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Monday, November 26th 2012


An Imperfect God?


A friend on FB pointed out an article on the on-line opinion pages of the New York Times, entitled "An Imperfect God" and invited my opinion. I think the issue is serious enough to warrant writing a short essay on the topic. It should also, at least in part, answer some similar questions that others have been asking.

The article in question was written by Yoram Hazony, who is president of the Shalem Center for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem. In case you're wondering about his credentials, he has a B.A. from Princeton University in East Asian Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Rutgers. So, he should be well prepared for his recent book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, as well as the article under consideration, "An Imperfect God." Or, maybe he should have done well to study theology for a while. It is the permanent affliction of our field that anyone feels that they are entitled to an opinion on the most complex questions, and frequently the more eccentric their opinions are, the more attention they are going to attract. At that, Hazony's views are certainly not orthodox, but are not bizarre either.

Before addressing Hazony's thoughts, I must point out that the cartoon added by the NYT staff showing God slipping on a banana peel does not really fit in with the article and is just a typical example of the offensiveness to which media tend to give themselves license.

Hazony's main point is simply this: Theologians and lay people have frequently thought of God as "perfect." Both for the sake of biblical accuracy and in order to maintain a plausible view of God, we should back away from such a description and settle for the reality of an "imperfect" God.

By a "perfect God" Hazony means the classical description of God among whose properties are that he is "all-powerful, all-knowing, immutable, perfectly good, perfectly simple, and necessarily existent (among others)." His objection comes in two parts: First, he claims that the idea of such a being is incoherent. Second, he believes it does not fit in with the description of God in the Bible.

1. In what ways is the classical conception of God supposedly incoherent? Hazony points to two issues: the problem of evil and the immutability of God. Concerning the former, he declares that "it is unlikely" that God would be both pefectly powerful and perfectly good in light of all of the present evil in the world. Now, obviously, Hazony was writing under constraints of length, but what I fear is that he did not go further with this problem, not because he did not have the space, but because he is unaware of the long discussions of potential answers on the record. In any event, his declaration of what is unlikely is far from having demonstrated an inconsistency, let alone a contradiction.

When it comes to the immutability of God, he is utterly confused. He states: "Similarly, it’s hard to see how God can wield his infinite power to instigate alteration and change in all things if he is flat-out immutable."

Now, hold on! Do we say that God is immutable or that his creation is immutable? The common view is the former. Hazony refers to the latter idea, which is absurd. The fact that God can bring about changes in the world he created does not affect his immutability.

Actuality Animation 

Nevertheless, I will concede that many contemporary theists have a problem here. The nature of the problem is derived from the fact that (and here comes my current litany) many of us insist on expressing opinions on metaphysics without actually engaging in metaphysics. In the classical scheme, God is perfect because he is pure actuality without any contingent properties. That means that he has no potentiality that can (or needs to be) actualized by any external entity. But there is nothing in the concept of a being who is "Pure Act" that prohibits him from acting. It is he who actualizes the potential of his creatures, which means he is an acting God. Unfortunately, this Aristotelian/Thomistic idea has been completely misunderstood and distorted because people just don't bother with the complexities of metaphysics. As a consequence they wind up saying things that are truly incoherent. So, the late Clark Pinnock wrote his book on The Most Moved Mover, trying to emphasize God's actions. But that's getting things backwards. The more actuality a being has, the more it has the ability (which is not the same as potentiality) to act. A "most-moved" being would be an entity that is as close to pure potentiality as something could be, which implies that it could only be acted upon, but not act on its own initiative. God's immutability means that God is unchangeable in his nature and attributes, not that God cannot act. It means that God is the greatest "actor" of them all.

Hazony promises: "And there are more such contradictions where these came from." Well, he hasn't really shown any contradictions yet.

2. In what ways does the idea of a perfect God not fit in with the Bible? Hazony states with regard to the notion of God being perfect, "it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or 'Old Testament') thought of God in this way at all." Let me begin a response by making a comment that should seem fatuous at first. Of course, they didn't, they thought and wrote in Hebrew. But that observation makes a lot of difference, not just because of the obvious difference in languages, but, more importantly, because there are also cultural and conceptual differences. Whoever would expect the Hebrew prophets to express themselves in Greek philosophical categories? Hazony points out a genuine difference in how, say, David would have expressed himself compared to, say, Thomas Aquinas, but he ignores the fact that likely both of them are expressing a similar idea with different words and concepts.[1] There are various ways of saying that God is omniscient. One is the poetic way illustrated by Psalm 139 on the right; the other is to state the concept as a metaphysical attribute. Both get to the same idea: There is nothing that is unknown to God.

PSALM 139:1-18 (HCSB)
Lord, You have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I stand up;
You understand my thoughts from far away.
3 You observe my travels and my rest;
You are aware of all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue,
You know all about it, Lord.
5 You have encircled me;
You have placed Your hand on me.
6 This extraordinary knowledge is beyond me.
It is lofty; I am unable to reach it.
7 Where can I go to escape Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
8 If I go up to heaven, You are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
9 If I live at the eastern horizon
or settle at the western limits,
10 even there Your hand will lead me;
Your right hand will hold on to me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me,
and the light around me will be night”—
12 even the darkness is not dark to You.
The night shines like the day;
darkness and light are alike to You.
13 For it was You who created my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You
because I have been remarkably and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful,
and I know this very well.
15 My bones were not hidden from You
when I was made in secret,
when I was formed in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw me when I was formless;
all my days were written in Your book and planned
before a single one of them began.
17 God, how difficult Your thoughts are
for me to comprehend;
how vast their sum is!
18 If I counted them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand;
when I wake up, I am still with You.

Hazony takes another stab at philosophy by, once more, attempting to show that the notion of a perfect being is incoherent. He raises the example of "a perfect bottle" and discusses the qualities that make a bottle good. It's a trade-off of the various properties of the bottle. For example, it has to be of a sufficient size for its content, but not too large to pour from it. The key is balance, not size. Hazony concludes, "You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously." The Hebrew writers apparently understood this concept, and--according to Hazony--refrained from referring to God as "perfect" for this reason.

I would like to suggest that there is a fundamental distinction between God and a bottle, and again, I don't mean to sound facetious saying so. A bottle is a material object. We don't elevate the standing of a bottle simply by increasing its properties. The idea of a "perfect bottle" makes little sense; if we wanted to compare it to God, it would have to be an "infinite bottle," and I, for one, would have no idea what such a thing could be. When we refer to God as "perfect" and "infinite," as well as to all of his superlative attributes (e.g. omnipresence or immutability), we are not referring to properties that are intrinsic to material things. Hazony's argument here is simply misplaced because, presumably, he never read the chapter on divine attributes in a theology text book.

I can't go into all of his little sentence-length examples, but I'll take a stab at one or two. For example, what about all the times in the Bible when God changed his mind? Well, do they really portray God as changing? That would be hard to maintain in the light of everything else he declares about himself. The most classic instance may be the passage in 1 Samuel 15, where God declared that the he regretted having made Saul king (v. 11), though not too long thereafter Samuel stated that "the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind.” (v. 29 HCSB) So, what does one make of such an apparent confusion?

If we start with the second statement, there is no problem accommodating the first one. We begin with the fact that God is constant in his nature and purpose. So, as he was guiding Israel through her history, he acted and interacted with Saul and other human beings as they were obeying and disobeying him. He had chosen Saul to be king; Saul had had his chance to live up to God's standards and failed; God moved on, never changing in himself or in his plan.

Then, there is the matter of the name of God. I'm going to have to leave that one for the experts on Hebrew, but I would be truly surprised if it had been misunderstood, mistranslated or misinterpreted all of this time. As I understand it, the meaning includes both present and future connotation: "I Am Who I Shall Be," or something to that effect. The important point is that it has usually been understood to imply God's constancy; not the potential for capricious change.

There is an underlying assumption behind Hazony's article: Our conception of God mirrors (or should mirror) the reality we experience. That's pretty depressing. The only kind of God who can provide hope for us is one whose nature is not restrained by the limitations imposed on this world. And that's the kind of God we call "perfect."


[1] There is yet another serious problem here. As Christians we do not rely merely on the Hebrew Scriptures and shouldn't have to. A rabbi in Fort Wayne once told my class there: "I realize that many of you are shortly going to be teaching your religion. What scares me is that you will also teach mine." Mr. Hazony needs to be aware of the fact that he is actually in no position to criticize the Christian view of God if he ignores the New Testament.

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