In Our Idea of God, Thomas V. Morris explores how we might think about understanding the idea and person of God without the Bible. He is not excluding the Bible, nor limiting himself to natural theology, but he is asking us to consider starting points other than supposed divine revelation. After reviewing the shortcomings of starting with universal revelational theology (surveying all the existing views of God among religions and starting with a least common denominator), and biblical theology (which would not only lead to a circular argument when we agree with the Bible, it would limit us in the questions we would want to ask philosophically), he arrives at the powerful and comprehensive models of creation theology (not creationism, but the attributes of a creator) and perfect being theology, the latter introduced by Anselm. Morris names this duo a comprehensive explanatory theology, and goes on through the rest of the book to demonstrate and explain how this combination is as comprehensive as we might imagine.
The duo of a perfect being and creator is restated using a number of synonymous rubrics. The perfect-being/creator combo may also be understood as covering the intrinsic/extrinsic qualities of God, that is, his internal qualities vs. his external ones. Another way to state this is explaining who God is and what he does. These two “loci of greatness” are also described as God’s value/causation, or God’s goodness/power. I list all of these because, as a criticism, I had to piece all of these synonymous pairs together during the reading. It was not clear as I proceeded that the author was repeating himself under a different rubric each time, and I would have appreciated an initial summary of these. However, he did summarize these succinctly afterwards:
There is something intellectually satisfying about this. For perfect being theology focuses on the intrinsic properties of God, whereas creation theology emphasizes the actual and potential relations holding between God and all else possible (Morris, 1997, p. 45)
In exploring the goodness of God, Morris is doing a deep dive into Anselm’s perfect-being theology, also known as the Ontological Argument for the existence of God. He explores the definition of, justification for, and reasoning behind this argument for a “maximally great being,” covering not only the necessary qualities involved (omni-science, -benevolence, and -potence), but the reason these qualities are necessary, and why such a being must exist necessarily rather than contingently. Problems with these assumptions, such as the idea that God does not have free will if he cannot choose evil, and so is not really meritoriously good, are answered (God has the ability to choose freely, but not the defect of will that we have that he would make such a choice – additionally, God is good in that he chooses to show mercy even though justice does not obligate him to). Arguing that God actually could choose evil allows Morris to evade the criticism of humorist Mark Twain’s jab at the inferiority of doing good when not having the ability to do evil, explaining that God actually falls into the latter category, not the former category:
George Washington could not tell a lie; I can tell a lie but won’t (1997, p. 63)
As an aside, when I first encountered the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, I was not impressed with it. Not only is it esoteric and hard to understand, it seems non-intuitive, and is often explained in technical philosophical terms which, even when reduced down, are inaccessible to the everyday man. This deeper dive shows how robust and complex and justified such an argument really is, though it does not make it any more accessible. The way I now try to explain it is “If it is possible that an omni-God exists, he must exist necessarily in at least one world, but if he exists there, optimal greatness requires that he exists in all possible worlds.”
Of course, God’s omni-benevolence is only one of three perfect-being attributes, and Morris goes on to cover objections to and complications with assuming the omniscience of God, and later his omnipotence, which is also a feature of the creator theology. In discussing the possible meanings and functions of omniscience, Morris gives a nice overview of the various views of what God knows and when he knows it, and how that impacts the supposed libertarian free will (and so culpability) of mankind. He including the following views:
- Compatibilism (Reformed View): “whether I have power, or ability, or opportunity to deviate from the path God believes I shall take is irrelevant to the question of whether I am free in what I do” (1997, p. 93). This non-explanation of how God’s providence is compatible with free will is why there are other views, and quite honestly, what drove me to Molinism (below).
- Ockhamism: In this view, I have the ability to choose otherwise, but am unwilling to. This view does not depend on God’s foreknowledge, and in fact, is faulty in that it can violate God’s foreknowledge if I choose otherwise, and force us into a time-paradox loop where God must go back and change his beliefs, or what he “saw” I was going to do.
- Molinism: Morris seems to favor this view, praising it’s explanatory power at a few points in the book. Here, God’s foreknowledge and providence are preserved, but also, so is our libertarian free will. Essentially, God controls (by what mechanism I am still not sure) our circumstances, and within those, knows what we will freely choose. Unlike Ockhamism, there is no danger of me freely choosing otherwise, since God is in control of the circumstances, whereas under Ockhamism, God has no control other than what he has seen about our future decisions. The mediating feature between these two seems the existence of God’s middle knowledge, or knowledge of the counterfactuals of freedom. But I’m not sure how these features, absent from Ockhamism, actually resolve the problem of free will and God’s foreknowledge in that view.
- Presentism: I am unsure of how this differs from or is part of open theism, but essentially, God has no knowledge of your choices, but learns of them in real time as we decide. Of course, this seems incompatible with God’s omniscience and his providential control over history. It also seems to invalidate the future-telling of prophetic passages.
I found these categories to be helpful, and his enthusiasm for Molinism encouraged me that I have made a good choice for resolving the issues I see with Calvinistic compatibilism and Arminianism.
The chapter on the eternity, or timelessness of God was a fascinating introduction to the theological and logical implications of explaining how God could be eternal. The two views presented, the temporal and atemporal views are a little tough to understand on first blush. My redux is that the temporal view is that time has always existed, and God has existed eternally in the past. The main issue with this view, in my opinion, is that it involves an infinite temporal regression, which may be impossible or at least illogical. In the atemporal view, before creation, there was literally no passage of time, so God’s eternity is not about time per se, but about his ubiquity across reality in general. God interacts with us in the timeline, from start to possible end (if time is no more after the parusia), and God is outside of the timeline, seeing it all at once. I was displeased that Morris did not discuss the A and B theories of time, and how they connect to these views, and how that might impact their logical status. However, he did review many of the arguments with regard to this position, many of them deeply esoteric and philosophically interesting.
In his discussion of the creator theology, he performed his obligation to discuss Leibniz well, but I thought his answer to the best of all world’s argument of Leibniz was insufficient, though the idea that there may be more than one possible best world was interesting, if not self-defeating. His acceptance of the “more is better” argument against Leibniz seemed oblivious to the defeater of the law of diminishing returns, which seems an obvious rejoinder.
His discussion of the deity of Christ and the Trinity were surprisingly interesting with his rejection of Kenosis (which I favor) and his introduction of a multi-mind theory. He seems to base this argument not so much on scripture but on our experience of self and mind. I find this model possible but a bit strained, especially the suggestion that Jesus had access to the omniscient mind but rarely accessed it. All of these machinations seem aimed at the objection to Kenosis that Jesus could not be divine if he temporarily set aside his omni qualities while on earth – in fact, it is typically argued that he never set aside his powers, but merely came in the “form” of a servant, and set aside his privileges but not his power (What Is the Kenosis?, n.d.). I think we need to rethink what it means to be divine when incarnated – certainly Jesus was not omnipresent, though some argue that he could disappear and appear anywhere he liked (though scripturally, only after his resurrection).
Morris’ introduction to philosophical theology is short, but packed with the many rubrics and arguments that surround our thinking about God. It is a fairly comprehensive and accessible book, but not an easy read by any stretch. His frequent use of syllogisms helps the reader to follow his logic, but in a few cases, I found his challenges to differing views insufficiently explained and unconvincing. But a great read overall.
Morris, T. V. (1997). Our Idea of God. Regent College Publishing.
What is the kenosis? (n.d.). GotQuestions.Org. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.gotquestions.org/kenosis.html