The Joy of Classical Theism

In the past month or so there has been a little bit of discussion of the question of ‘classical theism’: the belief that God is simple, eternal, unchanging, impassible and so on. I had never really examined these kind of ideas until about five years ago when I began to read Augustine’s Confessions as part of the UCCF staff study programme. Since then I have become convinced that the God of ‘classical theism’ is the God of the Scriptures, revealed in and by Jesus Christ.

This is, to most modern ears, including my own, a counter-intuitive notion. How can the God of redemption be unchanging? How can the God of the cross be impassible? How can the God who displays love, justice, mercy, grace, wrath, holiness, power, wisdom and knowledge be simple? To believe in classical theism and to read the Bible through that lens requires a kind of mental discipline; a discipline that seemed to come naturally to previous generations but that seems taxing to us. Why submit yourself to that discipline? Reading the critiques of classical theism in the last few days it seems that many believe the reason must be an overdeveloped commitment to one or other of, the laws of logic, subscription to historic confessions, or some kind of philosophically ideal monad.

Of course, some of these reasons are fine in their own way; I have always thought that logical consistency is a virtue rather than a vice in theology. Likewise, I take comfort that the tenets of classical theism are written into the confessions of all the major Protestant traditions from the sixteenth century onwards and reflect the millennia long consensus of the church catholic expressed in the writings of Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Owen, Bavinck to name but a few. But are these reasons sufficient to overcome the intuition we have that if God is to be our saviour and our Father that there must be some kind of change or movement in the divine life? For most of us, probably not.

In the end, though, those reasons are not why I find classical theism so compelling and even so wonderful. No, the reason why I believe in classical theism, why I regard it as the axiom and the zenith of my comfort and joy in this life, is that only in the God of classical theism is the triumph of love and joy secure. If there is a flicker of sorrow, a speck of imperfection, the slightest diminution of joy in the divine life then who can tell if my life and being might not be lost in that flicker? But if God is perfectly, infinitely alive, and if his life characterised by unlimited joy and fathomless love then I can know that there is at least one place where sorrow has never had a foothold and suffering has never left a mark, I can know that suffering and evil are strangers in God’s cosmos that have no final home. Classical Theism teaches that at the heart of the universe, the existent behind every existence, is a cataract of joy so full that it can never become fuller and never will become less.

Therefore, though its formulations may seem technical, and its affirmations sometimes counter-intuitive, classical theism is, I think, the corollary of child-like Christian faith. Understanding how God can be unchanging yet personal, simple yet plural in his effects, compassionate yet impassible is difficult; finding words that convey that truth accurately, even more so. Yet, when we pray we know we address a God of infinite power and infinite wisdom; when we worship, we know we adore a God of perfect love and grace. Far from being an Aristotelian, scholastic, metaphysically speculative distortion of the Biblical record, classical theism is simply the premise of our prayers and the ontology of our doxology. No wonder, then, that Thomas Manton could write, ‘this is the church’s comfort in the saddest condition, that however the face of the creatures be changed to them, God will be still the same… Certainly, this name of God’s immutability is as an ointment poured out, the best cordial for a fainting soul.’ May it be so for us.

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