(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.