31 March 2005

no shadow of turning 8

The Old Testament revelation of God’s transcendent otherness, as distinct from every created thing, is therefore explained and fulfilled by the revelation of God as Trinity since it is as Trinity that God is exalted above every created form of existence and remains definitively unlike any created thing. Indeed, it is precisely the absolute difference, “otherness,” and distance between the Persons of the Trinity that grounds the possibility of God freely choosing to create a world that exists as something truly distinct from and other than himself.

But the revelation of God’s immanent loving presence is also explained and fulfilled by the revelation of God as Trinity since it is as Trinity that God is shown to be defined by the loving gift of self, one to another as the one God. Indeed, it is precisely the absolute identity of each of the Persons as God—while remaining in all their infinite distinction as Persons—that grounds the possibility of God’s intimate closeness to a creation that exists as something completely other than himself.

It is also in light of this revelation of God as Trinity that we must understand the claims of classical theism, particularly that God is both “being itself” (ipsum esse) and “pure act” (actus purus), concepts that are closely interrelated. The affirmation that God is “being itself” (where “being” is not just a noun, but a verb referring the eternal event of existing) is a way of speaking of who God is distinct from all created things. It is not, after all, the essence of any created thing to be or to exist, since its existence is a gift received, wholly dependent upon the power of God to create. God might have made all different things from those he has actually created or, indeed, he might have made nothing at all. But what actually exist are those potentially existing things that God has chosen to actualize, those things that might or might not have existed, yet God has chosen to bring into existence.

God, on the other hand, is a completely different sort of being and not just another thing alongside created things. For God, existing is of his essence, since his existing is not dependent upon anything outside of himself and thus he is self-existent. It is not the case that God might or might not have existed, but rather it is the case that God is the sort of being who necessarily exists. “Being itself” or the event of existing just is the nature of God. In God there is no unrealized potential, no possibility that God might become more God than he already is, because God is eternally fully actualized. As “being itself” God also just is “pure act.”

This philosophical description of the nature of God on the part of classical theism is consonant with, follows from, and finds fulfillment in the account of God as Trinity that we have already discussed. The Christian notion of God as “being itself” and “pure act” has a distinctively Trinitarian content and explanation, since the actualization of who God is takes the form of the eternal relations between the Persons of the Trinity, each of whom is fully who he is in the event or act of relating to the other divine Persons. And as I suggested earlier, this Trinitarian understanding is necessary for God to be the God of Scripture who remains both transcendent and immanent in relation to his creation.