There is a movement within Evangelicalism—and has been for several decades now—to ressource the Christian tradition. This movement has sought a return to “Classical Theism” and to the worldview articulated from the Church Fathers throughout much of Christian intellectual history. Matthew Barrett proved to be a persuasive voice in this movement. In the book None Greater, Barrett attempts to present the “Classic” doctrine of God in an accessible and compelling manner.
None Greater is shaped around Anselm’s thesis that God “is someone than whom none greater can be conceived” (10). In the book’s twelve chapters, Barret unpacks the “great-making perfections” (11) that “must be true of God is he is the most perfect being” (10). Barrett is writing for those in the church (xv). He draws on a wealth of figures from the Christian tradition to bolster his argument, but he emphasizes that he only wants to follow them “as they are true to Scripture, our final and only infallible authority” (12). The first three chapters lay down the general contours of the discussion, with the following six chapters addressing a single, classical attribute of God; Barrett argues first that these are necessary for God to be a “perfect being,” bolstering this claim with Scriptural evidence. In Chapters 1-3, Barrett argues that God is incomprehensible in essence, that human language about God is analogical and apophatic, and that God has to a perfect or infinite being. In Chapters 4-9, Barrett addresses the attributes of Aseity (self-dependence); Simplicity; Immutability (changeless); Impassibility (passionless); Timeless Eternity; and Omnipresence. Then, in chapters 10-12, he argues for several related attributes together. In Chapter 10, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnisapience (all-wise); in Chapter 11, Righteousness, Goodness, and Love. Finally, in Chapter 12, he argues for Jealousy and Glory.
Barrett writes with lucid prose, and he employs ample illustrations. Like R. C. Sproul, Barrett is able to communicate dense and difficult concepts clearly and tries to end all his theology with doxology, which is admirable. Despite being effectively addressed to a generally lay audience, Barrett’s wealth of knowledge is evident in the sources from which he draws. For a clear, accessible articulation of the classical attributes, Barrett’s work is commendable. However, the problem with the book is that it fails to persuade. It fails to do so in several ways. First, it does not show how most of these doctrines derive from or are evident in Scripture, despite Barrett’s initial claims that he found them evident therein and is committed to following the Fathers in as much as they are true to Scripture. Furthermore, he does not address the strongest Evangelical criticisms of these doctrines. This is no minor issue, for he is perfectly clear about the stakes he believes to be involved: if God does not possess these attributes, then he is not a perfect being. Instead, he is finite, human-like, limited, and an idol. To deny to God simplicity is tantamount to “atheism” (88) and to deny impassibility is to entertain “idolatry” (137). Indeed, we must not fall into the error of Theistic Personalism, or “Monopolytheism,” which is minimally explained but an evident aberration (43-45).
An irony of the book may be that many of the charges which he raises against his Theistic Personalists are equally, if not more so, chargeable against the positions he holds. He decries the enlightenment capitulation to rationalism (26), yet—as we will see—this is the very thing that Classical theism requires. The classical attributes are not so clearly free from the charge he levels against his opponents, that they define God in human terms. This is not to deny the seriously flawed nature of many against whom he writes, such as Moltmann and the Open Theists (among others), yet his sweeping claims extend far beyond these figures to Evangelical theologians such as J.I. Packer, John Frame, Wayne Gruden, Bruce Ware, etc. (as made clear in the recent volume by Craig Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition). All we have space for in this review is to raise the methodological issues that emerge from Barrett’s approach and then to critically assess several of the claims made throughout the book, providing examples of the problematic methodology.
The Method of None Greater
Barrett states initially that he only wants to follow the Fathers in as much “as they are true” to Scripture, yet his methodology involves reading the Bible through an extra-Biblical lens. It is the same methodology employed by Arminians to prove Prevenient Grace: they begin with a common sense or natural definition of love and interpret Scripture through this lens (see my book, Prevenient Grace). Similarly, few of the Scriptures Barret cites support his thesis unless they are interpreted through a specific philosophical lens. Barrett is not explicit about this, though Craig Carter is in his recent book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. For both authors, their central thesis is extra-Biblical and not defensible from the Bible, yet it becomes the interpretive lens through which the Bible must be read. For Barrett, God must be the greatest conceivable being or a “perfect” being. We must ask, from where does our definition of “perfection” or “greatness” come? For many of the Fathers Barrett cites, the perfections of God are those expounded by the Greek philosophers. As Carter puts it, the Biblical God is not “less than the God of the philosophers,” though he is certainly more. “Perfect” is defined in terms of a general Platonism, where “infinity,” “incomprehensibility,” “timelessness” and “impassibility” are considered perfections. Though Barrett doesn’t mention Platonism, he does say that every Christian must concede that God is the “most perfect, supreme being there is” and that infinity is an undeniable attribute of a “perfect being” (41-46). However, this is certainly contestable. Like the Arminian argument for Prevenient Grace, Barrett identifies certain thesis that must be true from reason and common sense. He then adopts these as the hermeneutical lens from which to read Scripture. This, in effect, subordinates the Bible to the philosophical worldview through which it is interpreted, and does so while neglecting the nearly 2500 years of significant criticism that have been raised against Platonism, by both Christians and non-Christians alike. That is, what was common sense for Plato, Aristotle, and many of the Fathers is not common sense today, and I am not convinced this is a bad thing. As I have argued in The Gift of Knowing, the Greeks were as guilty of “rationalism” as the Enlightenment philosophers. There is no justifiable reason to privilege Hellenistic philosophy over Enlightenment philosophy: both must be subject to a higher authority lest Christian theology rides the waves of every philosophy now in vogue—which is exactly the problem Barrett seeks to overcome. This is a weighty charge to raise against a fellow Evangelical, especially one who has articulated a very high view of Scripture elsewhere. So, we will explore several examples from the book to tease this out.
Problematic Points in None Greater
Barrett is insistent that any reasonable view of God must include the belief that he is “infinite.” This is a perfection acknowledged by many classical philosophers but to which many others would object. What could be wrong with infinity, you may ask? There is actually a lot. In sum, an infinite “being,” if infinity is taken consistently, is nothing at all. Let’s start with Anaximander, the Pre-Socratic philosopher. When he sought to describe the foundational principle that explained everything, he did not follow his contemporaries in choosing one of the four elements; instead, he employed the aiperon, or the limitless/infinite. Only the aiperon could be the most basic explanation of everything, for only what is unlimited or infinite can explain everything: that is, because it is completely non-descript, without any attribute or defining feature (i.e. limit-less), it could stand behind all the variation and description of everything else. In the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle, this completely limitless or indefinite thing was called matter or the receptacle, pure non-being. Yet, as Hegel would observe millennia later, non-being (non-existence) and pure being (pure existence) are identical: neither are limited nor have any defining feature; they are pure infinity. They are, in other words, nothing at all. A purely infinite being (in the sense of “limitless”) cannot be known at all: that is, to say anything true about such a being would be to identify a limit in it. If this being were responsible for some act (such as creation), then it would be limited as something which created; it can no longer be a non-creator. If it is immutable, it is limited regard to change; simplicity, limited regarding plurality; righteous, limited with regard to what it may or may not do. Now, in each case, one might argue that limitation is clearly a perfection, but that is the very point: to be “perfect,” in any meaningful way, is to be limited. Now, this does not mean God is “finite” in the common use of the word, which employs limitation pejoratively: God is finite in the sense that He is real, knowable, and consistent, but he is infinite in the colloquial sense of far beyond us and unrestrained by anything outside of himself. We could explore the problems with “infinity” further, but this will suffice for now.
Consider Barrett’s view of “incomprehensibility.” There is a sense in which God is truly incomprehensible: His understanding and thoughts are far beyond us (e.g. Isa 40:28; Ps 147:5)! We could never exhaustively know him! However, Barrett defines “incomprehensibility” in terms of “essence,” which creates a host of issues. By defining incomprehensibility in terms of “essence,” Barrett invokes a particular ontology or metaphysic that is loaded with problems. “Essence” in classical philosophy is both the answer to the question “what is it?” describing the sort of thing something is (e.g. a dog), and it is the answer to the question, “why is it?” giving the reason that this thing exists (dogness is the source of its being). That is, the essence is what something is and is what it means for that thing to exist fundamentally. The Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries caused a fundamental shift in philosophy to the point where these two aspects of essence were separated. But for patristic philosophy, essence had both functions. The goal of philosophy was to know the essence or abstract definition of something (e.g. “human” is a rational animal, meaning it has an animal soul, rational soul, and body). Everything else that could be said about anything was “accidental” or “opinion,” not worth knowing at all (that James is married, a father of two children, a certain height, of particular skin colour, etc. is irrelevant). Several implications from this view of knowledge follow: all knowledge is propositional knowledge (i.e. a statement, “James is a human,” “human is …”) and to know something’s essence is to exhaust all that is to be known about that thing. It would, therefore, be catastrophic to say that anyone could know God’s essence, for he would be fully known! Furthermore, because God was thought to have no accidence, the essence is all that could be known about God. This would appear to make God completely unknowable! Such was the position of many Neoplatonists and some Christian who followed them; a mystical encounter with this God was the only way to “know” him.
However, Christians of all stripes did not want to deny the clear teaching of the Bible, that God is made known, so they tried to come up with other ways of explaining knowledge of God. One way was apophatic theology, speaking of God in terms of denials (God is “impassible,” i.e. without passions). However, this proved problematic because all apophatic theology implies some positive claim. To say God is “impassible” must have some positive content, or else it will be a meaningless claim. Basil of Caesarea and Aquinas would also speak of Knowledge of God ad suos effectus, or through his effects (for Basil, epinoia, “concept”): we know certain things that God does, and we can be certain that these are grounded in his unchanging being, even if we cannot know that being. Augustine took a similar approach by describing “relative knowledge”: that is, God is known in relation to us: “As a friend is so called relatively: for he does not begin to be one, unless when he has begun to love; therefore some change of will takes place, in order that he may be called a friend” (De Trinitate 5.16.17). What Barrett does not show is that his analysis of knowledge in general, and God in particular, is valid!
It is highly questionable whether “essences” exist at all—I, for one, think that they do not. It is also highly questionable whether “accidents” are really a subordinate object of knowledge to essences. It seems would seem that the most important things for me to know about Nicole are that she is my wife, a woman, follower of Christ, mother of Aliyah, and looks a certain way (lest I confuse her with anyone else), etc. It would also seem that the Bible puts an awful lot of importance on “accidental” knowledge of God: our knowledge of God would be impoverished if we did not know him as our Father, the King of Israel, the redeemer of His people, the creator of the world, its sustainer, the one who acted in the Exodus, conquest, through Babylon, Cyrus, etc. Ezekiel for example, continually equates “knowing God” (“know that I am Yahweh”) with knowing his deeds. The essence/accidence distinction also reduces all knowledge to propositions, ignoring Polanyi’s “Tacit Dimension” or the knowledge of persons. If we reject essence and the essence/accidence distinction, we quickly discover that every person is “incomprehensible”: I will never know everything about my wife nor perfectly anticipate her future behaviour. I know her better than everyone else, yet the beauty of marriage is the continual growth in knowledge through every new experience! Incomprehensibility in this sense is not a threat to understanding but the wonderful promise that we will never cease to grow in our knowledge of and, correspondingly, love for the other person! What is true of humans is true to an infinite degree with God: we will never exhaust the knowledge of Him while simultaneously having true knowledge of God as our Father. (There is another sense of incomprehensibility in which God’s knowledge is of a different sort than ours, but this is an important technical distinction that does not change the claims above.) We realize in this way that all persons are, in a sense, simple: there is no distinction between essence and accidence, but are all our predicates (“good,” “accomplished,” etc.) are perspectives on the complex reality of the person as they act in the world. Incorporeality is a whole other question and should not be collapsed into simplicity (to do so begs the Platonic metaphysic, collapsing “parts” in terms of attributes into the same category as physical components). We don’t have space to probe Barrett’s discussion further, but he claims that his discussion of the other attributes depends on incomprehensibility, simplicity, and infinity, all of which are problematic (I unpack several elements of the above argument at further length in my forthcoming book, The Gift of Seeing). In all these cases, his argument presupposes the Platonic worldview and is not Biblical in the sense of grounded in the Bible’s explicit claims nor deduced from the claims of the Bible but from the Bible correlated with an unbiblical worldview.
The Arbitrary Invocation of Mystery in None Greater
To draw out one more issue, he also underplays the serious implications of the views he expresses. Like Carter, he arbitrarily draws the line for “mystery.” That is, he says that “incomprehensibility” does not result in mysticism (25-26), despite the fact that Neoplatonism—which most closely resembles this doctrine—was highly mystical, as were the theologies of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus and many who followed them, particularly Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite, on whom Aquinas’s thought greatly depends. He also says that doctrines like immutability have never led to a static view of God; instead, God is “dynamic” and most “fully alive” (103-104; 121-123; cf. 145). However, this not true. Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” from which the idea of God as pure “actuality” derives, was exactly this: it could not be aware of nor interact with the material world. Instead, it was in perpetual and pure contemplation of itself, completely unmoving. Similar was Plotinus’ One. A great tension in classic Christian theology has been how God could be the perfect God of the philosophers, and so pure “actuality,” while creating and interacting with his creation. Contrary to Barrett’s claim, “actuality” has nothing to do with dynamic, vital existence. Rather, it means that “god” was purely actualized, a fully realized form or essence without any potentiality or becoming. In sum, to say God is infinite—completely unbounded—incomprehensible, and immutably pure act would seem to preclude the God of the Bible, who is knowable, acts in history, and is Triune on analogy with other “persons” in Scripture (namely, spiritual beings and humans). However, it is at this point that Carter and Barrett introduce mystery. Instead of letting the Bible criticize the Platonic view of “perfection,” both hold the two in tension. What reason do we have for drawing the line here and not letting the Bible criticize Platonism? I have found none: not only does the Bible present a drastically different picture of God and reality than that postulated by the Greeks (as I am arguing in my series “God’s Gifts for the Christian life”), but Platonism has been criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike for 2500 years and found severely wanting.
Barrett is certainly correct that we must not replace the god of Classical Theism with the god of the Enlightenment—nor that of Postmodernism—but the answer is not to ressource a flawed paradigm. The answer is to go back to the Bible for our doctrine of God. If we make right Christian belief and faith reliant on natural theology, we will be tossed to and fro on the waves of every changing opinion. Yet God has made himself known clearly and sufficiently so that his people “may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17); indeed, he has gifted us all we need for “life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3), which surely includes the knowledge of him.