Review of Divine Attributes

Divine Attributes book cover

Within Evangelicalism, the doctrine of God has become a battlefield on which is fought a war of theological method. Rhyne Putman and Craig Carter are representative of the extreme sides of inductive (or abductive) and deductive theological methods. Somewhere in the middle, but leaning towards the inductive side of things, is John C. Peckham. I was pleased to receive a copy of Peckham’s new book, Divine Attributes from the publisher (Baker Academic). I found Peckham’s methodology refreshing in light of the recent Evangelical Neo-Thomists I have been reading (see my reviews of Barrett, Carter, and Dolezal), and his treatment of the debate over the “God of the Philosophers” is strong. There is much good in this book; I would have given it 4/5 stars if not for the later chapters on libertarian free will.  The extensive interaction with commentators and Scripture is highly commendable.

Summary of Divine Attributes

In Divine Attributes, Peckham outlines what he calls “covenantal theism.” He sets out to address “some core question about the nature and attributes of God, focusing on what we have biblical warrant to affirm with respect to such questions, in order to better understand the living God whom Christians worship and to whom Christian pray” (loc. 138). He offers “a constructive account of divine attributes, brining biblical portrayals of God into dialogue with core questions in the contemporary discussion of classical theism” (loc 533). His approach to theology is what he calls “canonical,” which approaches the Bible as a single book and identifies theology as what we are warranted to believe from the teaching of the Bible. Accordingly, Peckham writes, “the definitive question this book seeks to address is, What do we have biblical warrant to (confidently) claim relative to the doctrine of God?” (loc 809).

In Chapter 1, Peckham orients his book to the present debate over the “God of the Philosophers,” orienting his book in contrast to “strict classical theists” on the one hand (e.g. James Dolezal and Paul Helm) and open theists or process theists on the other. He rightly observes that strict classical theists too readily charge their opponents with the “Hellenistic thesis,” which is the claim that critics of Classical theism are guilty of presenting a false antithesis between Biblical and Greek thought. I agree with Peckham that this charge is thrown out too quickly, without attention to the nuance behind the various critiques of “strict classical theism.” In Chapter 2, Peckham argues that God is voluntarily passible—experiences emotions—but that these are not a limitation to his perfection, nor do they compromise his aseity. He also argues that God is immutable in his essence but that he experiences change in various other senses. Chapter 3 defends a view of timed eternity, where God experiences a temporality analogous to ours but without beginning or end. God is also omnipresent minimally with reference to his exhaustive knowledge and ability to act in all places but also in his ability to be particularly present in particular places as he chooses. In Chapter 4, Peckham argues that God has exhaustive knowledge, including foreknowledge. However, this foreknowledge is compatible with libertarian free will. The following chapter (Chapter 5) argues for a view of “sovereign providence” where God creates and sustains all things but permits his creatures significant, libertarian freedom. Peckham defines libertarian freedom as the ability to will other than God desires (loc 4142). God does not act determinately on the human or angelic will, so free human causality is a significant factor in the presence of evil in the world. Building on this position, Peckham deals with theodicy in Chapter 6, providing several perspectives on the Problem of Evil. He endorses Plantinga’s free will defence and argues that much evil is a result of God’s covenanting with humans, angels, and creation. That is, God has committed himself to give humans free will, he has committed to giving angels a certain level of jurisdiction in this world to wage cosmic warfare against himself, and he established laws by which the creation functions which he has committed to not supervene. Chapter 7 considers the Trinity, rejecting Eternal Functional Subordination and accepting the social trinitarian doctrine of three genuine persons who share a perichoretic unity. Chapter 8 brings the argument to a close with an overview of the ground covered. For those interested, Peckham commits himself to the following positions relative to contemporary debates: accepts libertarian freedom and election by foreknowledge (Arminianism); rejects Eternal Functional Subordination; rejects eternal generation and procession, along with Christ’s eternal sonship; rejects bipartite exegesis; accepts Social Trinitarianism; rejects strong immutability, strict aseity, strict simplicity, and strong impassibility; and accepts foreknowledge and omniscience.

Evaluation of Divine Attributes

Peckham writes clearly and there is much I appreciated and with which I agreed in the book, particularly in the first 4 chapters. I found his approach to theological method laudable in light of many of the approaches I have read recently (though I would not go so far as giving it wholesale endorsement). However, there were several areas of considerable weakness in the book. In general, the argument misses the mark in two significant areas, the depth could be improved in some areas, and he leaves several significant loose ends.

Areas where the argument falls flat

First, throughout the book, he indicates that “Classical Christian Theism” was not a uniform position throughout the history of the church and that there was significant diversity among the Patristic and Medieval Fathers. Though I would not deny diversity, Peckham is wrong in his appeals to the diversity of scholarly opinion. He relies primarily on Gavrilyuk’s monograph The Suffering of the Impassible God and several contemporary theologians; he does not offer a significant representation of the patristic scholarship. My PhD concerns 4th and 5th-century theology in the areas where Peckham suggests there is great diversity: to the contrary, the fathers and the contemporary mainstream philosophical tradition are largely on the same page with issues of impassibility, immutability, incomprehensibility, and simplicity. The Fathers assumed a basic doctrine of God that is evident in their writings but not frequently argued. The evidence is far more uniform than Peckham claims. I do not believe Tradition is normative for us, but it would be disingenuous to ignore the significant ways that Peckham’s theology departs from the mainstream Christian tradition.

Second, his argument for libertarianism fails to meet the most significant challenges failing the doctrine. I have argued for the inadequacy of libertarian freedom and Arminian soteriology in my book Prevenient Grace, but I will summarize a few issues here. In terms of his argument, Peckham dismisses the significant philosophical challenges to libertarianism in Chapter 4. He suggests that because the Bible teaches both libertarianism and foreknowledge they must be compatible. However, in chapter 5, he then argues that the biblical data may support either determinism or libertarianism. Clearly, the Bible does not teach libertarianism in the unambiguous way that Chapter 4 requires. If he were to permit the significant philosophical challenges facing libertarianism to be entertained, the evidence for determinism is significantly increased. More importantly, his treatment of determinism does not present the strongest possible opponent. He suggests that Calvinistic determinism means that God is the primary cause of all things (such that all things are caused immediately by God’s will). This is not correct: though “soft-determinism” does believe that all things have a cause and that all causes are fundamentally rooted in God’s decree, this leaves significant space for secondary causality, such as a human decision making and will. Indeed, his definition of libertarian is compatible with “soft-determinism,” such that creatures are able to will other than that which God desires. However, he also implies the converse position that God cannot act determinately in relation to the human will; this is a position that is Biblically indefensible. Peckham does not deal with the most significant problems with this position, namely, the Biblical teaching about total depravity and its solution, regeneration (see my Prevenient Grace). Many of his arguments against determinism have been adequately answered in my book or in others, and many of these problems are equally problematic for libertarians (such as the claim that God cannot will contradictory things).

Areas where greater depth could be desired

There are other areas where the argument could be deepened. Treatment of omnipresence in Divine Attributes does not sufficiently address what exactly is meant by “presence.” The digital age has illumined our understanding of presence greatly—at least I think it has. For example, in a very real sense, I can be present in Germany through a Skype conversation. However, we would recognize this as diminished presence, it is “not the same” as in-person presence. But imagine if I was able to hug, shake a hand, be present three-dimensionally, and act in every way that I could in Australia. Such mediated presence would be undeniably true presence. However, a human present in such a way would lose their presence elsewhere because they cannot maintain the focus and attention to function in both places simultaneously. However, if God is not limited in this way, then he can be fully present wherever he wishes, and make himself more evidently present in particular places. That is, God is presented as giving his attention and being physically present in “heaven,” where he is attended to be a multitude of angels. Simultaneously, he is especially present with His people in the Temple and able to give them His unique attention. In the New Testament age, He is present in this way with all of His people. He is present in oversight of the nations, and occasionally physically present in unique theophanies. Because God is not restricted by the human cognitive restrictions on attention, He can give His focused attention on several places simultaneously and act with equal power and efficiency in all places simultaneously. God can by spatially present in some places while giving his attention simultaneously elsewhere where he has no spatial presence. Unlike humans, physical presence does not preclude God’s true presence elsewhere.

In the second last chapter, Peckham’s short treatment of the Trinity leaves much to be desired. On the one hand, his rejection of Christ’s eternal sonship and the Father’s eternal fatherhood is far more significant than Peckham suggests. I have not read of such a move in the history of the Church nor among modern Evangelicals; it is a radical departure from the Christian tradition to suggest that Christ’s sonship was a result of the incarnation. I hardly think it is justified by Luke 1:35! Furthermore, I am not convinced that a unity of perichoresis is sufficient to account for the Biblical portrayal of God as one (e.g. Deut 6:4-5). This is the perennial issue with social trinitarianism: proponents cannot sufficiently account for the Biblical presentation of God’s unity.

Some loose ends

Finally, Peckham leaves a significant loose end in his treatment of the Incarnation and his claims about God’s essence. Peckham rejects significant elements of the classical Christian metaphysic, yet he maintains throughout that God has an “essence.” I am not sure that such a claim is ontologically coherent when its other attendant features are stripped away. It is important to maintain that there is a significant way in which God does not change, but I am not convinced that “essence” is a helpful description of God’s unchanging core. Without a treatment of simplicity, significant questions are raised about what Peckham means by “essence” and how this relates to the divine attributes he treats.

In addition, he rejects several significant pillars of the classic account of the incarnation without acknowledging that he is doing so. At several places, he rejects what patristic scholars call “bipartite exegesis,” that is, the attribution of certain things Jesus does to his divine nature and others to his human nature. This was essential to maintaining the classic doctrine of God’s essence, which Peckham seems to endorse, and its relation to Christ’s true divinity. To reject bipartite exegesis (which I am not opposed to doing), one must do some serious metaphysical rethinking. The implications are more significant than Peckham’s treatment would suggest.


However, despite these reservations, Peckham’s commitment to Scripture is admirable. What he says in his method is indeed his practice; he repeatedly presents Scripture and wrestles with its interpretation, interacting with contemporary Evangelical interpretation more than many of his peers. Peckham is also clear in his presentation that theology ought to lead us to doxology. Despite significant points of disagreement, I am thankful for Peckham’s thoughtful engagement with Scripture and its teaching concerning our God. The reader has much to gain if they read Divine Attributes in interaction with Scripture, asking if there is indeed Biblical warrant for the claims that Peckham makes.

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