Divine Aseity and Panentheism, Part Two

In Part One of this discussion, I sought to provide a positive presentation of the Christian doctrine of divine aseity.  I drew upon 1) Paul’s sermon in Acts 17, 2) the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3) and Christian theology to establish the claim that “God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself” (Westminster Confession, 2.2).  We finished Part One by considering God’s perfection, immensity, simplicity, eternity, immutability, and the Creator-creature distinction in order to demonstrate that the Christian doctrine of God consists of an entire system of mutually reinforcing doctrines concerning the nature and being of God.  To the extent that you modify or reject one doctrine, you must correspondingly modify or reject all the others as well. 

Having established the basic claims of and framework for a Christian doctrine of divine aseity, we can now move to consider a non-Christian expression of the same doctrine.  To that end, I will draw on the work of Steven Colborne, found here.  I want to reiterate at this point that my intention is to promote the classically Christian and confessionally Reformed doctrine of divine aseity, and I think it would be helpful to do that by comparing it with a non-Christian expression of divine aseity.  (This is the kindest way I can think to say that this is not a discernment blog aimed at calling Steven all kinds of names or ridiculing him for putting forth his understanding of this doctrine.  Steven is a very kind person, and I have enjoyed my interactions with him.  He is also very intelligent, which is why I think this discussion is worthwhile.)  Now let’s consider Steven’s argument.

Steven’s Argument

Defining Divine Aseity.  In good form, Steven defines divine aseity to ensure that he and his readers are on the same page.  He says, “The word aseity has Latin roots, with a meaning ‘from’, se meaning ‘self’, and ity meaning ‘ness’. So aseity means ‘from-self-ness’. To expand upon this, we might say that the word means ‘self-existing’, and when applied to God, it means He is uncaused or uncreated.”  This is a very standard way of defining the doctrine.  One can find examples of this definition in Reformed theologians like á Brakel, Turretin, and Bavinck.  And Steven is correct to say that this self-existence of God is “difficult to capture in words” precisely because it is so enthralling.  I thus appreciate his candor and willingness to engage in such a discussion as this. 

Applying Divine Aseity.  As Steven moves from defining divine aseity to applying it, he is right to say, “The solution to this problem [of why there is something rather than nothing] is God’s aseity; there has never been a time when God didn’t exist, as His very nature is being.”  One of the fundamental problems in philosophy is the question of why there is something rather than nothing, and Steven is correct to answer this question by pointing to God’s aseity.  God Himself, because He exists a se, simply is the grounds for the existence of everything.  That’s why the Westminster theologians call God “the alone fountain of all being” (Westminster Confession, 2.2).  So far, Christians can affirm virtually everything that Steven has said concerning God’s aseity. 

However, we must part ways with Steven as he makes his second and third applications of the doctrine.  They are worth quoting in full:

“Pondering God’s aseity has led me to understand that God is not different from existence. If this is true, then everything that exists is a part of God. I’m not arguing for pantheism (which equates God with nature), for I believe the physical world could cease to exist and God, because of His aseity, would remain perfectly whole. Creation is instead contained ‘within God’ and this makes sense because if God is boundless then nothing can exist outside of Him.

“The implications of this perspective for traditional theism, where God is seen as separate from His creation, are obvious. If there are no limits to the extent of God’s being, then it logically follows that there can be no freedom from God (free will). Instead, we must see the entirety of creation as an expression of God’s being, and under His control.”

What I would like to do in the remaining part of this essay is consider the claims in these two paragraphs.  We’ll take each in turn. 

Is God Identical to Existence?

“God Is Not Different from Existence.”  Let’s look first at Steven’s claim that “God is not different from existence.”  This seems to me to be the most important claim that Steven makes in the latter part of his post because he derives a number of implications from this.  I think a more philosophical way to say what Steven has said is to say that “God is not different from existence itself.”  (Steven, if this is not what you mean, please let me know!  I want to try to be as charitable as possible, which includes representing your position faithfully.) 

That is to say, God is substantially identical to that which is.  He is what exists, and He is all that exists.  It seems to me that this is what Steven means when he says that “God is not different from existence.”  The reason I think this is the case is because Steven himself intimates that this is so.  He says, “If this is true, then everything that exists is a part of God.”  Leaving aside for a moment the question of pantheism, I want to stop here to consider the implications of such a claim in light of what we sought to establish in Part One.  (Again, this essay is more about promoting the classical Christian doctrine of divine aseity and less about saying that Steven is wrong.) 

In Part One I argued that God’s incommunicable attributes (I mentioned perfection, immensity, simplicity, eternity, and immutability) “stand or fall together.  If we reject or modify one, we must correspondingly reject or modify the others as well.”  I don’t simply want to reiterate what I said there, though, but I want to move the discussion forward by considering how what I said there relates to Steven’s claims that “God is not different from existence” and “everything that exists is a part of God.”  Therefore, let us consider two doctrines in light of what Steven has said: divine simplicity and the Creator-creature distinction. 

God Is Identical to His Own Existence.  As Christians, we can affirm that God is identical to His own existence.  That’s one of the claims of the doctrine of divine simplicity: all that is in God is God.  In other words, there is no distinction between God’s essence and His existence.  They are identical with each other (and with God Himself).  Moreover, since all that is in God is God, all of God’s attributes, however mysterious it may be to our minds, simply are identical not only with each other but also with God Himself.  So God is His own perfection, immensity, simplicity, eternity, immutability, and so on, and each one of these attributes of God just is God.  We make distinctions between them because of how they appear to us (and in order to communicate intelligibly), but in God there is no real distinction between these attributes. 

Since each of God’s attributes is identical with God Himself, it must be the case that God is “without parts” (Westminster Confession, 2.1).  Thus God cannot be divided up into different bits of being because He is not composed of different bits of being.  He is absolute.  This means that we must reject Steven’s claim that “everything that exists is a part of God.”  All created things that exist have parts: being and existence; temporality; material; actuality and potentiality; etc., but God has none of these parts.  Therefore, not everything that exists is a part of God.

God Is Not Identical to That Which Is Not God.  This claim brings us to our second point: God is not identical to that which is not God.  This is the Creator-creature distinction.  God’s being is entirely distinct from and different than created being.  We argued in Part One that this is the clear and unequivocal teaching of Scripture: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9).  In other words, there is God, and there is everything else.  If we (purposely or inadvertently) blur the lines between the Creator and the creature, we will get virtually everything wrong.  Notice how God approaches Job and challenges him: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:2-4).  The rhetorical force of this question should shock us into realizing the vast (indeed, infinite) distinction between Creator and creature.

Thus we must reject Steven’s claim that “God is not different from existence.”  God is identical to His own existence, but He is not identical to existence itself, for there exists Creator and creature.  The Creator exists a se, as we’ve been saying, and the creation exists dependently upon the Creator.  This too is the manifold testimony of Scripture (cf. Genesis 1:1; Acts 17:24-25; Revelation 4:11). 

Here we can pick up again the question of pantheism.  Steven is “not arguing for pantheism,” because he argues that “the physical world could cease to exist and God, because of His aseity, would remain perfectly whole.”  Nevertheless, what he is advocating is the position called “panentheism,” the idea that “everything that exists is contained within God, but God is separate from and greater than everything that exists.”[1]  We can see immediately that panentheism is a kind of mediating position between pantheism and classical theism.  It seeks to uphold classical theism’s claims concerning God’s absoluteness (and aseity, for example), while at the same time claiming that everything is contained within God.  Thus panentheism should be distinguished from (i.e., viewed as different than) both pantheism and classical theism.

Divine Aseity and Human Freedom

God Exists Absolutely and Independently.  The reason that this matters for our discussion is because classical theists, like Christians, argue that God exists absolutely and independently.  This is the claim of divine aseity and other related doctrines that we’ve mentioned.  But for panentheists, on the other hand, “the entirety of creation [is] an expression of God’s being, and under His control” (this is a quote from Steven).  However, this necessarily divides God into parts, which is out of step with the Christian confession of God’s simplicity.  If God were sovereign over Himself, which is the claim being made, then He must necessarily be made up of two parts: one which is sovereign and one which is subject to that sovereignty.  But as I said in Part One, “There cannot be one part in God which exercises authority or sovereignty [i.e., control] over another part in God because technically there are no parts in God at all.  He is absolutely one.”  Thus we should not view creation as being an expression of God’s being.

Human Freedom: Neither Libertarian nor Fatalistic.  At this point we can begin to consider the question of human freedom.  If God exists absolutely, and if He is the “alone fountain of all being” (Westminster Confession, 2.2), what do we make of human freedom?  Steven argues, “If there are no limits to the extent of God’s being, then it logically follows that there can be no freedom from God (free will).”  Steven is right to say that there are no limits to God’s being (this is the claim of the classical doctrine of divine infinity, which we haven’t explicitly addressed to this point), but his conclusion that God’s infinity eliminates human freedom is somewhat underwhelming.  He’s onto something, but a little more clarity will help our discussion move forward. 

As Reformed Christians, we confess that “God has endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil” (Westminster Confession, 9.1).  We continue, “Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well-pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it” (Westminster Confession, 9.2). 

In other words, we confess that humans do have free will in a compatibilist sense.  Humans are not free in a libertarian sense (which says that we have equal power to do action A or to refrain from doing action A at the time of choice), and neither do we confess that we live in a fatalistic universe, which appears to be Steven’s position.  Thus I say that Steven’s conclusion (“If there are no limits to the extent of God’s being, then it logically follows that there can be no freedom from God [free will]”) is underwhelming because it fails to distinguish between different types of free will.  He’s onto something in the sense that we do not have libertarian free will, but his conclusion misses the mark because we do have compatibilist free will. 

Holding Everything Together.  The way that Christians hold God’s aseity and humanity’s compatibilist freedom together is by distinguishing between the existence of the Creator and the existence of the creature.  Going back to Paul’s sermon in Acts, we read that “God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).  Humanity receives its existence from God, though God does not receive His existence from anything: “He is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).  This is the basic claim of divine aseity. 

But notice also that “In Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Thus we really do live, and we really do move, and we really do receive our being from God.  And this must be interpreted in light of the fact that “God made the world and everything in it” (v. 24).  So we cannot take verse 28 to support panentheism because Paul has already distinguished sharply between Creator and creature.  And verse 28 also rules out human freedom in a libertarian sense because we live and move and exist because of God, not apart from Him.  Instead we should take verse 28 as supporting compatibilist freedom: our lives and movement and existence are real and distinct from God’s, but they are nevertheless “compatible” with God’s life and movement and existence. 

In other words, we are entirely dependent upon God for everything we have, and what we have (and who we are) is therefore distinct from God.  Yet we are free in a libertarian sense because we live and move and exist. Our lives and movement and existence are not extensions of God’s life and movement and existence, for God is entirely distinct from us, and therefore we are “free” in a compatibilist sense. Thus divine aseity, rather than supporting the claim that creation is an expression of God’s being, actually establishes the opposite: the Creator is entirely distinct from His creation. This establishes not only our complete reliance upon God for all things, but also the reality of our freedom under God’s absolute sovereignty.

I suppose I should conclude with a few thoughts about worship so that the Christians reading can have a glimpse into part of my thinking about why this matters. In Romans 1 Paul argues that the essence of sin is idolatry, “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (v. 23). Thus I take it as self evident that we need to know both who God is and who we are so that we don’t commit idolatry by confusing the Creator with the creature. Our worship is enhanced to the degree that we have a right knowledge of God, and that’s why the doctrine of divine aseity is important. We need to know that God exists absolutely and therefore needs nothing from His creatures who are entirely dependent upon Him for everything they have. So my goal in these two posts has been to promote the classical view of God’s aseity so that we might worship Him rightly.

All in all, I hope that this will generate kind and robust discussions about divine aseity and related matters. I’m looking forward to reading Steven’s response and apologize (especially to him!) for taking so long to publish Part Two. Bye for now!

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

[1] The Lexham Bible Dictionary.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

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