A Response to John Frame’s “Two Models of Divine Transcendence”

written by Dr. Brian Huffling

Dr. Brian Huffling

Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.

John Frame has written a blog article titled “Two Models of Divine Transcendence: Pure Being vs. Divine Lordship.” He states, “In this paper, I will discuss two ways of understanding God’s transcendence that have been common in our theological history. I will argue against the first, in favor of the second.” The first is the classical view of God as seen by thinkers such as Aquinas, who Frame uses as his example of the first view. The second position is a rejection of classical theism in favor of what he argues is a more dynamic, biblical, and relational view of God. In this article I will briefly summarize Frame’s rejection of classical theism and present his view of “Divine Lordship.” I will argue he misunderstands Aquinas, and he is actually endorsing a view of process theism and is setting up a false dilemma.

Frame’s Rejection of Classical Theism

Frame gives a summary of the history of the philosophy of being. I am not overly interested in interacting with that except insofar as it relates to classical theism and his own views. The heart of what he wants to say can be captured in this quote:

The use of Plato in Christian theology faced three major problems: (1) Plato’s forms were impersonal, and therefore were unfit to represent the God of Scripture. (2) In the systems of Plato and Plotinus, there is no clear distinction between creator and creature. The Forms of Plato and the One of Plotinus were not clearly distinct from the world of our experience. The difference between these levels of being is a difference in degree. (3) As I mentioned earlier, it is impossible, in Greek philosophy, to define or even describe being, since it cannot be intelligibly distinguished from nonbeing.

The overall point Frame wants to make, that is important here, is his assertion that in Plato’s thought “there is no clear distinction between creator and creature.” Frame argues this will influence neo-Platonic thinkers in Christianity, especially Aquinas. While Aquinas does have certain Platonic tendencies, he is primarily influenced by Aristotle, or as Aquinas calls him, “the Philosopher.”

Frame has several concerns regarding Aquinas’ view of God. Probably the most important to him is that allegedly given the commitments Aquinas and Aristotle have regarding God, God cannot be personal as the Bible portrays him. Aristotle’s God was not concerned with the world since in Aristotle’s view, God is the highest being and to be concerned with anything else would not be worth his concern. Since Aquinas is influenced by Aristotle regarding his view of God, such as God being Pure Act, Frame worries that Aquinas’ God cannot be concerned with the world either. Frame asserts,

The perfect beings of Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle were impersonal, unlike the God of Scripture. It is not clear how Aquinas establishes the personal character of the God of Scripture, since he begins his argument with the notion of a first cause, a pure being. Where does the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob enter this argument? . . . Aquinas, since as a Christian he believes the Scriptures, tries very hard to treat God as personal. But his Aristotelian argument does not lead to this Christian conclusion.

Certainly Aristotle held this about his Prime Mover. But such is not necessitated for the God of Aquinas. Indeed, Aquinas had Scripture that informed his philosophical theology. The doctrine of creation also is important since Aristotle’s Prime Mover did not create anything since matter for Aristotle was always there. Such was not the case for Aquinas. God willed the universe into being and thus cares for it and is sovereign over it. There is nothing inconsistent or incoherent in the writings or thought of Aquinas regarding God being personal. There is nothing about a God being pure existence that necessitates him not knowing or caring for his creation. Frame does not argue that such is the case, just that “his Aristotelian argument does not lead to this Christian conclusion.” But why would it? Aristotle was not a Christian. One cannot derive Christianity from Aristotelianism. However, it can be argued and demonstrated via the writings of Aquinas, that Aristotelian philosophy can enlighten Christian metaphysics and philosophical theology. Again, Frame does not make an argument that such cannot be done, rather he merely asserts it.

His next problem with Aquinas relates to the Creator/creature distinction. He writes,

Aquinas, like Plato and Aristotle, fails to make a clear distinction between creator and creature. His God, like Aristotle’s is pure being, and created beings are in some way impure. If they were not impure, they would not be creatures but would themselves be God. So evidently the pure being faces the dilemma of creating imperfect products or creating gods. It is not clear to me how Aquinas resolves this question.

This statement is difficult to understand given what Aquinas says and that most critics who are familiar with Aquinas argue that his Creator/creature distinction was too sharp. For Aquinas, God is complete perfection and unlimited being. However, to say creatures are impure is not quite accurate. Aquinas does not teach that creatures are impure. Certainly they are not like the Creator since he is uncreated, infinite, perfect being (hence the Creator/creature distinction). The only way in which one can call creatures “imperfect” is by saying that they have participated being and not being in themselves. But this does not make them impure as if there is something wrong with them. They are simply caused, finite beings and not uncaused, infinite beings. But the inability to make creatures that do not depend on him is not an imperfection in the Creator. There is no “dilemma of creating imperfect products or creating gods.” God does neither in Aquinas’ view. God creates creatures. He did not create them as imperfect or as gods. God doesn’t have to make creatures perfect. It seems that Frame thinks that the only way to be “perfect” is to be uncreated. But beings can be said to be perfect in a sense if they are metaphysically complete. If such is a dilemma for Thomas, though, it is a dilemma for Frame.

Assuming that Aquinas holds to a view of God being perfect, pure being and there is some “dilemma” in creating, then how does Frame avoid such a dilemma? The only way he would be in a different position is to deny God is perfect, pure being. In trying to answer or clarify this question, Frame opines,

To put it differently, it is theologically important to distinguish God and the world by making a clear distinction between the pure being of God and some degree of lesser being that belongs to the creation. Aquinas, like Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle, places considerable weight on the contrast between being and nonbeing. But how has Aquinas managed to do what Parmenides and the others were unable to do, to give being and nonbeing coherent definitions? A God who differs from the creation only as a higher degree of being is not clearly transcendent, certainly not transcendent in the ways presented in Scripture (emphasis added).

Frame is certainly right that we must make a distinction between God and the world that is not simply quantitative. But Frame takes away from this assertion with what he says in this very sentence. In the same sentence Frame argues we need a clear way “to distinguish God and the world,” he merely makes a quantitative distinction. He notes the “pure being of God” on the one hand and “some degree of lesser being that belongs to creation.” But a degree of difference is merely a quantitative one. Then later in this passage Frame says “A God who differs from the creation only as a higher degree of being is not clearly transcendent, certainly not transcendent in the ways presented in Scripture.” So how can there be a distinction between pure being on the one hand and “some degree of lesser being” on the other without making this distinction merely “a higher degree of being?” He can’t have it both ways. His own view fails to make a clear Creator/creature distinction.

It is important to note, however, that Aquinas does in fact make a clear and radical distinction between the pure being of God and the contingent, finite being of creatures. It seems that Frame is the one failing to make a sharp distinction. Frame seems to imply that Aquinas cannot define ‘being’. This is completely false. In fact, besides the many various other works that he penned, he has an entire book on this question titled On Being and Essence. For Aquinas being is the act of existence. It is a verb, not a noun. It is not a thing but an activity given to the creature from God. Whether one agrees with Thomas or not one hardly say he didn’t define being.

It is at this point that Frame introduces his own view called Divine Lordship

Frame’s View: Divine Lordship

Frame declares, “I propose a different way to understand God’s transcendence. It emerges out of the recovery of the Gospel by the Protestant Reformation.” Having said this he explains how Protestant soteriology is superior to Roman Catholicism. No disagreement here; however, philosophical theology and soteriology are two completely separate issues. Frame highlights the need for a personal relationship with God. Again, no disagreement. Frame goes on to explain how this personal relationship is the basis of God’s attributes:

God’s personal Lordship can be seen as a metaphysical principle. Indeed, the personal lordship model can be seen as the basis for all of God’s attributes. God is “simple,” because he thinks and acts as a whole, not as a combination of potentially conflicting thoughts, impulses, and qualities.

He is eternal, because he is Lord of time. He has created time, and he stands above it, seeing with equal vividness the past, present, and future and ruling the events in all temporal realms. Nevertheless, again because he is the creator of time, he is able to enter into it and play a role, indeed the major role, in Providence and Redemption.

He is immutable in his attributes, his promises, his sovereignty.

Similarly, God is the Lord of space, for space is his creation. He is “immense,” beyond all spatial dimensions; yet he is also omnipresent, located in all the spaces of the world he has made.

He is impassible, for as the sovereign Lord he cannot be harmed by any of his creatures; nevertheless, he understands the suffering of others as it really is, and understands it from the heart.

It seems that Frame commits several mistakes here. First, he confuses God’s sovereignty with metaphysics. God is certainly sovereign over creation, but the nature of this reality (metaphysics) does not flow from his sovereignty, he is sovereign because of the kind of being that he is and creation is dependent metaphysically because it is finite and created. One cannot simply say that God is sovereign and then deduce what reality is like. Metaphysics is an inductive science (a la Aristotle and Aquinas), not a deductive one (a la Descartes). Metaphysics is simply the study of being, not the theological view of God’s sovereignty. They are not mutually exclusive.

Second, At least some of these attributes are dependent on creation. One example is why God is said to be simple. Frame says he is simple because “he thinks and acts as a whole.” However, traditionally God has been said to be simple because of the nature of his being. According to Frame, he is simple because of how he operates, not because of how he exists. (See my article on simplicity for more information. See this article for responses to typical objections.) Another example is that God is said to be eternal, according to Frame, because he is Lord of time. But what would God be without time? Would he be temporal? Certainly the relationship between God and time is a difficult and controversial one, but it seems like a better descriptor for Frame to use for God is ‘omnitemporal’. The traditional understanding of God being eternal is for him to be atemporal, or “outside” of time. I take Frame here to believe that God is somehow temporal, but nothing that he has said negates God acting from all eternity and causing effects within time. (For more on God and time see this article.) Historically God is said to “have” these attributes because of the kind of being that he is, not because of his relation to creation.

A third problem is Frame’s radically different definitions for standard terms for God’s attributes. Traditionally ‘simple’ has meant that God has no metaphysical parts whatsoever. But Frame says God is simple because he operates as a complete whole. But this is not what simplicity says. Even deniers of simplicity believe that God thinks and acts as a whole. What would it even mean for God (or anything else) to not think or act as a whole?

Eternity, as previously mentioned has traditionally meant that God is not measured by time, not that he is somehow sovereign over it. Those who hold God is atemporal as well as those who hold that he is temporal maintain that he is sovereign over time, so his sovereignty doesn’t alone tell us if he is temporal or not.

Frame’s definition of ‘impassible’ is most bizarre. He says, “He is impassible, for as the sovereign Lord he cannot be harmed by any of his creatures; nevertheless, he understands the suffering of others as it really is, and understands it from the heart.” Traditionally ‘impassible’ has meant that God is not affected in any way, positively or negatively, by his creatures, not that he can’t be harmed by them. This is simply not what ‘impassible’ means, or has ever meant, at least not in the orthodox sense. It is also wholly obscure what it means for God to know something “from the heart.” It seems that Frame is probably just using highly anthropomorphic language here. Maybe he doesn’t really think God is affected or suffering along with this creatures, but it is not clear that he doesn’t think that. (For more on impassibility, see this article.)

Frame next states:

God is the highest being, for he is the sovereign Lord. If we seek to develop a philosophy of the universe, that is where we must start. This is a personal world, not a world made of abstract, impersonal forms of “being.” He is “above us,” transcendent, not because he has a higher degree of being, but because he is the Lord, the ruler of all.

It is somewhat difficult to follow Frame as he seems to often take away with one hand what he gives with the other. While “God is the highest being,” Frame argues that we must maintain that he is distinct from us not just quantitatively but qualitatively. So it is not clear why he keeps maintaining that God is a higher being since that seems to indicate he is only higher in degree and not kind (although it is clear Frame does not want to maintain that he is only higher in degree). But Frame also maintains that God is transcendent, and “not because he has a higher degree of being,” but because of his lordship over creation. It is not really clear to me what Frame thinks about God’s actual essence. How is God different in kind? If it is merely because he is Lord, which is what it seems like he wants to say, it doesn’t seem to necessitate God being too much greater in degree only. A human can be sovereign and lord over at least a certain realm without being greater in kind. What does Frame really think about God’s nature? It is not at all clear from this article, except that he clearly rejects classical theism.

Lastly, I think Frame again makes a false dilemma when he discusses the literal description of God with figurative language in the Bible. While the following quote is lengthy it is important to understand what Frame is saying:

Advocates of pure being theology admit that the biblical description of God and our relation to him is very different from that of Aristotle or Aquinas. James Dolezal speaks of the biblical picture as “mutabilist.” But this mutabilist language, he says, is “anthropomorphic” or “accommodation” to finite minds. What God really is, is “pure being,” as Aquinas conceived it. I grant that biblical representations of God are accommodated to finite minds, but I think that is true, not only of the “mutabilist” language, but also of passages like “For I the LORD do not change;” (Mal 3:6). We are not put in a position of having to say that metaphysical descriptions of God are literally true, while passages describing God’s interaction with history are literally false.

There is something ridiculous about saying that the predominant message of Scripture, God coming to redeem his fallen world, is somehow untrue, and that what is true is that God is pure being. As a protestant I must put redemption before philosophy.

Frame seems to simply misunderstand what Dolezal and others like him are trying to say. We are not saying that the Bible is false in using figurative language. That is a false dichotomy. I have never read anyone, including Aquinas, who thinks what the Bible says about God’s dealings with his creatures are literally false simply because the Scriptural record contains figurative language since such could allegedly not be squared with a metaphysical picture of God. A literal view of God being Pure Act and a biblical view of God being our Creator, Redeemer, etc., can both be true. Dolezal is certainly not saying that the Bible’s language about God is false simply because it’s not literal. For example, it is literally false to say God is a fortress; however, it is literally true to say that God is like a fortress in that he protects his people.

Frame next states:

Thomas Aquinas was a godly Christian man, very brilliant, who put his mind in the service of Christ. Much of the time, he referred to God in a deeply personal way. But many times he mixed the biblical teaching up with ideas of the Greek philosophers in a way that distorted the biblical Gospel, and for that he must be held accountable.

God is not the pure being of Aristotle; he is the sovereign lord of heaven and earth. The Prime Mover of Aristotle is not the God of the Bible.

With all due respect to Dr. Frame, he has misconstrued Aquinas. Not only has he gotten Aquinas wrong, Aquinas holds the exact opposite view that Frame accuses him of. It seems that Frame’s problems with Aquinas, as mentioned above, are that Aquinas allegedly did not think God is personal and that he did not hold to a clear Creator/creature distinction. It is clear from Aquinas’ writings that he holds (and not with difficulty) that God is a personal being and that God is radically distinct from his creatures.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Frame seems to misunderstand and misrepresent Aquinas. He then tries to answer issues of philosophical theology via soteriology. Such is a category mistake. Then he redefines certain classical attributes in light of his view of divine lordship in such a way to make them unrecognizable compared to their normal usage. Then he makes a false dichotomy in saying that Scripture is either literally true or literally false. Scripture can certainly say something about God that is true via figurative language. It is not an either/or.

There are only two views of God: the classical view that is consistent with Thomas Aquinas’ notion of God being pure existence, and process theology. God is either simple, eternal, immutable, and impassible, or he is not. The former is a list of attributes held by classical theists. To deny them is to maintain that God has parts, is in time, changeable, and is affected by his creatures. In other words, he is in a state of change. Another word for ‘change’ is ‘process’. It is impossible to maintain that God is in a state of change and not maintain that he is in a process. Since Frame apparently holds that God changes, Frame holds that God is in a state of process. Hence, Frame’s position is at least a weak, implicit form of process theology.

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