Journal of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Jan. 1985), 131-133.
A review of
Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration
of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God.
Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983. Pp. 127.
A Review of
Ronald H. Nash,
The Concept of God
Lewis S. Ford
Before examining particular divine attributes, Nash
sketches the contrast between Thomistic and process theism, proposing to
“seek a mediating concept of God that would preserve the legitimate
concerns while avoiding the most serious difficulties of the process and
the Thomistic concepts of God” (p. 36). The end result, however, is
heavily on the side of classical theism. His primary modification,
following W. Norris Clarke, endorses the distinction between God’s real
being and his intentional being, regarding only the former as
immutable. As a first approximation this corresponds to Whitehead’s
contrast between the primordial and consequent natures, and no change in
the consequent nature implies any change in the immutable primordial
nature. Process theists, however, have not been inclined to call God
therefore immutable because of Hartshorne’s argument about the inclusive
category change: if only a small portion changes, and most is
unchanging, still the whole is changing.
Nash affirms this modification in order to agree with
Clarke that “in some real and genuine way God is affected positively by
what we do, that He receives love from us and experiences joy
precisely because of our responses: in a word, that His
consciousness is contingently and qualitatively different because
of what we do” (The Philosophical Approach to God [Winston-Salem,
N. C., 1979], p. 90); italics mine). The process theist sees divine
knowledge as the cognitive component of such experience, but Nash stops
short of holding that God can only know the actual when it has become
actual. For if God did not know the future, God would nonetheless hold
beliefs about the future, some of which might turn out to be false. How
then could God be omniscient, this being defined as holding no false
beliefs (p. 59)?
This is a very powerful objection if we assume the future
to be what will be. God would have enough experience with the world to
avoid that assumption. God’s beliefs concern what might be. Even what
might have been with very high probability is not falsified by the
occurrence of its contrary, so no false beliefs need ever be involved.
(What might be and what might have been are merely different indexical
expressions of the same truth. The contrast between what might be and
what is, however, is the ontological contrast between possibility and
A second objection to process omniscience (God knows all
possibles as possible and all actuals as actual but no possibles as
actual) is that it undercuts God’s predictive power as portrayed in
Scripture (p. 56). Here it might be most useful simply to refer to the
work of a fellow conservative evangelical, Richard Rice, who espouses an
open future in process terms with respect to God’s knowledge as in
accordance with the Scriptures (see Rice’s The Openness of God
[Nashville, Tenn., 1980]).
The discussion of the other attributes takes place within
the context of the recent discussion in the analytic philosophy of
religion: omnipotence, eternity, simplicity, necessity. Simplicity is
dispensable, while it is left undecided whether eternity should be
conceived as timelessness or everlastingness.
Given the way the book is set up, we may wonder why there
is not more conversation with process theism. In part this is due to
Nash’s pedagogical aims, for he is more concerned to summarize the
current literature than to embark on a sustained inquiry of his own.
Here the literature is scanty, particularly on the side of classical
theism. Why should this be so? One major reason may be that classical
theism, with its heavy commitment to aseity, is quite content, as Nash
is, to consider such attributes as omnipotence simply in terms of their
inner coherence for God alone, whereas the process theist can only
consider the question of divine power in relation to the world,
particularly with respect to freedom (creativity) and evil. This
introduces necessarily messy metaphysical considerations, which a
contemplation of God alone can avoid.
A second reason may lie in their radically incommensurable
concepts of divine power. Classical theism conceives of God’s power in
“solitary” terms, creating the world ex nihilo, radically different from
the ongoing activity of the world. Whitehead’s understanding of power
as “shared” blurs this distinction, seeing every coming into being of a
new event as necessarily requiring three distinct factors: past events,
self-creativity, and divine persuasion. Such divine persuasion may well
be just what is needed, but from the perspective of “solitary” power it
will simply be rejected as finite.
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