The Genetic Fallacy of Classical Theism

Additionally, this is a genetic fallacy. The question should be whether God’s immutability is true and not to disregard it because of its source. There is no need to automatically disregard philosophy in understanding God. Open View theologians themselves use the process theology of Whitehead in criticizing the traditional view. Theologians should integrate knowledge and truth from all sources in understanding the One and True God.[1]

Norman Geisler

Oh, preacher preach to yourself.  As a representative of classical theology, Norman Geisler will be used as an example.  There is not enough room, interest or attention to accommodate all the different evangelical theologians.   There is a resemblance in all their arguments.  Should the sky fall or there be an original defense of the classical attributes of God offering a Scriptural defense, this will be addressed in a later post.

The genetic fallacy is an argument to the origins or history of an idea. It is fallacious to endorse or condemn an idea based on its history.  An argument is true based on its merit.  The premises of a good argument must be true and logically or rationally used to support the conclusion.  However, the Scriptural evidence is mixed.  There is evidence which support arguments for and against immutability.  How does one sort out and weigh these conflicting arguments?

Those who support immutability use historical sources as evidence and those who deny immutability use historical sources in the same way.  Norman Geisler technically uses the genetic fallacy to promote his concept of immutability.  Over nine Church Fathers are cited in his defense of immutability. [2] Is it irrelevant to cite historical sources in defense or denial of immutability?  Why stop with the church fathers in defending immutability when there is a long history of Greek philosophy in support of the concept?

Is it a genetic fallacy to demonstrate the origins of the classical theological attributes of God (i.e. immutability) in Platonic philosophy?  No, the origins of the immutability doctrine are particularly relevant to the argument based on the following defenses of immutability:

1)      The church fathers defended immutability.  Most theologians reference the long history of immutability as a defense of its validity.

2)      The many Scriptural references against immutability are reread or ignored based on historically-based preconceptions about God.

3)      The church fathers, in particular Augustine, openly based the doctrine of immutability on Platonic philosophical writings, and openly condemned biblical “literalists”.  Their writings continue to govern modern theology.

4)      The church fathers, in particular Augustine, based his immutability doctrine on the practice of mysticism expounded by Platonic philosophical writings.  Augustinian mysticism continues to be a powerful influence in the church.

5)      The cultural presuppositions of the early church favored immutability.  Philosophy was not far from the scientifically acceptable norms.

Classical theologians assert that the long history of church fathers’ writings validate the concept of immutability.  However, if the church fathers developed this concept, not by Scriptural exegesis, but rather by adapting the philosophy in vogue to their doctrines, then the argument for their authority is also a genetic fallacy.

The Scriptural evidence is not a one-sided as many have advocated.  For example Calvin will struggle with the concept of the repentance of God.  Does God repent or not?  Repent means to change one’s mind.  Does God change?

When it is said that God repented of having made Saul king, the term change is used figuratively. Shortly after, it is added, “The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent,” (1 Sam. 15:29). In these words, his immutability is plainly asserted without figure.[3]

Calvin’s reference to “God repented” is from Scripture.  1st Samuel 15:11

It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. (KJV)

Calvin proclaims verse 11 is a figurative use of the word repent.  This is usually called anthropomorphism by modern theologians.  The “nonfigurative” use of the word repent, 18 verses later,  says  “God does not repent.”  How does Calvin know what is the figurative use and what is the nonfigurative use?  He appeals to the concept  of  Dignum Deo: what is fitting for God.  Using a preconceived notion of what is fitting for God, he compares that notion with the Scriptures making a judgment against the Scripture.  This is the charge “the ordination of God is perpetual and superior to every thing like repentance.”  Obviously, Calvin’s presumption is superior to the Scriptural verse of 1st Samuel 15:11.  The origins of his presumptions are essential to his argument.

The books of the Platonists were the source of Augustine’s preconceptions about the nature of God.  Due to his Platonist indoctrination, the concepts of incorporeal spirituality and immutability were introduced into Augustine’s presuppositions.  Under the spiritual leadership of Ambrose, the nature of God as revealed by the Platonists became the nature of God in the Christian church.  This reconciliation could only be accomplished through severe allegorization of the Scriptures.  Without this spiritual interpretation Augustine would not have become a Christian.

To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop, known to the whole world as among the best of men,… For first, these things also had now begun to appear to me capable of defence; and the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said against the Manichees’ objections…

especially after I had heard one or two places of the Old Testament resolved, and ofttimes “in a figure,” which when I understood literally, I was slain spiritually… I judged the tenets of most of the philosophers to have been much more probable…. I determined therefore so long to be a Catechumen in the Catholic Church[4]

What was in the books of the Platonists?  In these books Augustine would find the immutability of Jesus and the immutability of God:

Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons…

that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father; those books have not. For that before all times and above all times Thy Only-Begotten Son remaineth unchangeable, co-eternal with Thee, and that of His fulness souls receive, that they may be blessed; and that by participation of wisdom abiding in them, they are renewed, so as to be wise, is there.[5]

These philosophers, then, whom we see not undeservedly exalted above the rest in fame and glory, have seen that no material body is God, and therefore they have transcended all bodies in seeking for God. They have seen that whatever is changeable is not the most high God,[6]

Augustine, St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Phillip Schaff, trans. Rev. Marcus Dods (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1890), 218, VIII.6

The Platonic books were not only a source of direct confirmation of the immutability of God, but the books encouraged another method of revelation from God apart from discursive thought.  Expecting to see an immutable god from the books of the Platonist by practicing the ascent, he receives an immediate knowledge of God.  The ascent of the soul moves from reason to “beyond reason”.  This phase “beyond reason” is known as a mystical experience.  Augustine, of course, draws this image from Plotinus’ ascent of the soul.

“By the Platonic books, I was admonished to return into myself…I entered and with my soul’s eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light..eternal truth and true love and beloved eternity: you are my God.”

Aristotle, which many people including Augustine considered to be Platonists, postulated three basic activities of man which represent three types of knowledge: theoria, poiesis and praxis (θεορια, ποιεσις and πραξις).  Science or scientia in Latin (επιστημη in Greek) included all three activities.  Theoria or theoretical, has the goal of truth represented by metaphysics, physics,  and mathematics.  The productive science  (poiesis)  has the goal of producing beautiful objects; paintings and music.  The practical goal is action. This would include engineering activities like houses and dams.

In today’s culture, philosophy and religion are only respectable by paying tribute to science.  In the first centuries of the common era the masses still performed sacrifices to the pagan Greek and Roman gods, but the ‘scientific” and philosophical elite were enamored with the revival of Platonism (the middle Platonists of the first and second centuries and the Neo-Platonism of the middle third century to the close of the philosophical school of Athens in 529).

Neo-Platonism became systematic theology under the spell of  Plotinus  (204-70). Eventually, Neo-Platonists influences are recognized in Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, the Capadocian Church Fathers, Dionysius, Anselm, Bonaventure and Aquinas.  This Neo-Platonic influence was observed by liberal theologians of the last two centuries.

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), German theologian, wrote the History of Dogma demonstrating the Hellenic philosophical influence in the Church in developing the dogmas of the Trinity and of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.  He is a famous academic representative of liberal Protestantism at the turn of the century.  His proposal to exclude the Old Testament from the canon of the German Evangelical Church was a result of his study of the origins of Christian classical theology.  The Jewish God in Scriptures was replaced with a fancied more metaphysical God, closer to the Platonic One.  Rather than drawing closer to the God of Scriptures, he followed a more radical course.  His  antisemitism drove his preference towards the Platonic God.

Another Lutheran theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan (1971–1989) commenting on the influence of Platonism on Christian theology, claimed: “Two Christian doctrines are perhaps the most reliable indications of the continuing hold of Greek philosophy on Christian theology: the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the doctrine of the absoluteness of God.”  The absoluteness of god includes the attributes of immutability and simplicity [7].

American liberal Protestantism was the result of German scholarship of the late 1800s. German scholars denied the inerrancy of Scripture leading to the demise of the church in Germany.  American fundamentalism arose in reaction against this liberalism, led by such conservatives as John Gresham Machen.  Machen revolted against the liberal theology of Princeton and formed Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Today, evangelicals are the spiritual heirs of christian fundamentalism.  While justly protesting the liberal devaluation of the Scriptures, they fail to recognize the Hellenistic influence on Christian theology.  In stressing the Hellenic theology of the early church fathers, evangelicals accomplish what Harnack attempted with liberalism: the promotion of the Platonic conception of God over the Jewish Scriptural conception of God.  These evangelicals would devalue Scripture by reducing the truths in Scripture to Hellenistic concepts including immutability and simplicity.  The goal of these papers is to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of liberalism and reductionism, and return to the “Jewish” God of the Old Testament.


[1] Norman L. Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 95.

[2] Norman L Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 447-448.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 191

[4] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey (New York, NY: Cosimo, Inc., 2006), 45-46, V.

[5] Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. Edward Bouverie Pusey (New York, NY: Cosimo, Inc., 2006), 45-46, V.

[6] Augustine, The Confessions, (VII, x, 16)

[7] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1971), 51.

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