Saturday, 27 September 2008

The aseity of God

For some unknown reason it decided to snow today, and so, surprisingly having both sermons for tomorrow (kind of) finished, I decided to light the fire, get a cup of tea, and sit down with some theology. A few weeks ago I was kindly given a book of essays entitled Engaging the Doctrine of God - Contemporary Protestant Perspectives. It was time to have a crack at Webster on the aseity of God.

Aseity is a term which refers to the self-existence of God - God is not contingent on anyone or anything else for his existence. I won't provide you with a detailed walk-through of Webster's argument (mainly because it would require more Latin than I can be bothered putting in italics), but rather paint the general vista. It's still hard work, so get ready!

Asiety, notes Webster, has in recent times been thought of largely as the reverse concept of contingency. We require God in order to exist, but God is the opposite - he requires nothing. Problematically, this methodology not only removes the doxological aspect of this doctrine, it also grounds it cosmologically rather than personally (that is, it becomes a property of a god rather than the God).
Aseity becomes detached from the theological metaphysics of God's immanent and economic love and is reduced to the bare self-positing cause of created reality.(113)

The corrective is to think of aseity trinitarianly, and both immanently (God as he is in and of hismelf) and economically (God as he is towards us). Thus God is, says Webster, 'from himself, and from himself God gives himself'. This is a classic Websterian statement, similar to his articulation of the Trinity in reference to ecclesiology (see Webster's essays in The Community and the Word). Webster then takes these two features (God is from himself, and, from himself God gives himself) and addresses each in turn.

A long quote will suffice to express Webster's first point:

Expressed as relations, God's life a se [from/in himself] includes the Son's relation to the Father as the one whom the Father begets (passive generation) and the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son (passive spiration). By these activities and relations, each of the persons of the Trinity is identified, that is, picked out as having a distinct, incommunicable personal property: paternity [the Father], filiation [the Son], spiration [the Spirit]. Together these acts and relations are God's self-existence. Aseity is not merely the quality of being (in contrast to contingent reality) underived; it is the eternal lively plenitude of the Father who begets, the Son who is begotten, and the Spirit who proceeds from both. To speak of God's aseity is thus to speak of the spontaneous, eternal, and unmoved movement of his being-in-relation as Father, Son, and Spirit. This movement, without cause of condition and depending on nothing other than itself, is God's being from himself. In this perfect circle of paternity, filiation, and spiration, God is who he is. (115)
Webster goes on to examine the classical doctrine - that while all three persons are a se in essence, only the person of the Father is a se of himself - the aseity of the Son and the Spirit are from their relation to the Father. Whilst such a move dances with subordinationism, (suggesting that the Son and the Spirit are somehow less-god than the Father) , and has at times resulted in a retreat into monism, Webster articulates why this is not necessarily the case.
[Begotteness is not] a "coming-to-being" as the Father's creature, but a relation which is constitutive of the divine essence and of the identity of the Father as well as of the Son.' (116)

Because the relations between the persons are constitutive of God's being in himself, and because they are eternal, we can speak properly of the Father's alone being a se (in his person). The reason for this is because to do so is not to 'promote' the Father or 'demote' the Son, for the Father cannot be Father without the Son, and the Son cannot be Son without the Father. There is a mutually constitutive relationship (with, of course, the Spirit), which allows us to speak so. But sharp lines cannot be drawn. Here, it feels, we toy with the edges of mystery - for God's one-in-threeness and three-in-oneness are both required to be thought of simultaneously for us to seek to grasp God's being.

In the next major part of his work, Webster turns to consider the second part of his statement - 'from himself God gives himself'. God's perfection of being-in-relation includes the outpouring of his love, which is perfect and complete in itself, towards us. Indeed, Webster goes on to suggest that this outpouring of God's love is part of God's aseity.
In its perfection, it is also a movement of self-gift in which the complete love of Father, Son and Spirit communicates itself ad extra, creating and sustaining a further object of love. (119)

Webster acknowledges that this is not a common theme in the Christian doctrinal tradition, but sees support for it in John 5:26 "As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself." Webster then spends a fair amount of time examining Augustine and Calvin's treatment of this verse. A helpful summary is his statement:
But the life with which God alone lives of himself is the fullness of life which quickens. The form of this life-giving overflow of God's life is the Son. (italics original, 122)

God's life a se is, obviously, that of which God is. But, to state it somewhat crudely, because his life is both a noun (what he is) and a verb (what he does), because God is life he gives life. And it is by the Son, the one eternally generated, that God does that. In sum:
Aseity is not only the absence of external causation but the eternal life which God in and of himself is. It is therefore (following the Gospel's usage) inseity as much as asiety. This life cannot be conceived apart from the mutual relations of Father and Son; its perfection includes the perfect mutuality of the Father's giving of life to the Son, who in his turn has life in himself. No can this be conceive apart from its overflowing plenitude in giving itself to creatures. God's aseity, although it marks God's utter difference from creatures, does not entail his isolation, for what God is and has of himself is life and this life includes a self-willed movement of love. (123)

And if Webster left it there you'd be happy. It is an excellent treatment of a difficult topic, which he addresses carefully, clearly (although you might want to read it a couple of times, with a theological and Latin dictionary handy!), and in a way which allows you to see his grounding in historical theology and the Bible (more the former than the latter, unfortunately). It is a thoroughly trinitarian approach which clearly grounds the doctrine of aseity in the Scriptures and deals with the reality of God's self-revelation in Jesus as the grounds for our knowledge of God. Sure, we might have some questions - the Old Testament has much to say about the nature of God - how does this fit in (or is it relegated to a second place given the 'development' of salvation history and the revelation of God as triune in the incarnation).? Also, given the overflowing of God's being as life to his creation, what is the relationship between creation and reemption? Relatedly, there is no real treatment of the Cross, and the implications of this not only for the aseity of God, but how the cross event itself, and the death of the Son, themselves are the heart of God's live-giving love. But overall, it's a fair treatment.

But Webster doesn't leave it there.
If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective [to a purely philosophical, or non-trinitarian articulation of God's aseity], it can be only by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to divine splendour. (123)
Webster quotes an early sermon by Jonathan Edwards, who speaks of the natural man, who may have great apprehension of God's attributes, but very little love for him. As Edwards says 'the knowledge of a thing is not in proportion to the extensiveness of our notions, or number of circumstances known, only; but it consists chiefly in the intensiveness of the idea'.

And that is what makes Webster an evangelical theologian. The end of theology is not to be able to write Latin, or quote Augustine or John of Damascus, but to love God and glorify him. And that is what Webster wants us to come away with. The aim of theology is doxological - to rejoice in the glory of God who though perfect in himself and wanting nothing, creates and loves and redeems at an incalculable cost to himself people like us. The aseity of God shows us the distance which is travelled at the cross, and grounds God's love for us and his salvation of us in God's very own being. Theology lifts our hearts for it slows our minds to ponder the depths of the beauty of God in Christ.

No comments: