Monday, November 09, 2009

Book Review: Our Idea of God (T. V. Morris)

Many Christians have only a faint idea of what God is like. However, knowledge about God is too important to be reserved for experts only. It is crucial to a proper relationship with God and the world. But how do we start? Thomas V. Morris wrote “Our Idea Of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology” to provide non-specialists with an accessible introduction to philosophical theology.

There are different ways of doing theology or rational discourse about God. For example, systematic theology seeks to integrate diverse biblical teachings on a given topic (i.e. God’s power) into a coherent whole. In this book, the focus is to explore a concept of God that is both biblically faithful and rationally plausible. It seeks to do so by exploring theological concepts, presuppositions and their inter-related connections through primarily the methods and tools of philosophical reflections and observations about the universe. The present review would briefly survey how the author has approached the subject and evaluate the degree in which he has achieved his objective.

Morris started Chapter 1 as a defense for the possibility that finite beings like us could have a rational discourse about God. Basically, he sought to demonstrate as logically self-defeating the skeptics’ assertions that no human concepts or language could apply to the infinite God. How could one ‘know’ that God is utterly unknowable? However, the mere possibility of thinking and talking reasonably about God does not mean we can find sure ground for confidence. In Chapter 2, the author discussed the method of how we could go about doing it. At this stage, he proposed a methodology attributed to Anselm called ‘perfect being theology’ which I would elaborate on later. Subsequently, he put this method to the test in discussing major theistic concepts like God’s goodness, power, knowledge, being, eternity and creation. In the final chapter, he sought to vindicate the particularly Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation as logically possible without watering down any of the mentioned divine attributes.

The discussion on methodology is the most crucial part of his thesis that deserves further discussion. Firstly, Morris rejected the approach to develop a concept of God from every claimant to divine revelation because it offers no measuring standard for conflicting truth claims. Secondly, he explored the approach of a purely biblical theology. However, the Bible is not a philosophical theology textbook. We may ask legitimate questions for constructing a comprehensive worldview that is compatible with biblical portrayal yet not strictly confined by what it already said. Thirdly, based on the biblical portrait of God as creator, we may also do ‘creational theology’ by inferring a First Cause whose nature would be sufficient to explain the existence of the universe. However, this approach would not tell us much about God’s character or how much power is required to do so . Finally, Morris proposed the procedure called perfect being theology. Following Saint Anselm, God is described as ‘that which no greater can be conceived’ or the Being with the greatest possible combination of intrinsically good properties.

Some immediate questions that arise would be “What is greater? Is He bigger? Is power intrinsically good?” Morris explained that we would consult our ‘value intuitions’ about what these great-making properties are. Here, he is not referring to some mystical subjectivism but naturally formed belief, ‘whose acceptance does not derive entirely from linguistic convention, evidence, testimony, memory, inference or sense experience’ . For example, we intuitively know that it is wrong to torture babies for fun and that 2+2 = 4. These beliefs should be considered ‘innocent until proven unreliable’. By consulting our intuitions, could we not arrive at the concept of God as ‘a thoroughly benevolent conscious agent with unlimited knowledge and power who is the necessarily existent, ontologically independent creative source of all else’ ?

Although I have some disagreements with the favorable review on Molinism, the methodology itself to be generally helpful to vindicate, augment and develop rationally what biblical revelation has unveiled . The treatments on God’s attributes were enlightening to gain a clearer picture on, for example, what we could conceive of omnipotence. Omnipotence doesn’t mean that God could actualize contradictions inconsistent with His own nature. The author has succeeded in showing that rational discourse about God is possible and fruitful in refining such ideas. I would suggest that the last chapter on “God Incarnate and Triune” would have immense apologetic value in dialogue with Muslim neighbors in Malaysian context. At least, it would help to remove some obstacles for those who believe that these doctrines are logically impossible.

However, I wonder if the perfect being method could even get off the ground if we start by consulting value intuitions. To his credit, Morris recognized that intuitions have defeasible epistemic status. An open theist friend would mistakenly feel that the ‘ability to be surprised’ is a great-making property a relational God should have which would necessarily limit His exhaustive foreknowledge. Could not another person who felt femininity as ‘intrinsically good’ employ the method to construct a goddess instead? If not by revelation, how would we ever be able to intuitively develop a concept of Trinity or Incarnation by proceeding from perfect being theology? Gerald Bray also made this caution, “To conceive of relative greatness is to assume that the scale is open-ended; it will always be possible to conceive of something greater than the maximum” . Although Morris does recognize that perfect being theology could be corrected, complimented and augmented by creational or biblical theology, it seems that we need to be more explicit in incorporating biblical theology as its starting point and controlling presupposition.

In summary, the author has been meticulous to argue for his method and applied it in a way that restated the basic contours of classical theism in a way that is sensitive to how these concepts interact with each other. He offered many helpful illustrations to make the abstract ideas more comprehensible to the target audience. Alternative views were fairly presented and evaluated in a concise and incisive manner. I believe that this book would benefit those who would seek to complement devotional fervor with rigorous reflections about our understanding of God and His attributes.

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