God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; Not of the Philosophers and Intellectuals

According to so-called “classical theism,” God is wholly immutable, or unchanging. Not only can he never change in character, or nature; he cannot change in any respect whatsoever. He does not have changing thoughts; he does not have changing emotions (he is “impassible”). Indeed, he does not even experience sequence in his thoughts, emotions, or life generally. He is wholly “timeless,” with no before or after, with no sequence at all. His existence is somehow a timeless nunc (“now”). And in that timeless-now existence God experiences no change in thoughts, emotions, plans, or actions. Indeed, according to classical theism, God just is his eternal thought and eternal bliss. Even his plans and actions are somehow one and somehow identical to his very being. There is no real distinction between God and his thoughts, emotions, plans, and activities. We make mental distinctions (logical or conceptual distinctions) between them, but in reality they are one and the same. (For a famous presentation of the classical conception of God see the Prima Pars of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.)

Now anyone who has read even a little bit of the Christian scriptures, especially the Old Testament, immediately recognizes how completely different is the presentation of God in those scriptures from the conception of classical theism that I have just sketched. The God of the scriptures, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is constant in his righteous character and unable to change in this sense, but he is anything but unable to change, or immutable, in thought, emotion, plans, and actions. And he is certainly distinct from his thoughts, emotions, plans, and actions. He is an individual, a person, a self who thinks one thought after another, experiences now this emotion now that one, makes this plan and then that plan, and takes this action and now that action. He is not himself those thoughts, emotions, plans, and actions! Such an idea, if not incoherent in itself (which it is), certainly contradicts the God presented in the scriptures. Again, that God is immutable in character but quite mutable in his thoughts, feelings, plans, and actions. In truth, it is not going too far to say that the scriptures just are a story about a God of immutable wisdom constantly thinking new thoughts and changing his plans and actions in keeping with that perfect wisdom. And they are a story of a God of perfect, unchanging character whose emotions change, from anger to rejoicing to outrage to joy, just because his character is so unchangeably perfect.

So where did this classical conception of God come from, since it clearly did not come from the scriptures? The answer, of course, is the Greeks. It is from the philosophical schools of Athens that the conception of God we call “classical” today was birthed. And how did this become the “classical” conception? Well, that’s a long story, but the short of it is that Alexander the Great conquered the then-known world, including Palestine and Egypt, about three centuries before the birth of our Lord. Alexander and the Greeks brought with them their culture and ideas, including their ideas about the gods and metaphysics, or ontology, in general. And these ideas were picked up by Jews in Palestine and Egypt (Alexandria). In no time, thanks to this process of Hellenization (Greek enculturation), many Jews were exchanging the God of their scriptures for a God in keeping with the Greek sensibilities. We see this in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, for example. But we see it more insidiously in the translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic and Greek during this period. Even at that first level of interpretation-for all translation is an interpretation-the Greek influence can be clearly seen. Now, fast forward a few centuries, and it is Christian thinkers (those commonly called “church fathers”), steeped in Greek philosophy and culture even more so than the Jews before them had been, who are reading their Bibles the same way the Jews had begun to read theirs: through the lens of Greek philosophical speculations.

Soon enough emerged what we now call the “classical” conception of God, a conception based on imperfect (pun intended) Greek ideas about perfection and being. Plato had taught that anything that changes is imperfect, for any change must be for better or for worse. Therefore, Plato reasoned, and therefore Hellenized Jews and Hellenized Christians reasoned, God must be absolutely immutable, incapable of any change whatsoever; otherwise, he would be imperfect. But Plato’s reasoning fails to account for personal being. Whatever might be said about change in impersonal being—the starting point of Greek philosophical speculation—in the case of personal being, perfection, far from excluding the possibility of change, demands, requires, change. A perfect person, a person of unchanging, constant righteousness and love, must change in the details of his/her thoughts, plans, actions, and feelings in order to remain so perfect in character.

For example, to remain in constant bliss regardless of the suffering of others is to be imperfect, not perfect. Thus, God, according to the scriptures, especially the prophetic corpus in the Old Testament, is a God who grieves deeply and becomes indignant at evil and injustice. As the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put it in his classic book on the Old Testament Prophets, “The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster.” Likewise, to continue in the same strategy in pursuing a goal when that strategy has proven unsuccessful is to be imperfect, not perfect. Thus, God, according the scriptures, was so often changing his plans and actions—his strategies—in his attempt to bring the Hebrews—and with them, eventually the world—back to himself. This is why the Old Testament history is one of so many twists and turns: God was constantly adapting his plans and his actions to achieve his goals for a stiff-necked and hard-hearted people. The examples could be multiplied, but, again, the point, which really ought to be self-evident upon even the least reflection, is that in the case of personal being, perfection of being requires change. To be wholly immutable, in the case of personal being, is to be imperfect. (Indeed, to be wholly immutable, in the case of personal being, is impossible, for a person is a self with changing thoughts, actions, and so on.)

In his celebrated Pensées (literally “Thoughts”), Blaise Pascal wrote, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. The God of Jesus Christ.” Pascal wrote this after a night of deep encounter with God, and he sewed these statements into the liner of his coat. Today, classical theists will tell you that you are unsophisticated if you take the scripture’s presentation of God at face value. Some will even call you a heretic. Following Philo, who himself followed the Greeks in interpreting their own myths about the gods, these classical theists will tell you that the scriptures present so many “anthropomorphisms” of God, which is just a sophisticated-sounding way of saying the scriptures describe God like a human being but they don’t really mean what they say. Or they will tell you that the scriptures describe God in “phenomenological” language, which is just a sophisticated-sounding way of saying the scriptures describe God as he appears to us but not as he really is in reality. Or, more generally, they will tell you that the scriptures are God’s “baby talk” to us, that in the scriptures, as John Calvin put it, “God lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children.” All of this sounds so sophisticated with the big, technical words like “anthropomorphism” and “phenomenological.” But, in the end, all it amounts to is an explaining away of God’s revelation of himself in the scriptures. And I don’t know about you, but as for me, I am with Pascal: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. The God of Jesus Christ.”