My journey of wrestling with and comprehending the classical doctrines of God have been a long process that has spanned over a decade. I have dug deep into the meaning of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, trying to more thoroughly connect it with a Biblical narrative. I have considered to some degree various doctrines of Scriptural inspiration, trying to come to an understanding of how it is that we can confess that God has revealed Himself and His will through the Scriptures. However, the one area where I have experience the most amount of tension, change, and development over the years is in the three “omni’s” of classic theism: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.
My faith was initially trained with these three classical doctrines about God/ God was capable of everything, God knew everything, and God was everywhere. However, as I dug deeper into the reading of the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, I came across numerous texts present prima facie challenges to these three classical doctrines: particularly omniscience and omnipresence. Among classical theists in history, many of these texts were treated as anthropomorphisms that were intended to communicate something in terms that people could understand, but that classical theism was the ultimate theology truth that the Scriptures testified too. However, such explanations seem to be too much hand waving without an adequate account for why these passages would have conveyed that to the original composers and receivers of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps one could appeal to a progressive nature of revelation, but then it leads us to ask: why is it that the telos of progressive revelation looks curiously like Greek metaphysics and theology?
To be clear, I am not hostile to the idea of “Greek” influence, as if it is some anathema that must be cleansed from the church in favor the “Hebrew” mindset, an antithesis that is more rooted in the dualist modes of analysis of Western essentialism than historical reality. Greek philosophy was not some categorical illusion that was bereft of any truthfulness. At the same time, though, Greek intellectual thought is not the pinnacle of wisdom, insight, and truth. It’s way of framing the fundamental nature of truth, knowledge, goodness, and reality can be traced more so to how Greek language and grammar was a principle influence in the emergence of Greek metaphysics.1 In other words, Greek metaphysics emerges more so from the processes of a softer linguistic determinism in which the categories and concepts of language become entrenched so as to appear to be fundamental within the nature of the world, rather than Kantian-like aids in processing the world around us.
While I did not have such a robust critique of the Greek influence on classical theology until the past few years, my studies in the Scriptures and struggle with personal experiences of my life left me with a gut-level feeling that the classical doctrines of God were somehow off. I explored alternatives such as open theism and even process theism, but I was left increasingly dissatisfied with what they offered. Open theism placed implicit, de facto limits on God, even as the more open portrayal of the future seem compelling at some level. Insofar as process theism attribute changed to the ‘nature’ of God, the more it seemed to step into wild speculation and lose touch with the Scriptural narratives.
Dissatisfied with classical, open, and process theism for various reasons, where then did my theological exploration take me? A theism that is rooted in the combination of God as Creator, His relation to His creation, and apophatic approach to the questions of God’s power, knowledge, and presence that rejects any limitations placed upon God’s potential while not ascribing sweeping and universal claims as to the actual state of God’s power, knowledge, and presence. Whereas the three “omnis” state that God can do anything, God knows everything, and God is present everwhere, I have move towards what I refer to as an aterminal2 theism where nothing in God’s creation can set a boundary to limit what God can do, what God can know, and where God can be.
Aterminal theism has the benefit of being able to incorporate the various Scripture passages that classical theism points to: because God is not limited in matters of power, presence, and knowledge, the Scriptural affirmations of God’s greatness is readily affirmed. At the same time, it allows for a more open sense of the future and an incorporation of human freedom in some capacity without ascribing a limit to God, particularly to what God know about the future. Furthermore, an aterminal theism can allow for changes in the way that God demonstrates and uses His power, in what God knows, and where and how God is present without ascribing change to the way that God can relate to His creation.
Beyond the potential to more flexibility incorporate various Scriptural witness to God’s nature, there are two, overlapping reasons that I would suggest aterminal theism is a better option for understanding the God of the Scriptures than classical theism.
Firstly, aterminal theism can more seriously incorporate the Scripture witness to God’s outright holiness and distinction from humanity and the world than classical theism. The three omni’s of classical theism can be describe as the perfections of human capacities in power, presence, and knowledge. While humans have some power, God has all power. While humans are in some place, God is in all places. While humans know some times, God knows all things. The classical doctrine of God is, in many ways, about the perfection of human traits. While there is a difference between God and humans, the difference is a matter of degree, whereas the similarity is more categorical. God and humans share the same nature, but differ in matters of degree.
Aterminal theism, on the other hand, reverses the priority of similarities and differences. While recognizing that both God and humans can share similar properties when it comes to power, presence, and knowledge, these similarities do not make us fundamentally like God. Rather, God and humanity are fundamentally different in that whereas humans are limited in what type of power we can obtain, where we can be present, and what we can and do know, God does not have these limitations. This difference goes back to God’s identity as Creator and our identity as part of God’s creation.
Furthermore, as a result of aterminal theism, we do not even begin to have an adequate representation of who God is, which points us forward to having some deeper understanding about God to be able to speak meaningfully about Him beyond His potential. The three omnis of classical theism can almost set themselves as a confession of faith in some general God that we believe and know in som capacity. Aterminal theism doesn’t give us a sense of faith and understand about God that anymore than me believing that there is the possibility that there exist a world similar Earth in the universe gives me any actual knowledge of this world. Such a ‘faith,’ if one wants to call it that, calls for something more specific, definite, and actual for it to be something we can dedicate our lives around.
Aterminal theism, in other words, requires revelation to have faith according to the New Testament understanding of faith. God has revealed Himself to be a God who is faithful to His promises through His relation with Israel and the sending of His Son into the world to be crucified and raised in accordance to Israel’s testimony to God. This specific narrative and the specific actions of God are necessary to really say anything of substance about God’s power, presence, and knowledge. In other words, aterminal theism makes a more decisive break between natural theology, which readily blurs into a natural anthropology, and revelation in order for us to have a specific faith about God who makes Himself particularly known in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
My portrayal of aterminal theism does not just reject classical theism as fundamentally in error, however. In other ways, classical theism makes a clear differentiation between God and humans. I appeal to usage of analogy to explain how language can describe God in a way that is simultaneously different from how language describes the world as an example of this. Nevertheless, insofar as classical theism has been influenced by a perfect being theology to be the conceptual foundation for the doctrine of God, it risks anthropomorphizing God in such a way that the holiness of God becomes a particular and limited property of God rather than a sweeping ontological claim about God. Put differently, aterminal theism is a correction to classical theism that is subtle and yet simultaneously has profound theological implications.