God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism
William Lane Craig
One of my first introductions to philosophical theology was the fine work “To Know and Love God, Method for Theology.” It’s a rich work that engages in the construction of sound theology. It is a lot less philosophy and a lot more structure so that we corrected represent the God we worship.
There have been good examples of this throughout history. Whether it’s the brief but precise statement on Divine Simplicity by Aquinas with its challenges to Hellenistic thought or A. H. Strong’s systematic theology that challenges Ritschl & others, a theology which entails sound reasoning and a clear application of that reasoning to the Word can develop better theology. Not perfect by any means, but better.
Other readings in philosophical theology have not been so enjoyable. Some of them have sought to impose something on Scripture which the Scripture neither teaches nor entails through historically developed theology. In other words they impose our times and ideas on those thoughts of centuries and millennia ago. Though this use of external structures is not always a problem it often is. But an extended discussion of that is better suited for another time. (I’ll make that simpler: There are too many Marxists imposing that theory improperly on Scripture.)
What Dr. Craig has done here is provided us with a proper piece of philosophical (in this case in the subset analytic) theology. He begins by spending time in exegesis as needed. After that the discussion is about the many alternatives to conclusions that might be drawn from the options available. This is the nature of analytic theology. Like its parent analytic philosophy it seeks as much precision as is possible.
If you study philosophy you should find this an interesting exercise. Dr. Craig challenges and interacts with a variety of alternatives that would explain and clarify your perceptions about reality and the question of non-physical objects.
If you are a theologian on the lighter side this well seem like an unnecessary exploration into some exotic matter that doesn’t affect life. It doesn’t affect how I treat my friends, my enemies, my family. That is true; it does not. That is not its point and purpose.
If you engage in theology with a serious intent to do theology correctly then you should find this useful. How so, you ask? The locus of this work is one particular question: Do abstract objects exist? That question represents this book’s direct theological application to divine aseity. It also carries with it the contextual question of the influence of Hellenistic theory on our theology. We do well to ask ourselves if our theology might be just a bit tainted.
If you are a historic premillennialist or dispensationalist, or an evangelistic revivalist, try giving some time to reading our amillennialist critics. They paint an interesting picture of how our theology appears to carry some of the taint of Platonism. Of course some of the criticisms go too far and treat us as Gnostics. That’s hardly precise. But if you take it with a grain of salt and look at what is being criticized – the argument has some merit.
If you have set those concerns aside and are more interested in doing a theology with more practical applications then there may be an even greater concern about Platonism in your theology. In this day and age we are also confronted with another expression of Platonism that exists as a sibling of the Platonism which Dr. Craig challenges. Specifically, the influence of Marxism as a Hellenistic/Gnostic cult theology (see John Gray, “Seven Types of Atheism”) is affecting church life. (I could imagine Dr. Craig doing an equally rich assessment of other Platonistic issues such as Marxism which might find its necessary home in academic institutions.)
In other words, in this day and age it is difficult to escape the tainting influences of a foreign philosophy. These things affect us more than we realize and we would do well to give them due attention.
The book is not a fight-style approach. Dr. Craig does not spend his time fighting opponents. Like a lot of good philosophy he spends his time interacting with the various positions and each chapter concludes with some assessment.
There is a difficulty I had with the book’s structure. It begins with a concern about a particular doctrine, that of God as self-existence. To defend this position a series of arguments and interactions ensue which would defend this doctrine. But that ends quickly. The greater part of the work is a discussion about abstract objects with the concluding remarks applying all of this to the theme set in the beginning. The work seemed to be going off on a rabbit trail, and that a long one. But he does bring it together on that last page, even as late as the last paragraph.
Here’s something that doesn’t make perfect sense to me regarding his assessment of Dr. Clouser’s view that abstract objects are both created and dependent on God’s will. (Must not creation be a product of the will of God? Is not the continuation of creation contingent on the will of God? Eccl. 3:14; Col. 1:17; Rev 21:1b) Yet he concludes his assessment of Dr. Clouser’s position as though creation is somehow separated from will. Is Dr. Craig saying that Dr. Clouser is (a) wrong or (b) inconsistent? Or, more specifically, is what we are reading here really a conflict of two differing systematics? That is, Dr. Clouser’s refomed view vs. Dr. Craig’s other view. I’m not certain if Dr. Craig is a Molinist or something else, but I’ve not gotten the impression that he falls into the reformed camp, though I could be wrong.
This can be observed when listening to arguments between Calvinists and Arminians on the subject of election. What generally happens is that they talk past each other. Each holds to his own position and is not to be dissuaded by arguments about the details. Why? Because few deal with the framework (the theological system) that defines “election” differently for each position holder. That seems to be the case here.
One might also call that a simple categorical mistake, but as someone with a software development background I like to think of it as an exception. This is not so much a problem with this work but with a number of things I have read over the years.
I’m waiting for philosophers & logicians to incorporate something resembling software-level exception handling in argument development. If such a thing exists I am unaware. The label “categorical error fallacy” gets old because it accomplishes nothing. It handles nothing. It resolves nothing. If our arguments in both theology and philosophy wish to maintain a teleology, a purpose, then our exception handling would do well to operate with the same intent.
#1 The problem of how we see God and His properties is a serious matter. It is easy to let our exploration into unknowns take us on the one hand into assuming that the revelation we have is enough, that we need not understand God further. The again, what we have can be confusing because it is incomplete. How “wholly other” is God? How do we accept the shadows and umbra of the various doctrines within various orthodox positions and yet not fall off the edge into some damnable heresy?
#2 What he notes, but doesn’t say, about van Inwagen’s position and desires is that we really don’t have the language we need for the positions that our intuition demands. Yes, we can separate ontology from absolute creationism. That seems useful. But those other shadows, what are we to do with them? How do we assess a condition when we don’t have the necessary language for doing so? Do we glom onto a form of nominalism when that’s not what we really want to do?
This has been an important matter in theology (and philosophy) over the centuries. The most notable within orthodoxy is our creedal commitment to the trinity. That one word encompasses roughly three centuries of debate of what is both taught explicitly and what has been developed from that teaching. What Athanasius developed and loaded into the one word resolved both developed theology and future understanding of orthodoxy. It seems that we are still seeking some similar conclusions in other areas.
This is clear in his concluding remarks on the subject. He generously provides some options that will help resolve some of the questions. This is not condemnation but a path to reconciling for better theology. But again there is a vagueness that begs to be resolved to a clear, precise, basic statement. Maybe later.
If you’re a philosopher this work is a useful tool even outside of the primary theological concern. You will get a good handle on the abstract objects question along with some useful points for resolving it. Likewise, if you are a heavyweight in theology this work can help you do better theology and even help you be more aware of some things which taint our understanding.