God’s Uniqueness, Part One [Questions That Haunt]

God’s Uniqueness, Part One [Questions That Haunt] December 13, 2013

This Question That Haunts Christianity series is now an occasional series, as opposed to weekly. But I’ll still field questions and do my best to answer. Directions on how you can submit a question below. Today’s question comes from reader Pat, and it concerns a contentious post by Roger Olson last week:

Last week, I read Roger Olson’s attack on process theology, and then I saw your tweet on the controversy:

I, too, am attracted to relational and process theologies, but I’m struggled with the feeling I get from process that God is not really very special, that God’s not unique. That’s why your tweet got my attention, so my question is this: Is God ontologically unique from the rest of creation?

(Let me begin by apologizing for the formatting and lack of links on this post. I am dictating it to my phone as I drive to South Dakota for the last hunt of the season. Even so, I wanted to start the conversation about God’s uniqueness and distinctiveness on this blog, to follow up from the posts on Homebrewed Christianity and Roger Olson’s blog.)

The theological innovation of Judaism, vis-à-vis their ancient neighbors, was that God is one. This monotheism may have been a soft monotheism at first, but by midway through the Old Testament, it had clearly become a hard monotheism. Jews came to believe unequivocally that Yahweh was not only above all other gods, but that the Lord was indeed the only God.

While the Hebrews did not use the modern philosophical categories that we now use, it is pretty clear in reading the Hebrew Scriptures that Yahweh is ontologically distinct from the rest of creation. This is first articulated in the two creation accounts in Genesis. From there it becomes clear that Yahweh is not like the warring gods of Mount Olympus. Nor is God like the great mind in the sky of Hellenistic philosophy. Instead, Yahweh is the distinct and unique creator of all that is.

In fact, it is Yahweh’s role as creator, Explicitly articulated in Genesis and repeated through out the Hebrew Bible, that makes God ontologically distinct by definition.

Although process theologians are correct to say that creatio ex nihilo is not explicit in Genesis, they are incorrect to argue that it is not implicit. From the earliest times, Hebrews and Hellenistic early Christians have seen that God created all that is out of nothing. This is yet another indication of God’s ontological uniqueness.

In my forthcoming book, I will state in the strongest possible terms that God’s story is a story of self-limitation. However, God’s’s voluntary self limitation does not in any way compromise God ontological uniqueness

In conclusion, God as creator is an important theme through out the Old and New Testaments. And God as creator indicates that God is ontologically distinct from creation.

See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below. Submit your own question here.

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  • Steven Kurtz

    Will you deal with the concepts behind the prologue to the gospel of John and the cosmic dimensions of Christ in Eph. 1 and Col. 1 – Richard Rohr makes use of these for his “cosmic Christ” concept – which seems to run to panentheism, at minimum; does that square with ontological uniqueness?

  • Jesse


    Autin Roberts left a great comment on Bo’s post over at HBC regarding ex nihilo (http://fyre.it/5quAYj.4). He points to Gerhard May’s translation of “non-being” instead of “nothing,” and says that “May concludes that speaking of creating something out of nonbeing was once a common way of generally speaking about the creation of something that came forth that did not previously exist.”

    I’d say it’s entirely possible (without getting too anthropocentric here) that God creates from “non-being” the way parents bring forth their children. Not necessarily out of “nothing” but out of something that is pre-existing.

    You’re right though, ex nihilo may be implicit Genesis, but you have to also admit that creation from non-being is also implicit.

    • Ric Shewell

      what is a thing that is pre-existing? A dream, a plan, a hope? I don’t think you escape creatio ex nihilo with the language of creating out of something that is pre-existing. It’s difficult to say that something which does not yet exist is not nothing. We’d really have to redefine “nothing,” which I think is being used in different ways on the different sides of this argument.

  • Andrew Dowling

    In terms of debates surrounding the nature/character of God, I think rule numero uno has to be humility. Some of the reactionary screechings against PT I find humorous because they are defining knowledge over what is ultimately guaranteed uncertainty. It’s one thing to say God is most manifested and realized in Jesus. That’s a real human life that we can relate to and speak of in human terms.

    It’s another to be arguing about the metaphysical characteristics of the divine. And even more humorous are people citing biblical texts from thousands of years ago and then going “a-ha” . . like the composers of Genesis had the whole ontological/metaphysical nature of God all figured out.

    • S_i_m_o_n

      Oh the irony

      • Andrew Dowling

        Oh the smugness.

        How about extrapolating your thoughts rather than writing a brief curt reply.

  • Aaron

    Olson’s post drew in other thinkers, so I think it would be helpful to distinguish those folks he supported (Moltmann and Boyd,, for example) from Whitehead. He seemed to be saying you can have all the “good stuff” without adopting all of Whithead’s ideas. I’m not really well read on this stuff, and if you could go further into what Olson is specifically selling short in Whitehead’s process approach, it would be clarifying for me.

    A bigger personal question for me is that all of this type of conversation seems very interesting and enlightening, but also seems very much outside of standard Christian life, which strikes me very on focused on believing people are in the right group and are therefore going to heaven. That’s the “schism” I see forming; writers like yourself who see God beyond church life, and those who see God almost strictly within church life (that’s not the best way to put it, but it’s how I’d try to describe, say, you vs RC Sproul, for instance).

    • Brad

      Aaron, when I initially read Tony’s posts I shared a similar sentiment. I am simply a Roman Catholic, but I often hear non-Catholic Christians talk about theological speculation of this kind as “divisive,” because they don’t ground their beliefs on any creeds or documents, or any one entity’s interpretation of Sacred Scripture. At best, it is agreed upon contracts via local church or denomination. Because of this, it seems counterproductive for non-Catholics to discuss these things in any serious nature. The day simply won’t come when they will all agree on “essentials.” There will always be debates about what is “essential” and what is not, what/who/when is God and what/who/when she/he/it is not when there is no authority to look to. And that strikes me as part of the fun in it for people interested in the discussion. When I got into thinking about this a little more, I realized that it IS important and relevant. It is important for any individual who wants to relate to God, because the way you relate to God is dependent on the way you describe Him. Any person familiar with Wittgenstein could tell you that the only way your relationship with an invisible “Other” will make any sense is if you can describe it in some logically comprehensible fashion. Otherwise, you should keep it to yourself. Our relationships are integrally bound up with the way we express them, and to express them involves us making public sense of those relationships. I have hardly any interest in Process Theology, and hardly any reason to, but props to anyone passionate about it’s investigations. It poses some difficult and crucial questions.

      • Aaron


        I agree, I do think the discussion is extremely important. I was more critiquing church status quo, where there really doesn’t seem to be much wondering about big questions.

      • Really, to think that we need to constantly defer to early church creeds — rather than being in dialogue with them — is an outmoded way of thinking. An ancient gathering doesn’t get to determine what we believe for all time.

        • Seems to me that by not “constantly defer[ing] to early church creeds” we simply consign ourselves to having to continually re-fight the claims of gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagiansim, Donatism, Nestorianism, Sabelianism, monophysitism, and all the other ancient heresies. There is a great freedom in considering those challenges settled–though engaging in renewed controversy is admittedly sometimes much more fun that actually trying to follow Jesus in one’s everyday, mundane affairs.

          It also strikes me as a little less “outmoded” if–and this is an important “if”–we think it important to be members of the same body as those “ancient gatherings.”

          • Andrew Dowling

            “though engaging in renewed controversy is admittedly sometimes much more
            fun that actually trying to follow Jesus in one’s everyday, mundane

            You’re assuming Jesus had anything to do with those debates and how they were settled.

          • Craig

            If the early creeds were the conclusions of sound and decisive reasoning, then one can try to understand and re-state that reasoning. Perhaps your worry is that no such reasons for rejecting them can be found. Sounds to me like a fairly good reason to rethink one’s dogmatic traditions.

        • Brad

          Hm, maybe I was misunderstood (?) The Roman Catholic Church does not achieve unity by agreeing to defer to an “ancient” creed(s), either. The RCC achieves unity via physical people, hence the Apostolic Succession. It’s not based on words or documents. That’s the very thing that makes it “Non-Protestant.” The RCC considers itself a living, breathing dialogue. Creeds and documents are only recorded chapters in that dialogue.

          I might also add that you can defer to an ancient creed, and still remain in dialogue with it. There’s no reason to think they are mutually exclusive. Dialogue has definitive points of movement, with points that are agreed upon at the beginning of the discussion (e.g. Plato’s dialogues). When you want to anchor the direction and context of the discussion, you refer back to the original agreed upon statements and you continue to unpack their meaning. Ancient creeds are just points of agreement for a Church that is already an identifiable body. It didn’t need a creed to locate it – only to point out its own boundaries and logic of conversation.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “The RCC achieves unity via physical people, hence the Apostolic Succession. It’s not based on words or documents.”

            Speaking as a Catholic, the Church definitely bases their decisions on words and documents when it suits them.

            • Brad

              Sure, but I was speaking of its status as an already visible and unified whole via the Apostolic Succesion.

              And, Tony, my original post was not intended to insult non-Catholics. I wouldn’t think non-Catholics would expect to achieve unity through intellectual agreement.

        • Guest

          To put it briefly, the RCC does not consider itself “word based”. It is “person based.”

  • Kevin Miller

    I’d like to see some OT passages in which you see creatio ex nihilo implied. I’m more of the opinion that God is depicted in the first creation account in particular as bringing order out of chaos rather than creating the world out of nothing. The evidence for this view seems stronger when compared to contemporary Near Eastern creation narratives in which the gods bring order from chaos through violence, whereas the Hebrew God does it peacefully. It seems to me that this contrast/similarity would have to be intentional.

    • That is true, the peaceful versus violent. But even more striking is that there is only one god in the creation account of the Hebrews, as opposed to the warring gods of their neighbors.

      God’s non-contigency versus the creation’s contingency is woven throughout the OT.

      • Kevin Miller

        Yes, the monotheistic view in the first Genesis creation account is remarkable, especially considering the rest of Genesis conveys an implicit (or perhaps even explicit) henotheism. The same goes for God’s non-contingency. However, my point had more to do with creatio ex nihilo, b/c it seems to me the first creation account explicitly denies such a notion by implying God didn’t create something from nothing. Rather, God created order and established God’s self as transcendent over what already existed. That said, I don’t take either creation account in Genesis as a story of “what actually happened.” Rather, like Peter Enns, I see them as a sort of apologetic written vs. the dominant blood-soaked mythology of the day. So the accounts say less about God and more about how the ancient Hebrews viewed themselves and the origins of their religion vis a vis their contemporaries.