Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dedramatising omnipresence?

Earlier this week, I was preparing for a Bible study on Psalm 139. I reflected on God's inescapable presence in vs. 7-10:
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
In Leopold, the commentator's opinion, “Never has the pen of man more effectively described the omnipresence of God”. I don't think that many people would argue with that assessment. Our imaginations soar to the heights and plunge to the depths with the psalmist. We find that there is nowhere we can go in all the heights, depths and darkness of creation that is beyond God. The grand and moving poetry of these verses leads us to this assurance: Wherever we are, God is holding us in his hand.
I thought that I would take a peek at what good old Louis Berkhof had to say about God's omnipresence. First, he categorises this as an "incommunicable attribute". Next he places God's immensity under the sub-heading of "The infinity of God". After categorisation, we come to definition:
That perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole Being.
After some discussion of the relationship between the transcendence and imminence of God in relation to creation, a string of proof texts is given, including Psalm 139:7-10. There are a number of problems with this approach to theology.
1) The classification of attributes.
Is not Berkhof's approach too scholastic? Should we be classifying God's attributes in this way? The distinction between the so-called incommunicable attributes and the communicable is especially problematic. God's mercy is supposed to be a communicable attribute, because it is found in human beings. But his omnipresence is apparently incommunicable, because we are space-bound creatures. But as Donald Macleod points out, if God's mercy is 'infinite, eternal and unchangeable' - this makes mercy an incommunicable attribute. If we remove the omni from omnipresence, then we have "presence" - God is present, we are present. The "incommunibility"of the attribute cannot really be sustained. (Behold your God, Donald Macleod Christian Focus, 1995, p. 239). To his credit, Reymond takes on board Macleod's strictures in his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. This Bible does not resort to the scholastic classification of God's attributes. God is revealed in all the wonderful richness of his Being that we might adore and trust him. I am not saying that Theology must only use the language of Scripture and that technical terms are out of place. But what have "incommunicable attributes" to do with the God who holds us in his hand?
2) Detramatised propositions
Look again at Berkhof's definition of God's omnipresence and then glance at Psalm 139. Maybe the comparison is unfair as we are contrasting prose with poetry. But does any of the meaning and purpose of the Psalm flow into the theologian's definition? All we have is what Kevin Vanhoozer would call a "dedramatised proposition" - a proposition that has been divorced from the drama of Biblical revelation. Theology should not be reduced to "dedramatised propositions" (p. 269). Such a method is reductionistic, failing to recognise that God has spoken in various ways by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). "God communicates to his people, both directly and indirectly, in and through Scripture, but it need not follow from this that communication consists of revealed propositions only." (p. 278). Postconservative theology takes into account the rich unity in diversity of God's communicative action in Scripture. This in no way implies that Biblical propositions are redundant. But propositions should not be privileged over other forms of communication in Scripture. "A 'biblical' theology, therefore, involves more than summarising the propositional content of the Scriptures. It involves acquiring cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts." (p. 285.) A theological discussion of God's omnipresence, then should enable us to see, feel and taste the world of Psalm 139. (Page refs to The Drama of Doctrine see here for review posts).
3) The Psalms are fulfilled in Christ
The omnipresent God of this Psalm is revealed most fully in Christ. God's omnipresence is his Christ-shaped presence. As Man, Christ was subject to the limitations of time and space. He had to walk from Judea to Galilee via Samaria (John 4:1ff). But, he could also heal a nobleman's son from a distance (John 4:46-54). Space was no barrier to the healing power of the Word made flesh. Christ, who departed from his Church at the ascension, nevertheless promised, "Behold! I am with you, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20). He is with us and in us by his Spirit, the other "Helper" who acts as and for Christ in his people. With the Father, Christ makes his home in the life of believers everywhere (John 14:23). This brings a whole new Trinitarian dimension to the omnipresence of God expressed in Psalm 139. He who holds us in his hand also makes us his home.
4) Conclusion
The task of theology is to describe God's omnipresence in a way that captures something of the Bible's wonderful revelation of our ever accessible and always inescapable Triune Lord. We must resist the temptation to dedramatise reductionistically. An account of God's immensity must include the ringing affirmation, "Lo! I am with you always" and lead to us saying, "How precious are your thoughts to me O God!" (Psalm 139:17)


John said...

Sometimes Donald McLeod is so sharp he could cut himself. What else was Berkhof to do? He was writing an introduction to Systematic Theology and, sure his great hero, Bavinck says (Reformed Dogmatics II. p.96f.), '[E]ach of [God's] attributes can be said, in different senses, to be both incommunicable and communicable.' but he goes on to say, 'Reformed theology uses the terms "incommunicable" and "communicable" here to underscore the strong opposition of Christian theism to the error both of pantheism and of deism.' so, Scholastic distinction or not, it would have been a very strange Reformed introduction to Systematic Theology that did not divide the attributes of God into incommunicable and communicable, don't you think?

Guy Davies said...

I don't know, John. Maybe Berkhof could have abandoned the traditional classification of attributes as Macleod suggests. It is hardly of the essence of Reformed Theology is it? You don't find that kind of scholasticism in Calvin.

John said...

Berkhof abandon traditional classification? In a textbook? I don't think so.

On Calvin on Scholasticism, hear David C. Steinmetz: ['The Scholastic Calvin' in Trueman & Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism p. 30] 'Calvin despised it, respected it, borrowed from it, misrepresented it and emulated it. Indeed, his own bipolar theological programme of theology and exegesis bore a striking resemblance to the bipolar programme of the scholastic theologians. … Calvin's reconception of theology as school theology for the church represents a democratization and expansion of the scholastic ideal.'

The thing is that apparently you do find precisely that kind of scholasticism in Calvin.

Guy Davies said...

Calvin's doctrine of God is especially post-scholastic. He does not approach the Trinity via a discussion of the existence, being and attributes of God. For JC, the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God. He dismisses scholastic speculation regarding the eternal generation of the Son as an "absurd fiction".

Maybe Calvin didn't throw off all vestiges of scholasticism. But that doesn't mean that later Reformed Theology was right to put the old vestiges back on.

John said...

Calvin's relationship to scholasticism was complex. With the onset of humanism, scholasticism was no longer the only game in town but we do get it wrong when we think that the protestant scholastics had anywhere else to go.

What exactly are we talking about when we are talking about 'vestiges' of scholasticism? I guess that the classic example used is to compare Calvin's and Turretine's Institutes to show the decline back into scholasticism. The mistake is to assume that the 'Institutes' word means that the two books are trying to do the same thing. Wrong! Many a false trail has been followed because we don't bother to read and compare prefaces; the two books are setting out to do two different things and reading Turretine as a fall from anti-scholasticism is a 'category error.'

I know your time for all this has got to be limited but you could do worse than to read Trueman & Clark or, alternatively, van Asselt & Dekker eds. Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise.

Guy Davies said...

I'll try to get hold of the book you suggest sometime. But it is not just Berkhof's scholasticism that is the problem.