But those answers to Aristotle would seem to compromise Aquinas’ doctrine of the absolute simplicity of God. For it appears in this analysis that in God there is an interaction between complex elements: his knowledge, his plans, his thoughts, his actions, his intentions. Once God decides to create beings different from himself, he enters into relations with those beings by the mediation of his own mind. But those beings are still different from himself, and in knowing and loving them he is still being affected by them. Aquinas does not seem to have maintained consistently his central doctrine of the divine aseity.
In addition, there are problems with Aquinas’ formulation that hearken back to the larger problems with Greek philosophy that I identified in Parmenides and Plato. (1) The perfect beings of Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle were impersonal, unlike the God of Scripture. It is not clear how Aquinas establishes the personal character of the God of Scripture, since he begins his argument with the notion of a first cause, a pure being. Where does the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob enter this argument? Aquinas argues that God has knowledge because he is immaterial (ST I, XIV.1), but I have never understood that inference. Similarly for God’s love and will. Aquinas, since as a Christian he believes the Scriptures, tries very hard to treat God as personal. But his Aristotelian argument does not lead to this Christian conclusion.
(2) Aquinas, like Plato and Aristotle, fails to make a clear distinction between creator and creature. His God, like Aristotle’s is pure being, and created beings are in some way impure. If they were not impure, they would not be creatures but would themselves be God. So evidently the pure being faces the dilemma of creating imperfect products or creating gods. It is not clear to me how Aquinas resolves this question.
(3) To put it differently, it is theologically important to distinguish God and the world by making a clear distinction between the pure being of God and some degree of lesser being that belongs to the creation. Aquinas, like Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle, places considerable weight on the contrast between being and nonbeing. But how has Aquinas managed to do what Parmenides and the others were unable to do, to give being and nonbeing coherent definitions?
A God who differs from the creation only as a higher degree of being is not clearly transcendent, certainly not transcendent in the ways presented in Scripture.
I propose a different way to understand God’s transcendence.3 It emerges out of the recovery of the Gospel by the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation, among many other things, recovered the personal character of our relationship to God. In the Medieval period, salvation was often conceived formally and somewhat mechanically, as the dispensing of grace on sinners through the Roman hierarchy and the sacraments. What Luther recovered was the personal dimension: As an individual, I myself have sinned against God, and I need his forgiveness. As the sinner comes before God, all he can do is to fall on his knees in repentance and faith, receiving God’s free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. God be merciful to ME, a sinner.
When the sinner comes before God, he approaches God, not as pure being, not as a being with a greater degree of being, but as lord and judge, as savior and shepherd, as father and friend.
When Scripture speaks of God, it speaks of him primarily in these terms. I do not discount the occasional passages that can be employed in service of a being-metaphysic. But personalism is the primary way in which Scripture presents God to us. It is important to respect that presentation, especially for Protestants who embrace the principle sola Scriptura, the principle that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for human thought.
We saw that Ex. 3:14, so important to Aquinas and others, does not identify God with pure being, but as the LORD, the one who rules and redeems his covenant people. Nevertheless, God’s personal Lordship can be seen as a metaphysical principle. Indeed, the personal lordship model can be seen as the basis for all of God’s attributes. God is “simple,” because he thinks and acts as a whole, not as a combination of potentially conflicting thoughts, impulses, and qualities.
He is eternal, because he is Lord of time. He has created time, and he stands above it, seeing with equal vividness the past, present, and future and ruling the events in all temporal realms. Nevertheless, again because he is the creator of time, he is able to enter into it and play a role, indeed the major role, in Providence and Redemption.
He is immutable in his attributes, his promises, his sovereignty.
Similarly, God is the Lord of space, for space is his creation. He is “immense,” beyond all spatial dimensions; yet he is also omnipresent, located in all the spaces of the world he has made.
He is impassible, for as the sovereign Lord he cannot be harmed by any of his creatures; nevertheless, he understands the suffering of others as it really is, and understands it from the heart.
God is the highest being, for he is the sovereign Lord. If we seek to develop a philosophy of the universe, that is where we must start. This is a personal world, not a world made of abstract, impersonal forms of “being.” He is “above us,” transcendent, not because he has a higher degree of being, but because he is the Lord, the ruler of all.
Advocates of pure being theology admit that the biblical description of God and our relation to him is very different from that of Aristotle or Aquinas. James Dolezal speaks of the biblical picture as “mutabilist.”4 But this mutabilist language, he says, is “anthropomorphic” or “accommodation” to finite minds. What God really is, is “pure being,” as Aquinas conceived it. I grant that biblical representations of God are accommodated to finite minds, but I think that is true, not only of the “mutabilist” language, but also of passages like “For I the LORD do not change;” (Mal 3:6). We are not put in a position of having to say that metaphysical descriptions of God are literally true, while passages describing God’s interaction with history are literally false. Indeed, God’s interaction with history is what Scripture is all about: creation, fall, and all the events of redemption including Jesus’ incarnation, earthly ministry, atoning death, and resurrection. In the church, we confess that these events really happened, that they are not mere symbolic descriptions of metaphysical principles.
There is something ridiculous about saying that the predominant message of Scripture, God coming to redeem his fallen world, is somehow untrue, and that what is true is that God is pure being. As a protestant I must put redemption before philosophy.
Thomas Aquinas was a godly Christian man, very brilliant, who put his mind in the service of Christ. Much of the time, he referred to God in a deeply personal way. But many times he mixed the biblical teaching up with ideas of the Greek philosophers in a way that distorted the biblical Gospel, and for that he must be held accountable.
God is not the pure being of Aristotle; he is the sovereign lord of heaven and earth. The Prime Mover of Aristotle is not the God of the Bible.
- ↩ This point is related to later theological discussions of divine simplicity.
- ↩ See Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), especially 37-46.
- ↩ For a fuller treatment, see Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 21-115.
- ↩ Dolezal, All That Is In God (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 19.