God’s Essence-Experience Binate

August 13th, 2018 / 5 Comments

Many thoughtful believers wonder how best to talk both about God’s steadfast stability and relational flexibility. Unfortunately, even some of the best thinkers end up sacrificing one to affirm the other.

Unchangingly Perfect

For much of  history, trained theologians in the Abrahamic faiths have sacrificed God’s relational flexibility in their desire to emphasize God’s stability. They typically began with the idea that a perfect being would never change. Steadfast stability meant God was unaffected, unmoved, or pure act without potentiality.

20th century theologian Carl F.H. Henry puts it this way: “God is perfect and, if imperfect, can only change for the worse.” Perhaps the most influential theologian after the second century, Augustine, spells out what this means: “There is no modification in God, because there is nothing in him that can be changed or lost…he remains absolutely unchangeable.” I’ve written other blogs showing that Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury thought similarly.

Yet central themes of scripture and the everyday experience of believers suggest creatures affect God’s life. What creatures did could make God happy or sad, hopeful or angry, jealous or proud. God may change plans based on the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of people.

Many Christians point to the clearest revelation of God — Jesus — as the best evidence that God is affected by others. And if love is inherently relational, a God of love must not be unchanging and unaffected in all respects.

Dipolar Theism

Much of the credit for finding a rational way to affirm God’s steadfast stability and relational flexibility goes to two 20th century philosophers: Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Whitehead’s way of doing this led him to talk about God’s “primordial” and “consequential” poles. This, in turn, led to what is now called “dipolar theism.” Whitehead’s actual writing about these “poles,” however, is confusing and sometimes apparently contradictory. If you don’t believe me, read the conclusion of his tome, Process and Reality!

Hartshorne modified Whitehead’s dipolar theism. Hartshorne spoke of God’s “existence” and “actuality” instead of two divine poles. The existence portion of Hartshorne’s scheme indicates the fact that God exists is steadfastly unchanging. But how God actually exists in each moment changes in relationship with creatures.

Essence-Experience Binate

I find this general way of talking about this duality in God helpful. But I’ve become dissatisfied with the label “dipolar theism.” It unfortunately leads many to think God has two natures or two parts. Both of these ideas undermine the unity of God most theologians and I think important to affirm.

I’ve come to call this way of talking about two aspects in God the “divine essence-experience binate.”

I prefer this phrase, because it identifies the two aspects of God at issue: an unchanging essence and moment-by-moment experiences. Affirming both means God can be trusted to be steadfastly stable in, for instance, God’s moral dimension. And yet God also can engage us in dynamic, flexible, give-and-receiving love.

I prefer “binate” over “dipolar,” because it avoids talking about “poles.” Other words might also work, of course. But “binate” sufficiently mentions “two-ness,” without identifying obviously what the twoness describes. I can then clarify that God’s essence is simple (unified), while God’s experience is plural in an everlasting chain of moments of the divine life.

Many Advantages

The advantages of speaking of God’s essence and experience are many. In a forthcoming article on God’s relationality, for instance, I argue that God’s essence is unmoved/impassible, while God’s experience is affected by creation/passible.

There are other advantages too. I’ve mentioned many in my books about love. I plan to explore these in future blogs.

Let me end this essay with a biblical passage I think describes God’s essence-experience binate. The writer of Lamentations says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22-23).

I interpret this verse as saying God’s love is steadfast, in the sense that God’s essence includes love as a necessary attribute. That fact will never change, and we can always count on God to love. But God’s mercies are new every morning, in the sense that God’s expresses relational giving-and-receiving love in new ways. Love is dynamic in that sense.

In sum, I recommend the idea of God’s essence-experience binate as a way to make sense of God’s stability and flexibility!

“Essence-experience binate” identifies the two aspects of God at issue: unchanging essence and moment-by-moment experiences. Click To Tweet
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Comments

Christopher Fisher

Plato originated this change = degradation. From The Republic:

Then he can hardly be compelled by external influence to take many shapes?

He cannot.

But may he not change and transform himself?

Clearly, he said, that must be the case if he is changed at all.

And will he then change himself for the better and fairer, or for the worse and more unsightly?

If he change at all he can only change for the worse, for we cannot suppose him to be deficient either in virtue or beauty.


thomasjayoord

Yes, another half-truth derived from Plato often paraded as full truth by well-meaning believers.


Phillip Michael Garner

Thomas, speaking of the essence of God is of course a matter of transcendence in relation to humanity particularly, that is if we are speaking of essence as that which constitutes the reality of God’s being as spirit. In my thought that which constitutes the essence of God is our way of speaking about that which is distinctly God separate from the creation or any other being.

In my thought the essence of God, that which constitutes God’s being, has been added to by the inclusion of Christ’s humanity. So, is this addition so inclusive, so embraced, so permeating, as to be referenced as a change in the essence of God?

First, is the irrevocable aspect of the inclusion of Christ’s humanity into the being of God. In the incarnation, God became a human being without exception. It might be suggested that only the experience of being human is gained by the incarnation. However, this does not consider the permanence of the incarnation in the resurrected Lord. I think the oracles of Psalm 110 are sufficient to aid in this brief presentation, although I’m sure we are both aware of an abundance of scripture and theological support.

The equality of the risen adonai is metaphorically presented as seated at the right hand of God. As God rested over the creation so Jesus rests over his accomplished work as Lord. I will offer a picture to aid in my thought. God as a circle, the experience of God in Jesus, particularly the inclusion of the risen but changed body, now permeates or touches every aspect of God’s being (fills the circle). If this is so, as I think it to be, then the essence of God has been added to in a way that is more than solely experiential.

It is my understanding that when God swears, God is making his oath irrevocable. The permanence of the risen Lord as priest in Ps. 110:4 makes the inclusion of the man or Lord Jesus into the essence or being of God to be unending. We can no longer speak of God without speaking of God as a human being. The identity of God is not separable from Jesus. This being said, the Father and son are one and share the same essence as Christ’s spirit.

To write about that which is transcendent (God’s essence) we are limited to faith and revelation. It is my thinking that the revelation of the work of God in Jesus Christ the Lord affirms a change in the essence of God by the inclusion of the humanity and person of Jesus. God became a distinct human being and this revelation affirms the addition of humanity into the essence or being of God as unchangeable.

I am interested in your thoughts☺


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your thoughts, Phillip. I think the incarnation of God in Jesus led to a change in God’s experience. But I don’t think God’s essence ever changes. As I see it, to change an essence is to change the very nature of a thing. So God would no longer be God if the divine essence changes. But the life, death, and resurrection brought significant changes to God’s experience.

Thanks again,

Tom


Phillip Michael Garner

I understand God’s nature to be ‘Holy’; God cannot be other than who God is. Certainly, God’s experience of humanity is an unprecedented experience in the life of God, even an adventure. I could continue my assertion but I respect your position. Wrestling to grasp transcendent realities is a limited enterprise! However – briefly, the inclusion of Jesus as a holy addition into that which constitutes God (divine essence) would not change God’s nature.

Shalom, thanks for your response.

Mike


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