Why I Do Not Think of God as “Infinite”
Many people, many Christians included, think that God must be, by definition, infinite. There are, however, many different meanings of “infinite.” The word itself implies to most people, educated and uneducated alike, some idea of limitlessness. It leads the mind onto a path of “perfect being ontology”—a big, fat, scholarly concept that more or less means God must be incapable of change of any kind (immutable, impassible, “actus purus”).
If one merely means by “infinite” that God is everlasting, without beginning and without end, then I have no objection to it except there is a better way to say that—viz., that God is eternal. Also, if all one means by “infinite” is that God is not limited by anything outside himself, I have no objection to it. But there is a better way to say that—viz., that God is not limited by anything outside of himself.
Perfect being ontology, which is really what “God is infinite means,” may be defined as belief that God, ultimate reality, includes within himself the finite. At least that’s what it has meant since Hegel’s philosophy of religion. Going back further, to Plato and especially neo-Platonism, it means that the creation has no autonomy over against God, not even a limited and relative autonomy granted by God. It also means that God cannot change in any way since there can be no change within perfection. All these notions are now implied in the concept of God as infinite.
But what do we read about God in God’s own revelation, the Bible? And what do we “see” in God-in-person Jesus Christ? We see a self-limiting God who grants creation a degree of autonomy, freedom to go against and resist his will. We see a self-limiting God who enters into time and history and goes on a “journey” with creation and especially with his covenant people. We see a God who can be deeply affected, grieved, made angry or blessed, by what his creatures do. We see a God who, although omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, is not the “All” or the “Everything,” but is a being rather than Being Itself.
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Philosophical theology could not be satisfied with this. No, “God” had to be “the being greater than which none can be conceived” with “greater” meaning both “perfect being,” incapable of any change, and “infinite,” not limited in any way. Anselm of Canterbury is a perfect example of “perfect being ontology” within Christian theology. Anselm believed that God, being perfect, cannot feel compassion because to feel compassion is to be finite, less than metaphysically perfect. How so? Because to feel compassion is to be moved to compassion by something outside oneself and that would be inappropriate for the being greater than which none can be conceived, the most (metaphysically) perfect being imaginable.
At his best, Luther rejected this ancient Greek-inspired notion of God and its medieval scholastic versions in, for example, Thomas Aquinas. He had no use for philosophical notions of God, except when he did. (Luther was often inconsistent.) I believe one of the biggest changes in Christian thought in the 20th century was a move away from perfect being ontology and away from the ideas associated with it—for example that God is “infinite,” “immutable,” “impassible,” etc.
There have been two “sides” to this revolution in Christian thinking about God. One is that God is essentially limited (e.g., process theology) and the other is that God is self-limiting (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann). But I would argue that even the second approach implies that there is that in God eternally that inclines God toward limitation out of love. Before there was a creation, God was not limited, but self-limitation was potential within God.
Two rather long but very impressive treatises on God inclined me more than ever away from perfect being ontology and any idea of God as metaphysically infinite. Both were published in an edited volume entitled God and the Good edited by Lewis Smedes and published by Eerdmans in 1975. One was entitled “Can a Man Bless God?” and was written by then Fuller Seminary professor of theology James Daane. The second was entitled “God Everlasting” and was written by Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. Both, together, convinced me that “infinite” is not a good description of the God of the Bible who, as Scottish Barthian theologian T. F. Torrance said in Space, Time and Incarnation (Oxford University Press, 1969), freely enters into time with us. It was there, in that book by Torrance, that I first found the phrase “openness of God,” long before I saw it in Clark Pinnock’s writings.
It seems to me that “infinity” attributed to God is an unnecessary and even dangerous metaphysical compliment—insofar as one wants to think about God biblically. That attribute inclines one toward the God of the philosophers rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Furthermore, thought out to its logical conclusion, “infinity” attributed to God would lead to pantheism. It is not a biblical concept and, in my opinion, even leads away from the God of the Bible toward, if not into, an in ideational (not physical) idol.
We Christians must begin our thinking about God with Jesus Christ and work our way out from there. Sure, philosophy can sometimes help fill in some gaps left open by the Bible, but we must be careful not to allow philosophy to overtake our thinking about God such that the God of the Bible is a mere symbol for something “more real” who is not really like the passionate, personal, historical, suffering, intervening, resistible God of the Bible.
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