Is God’s infinitude unscriptural?

Some argue that God as described in the Bible is not like the Catholic idea: Infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being. (For simplicity of reference, I will refer to “infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being” all under the term “infinite”.) The Bible, they say, paints a different picture of God, not as an invisible, immaterial source-of-all-being, but as one to whom a man may speak face-to-face, and who works with what he finds in the cosmos (defined as “all that exists”) rather than creating everything from nothing.

I won’t identify to whom I’m referring that denies God’s infinitude, because I don’t want to get sidetracked on questions of whether a particular person said or meant what I think they did. I only want to discuss the ideas.

Quantity versus quality

Another way of putting it, is they claim that the difference between us and God is quantitative, not qualitative. If God is infinite and we’re finite, then there is a qualitative difference between us, not merely quantitative. This is because there can be no proportion between the finite and the infinite. If we are finite and God is infinite, then he is not 100 times greater than we, or 1,000 times, or a million times — resulting in a 100:1 proportion, or 1,000:1, or a 1,000,000:1 proportion, all of which might be huge but are nevertheless finite proportions. Rather, he is infinitely greater. Therefore there can’t be merely a quantitative difference between us, because you can’t quantify the infinite.

But they deny that God is infinite, and therefore maintain the idea of a quantitative difference only. God is what we are, only he’s much, much (though to a finite extent) stronger, smarter and more knowledgeable, and is also immune from sickness and death.

Those Greek eggheads

A problem that some express with the idea of God’s being infinite (as above defined) is that it comes not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy.

Rather than taking the Bible at face value, they argue, the early Church allowed itself to be influenced by Greek intellectual culture, and reinterpreted the scriptures and the Gospel in Greek philosophical terms, for the sake, I suppose, of making it more acceptable to that culture. And why make it acceptable? Perhaps out of pride? Or giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe for the purpose of spreading the Gospel more easily — even at the cost of corrupting it?

The Greeks and Providence?

Recently I listened to a series of lectures by Timothy Shutt of Kenyon College, titled “Hebrews, Greeks and Romans: Foundations of Western Civilization“. In it he quotes John chapter 1:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Jn. 1:1-5.

Shutt explains that “the Word” is a somewhat misleading translation of the Greek “logos”, which in Greek philosophy refers to “the rational principle that governs and develops the universe” (I don’t remember Shutt’s exact words but this was the gist of it); and that John 1 is therefore identifying Jesus with this rational principle.

Shutt says the Jewish society of Jesus’ day had long been in contact with Greek culture, having in fact been ruled by the Greeks for some time after their conquest by Alexander the Great. And of course, the New Testament itself was written in Greek.

It would seem, then, that if Christian teachings were influenced by Greek culture, that influence was taking place even while the New Testament was being written. Is that a bad thing? Might it not have been the result of God’s providence? Since the Gospel, in a manner of speaking, was to take the Hebraic covenant worldwide, was it God’s will that the explanatory power of Greek philosophy should be placed at its service?

In any event, the early Church staunchly resisted some Greek philosophical ideas. For example the notion, propounded by Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Stoics apparently, of matter being co-eternal with God, and God’s being limited, in his creation of the universe, to working with prexisting matter. In opposition to this, the Church stubbornly maintained the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Philosophy at the service of theology

Of course, the Catholic response to the accusation of the Gospel being corrupted by Greek thought, is that the Church indeed used Greek concepts, but only to explain Christian ones. I recently came across a Mormon who explained his understanding of Mormon doctrine regarding the possibility of God’s having once been a man, using the scientific terminology of the “multiverse“, the Big Bang” and the “Big Crunch” (see comments by Bookslinger). Was this person corrupting Mormon doctrine by allowing it to be influenced by the modern scientific understanding of reality? Or was he merely taking what is useful from modern secular science for explanatory purposes, but using it in such a way as not to change his Church’s essential teaching?

I contend that the latter was what the early Church did in applying Greek philosophical concepts to God: The fact that they utilized such concepts for explanatory purposes, does not prove that in doing so they were changing or corrupting the things they were explaining. Correlation is not causation.

Natural and supernatural revelation

But can we read the Bible and come up with an infinite God? Do we believe this based solely on the scriptures, or on man-made tradition? (Setting aside for the moment whether traditional Church teaching may correctly be referred to as “man-made”.)

I’m not sure it can be proven decisively one way or the other from sola scriptura. But I would suggest that it’s a belief one may reasonably arrive at through the use of both reason and scripture.

Suppose one arrives at belief in God through one or more of the Five Ways, which are among what St. Thomas calls the preambles of faith, i.e. “[t]he main premises of reason on which the act of divine faith depends as on its rational foundation.

The Five Ways imply God’s infinitude.

Once one has thus arrived at belief in the existence of an infinite God through reason, would he not then be justified in concluding that if such a God exists, and if the God of the Bible exists, they must be one and the same? If the Bible doesn’t explicitly refer to God’s infinitude, surely it doesn’t say that he’s not infinite?

“Ah, but see what you’ve done: You’ve imposed your philosophical presuppositions on the scriptures.” Well, we Catholics believe in natural as well as supernatural revelation. “For from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead ….” Rom. 1:20.

Still, the scriptures are not devoid of evidence of God’s infinitude either. There’s John 1, as quoted above: He is the Logos, “the rational principle that governs and develops the universe”, apart from whom “nothing came into being that has come into being”; as well as Mark 10:27, “to God, all things are possible” (and other verses to similar effect, e.g. Luke 1:37 and Matthew 19:26). If some scriptures seem to say one thing and some another, I see nothing wrong with applying reason to the problem.

(Of course in reality, a Catholic doesn’t rely on his own rational accomplishments, nor even on his own interpretation of the scriptures to establish this doctrine, but on the fact that it’s been the constant teaching of the Church for centuries. I present the argument in this way because the ones I am arguing with are not Catholic.)

2 thoughts on “Is God’s infinitude unscriptural?

  1. Pingback: Paul and his use of Greek Philosophy | Agellius's Blog

  2. Pingback: Is philosophy necessary to Christianity? | Petty Armchair Popery

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