Is God Finite?

Is God Finite? July 23, 2017

Is God Finite?


Most Christians in the middle or to the “right” of the middle of the Christian theological spectrum will automatically recoil at the question “Is God finite?” The knee-jerk reaction even I feel is “No, of course not. What a silly question.” On the other hand, when asked to explain God’s infinity many such Christians (middle to right of the theological spectrum) have some difficulty. “Unlimited?” “Eternal?” “Omnipotent?” All are answers one hears as attempts to pin down what “infinite” means in relation to God.

To the best of my knowledge, however, nobody thinks or can show that the Bible itself actually says God is “infinite.” The word itself simply means “not finite.” But what does “finite” mean?

This became a divisive issue among European Christians especially during the so-called “Atheismusstreit” (atheism controversy) that broke out in German universities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The person who launched it was philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte who argued that God can either be infinite or personal but not both. Fichte’s claim possibly cloaked an atheistic intention; it’s somewhat difficult to tell as atheism was illegal at that time and place.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Fichte was G. W. F. Hegel who, after Fichte, tried to “fix” the problems Fichte and others raised about God and defined God as “Absolute Spirit” and the “wahrhaft Unendliche” (“true infinite”) that includes the finite in itself.

Now jump to the early 20th century. One of the nearly forgotten but very influential Christian philosophers of religion throughout the early and middle 20th century was Edgar Sheffield Brightman (d. 1953) who taught at Methodist-related Boston University. Brightman was very interested in theology and sought to reconstruct the Christian idea of God to make it fit the facts of experience more adequately. He launched a brief movement called “Boston Personalism” that was eventually replaced, for most liberal-leaning Protestants in the U.S., by Process Theology. (Here it might be helpful to note that Brightman was Martin Luther King’s mentor at BU during his doctoral studies there.)

Over the years I have heard of Brightman and Boston Personalism and read some secondary sources (book chapters, journal articles) about him and it. But I never, until recently, actually dipped into a primary source. Because of a recent challenge to do so, by a philosopher of religion influenced by Brightman and Boston Personalism, I bought the “classic” of Boston Personalism at a used bookstore and read it. The book is The Problem of God by Brightman published by Abingdon Press (the Methodist publishing house) in 1930.

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Here I do not have space to go into all the “ins” and “outs” of Brightman’s (and Boston Personalism’s) idea of God. I will just mention a few points I found interesting and say that I found them interesting partly because I think they left a lasting impression that is not directly connected with Process Theology. (Most scholars of modern theology seem to think that Brightman laid the foundation for Process Theology’s later rise and replacement of Boston Personalism as the “theology of choice” among liberal-learning Protestants in America.) In other words, I “hear” and read echoes of Brightman’s view of God as “finite” elsewhere—not only among Process theologians and those influenced by A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

In The Problem of God Brightman argues at some length, but in winsome style (the book is really very easy to read), that throughout the history of thought about God (especially but not only Christian) there has been a back and forth tendency that he calls “expansion” and “contraction.” The expansion tendency has been to think of God as so different from humanity as to make God useless for human religious need. (And Brightman does argue that God is necessary for humanity and includes in the book some strong arguments against atheism in all its forms including secular humanism.) One notable example of that, he argues, is the attribution to God of “infinity” which does lead, as Fichte argued, toward a de-personalizing of God. Pushed to its logical conclusion, “infinity” is incompatible with personality and we need a personal God because our basic religious need is for God to deal with suffering. (I will leave that there and challenge doubters to read the book which is available on line through Amazon and other re-sellers of out-of-print books.)

The contraction tendency has been to think of God as so similar to humanity, so anthropomorphic, as to be also useless religiously. Another human religious need is to have someone to worship and be powerful enough to bring value out of evil.

In true Hegelian style (although Fichte actually said this before Hegel), Brightman’s thinking is about “thesis” and “antithesis” searching for “synthesis.” The “thesis” would be the expansion tendency and the antithesis would be the contraction tendency. So what is the “synthesis?” That God is finite and personal but supreme above all other finite and personal beings.

So, in what sense is God “finite” for Brightman (and his Boston Personalism followers—a few of which are still around)? And why do I care?

Well, first of all—to why I care. I long ago rejected the notion that God is “infinite.” I rejected it when I first heard it articulated which was probably in some seminary class. I immediately thought that the concept itself was beyond comprehension (except perhaps in mathematics) and that attributing it to God led away from thinking of God as personal, present, involved, loving and able to be affected by us. With Brightman (who I only learned about later) I thought of that attribute of God in traditional theology as an inappropriate expansion of the concept of God brought into Christian thought through philosophy, not the Bible.

On the other hand, I have never felt comfortable with saying that God is finite. That “feels” to me like too much of a contraction of God. So I have preferred to think of God as not infinite but also not finite—insofar as the latter implies a God who is limited in knowledge and power. I have long, perhaps always, preferred to think of God as self-limiting in relation to the world he created. I kept looking for some serious discussion of that concept in Brightman’s book but did not find it. That is interesting because, around the time Brightman wrote The Problem of God the great Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong was advocating (or had been advocating) the solution (to the same problems Brightman identifies) as “God’s Self-Limitations.” (I do not know the exact date of that essay; it is included in a volume of Strong’s essays published by Judson Press in 1899.) I can’t believe Brightman knew nothing about Strong’s alternative and I wish he had responded to it. Perhaps he did in another publication.

Anyway, my preferred alternative to the problem Brightman identified in historical Western thinking about God—going back to the Greeks—is God’s self-limitations. That, of course, has become one of the major themes of non-Process Christian theologians such as Emil Brunner and Jürgen Moltmann.

So what did Brightman mean by God’s finitude? A careful reading of The Problem of God reveals that he did not mean that God is pathetic, or “evolving,” or powerless. He did mean, however, that there is inherent in God’s eternal being “the Given” which is a particular nature that governs what God can and cannot do. Clearly Brightman was no nominalist/voluntarist! He was a realist with regard to God. He believed God has a specific nature and it includes certain limitations that are not voluntary on God’s part. Among those limitations are that God cannot know the future insofar as it contains events not yet knowable because they will be determined by free will beings other than God and that God cannot coerce free creatures to do his will. According to Brightman, these denials/affirmations about God are necessary “contractions” apart from which the “expansion” would make God religiously unavailable if not irrelevant.

Well, it should be obvious to all readers who pay any serious attention to conversations about God taking place in even evangelical Christian theology how Brightman’s influence may have “trickled down”—even where his name is not known.

Here are a few things about which I agree with Brightman—after reading The Problem of God. First, he was not afraid to think about God metaphysically. Second, he recognized and articulated one of the main problems in Western theism including much traditional Christian thinking about God—the problem of the continual alternation between expansion and contraction. Third, he affirmed that God’s personhood is primary for religion. An impersonal God is of no religious interest or use.

Here are a few things about which I disagree with Brightman—after reading The Problem of God. First, I would not go so far as to call God “finite.” I think that at least strongly hints at too much contraction in the doctrine of God. Second, I think all the problems he identifies can be solved by replacing “the Given”—as he thinks of it—with God’s loving self-limitation in relation to creation. Third, as a philosopher, not a theologian, Brightman relied too heavily on reason and experience to the neglect of revelation and tradition (the four parts of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral).

In some ways my recent book Essentials of Christian Thought turns out to be an alternative to The Problem of God although not entirely in disagreement with the latter.

I found reading Brightman’s The Problem of God a satisfying exercise even as I found myself disagreeing with many of its point. One quandary left over from reading the book is whether Brightman believed in an eventual triumph of good over evil. I find hints in the book that he did, but I’m not sure how his “finite God” could bring that about.

One thought I had was more of a “wonder,” a question, whether my friend Thomas Jay Oord ever read the book or any of the writings of the Boston Personalists and whether he was influenced by them. I think I see certain real points of congeniality there—especially Oord’s basic idea that God cannot coerce free will beings. Tom does not seem to me to “fit” into the category of Process Theology (even though he studied with Cobb at Claremont). Might his theology “fit” more closely into the category of Boston Personalism? I know of one other theologian who is working to revive Boston Personalism—Gary Dorrien who teaches theology at Union Theological Seminary. (Which is not to say Dorrien follows Brightman or anyone else slavishly; I have just heard him say publicly that he feels a special affinity for Boston Personalism and wishes to breathe new life into it as a live option for liberal Protestant theology.) By no means do I intend this question as a criticism of Tom Oord or Gary Dorrien; as a historical theologian who focuses especially on modern theology I’m always curious about connections—especially ones not known or recognized. I believe there can be connections, strings of influence, that are not conscious or even known. This is what I call my “trickle down theory” of historical theology. Thinkers like Brightman can “release,” as it were, ideas into the theological “atmosphere” that later re-appear even where he is not known or his influence recognized.

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