Divine Aseity and Panentheism, Part One

Divine Aseity

One of the most prolific bloggers I follow is Steven Colborne. His blog (Perfect Chaos) is full of intriguing articles about faith and theology. As far as I can tell, Steven does not claim to be a Christian, although part of the mission of his blog is “to encourage people to think deeply about the nature of God, His attributes, and His relationship with creation.” As he seeks to accomplish this, he sometimes publishes articles and/or videos related closely to some of my own academic research interests. He recently published a video entitled “The Aseity of God” which is based on a previously published article with the same title.

The reason I point all of this out is because I, like Steven, love the doctrine of divine aseity. For me, this is not just an academic research exercise. Divine aseity is one of the most awe-inspiring, worship-evoking doctrines in the Christian faith. The fact that many Christians have never even heard of such a doctrine is a sad reality indeed. When we confess that “God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made” (Westminster Confession, 2.2) we speak of God’s aseity. My favorite way to talk about God’s aseity is to confess that “He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things” (Westminster Confession, 2.2). Such a confession naturally evokes worship in the hearts of finite creatures towards their infinite Creator.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said, this doctrine is not well understood in Christian circles today, and our worship suffers as a result. So the purpose of this blog is to promote a classically Christian understanding of the doctrine of divine aseity. In other words, I want to try to answer the following questions: What is divine aseity and what does it mean? In Part One, I will give a positive statement of the doctrine from a Christian perspective, and in Part Two I will consider the Christian doctrine of divine aseity over against one non-Christian expression of that same teaching. For this non-Christian expression I will draw on Steven’s work.

This is not a discernment blog (I hate those), so I have absolutely no interest at all in disproving Steven’s claims in order to say that he’s not a Christian, that he’s a heretic, that he’s a false teacher, etc. He himself will tell you that he’s not a Christian, which means therefore that he can’t be a heretic. I do think he is wrong on this issue, but it’s not my purpose here simply to say that he’s wrong; rather, I want to promote the classical understanding of divine aseity and think it would be helpful to do so by viewing it against the backdrop of a different expression of that same doctrine. (Plus I hope to engage Steven’s work in a charitable and kind manner [two traits that most discernment bloggers simply do not care to exercise!] in order to perhaps strike up a conversation with him about divine aseity and related issues.)

Divine Aseity in Acts 17

We’ve already seen what the Westminster divines confessed about divine aseity, so it might be best here to turn to Scripture, which is our final authority on these matters, to consider its teaching about the being and nature of God. In the book of Acts, Paul preaches, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (17:24-25).

There is a lot for us to see in this text. First, notice that God made the world and everything in it. This points out an important doctrine that we’ll discuss in more detail later, the Creator-creature distinction. Simply put, there is God and then there is everything else. There is a Creator and there is His creation. The saints in heaven worship God thusly: “Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11). The fact that God is the Creator of all things and that all things exist by His will should lead us to worship. Second, notice that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. This means that He exercises His supreme dominion and sovereignty over it; He is its master.

These two truths (creation and divine lordship) lead us to consider a third: God is entirely unique and different from His creation. This is a consequence of the Creator-creature distinction, and it is also confirmed by Paul: God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything.” The reason that God does not live in temples made by man, as we will see in a moment, is because He “is infinite in being and perfection” (Westminster Confession, 2.1). God’s being cannot be constricted by anything, especially human temples, precisely because His being is boundless. As Solomon taught, “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27).

The reason that God cannot be served by human hands is because we cannot give to Him anything which He does not already own: “If you are righteous, what do you give to Him? Or what does He receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7); “Who has first given to Me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11). And the reason that God does not need anything is because He has “life in Himself” (John 5:26). He does not receive His life from anything or anyone outside of Himself, for He is “most absolute” (Westminster Confession, 2.1).

Finally, notice that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” In the realest possible sense, we receive everything from God: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). In other words, in all places, at all times, and in every possible way, we depend upon God for our existence, though He does not depend upon us because He exists absolutely. That’s what the Bible has to say about divine aseity.

Divine Aseity in Christian Theology

Now we should turn to Christian theology to consider how other doctrines relate to God’s aseity. By doing this we can obtain a fuller picture of God’s being.

Divine Perfection. Christians confess that God “is infinite in being and perfection” (Westminster Confession, 2.1). Jesus tells us that we are to be “perfect , as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God’s perfection means that He simply is that being of which nothing greater can be thought. He possesses the highest possible degree of perfection in all His attributes, each of which, at the end of the day, just are identical with His own perfect being.

Divine perfection reinforces the idea of divine aseity because it maintains God’s supreme and absolute, indeed His perfect, being. If God were not absolute, then He would not be ontologically perfect. Thus, if we reject or modify God’s aseity, we must correspondingly reject or modify God’s perfection.

Divine Immensity. Christians also confess that God is “immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute” (Westminster Confession, 2.1, emphasis added). The doctrine of divine immensity is not the idea that God is large, but rather the teaching that God “is exalted above all distinction of space, yet at every point in space is present with all His being and as such is the cause of space” (Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:12). In other words, divine immensity is the doctrine that God is present to all things as He causes all things to exist.

As David prays, “Where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!” (Psalm 139:7-8). David’s use of two complete opposites demonstrates his point that God is present to every place. But divine immensity helps us understand that though God is present to every place, He is not identical to every place (precisely because He causes the very existence of every place [cf. Revelation 4:7]).

So divine immensity reinforces the doctrine of divine aseity because it maintains that God is the alone fountain of all being. The absolute God and Creator of all things is present to His entire creation, and He “upholds it by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

Divine Simplicity. Christians also confess that God is “without body, parts, or passions” (Westminster Confession, 2.1, emphasis added). The confession that God is without parts is called the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is the teaching that God “is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). God is not fundamentally two, or three, or many, but one. In other words, God is not made up of distinct parts (such as His essence plus His existence), but rather He is identical to all His attributes. God is not love plus holiness plus light. He is His own love (1 John 4:8), holiness (Isaiah 6:3), and light (1 John 1:5). And, however mysterious this may be, these attributes are not distinct in God, but are identical to His essence.

Thus there is nothing back of God upon which God relies in order to be. If God were made up of parts, He would rely not only upon the parts for His being, but also upon some more absolute “creator” or “organizer” to put those parts in the right place in God. Thus divine simplicity reinforces divine aseity because they both safeguard the biblical teaching that God does not rely upon that which is not God in order to be God. Or, to say it with Paul, “from God, through God, and to God are all things” (Romans 11:36).

Divine Eternity. Christians also confess that God is eternal. By this we don’t just mean that God is everlasting, though we do mean that (cf. Psalm 90:1-2). We also mean that God fully possesses the entirety of His life in one infinite act. While we only have access to our life in distinct and individual moments, God possesses His life in its entirety. This is a necessary corollary of divine aseity, which holds that God is absolute. God’s absoluteness means that His life cannot be divided into temporal terms precisely because it is infinite and therefore unrestricted by time.

This is going to be important later on because we need to say that everything which can be measured by time cannot be, by definition, divine. David says that God’s “greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3), and Paul declares that God “dwells in unapproachable light” and that He exercises “eternal dominion” (1 Timothy 6:16). Thus, whenever the greatness of a being can be searched out, we know that that being cannot be divine because God’s being, His greatness, is unsearchable. We know that those beings who dwell in approachable light (i.e., those whom we can fully see and comprehend) cannot be God because God dwells in unapproachable light.

Divine Immutability. Christians confess that God is immutable, that He does not change. He Himself says, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). James says that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The reason that God cannot change is because He is actus purus, or pure act. God is so maximally alive that He cannot be anything other than what He perfectly, absolutely is.

Thus this too necessarily reinforces the doctrine of divine aseity. God will not change precisely because nothing can come upon Him and force Him to change. Nor can He will change in Himself for He exists without parts. There cannot be one part in God which exercises authority or sovereignty over another part in God because technically there are no parts in God at all. He is absolutely one. Thus we begin to see how all of these doctrines stand or fall together. If we reject or modify one, we must correspondingly reject or modify the others as well.

Creator-Creature Distinction. The Creator-creature distinction, as we’ve seen, is the doctrine that God’s being is entirely distinct from creation’s being. While creation receives its being from God, God does not receive His being from anything: “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Romans 11:35-36). In other words, God and creation are not identical, but distinct.

And this makes sense based upon what we’ve seen of God’s other attributes. God is ontologically perfect in that He possesses all possible perfections to their maximal extent, but what human can say this? God is immense in that He is present to every place of His creation as He gives it its very being, but what human can say this? God is simple in that He is not made up of any parts but is, rather, identical with all His attributes; what human can say this? God is eternal in that He fully possesses the entirety of His life in one infinite act. He is immutable in that cannot be anything other than what He infinitely and absolutely is. What human can say this? The answer is: none. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9).

Please stay tuned for Part Two, where I will compare and contrast this version of divine aseity with the non-Christian version presented by Steven Colborne.

Thanks for reading. Have a comment or question? Leave it below!

4 Comments

  1. Hello Hutton!

    Firstly, let me say I’m very grateful for the approach you’ve taken in this article. Disagreeing respectfully is definitely the way to go in theological discussion, so I appreciate your warm and respectful tone. I also appreciate the depth of research and learning that has gone into your post, it’s very impressive.

    I’m in two minds as to whether to respond to your Part 1 now, or to wait and read the rest of your reflections before responding. I think it’s best that I wait, because otherwise I may be making points that you are planning to discuss in future posts. I have made some notes on Part 1, so I think I’ll just save them in a file on my desktop and respond in one go when I’ve read the remainder of your thoughts.

    Whether you would prefer to have these discussions publicly here, or privately via email, is fine by me, and I will look forward to coming to a point where we understand each other’s views, and the justification for those views.

    Thank you for your engagement with my work, and I’m looking forward to Part 2.

    Sincerely,

    Steven

    Like

    1. Hello, Steven!

      My apologies for taking so long to respond. I’ve been unable to get back to you!

      I plan to finish Part Two by the end of this week and would love to read your response once it comes. I think it could be helpful for our readers for us to have a public discussion about these and related issues, especially since I don’t expect that discussion to devolve into mud-slinging and the like. You appear to me to be both reasonable and kind, and so I expect the discussion to go along those lines. What are your thoughts?

      Thank you for taking the time to engage, and, again, I apologize for being slow to respond. I look forward to hearing from you!

      All the best,

      Hutton

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Hutton,

        That’s perfectly fine that you’ve taken some time to respond, and take your time with Part 2. I’m happy to have a public discussion in the comments, and I’m sure we’ll both be polite and courteous!

        Chat to you soon 🙂

        Steven

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