Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is God a being or a person ???

Summer is finally over, and with its end, so too the numerous outdoor projects and frequent guests—I am officially back to beachbum status !!! [GRIN]

Earlier today, while reading through some apologetic sites known for their frequent anti-Catholic posts, I discovered that TurretinFan (hereafter, TF) had posted the exact same thread (What About King Saul?) on James White’s AOMIN blog (MY REBUTTAL HERE).

This “discovery” enticed me to check and see if any other anti-Catholic mischief has been transpiring over the last few weeks on the AOMIN blog. By clicking on the Roman Catholicism Category, one finds no less than 10 anti-Catholics posts between 08/30/09 – 09/23/09. I then looked over recent The Dividing Line programs introductions; in addition to the ongoing diatribe concerning Francis Beckwith, I found this: In the first half I discussed the debate between TurretinFan and William Albrecht on the topic of the propriety of the use of the phrase "Mother of God" with reference to Mary (LINK). I had not heard/seen anything on this debate, and needed to do a bit of research to find the full debate (James has a tendency not to provide pertinent links). The entire debate in MP3 format can be accessed HERE; and installments of the debate are found at YouTube, beginning with PART 1.

During TF’s first cross-examination (MP3 - 9:40ff.), he asks William the following questions:

What is God? Is God a being or a person?
William answered those questions with: God is three persons in the Trinity.
TF then asked: You don’t understand the distinction between a being and a person?

Part of William’s response included: …I just don’t understand what you are trying to get to with that type of question.

Indeed William, indeed! TF’s questions are, without any doubt in my mind, ill-conceived, misleading, and above all, imprecise. The terms “being” and “person” each have many meanings (whether one is thinking strictly of the English usage, or the Greek and Latin equivalents), and in any theological discourse, one must carefully, and precisely, define them. For instance, one of the definitions of the English term “being” is “a person”; and to complicate matters even further, some Reformed theologians (TF claims to be “Reformed”) clearly state that God is both a “being” and a “person” (e.g. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction To Systematic Theology, 1974, pp. 229, 230; Ralph Smith, Paradox and Truth, 2002; Lane Tipton, “The Function of Perichoresis and the Divine Incomprehensibility”, The Westminster Theological Journal, 64.2 – 2002, pp. 289-306.)

Now, interestingly enough, James White, in The Dividing Line program linked to above, comments on TF’s question/s to William:

…he [William Albrecht] is asked a very simple question, a very simple question that would require him to understand and to know a simple, orthodox, definition of the doctrine of the Trinity; specifically that with the one being that is God there exists three co-equal and co-eternal persons—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now this is, this is, orthodox Roman Catholicism. But as you will see, Mr. Albrecht knows much about Mary, but knows very little about the Trinity; because he doesn’t understand what the doctrine of the Trinity is, and he doesn’t understand the orthodox use of the term being, in regards to the being of God which is shared fully and completely by three divine persons. (7:22ff.)

And a bit later:

There is absolutely no reason for this confusion, if you have even the most basic understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity: there is one, true and eternal being, of God—the ‘what’ of God, that which makes God God—shared by three co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s not difficult, it’s not hard…

Sorry James, the doctrine of the Trinity is complex; hundreds of books have been written on the doctrine, and many more will be written. Add to this the fact that TF does not define the term “being”, one can certainly understand why William dealt with TF’s questions in the manner that he did so.

Now, let’s move on to James’ definition of “being”: there is one, true and eternal being, of God—the ‘what’ of God, that which makes God God—shared by three co-equal and co-eternal persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Is this definition as clear as James seems to think that it is? James is equating “being” with the essence/nature/substance of God—i.e. God’s ousia. Take note of this usage when applied to Christology: Jesus Christ possesses two “beings” (i.e. essences/natures/substances), one that is fully divine, and the other that is fully human. Sounds silly doesn’t it. I think one can readily discern that the term “being” can be confusing; that is, unless one, as said earlier, carefully, and precisely, defines it.

I am ultimately left wondering if James is truly aware how the term “being” has been used in Catholic thought? One articulate Reformed theologian sheds some important light on this issue:

Being is used in two senses in scholastic philosophy. First, there is the abstract property that applies to absolutely everything, “being in general.” Aquinas denies that God is being in this sense, for being in general includes the being of accidents, for example, a kind of being that is certainly not divine. Furthermore, Aquinas has a deep desire to maintain the Creator-creature distinction. To say that God is being in general would imply pantheism, the identity of God with the world.

For Aquinas, God is Being in a second, more profound sense: that of esse, sometimes translated existence. The distinction between essence and existence is basically between “what” and “that.” The essence of anything is what it is; to say that it exists is to say that there is a being with such an essence.
(John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, p. 221 - italics in the original.)

Yes James, “There is absolutely no reason for this confusion”; “It’s not difficult, it’s not hard…” Right…

Grace and peace,


UPDATE (09-25-09): Just moments ago, I discovered that William has uploaded a short rebuttal to some of James White’s criticisms concerning the “Mother of God” debate: LINK.

ANOTHER UPDATE (11-19-10):

Van Til's controversial comments on the doctrine of the Trinity have once again created some theological conflict within the Reformed community. Note the following two posts (linked to below), by Colin Smith:

Van Til and the Trinity: God as a Person

Van Til and the Trinity: A Quick Response to PuritanReformed


Randy said...

James White seems confused. It he thinks the Catholic in the debate is incompetent then it would reflect badly on any points TF made. They would be suspect because they were scored against weak opponents. Like Michigan scoring against EMU.

So he is trying to argue his corner but he loses track. He cannot resist a cheap shot even when it undermines his guy.

Alex said...

I notice that this seems to happen a lot in that crowd. They seem to dismiss important philosophical and metaphysical distinctions in favor of making cheap comments in order to rally the fans. Good job David.

David Waltz said...

Hi Randy,

Good points, I would like to add one more—James’ abrasive assessment of William is based on very selective comments; personally, if I am going to critic someone’s position/knowledge on a topic as complex as the doctrine of the Trinity, I would require much more information on what that person actually believes.

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

Hello Alex,

Thanks much for you kind comments. Hope to ‘see’ your continued participation here at AF.

Grace and peace,