The God of classical theism – the so-called ‘God of the philosophers’ – is immutable, eternal, and simple. That is, God does not change, is not temporal, and is not a composite being.
The God of the Bible, in (apparent) contrast, is responsive, present, and relational. For example, the God we see in the Book of Jonah is, we might say, a very human kind of God.
How can God be both the transcendent, unknowable Creator of everything, and simultaneously a real actor within the processes of history? How could anyone think that the God of the philosophers and the God of the Bible are one and the same God?
That the God of the Bible is the God of the philosophers is the claim that distinguished philosophy professor Eleonore Stump seeks to defend in her 2016 lecture (and book), The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers. (Scroll down for the video.)
To begin, she notes that two of the principal proponents classical theism, Augustine and Aquinas, apparently had no problem holding the two together. Both wrote commentaries on the biblical text, in which God speaks personally to human beings, answers their prayers, and seems to change his plans in response to human actions. But both also spoke at length about God’s immutability, eternity, and simplicity. And neither was stupid! How can we make sense of this?
The answer Professor Stump puts forward is that the apparent contradiction is based on a misinterpretation of classical theism (26:05).
What about God’s eternity? How could God respond to human beings if he exists outside of time?
Eternity is not merely timelessness. The relationship between time and eternity is something like the relationship between Flatland and the three-dimensional world. To an observer in the three-dimensional world, all of flatland can be ‘here’ at once. But this is not the case for an inhabitant of Flatland. ‘God’s eternity therefore does not rule out God’s having effects in time, or God’s responding to things that temporal human beings do’ (34:50).
Then what about God’s immutability? If God cannot change, then how can he respond to human beings?
God cannot act after something in time, because there is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ for God. But God can act because of something in time. ‘So, for example, in one and the same eternal “now”, God can will to introduce into time T1 an announcement to Nineveh of the destruction of their city, and then also will to introduce into time T2 a retraction of the destruction of Nineveh, because the people repent between T1 and T2’ (36:20). This involves no change on the part of God.
Then what about God’s simplicity? If God is simple, then how can there be any room for manoeuvre in God’s actions? Doesn’t divine simplicity mean that everything about God is essential to who God is? How, then, could God respond to human beings?
For Aquinas, God is both being itself, and also a being. At the heart of all things is being itself, but this being is something concrete and particular, with freedom to act in particular ways. Understanding divine simplicity in this way, we can affirm that God can do other than he does. God does not act out of necessity. God can genuinely respond to human beings.
In conclusion, classical theism, rightly understood, does not say that God is entirely unlike human beings. Human beings are made in God’s image, and that implies some kind of similarity between human beings and God. The God we see in the Bible is entirely consistent with the God described for us in classical theism.
I find this very helpful. If Eleonore Stump is right (and I suspect she is), it means that – contrary to open theism and process theology – we don’t need to sacrifice God’s transcendence in order to continue to believe that God is genuinely responsive to human activity. God is entirely different from his creation, but God is not distant from his creation. The transcendent, eternal God is intimately and genuinely involved in everything that happens within the world.