The Christian metaphysical understanding of God

(Text: “Debating an Atheist“, Soli Deo Gloria, July 2, 2012)

Pastor Stephen Feinstein is taking us on a whirlwind tour of presuppositional Christian apologetics, and as we saw last week, he’s already made the mistake of presuming that a Creator God can be non-contingent, meaning His existence is not preconditioned on anything else. That’s not the case, because the existence of a Creator God can only be true if it occurs in the context of a reality that is greater than Himself, that is perfectly self-consistent and that includes both everything that is God, and also everything (including material properties like time) that is not God. We could propose a pantheistic God like Alethea as the ultimate Necessary Being, but a true Creator God, in the Christian sense, is contingent on the existence of a greater, self-consistent reality that contains Him.

Today, Pastor Feinstein is going to build on his mistaken assumptions and give us what he calls “the Christian metaphysical understanding” concerning God. I’m not sure why he specifically calls it a metaphysical understanding, since what he actually delivers is essentially dogma. Perhaps he means that, being “metaphysical,” it’s not subject to scientific investigation, and is therefore presumably immune to critique? But that’s not right, because we have plenty of valid criticisms that can be made, and I’m sure Pastor Feinstein knows that. So let’s just raise a few of them, and take it from there.

There are four points in Pastor Feinstein’s “metaphysical understanding” of God, and the first one is this:

1) God is an absolute personality. Simply put, He is an absolute being, meaning He is necessary and is in no way, shape, or form contingent. Yet, He is also a person. In fact, He is the original person, and “personality” is an essential attribute of God. His personhood is original and ours is derivative. We are persons because He is the absolute person.

We’ve already seen that a Creator God, like the Christian Trinity, cannot be the ultimate necessary being, because for God to be real, the ultimate necessary being would have to be an all-encompassing reality that included both God and non-God. But besides that, Pastor Feinstein kindly supplies us with another disqualification: the Christian God is dogmatically asserted to be a person. God cannot possess that attribute unless the fundamental nature of reality itself is such that it permits a consistent distinction between that which is a person, and that which is not. Otherwise, the propositions “God is a person” and “God is not a person” are both statements that are equally meaningless and untrue. Once again, the nature of the Christian God makes Him contingent on the precondition of a greater, self-consistent universe.

Notice, too, the superstitious role-swapping in Pastor Feinstein’s last two statements. It’s not that God is a person because the people who invented Him made Him in their own image. The Greek gods might have been, of course, and sure, the Norse gods too, but the Christian God is a person because He’s the original Person. Unfortunately Trinitarian dogma holds that God is actually three Persons not one Person, making technically blasphemous to refer to Him as a single Person, but that’s a problem we’ll discuss in more detail when when we get to Pastor Feinstein’s fourth point.

2) There is a distinction between the Creator and creation. I will henceforth call it the Creator/creature distinction. God is not the world, and the world is not God. He is transcendent, meaning He is totally “other” to the world and is not contained by it. Yet, He is also immanent, meaning there is no place within the world where His presence and power are not in effect… The Creator/creature distinction is going to be important when we start diving into epistemology.

It’s a distinction that’s already important, because it establishes the fact that the Creator’s existence is contingent on the existence of a greater reality that is consistent with itself. But we’ve said enough about that, so let’s look at another interesting point in the above quotation.

Pastor Feinstein speaks of “the world” and defines God’s existence relative to that world, in that He is both “transcendent” and “immanent” (i.e. present within the world). Apparently Pastor Feinstein means “the world” in the archaic and materialistic sense of physical reality, as contrasted with some kind of “spiritual” reality. That’s not really a workable distinction, because you can’t have two entirely separate and distinct realities and have them both be real in any meaningful sense. You can have as many fictional “realities” as you like, each of which will be inconsistent with material reality at some point. But there’s only one “real” reality, which contains and defines everything that truly exists.

This “real” reality is what we could and should call material reality—not in the sense that it’s made of atoms (because atoms are real, and what are they made of, eh?), but in the sense that it exists in and of itself, as the necessary being. Fictional realities are not material realities, because their whole existence is contingent on the subjective perceptions and thoughts of some observer who is thinking about them. Santa Claus, for example, “exists” only in a fictional “reality” whose existence depends on people thinking about him and telling kids about him and so on. If we could wave a magic wand that would make everyone forget about him, and make every reference disappear from our art and literature and so on, then his “existence” would likewise cease, because it’s contingent on the perceptions of at least one observer.

Gravity, on the other hand, is an aspect of material reality, even though it’s not made of atoms. Wave the same magic wand, make people forget about gravity, delete every reference to gravity from literature and art, even render every sentient being in the universe unconscious so they can’t think about anything, and planets will still orbit their stars and rain will still fall down. Material reality does not depend on the perceptions of any third party, it exists in and of itself.

And notice, this is not the archaic “world vs. spirit” distinction that Pastor Feinstein might be thinking of. God Himself, in order to qualify as “real,” would need to belong to that material reality that exists independently of any third party’s perceptions. Fail to note this distinction, fail to advance beyond the primitive and inaccurate “world/spirit” distinction of medieval philosophers, and you’re going to be wrong concerning some pretty fundamental and important things.

3) God is sovereign. This means that God has total rule over the entire universe. He is in control, and all that comes to pass is part of His will. Rather than getting too theological here, I will say for now that I am referring to His decretive will as opposed to His inclinational or moral will. This will be very important when you bring up the problem of evil in this discussion. God’s sovereignty also is important because it plays a large role in epistemology as well.

This one’s a bit amusing, because if God is truly controlling the universe, then He’s responsible for everything that happens in the universe, which makes Him responsible for all the evil and sin as well. Pastor Feinstein can’t even present this principle without trying to hedge his bets by making a technical distinction between God’s “decretive” will versus His “inclinational” will, which is pretty strange, because it assumes that God has two distinct and incompatible wills. In other words, God is not in harmony with Himself, because His two wills are in conflict.

That’s a huge problem, because if God is in complete control, and He has two mutually-opposed wills, on what basis will He decide which of the two wills should prevail? Must His decision be forced by some circumstance beyond His control? But Pastor Feinstein just got done telling us that God is in control of everything, which means there is nothing beyond His control. And that, sad to say, leaves Him without any basis for deciding which of His two mutually-opposed wills is the right will to enforce. Plus no matter which of the two He picks, whatever He does is going to be contrary to His (other) will, which in classic Christian theology means He is sinning. Oy.

4) God is a Trinity. God, as presented in the Bible, is one God who exists as three persons. As great of a mystery as this is, it is the only conception of God that A) solves the one and many problem of philosophy and B) avoids the self-defeating contradiction inherent in all views of a unitarian God.

So point 1 was that God is a person, and point 4 is that God is not a person. God is a union of three Persons, which means we are not made in the image of God, but are at best made in the image of one of the Persons in the Godhead. At the same time, though, God not only is a Person, He is the model from which our own personhood is derived, and thus each of us should also be a trinity of three distinct persons, as befits persons made in the image of a Trinitarian God. None of the divine Persons happens to be female, so the most godly person you’ll ever meet is a homosexual male with a multiple personality disorder—provided he also has the kind of schizophrenia that gives you two distinct and mutually-opposed wills. If you ever meet such a person, you’ll understand the Trinity better.

Pastor Feinstein says a Trinitarian God solves the “one and many problem” in philosophy—for some particular value of “solves,” at least—and also “avoids the self-defeating contradiction inherent in all views of a unitarian God.”

Case in point, an attribute is defined as a characteristic of God intrinsic to His nature, to where it is impossible for God to be God, and yet not have that characteristic. Thus, an attribute of God is “personality” as I have already said. Personality requires relational existence. Therefore, if God were not a Trinity, who then did God have a personal relationship with prior to creation? He would not be a person until He made other persons, which would make Him dependent upon creation, thereby removing His distinction from it and His sovereignty, thus causing the whole concept of God to drown in contradiction. If God did not have the attribute of personality until the start of creation, then He existed without a characteristic that is necessary to Him by definition. I think you get the point. The triune God solves this problem since for all eternity the one God had a personal relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.

Notice, it’s possible for the notion of God to “drown in contradiction,” but only in contexts where you’re proving that God must possess the characteristics you attribute to Him. In other contexts, contradictions are not a problem at all, they’re just a “mystery,” which is a theological term that essentially means “because shut up, that’s why.”

Interestingly, Pastor Feinstein supposes that God cannot be a person, and thus cannot be God, unless He has some other persons to have personal relationships with. I’m not sure why he thinks other persons have to exist, necessarily. All that’s required for personhood to exist is for there to be a consistent difference between “person” and “not-a-person”—which according to Feinstein’s theology is a difference that did not exist until God created things that were not persons. As far as God’s attributes go, then, He could not, by nature, possess any sort of personhood that was distinct from being a non-person, and thus cannot possess all the attributes of deity. He must therefore not exist, having drowned in the contradictions that Pastor Feinstein warned us about.

The same observation can be made regarding God’s attribute of “sovereignty.” If, at some point, nothing was in existence but God Himself, there was nothing for Him to be sovereign over, and hence again He must lack a necessary attribute of deity, and must not be God. You can say, “Well, the Father was sovereign over the Son and the Spirit,” but then that means the other two Persons of the Trinity lack the attribute of sovereignty, and therefore they must not be God, which means the Trinity must not be composed of three Persons each of whom is God. Once again, death by drowning.

I assume Pastor Feinstein meant this to try and show that the Trinity avoids some kind of allegedly inherent contradiction in unitarian theology, because it certainly has nothing to do with the problem of the many. For that particular discussion, we’ll have to wait until next time. Stay tuned.

31 Responses to “The Christian metaphysical understanding of God”

  1. David Evans Says:

    “but a true Creator God, in the Christian sense, is contingent on the existence of a greater, self-consistent reality that contains Him”

    You keep saying that, and I keep stubbing my toe on it. Let me try to explain my objection.

    Consider two descriptions of J. R. R. Tolkien:

    T1: “J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford don”
    T2: “J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford don and creator of The Lord Of The Rings”

    Clearly the historical existence of T2 is contingent on the existence of the book The Lord Of The Rings. But the historical existence of T1 is NOT contingent on the existence of that book. Tolkien would still have been “J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford don” even if he had written no books at all. T1 and T2 are the same person.

    Similarly, God could have chosen not to create a universe. He would still have been the same God, so his existence is not contingent on that of the universe. He would just not have been “God, the creator of the universe”.

    • James Willmott Says:

      “Similarly, God could have chosen not to create a universe. He would still have been the same God, so his existence is not contingent on that of the universe. He would just not have been “God, the creator of the universe”.

      I see where you’re coming from, I agree completely. But I think there is a difference between ‘reality’ and ‘universe’ though. Reality is everything that exists. Assuming God exists, he is contingent on that Reality. Whether he makes a universe IN that Reality or not is, as you state clearly, irrelevant to his contingency on Reality.

      Similarly, Tolkein’s existence was contingent on the Earth. I think we can agree if there was no Earth there could be no Tolkein? Any books Tolkein wrote obviously did not affect his contingency upon the Earth to exist,

      ope I made that position clear!

      • David Evans Says:

        Suppose God had not created anything. Then Reality would be synonymous with God, and “he is contingent on that Reality” would reduce to “God is contingent on God”. Which I suppose is tautologically true (for any X, X exists only if X exists) but it doesn’t tell us that God is a contingent being in any meaningful sense.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        Right, because what you are describing is a pantheistic God, and that’s the one variety of God that is not subject to this particular contingency. The idea of a Creator God is contingent on a greater reality specifically because this idea includes the assumption that reality, when viewed from a timeless perspective, contains both God and non-God things.

    • Jer Says:

      JRR Tolkien isn’t contingent on a greater reality that contains him and his creation? The reality that Tolkien exists in is the same as the one that he created?

      Back up a bit:

      because the existence of a Creator God can only be true if it occurs in the context of a reality that is greater than Himself, that is perfectly self-consistent and that includes both everything that is God, and also everything (including material properties like time) that is not God.

      The Christian God creates the universe. And that means that there needs to be a frame of reference where he is separate from his creation. If we can refer to God and his creation separately, that means that there has to be some “higher reality” that they both exist in. (Much like how JRR Tolkien and his book “The Lord of the RIngs” both exist in our reality, and how we don’t say that JRR Tolkien somehow exists inside of his creation yet still separate from it).

      That’s also why DD made a special exception for pantheistic creator gods who are the universe they are said to create. No need for an external reality where the separation between God and Creation can exist if the God we’re positing is not in fact separate from its creation.

      Or at least that’s what I took from the discussion – I suppose DD might have meant something else.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        Nope, that’s pretty much it.

      • David Evans Says:

        Tolkien is of course contingent on a greater reality. My point is that he is not contingent on his creation.

      • Lee J Dawson Says:

        Of course not, because Tolkien doesn’t not exist in his creation. God, by definition of what reality is, must exist in his creation. Otherwise God either A) didn’t create reality, but just something in it; or B) not exist.

        If A, then there must be a greater being(s) than God that created both God and reality.

        If B, than I think we are in agreement with a non-existing God.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      One thing we need to remember is that there’s a difference between X and one’s perception of X. Time is only one part of reality, but we, as finite observers, can only observe reality from within the context of time. Thus, we tend to think of reality as being “that portion of reality that occupies the period from the beginning of time until now,” and we can imagine a time when that portion of reality included God but did not include any creation. What we’re thinking about is not the nature of reality as a whole, but merely our perception of a time-delimited portion of reality.

      Since the existence of reality does not depend on our perception of it, however, reality is not prevented from existing outside our time-limited perceptions of it. Reality as a whole includes time as a whole, since time is a part of reality. Thus, the logical (as opposed to chronological) precondition for the existence of a Creator God is that the nature of reality as a whole must be such that it contains both things that are God and things that are not God. The things that are not God could conceivably be things that only occupy part of whole of time, but they must be in there somewhere, or else a Creator God cannot be real in any meaningful sense.

  2. Jay Says:

    David, if God and Non-God Objects can both be said to “exist”, then “existence” must encompass both, and is thus greater than both.

    • Chris Says:

      Ah, this is where one of the sleight-of-hands comes in. “Exist” seems to have very different meanings when applied to the Christian “God” and, say, a table.

      The Glasser/Feinstein thread was massively frustrating because there was no definition of simple terms like this. Russell suggested material reality as something that both parties could agree “exists” (extra-material/supernatural existence was to be argued) but Feinstein refused. As far as I was concerned at that point the discussion was over, or rather completely useless.

      Then again I’m not a philosopher, and may well be biased. But, coming from the IT world, if you don’t lock your specifications and sign off on both sides you can’t guarantee what will come out of the other end of a project. Same thing happened here!

      • rglasser27 Says:

        I tried frequently to find at least some basic principles that Stephen and I could agree on, and came up empty. As I said in my last post, I don’t think Stephen is in this to convince or clarify, but mainly to shut down objections. Any time I tried to get him to agree to any basic philosophical framework or definitions, he’d scoff at it and not suggest a useful alternative.

  3. Grayhame Says:

    Couldn’t it just be said that all of existence are just separate aspects of God? There are strictly no non-God objects? Even people with “free will” are just aspects of the divine? Therefore “existence” is contingent upon God? I can imagine an apologetic making this sort of claim, which also appeals to the New Agers too. How would you get around this sort of counter-claim?

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      That’s pantheism, and there’s really no need to get around it because at the point where everything that exists is an aspect of God, scientists become the only reliable “theologians.”

    • James Willmott Says:

      “…all of existence are just separate aspects of God… There are strictly no non-God objects?”

      If that’s true, and there are no non-God objects, my question would be, how can an aspect of God be separated eternally from God and sent to Hell if it refuses to accept salvation?

  4. Jay Says:

    Grayhame, that’s one of the classic heresies, for the reason given by James and many other reasons as well. Christians would never use it, as it invalidates most of their doctrine, and those faiths that do use it are self-defeating, as DD says.
    Neo-Platonists and Buddhist have an interesting solution; Non-God/Buddha objects are simply unreal/illusory. I’d like to hear Duncan’s opinion on that.

  5. miker42 Says:

    I’m making an attempt at the math involved in attributing sovereignty to the trinity and God, and I think this is the way it would work.

    God is sovereign over the Son.
    The Son is sovereign over the Holy Spirit.
    The Holy Spirit is sovereign over God.

    Thus we also establish the necessary quality to God(s) known as circular reasoning.

  6. 2-D Man Says:

    There’s another problem with this necessary being nonsense. According to a Feinsteinian Christian, God is the only necessary being, therefore all necessary beings are God. If all X are Y and all Y are X, then X and Y are synonyms.
    When he was told that he has to do more than assert that God exists, he went to all the trouble of renaming God before asserting that it exists.

  7. Jonathan Parsons Says:

    Deacon Duncan, what you are describing is NOT pantheism. An implication of pantheism is that there cannot possibly be any object distinct from God; for any x, necessarily x is God.
    Saying “it is possible for only God to exist” does not logically imply pantheism. “It is possible for only God to exist” is perfectly consistent with “It is possible there are objects distinct from God,” but pantheism contradicts “it is possible there are objects distinct from God.” But since “it is possible for only God to exist” is logically consistent with “it is possible there are objects distinct from God” pantheism cannot be a logical implication of “it is possible for only God to exist.”

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      Correct, but what I’m saying is that when you say “it is possible for only God to exist,” you are saying that pantheism is possible. Remember, we’re not saying “It’s possible that at some point in time only God exists,” because if there’s a point in time, then time exists as well, and God is not the only thing that exists. In order for God to be the only thing that exists, time itself must be part of God, as must everything else. Thus, to the extent that we’re suggesting that God could be the only thing that exists, we’re suggesting pantheism.

      • Jonathan Parsons Says:

        I was not arguing for the truth “it is possible for only God to exist.” In fact, I think “it is possible for only God to exist” is false.
        What I was arguing is that the possibility of pantheism–”possibly, necessarily, everything is identical to God”–is not a logical implication of “it is possible for only God to exist.” And if “possibly, pantheism is true” is not a logical implication of “it is possible for only God to exist” then it certainly isn’t the case that “pantheism is true” is a logical implication of “it is possible for only God to exist.”
        “It is possible for only God to exist” is logically consistent with “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God”–God could HAPPEN to be the only existing thing, but not necessarily so. However, “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God” is logically inconsistent with “possibly, necessarily, everything is identical to God.” But since “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God” is logically consistent with “it is possible for only God to exist” but IS NOT consistent with “possibly, necessarily, everything is identical to God,” that logically implies that “possibly, necessarily, everything is identical to God” is not a logical implication of “it is possible for only God to exist.” If it were a logical implication, then “it is possible for only God to exist” would be inconsistent with “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God.”

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        “It is possible for only God to exist” is logically consistent with “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God”–God could HAPPEN to be the only existing thing, but not necessarily so.

        Even then, you are proposing that there exists a possibility for non-God objects to exist. So that’s two things existing: God, and the possibility. You could get around that by saying it’s not a real possibility, and only God actually exists. At best, that’s still a variant on pantheism, though.

  8. Jonathan Parsons Says:

    “It is possible for only God to exist” is logically consistent with “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God”–God could HAPPEN to be the only existing thing, but not necessarily so.

    Even then, you are proposing that there exists a possibility for non-God objects to exist. So that’s two things existing: God, and the possibility. You could get around that by saying it’s not a real possibility, and only God actually exists. At best, that’s still a variant on pantheism, though.”

    You are being incredibly loose with your definitions. Pantheism implies “necessarily, every object is identical to God” which implies “it is not possibly the case that there are objects distinct from God.” Since “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God” is logically inconsistent with pantheism (necessarily, every object is identical to God) please explain to me HOW “it is possible for there to be objects distinct from God” is a variant of pantheism.

    • Deacon Duncan Says:

      I think you’ve lost track of the original point. The point was that if God is the ONLY thing that exists, that’s pantheism. Where there exists the (non-God) possibility of non-God things, you do not have pantheism because God is not the only thing that exists. A non-pantheistic God cannot be the necessary being, because in order to be non-pantheistic, He must exist in the context of a reality greater than Himself, that includes both Himself and things that are not God, and that possesses properties such as the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction that are required in order for there to be a distinction between what is real and what is not real. In the absence of such a reality, God Himself cannot be said to meaningfully exist. Thus, the existence of this greater reality is the necessary being upon which the existence of any God must be contingent.

      • Jonathan Parsons Says:

        I’m sorry, but you don’t understand pantheism. Pantheism is NOT ONLY the understanding that God is the only object in the universe. Pantheism is the idea that NECESSARILY God is the only object in the universe! As far as the rest of your post is concerned, I have already addressed how that position is blatantly self-contradictory and you haven’t demonstrated which of my premises are false or that my argument is deductively invalid.
        To continue this discussion would be to beat a horse long dead.

      • Deacon Duncan Says:

        I agree, you are definitely beating dead horses here. :) My point about pantheism is that only reality itself can rightly claim to be the necessary being. A pantheistic deity—a deity who was the same thing as reality itself, such that every real thing was a part of God and no non-God object could possibly exist since God and reality were identical—would indeed be the necessary being, by virtue of being reality itself. No non-pantheistic deity, however, could be the necessary being, since His/Her/Its/Their existence is obviously contingent on the existence of a greater reality.

        By the way, your definition of pantheism is self-contradictory: when you say God is the only object in the universe, you imply that there exists an additional object (the universe) within which God has His existence. You need to say that a pantheistic God is every real object, and every real object is an aspect of God.


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