Since the 17th century, classical theism has been seen as the mainstream doctrine of God in the Christian scholarly tradition. John W. Cooper describes the God of classical theism in his book, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers: “In brief, classical theism asserts that God is transcendent, self-sufficient, eternal, and immutable in relation to the world; thus he does not change through time and is not affected by his relation to his creatures.” From hardened deists to students at divinity school to self-proclaimed non-religionists, many in contemporary society have interpreted classical theism to signify a stand-offish God who has no ears for the complaints of men and remains perfectly unaffected by their actions.
But this isn’t the God of the Bible. In this text, we have a God who is constantly in conversation with humans and an active participant in the events in their lives, both as the subject and object of influence. He is sensitive to the sighs of His creations, touched by their griefs, and affected by the consequences of their actions.
Consider the events which unfolded in the midst of perhaps the greatest crisis of King Hezekiah of Judah’s reign. One day, while Hezekiah lay bedridden, God told His prophet Isaiah to go to Hezekiah in his bedchamber and tell him the outcome of his illness. The news of impending death could not have come at a worse point in Hezekiah’s life. At this time, Jerusalem was in imminent danger at the hands of the king of Assyria, and Hezekiah still lacked an heir. If he died, who knows what havoc and confusion the Israeli nation would be thrown into, without a descendant of David to lead them?
Hezekiah turns his face to the wall in despair. He bitterly weeps out the following prayer, “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” His prayer is answered — before the prophet Isaiah even left the middle court of the palace. This is significant because it shows that immediately after Isaiah left him alone, Hezekiah turned to God, and immediately after Hezekiah uttered the last word of his prayer, God responded through Isaiah. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears,” God says to Hezekiah. God took the human time to listen to Hezekiah’s lament and then displayed a cosmological efficiency by acting in the micro-second after a finished prayer.
After God heard Hezekiah’s prayer, He reversed the prior sentence of death and gave Hezekiah 15 more years to live. He also swore to Hezekiah that the mortal enemy of the Israelites, the Assyrians, would not take Jerusalem. Three years later, Hezekiah’s wife, Hephzibah, gave birth to a son. And seven centuries later, Hezekiah’s descendant Joseph married the mother of Jesus. God used Hezekiah’s seed to bring about the birth of His own Son.
Admittedly, God does not answer in this expedient way in most instances. There are times in a person’s life when serious faith through long, arduous nights seems unrewarded and even mocked by the unanswering air. On the one thousandth utterance of the same desperate plea, a weary pilgrim fraught with the burdens and sighs of one thousand nights begins to doubt either the power of his own prayers or the ability of God in answering them. Are our groans short of the bitterness and gravity of Hezekiah’s? Or is God truly uninterested in the state of our affairs? No wonder there are many who resort to a classical theist God of inaction, immutability, and invulnerability to explain his seeming absence.
But this view of God is not equal to the God of Hezekiah and of the Bible who plays an alternately effectuating and responsive role. A counterview to the problem of an apathetic God asserts that, because He is omniscient and knows what’s best for us, we should allow God room to answer “No,” or, “Wait.” God knows which of our desires are good and which are stumbling blocks, and God, like a father, desires to give to his children only the gifts which are good for them. God also knows when we are unready for a specific fulfillment of prayer and waits for us to grow and mature into readiness before He hands us the inheritance we have been asking for.
This is the rational answer, at least, but it may not be immediately emotionally or spiritually satisfying. We can reasonably intellectualize that God must be an ever-present being, but we do not always feel that He is eternally acting with our best future in mind. Even when we are told that God does strain his ears to hear our weeping and does send answers to our tears, we may still have doubts about the sufficiency of those answers, especially when they are so different in timing and shape than what we envision. How can the answer, “Wait,” be satisfying to us who live in the present? How can we emerge from another uneventful hour spent on our knees to say that it is good to be the supplicant?
Perhaps we can find the answers to these questions when we shift our attention away from ourselves and onto someone in a similar situation, someone who may be able to provide complete empathy and solid support, if not a perfect solution. Let’s look to the Son of God, our sympathizer, and there we shall find that even the prayers of God’s own Son were not always answered according to the Son’s wishes. They were, however, always answered with deference to God’s sovereignty. The first of two last requests Jesus made of God his father was that his Church would be one. He lifted his face toward heaven and literally pleaded with God, over and over again. “That they may be one…That they may be one…” Later that night, in an obscure garden, Jesus would pray another prayer three times right before his arrest: “Abba, Father, take this cup from me.” Jesus is still patiently waiting for the first prayer to be answered. But the response he got to his second prayer was simply, “No. My will is thus.” If Jesus, our paradigm, had to contend with these unwished-for responses from God, perhaps they are the rightful answers to some of our own invocations, and, like Jesus, we should not be fazed by their lackluster appearance or brand God as coolly impassive.
Having recognized that God’s will was not to take away the pain of Judgment, Jesus bent his will to the will of His Father and carried the Cross to Calvary. As a result, God was killed in the act of taking on all the pain and blame of the fault-ridden actions of His creation. The Godhead was torn asunder as Jesus descended into Hades because of our sins. Classical theism takes the divine characteristics of the Christian God, transcendent, self-sufficient, and eternal, and paints an incomplete picture of Him, because classical theism forgets this — God is vulnerable in his relationship with his creation. With Christ’s ascension and conquest of death, we have a God who is utterly affected by our actions.
Ruirui Kuang ‘12, a History concentrator living in Mather House, is the Assistant Design Editor of The Ichthus.