There has been much controversy on Jeff Johnson’s new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology.” Like a bombshell dropped on a city, it has blown up and brought to light very important topics, most notably on the doctrine of God. We recently did a podcast episode discussing the book which you can find here. One topic that stands out in Jeff’s book is his predication of motion in God. What does he mean by motion when talking about God? I want to clarify that here.
“The Bible does not teach divine immovability…The biblical doctrine of divine simplicity and immutability does not mean, as Aquinas believed, divine immobility.”The Failure of Natural Theology, page 137
This is but one example of Jeff affirming motion in God. He tries to defend the thesis that there is really motion in God while also trying to uphold the attribute of immutability. This is problematic because something that moves must by definition go from potentiality to actuality, thereby taking on a state of being it did not have before. This undermines divine immutability and divine simplicity as this would require God to change, moving from potential to actualization, and it would necessarily add something to God that is not God. Now you would have change and parts in God through this new state of actualization. Jeff’s view undermines the biblical and classical doctrine of who God is.
“The Trinity is the only being (because he is both one and many) who can move himself ad intra…But a self-moving God is what we find in the Trinitarian God of the Bible.”The Failure of Natural Theology, pages 161-162
While Jeff does not seem to spell out in so many words, “motion in God means this,” it is possible to see his meaning based on the overall discussion of his argument. Jeff thinks that motion in God must necessarily be so because motion in creation cannot be from an unmoved mover (pages 68-69). Jeff denies actus purus (page 66), the concept that God is pure act with no potency and is therefore partless and changeless.
“But if Aristotle’s god cannot move, how will he actively move anything inside or outside himself?”The Failure of Natural Theology pages 68-69
So God must be able to move if He is to create. He cannot be the efficient cause of the universe (page 68). This is but one aspect upon which Jeff denies actus purus (another example being on page 148 where he talks about problems an unmoved mover would create with communicating to man). Now, when Jeff means God moves, he literally means God moves. Although, he may deny spatial movement he certainly affirms temporal movement. He does try to say that this movement in God is a different kind of movement than what we find in creation (e.g., pages 137-138), but it is still movement at its core. The terms of “self-moving” as coupled with his express denial of actus purus remove any notion that this is not actual movement. And as noted before, he denies actus purus so he is not talking about movement in God in terms of actus purus. On page 162, he attempts to defend his idea of motion by distinguishing between God’s essence as immutable but the persons of the Trinity as not. “The Father, as a distinct person, is intrinsically moved to love and glorify the Son…” (page 162). And on the same page he says there are eternal processions of the Son and Spirit, but he seems to not mean it in the same sense the Nicean fathers would have. He even discusses the meaning of the word “automobile” on page 162. He contrasts between a vehicle which is not truly self-moving because it depends on other things to really move and God who can really move Himself without the need for something outside of Himself. “Strictly speaking, the word automobile applies only to God. Only the triune God is autonomously self-moving” (page 162). This places the concept of motion in God with the automobile, just with one allegedly moving Himself and the other depending upon other factors to move. But motion is still there, albeit he tries to say this motion is eternal. Jeff will try to get around the inevitable denial of immutability by saying that the, “eternal state of movement within the Trinity is not a change in the immutability of God” (page 163). But on the previous page, he made a distinction between the persons and the essence of God by noting, “God is both immutable in his essence without being restricted to a static and motionless state within the relations of the three persons.” (page 162) So are the persons not God then if they are moving but his essence is not? How does this not compromise divine simplicity now that there are real distinctions in God that are not relational only? We are left wanting. But one thing is clear: motion means motion.
Motion as we understand it cannot be predicated of God. To move from one state of being to another, from potency to actuality, is to compromise the doctrine of God. Motion is creature by its very definition as Scripture sees it (Psalm 102:26-27 and James 1:17, both of which were discussed in the linked podcast episode). We must not think that we can make God like us. If He can be like us, then we have a creature and an idol.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
Romans 1:22-23 NKJV