Romans 11:33-36 "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen."
In my last two posts, I wrote on ways we can think about God - natural revelation (and its corresponding project of natural theology) and special revelation (with its correlate of Biblical theology). For readers desiring to revisit those posts, the links are provided here: http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2019/05/thinking-about-god-through-general.html and here: http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2019/05/thinking-about-god-through-books-of.html.
Today I aim to expound a third way of thinking about God - namely, through what is called by theologians: "Perfect Being Theology". We will first review how natural theology and Biblical theology differ and yet relate, since both ways of thinking about God can reinforce one another. Then, we will consider perfect being theology and it's role to help evaluate conclusions drawn from our efforts in Biblical theology. By the end of today's post, we aim to have a three-fold system by which we can think further about God in the scope of the Christian life.
1. General Revelation, natural theology and their interaction with Biblical theology.
First, we can contemplate God's being and some attributes through the project of natural theology. Natural theology is a man-made effort to offer a systematized set of observations of God from the theater of general revelation we see in creation, the conscience and concepts of reason outside of Divine authoritative scripture.
As we noted in the last two posts, natural theology is exercised independently of appeal to the biblical text. With that said, in order to insure our conclusions from natural theology are correct, we measure them by the more specific light of special revelation of the Bible and Perfect being theology (which I'll explain below). Explained differently, in an ultimate sense, if one has exercised natural theology with a newly transformed heart and mind devoted to Christ, there won't result a conflict between the conclusions of natural theology and those of biblical theology done from the text of the Bible.
We noted how scripture refers to God's general revelation in creation, the conscience, and thoughts in the mind. General revelation is so-called due to it's access by anyone regardless of whether they are a Believer or unbeliever. Although General revelation is not a saving revelation, yet, if someone positively responds to general revelation, they are positioned to rightly received the fuller special revelation of God in the Bible and through Jesus (consider Cornelius in Acts 10, for example).
2. Special revelation and Biblical theology can evaluate reflections about God that we gain from natural theology.
We secondly think about God by noting how he is revealed in the books of the Bible. Whenever we study about God or any other doctrine through the books of the Bible, we call such a project "Biblical theology". As we take the conclusions we draw from Biblical theology and combined them with whatever we may draw from studying other human disciplines, we call such a project "systematic theology". Systematic theology refers to a systematic approach to God's revelation of himself in the Bible, and other human disciplines such as history, science, and philosophy.
The Bible is our main source for drawing conclusions about God as related to His creative work and redemptive activities. Theologians refer to the Bible as "special revelation" because it is the specific source to which we appeal when understanding correct notions about God. God's revelation of himself through both special revelation and general revelation is without error. Any attempts that humans exercise in reflecting about God either through general revelation or special revelation can have blind-spots. Hence, the work of biblical theology and natural theology are ongoing projects requiring humility and dependence upon God.
3. Perfect being theology as a way of checking to our Biblical theological reflections on God's special revelation in the Bible.
When we consider specifically what God reveals about himself through the Bible or special revelation, what central theme or themes can we use in checking the validity of our conclusions? After all, the projects of biblical theology and systematic theology are ongoing. Both are prone to errors due to the limitations of human understanding.
There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit grants illumination to believers as they study the biblical text. Nevertheless, Christians who aim to know God experientially, practically and intellectually, need a way in which they can check their conclusions about God. Central affirmations such as: "God is one God, who is three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and these Three Persons are truly God" are gleaned from a host of Biblical texts. To evaluate the coherence of such statements to both communicate the Biblical message about God and defend such doctrines against critics, we employ what is deemed "Perfect Being Theology", as described below.
From the days of Christ, the apostles and subsequent generations of the early church fathers, there was a common way talking about God and communicating him to others. As one begins to read certain writers from the Middle Ages who stood on the shoulders of earlier Christian thinkers, as well as the Biblical text, there developed a particular method of thinking about God within the stream of Classical Christian theism called "Perfect Being Theology".
Arguably the best representative of perfect being theology is the 11th Century theologian Anselm of Canterbury. What Anselm wanted to accomplish was a way of meditating upon God that would both demonstrate his existence to non-believers and provide a central theme for thinking about him in the Christian church. In his masterpiece, "The Proslogion", Anselm develops his definition about God, which has proven quite helpful and thinking about God,
" God is a being then which no greater can be conceived".
In more recent times, theologians have restated this definition of God as follows:
" God is the greatest conceivable being".
This definition of God stirs the mind to conceive of a being with certain qualities and features that are called "great-making properties", that is, attributes related to strength, moral virtue, being, knowledge and other traits. As we extend our thoughts on these attributes to their outer-most limits, we are attempting to think of the greatest possible way such qualities are expressed above any created being. Furthermore, when we refer to God as the "Greatest Conceivable Being", we refer to him as "Perfect", that is, God cannot be improved upon nor can He diminish. What's more, such a being is described by Perfect Being Theology as necessarily or "having to" exist, since by virtue of His Divine nature, God as a Maximally Great Being must exist and thus cannot be any other way than the way He is.
When we look at all other created things, there are ways in which they could be improved upon and we know that there are ways in which they can grow worse over time. Moreover, other created things could either exist or not exist. In other words, created things are not complete in and of themselves. Created things require something else other than themselves to either complete them or to sustain their existence. Anslem's "Proslogion" uses such thoughts to develop a wonderful argument for God's existence, of which we don't have time to expound upon in this post.
God alone is the Greatest Conceivable Being. Such thoughts about God are not just abstractions of the mind, but also highly practical to everyday living. God is complete in enough himself (Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:6; Romans 11:36; Hebrews 1:8-11), which means when we think about God in this way, we can honestly say that God is sufficient for us, and that we can look to him to complete whatever is lacking in our lives.
4. How Biblical is Perfect Being Theology?
When Anselm and other thinkers drew together the threads of "Perfect Being Theology", they were doing so from considerations of the Biblical text. Theologian Paul Helm has referenced certain passages of scripture that demonstrate how this idea of God as the "Greatest Conceivable Being" is a proper reference point for thinking about God. Such passages as Genesis 22:16, 2 Samuel 7:22, Nehemiah 9:32; Jeremiah 32:18, Psalm 95:3, 96:4, 77:13; Exodus 18:14; Psalm 145:13; Titus 2:13, and Hebrews 6:13-14 are examples of how God alone is the greatest conceivable being.
Closing thoughts: So how may we use perfect being theology, Biblical theology and natural theology to practically think about God?
Dr. Brian Leftow of Oxford University, notes that to practically work through "perfect-being theology", we begin with the notion of God as the greatest conceivable being with the greatest qualitative attributes. As we begin to construct a perfect being theology we first of all ask: how do these attributes fit together? we secondly ask: what are they? thirdly, we aim to figure out how to communicate a coherent idea of God.
As we draw today's post to a close, we need to ask ourselves: why does this matter? Why have three ways of thinking about God: natural theology, biblical Theology, and perfect being theology?
First, knowing God is the main purpose of life. God has made it possible to know him in a general sense through general revelation. By engaging in the project of natural theology, we are setting ourselves up to enjoy God's revelation of himself through creation, the conscience and considerations of reason. Such a project at least helps us to enjoy what we can "know about God". This is God's world, a theater through which we can enjoy the light of his glory as revealed in the heavens above and in the mind Within each of us.
Secondly, thinking about God through the Bible gives us the specific revelation of himself as the Creator, Redeemer and Completer of all history. Biblical theology aids in helping us to "enjoy the God we can know". Seeing how God has specifically revealed himself through Jesus Christ puts us into personal contact with him. By responding through faith in his special Revelation in the Bible and Jesus, we can go from merely "knowing about God" to "knowing him".
Then finally, perfect being theology exercises the mind to think more closely about God. It is essential to humble ourselves to the fact that we can never fully comprehend God, even though we can genuinely know Him (see Jeremiah 9:23-24; James 4:8). Jesus reminds us in Matthew 22:37-39 that we are to love the Lord Our God with all our heart, soul and mind. What perfect being theology does is to provide another way of checking my conclusions about God that I draw from thinking about him in the biblical text as well as saturating my mind with more thoughts of him. In the words of one author, any effort to do theology ought to lead to doxology or "worship of God". May we take the time to think more about God in order that we may live for him by delighting in Him.