Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

The question of the nature of God is one of the oldest questions in Christianity. A core part of this question has been the relationship of God to the created world. The pre-Christian Greek philosopher Plato professed the historically influential view of dualism, with the universe split into unchangeable, ultimately real ideas and constantly shifting, relativistic things. Plato’s student Aristotle rejected or modified many aspects of Plato’s teaching but carried on the tradition of an unchanging absolute beyond the realm of the everyday world. Aristotle, developing an idea that would have a great impact on Christian thinking about God, described the supreme deity as an unmoved mover, a cause of the world but beyond the world. Aristotle’s god was eternally concerned with the perfection of unchanging self-contemplation and therefore had no active involvement with the created world.

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In the third century, the Neoplatonist Plotinus further developed ideas about the relation between the divine absolute and the relativity of the physical world by describing human beings as existing in a gross material world but ascending toward the divine world of pure mind. In the view of Plotinus, the movement consisted entirely of the human toward the divine; the absolute could have no motivation for a relationship with the mundane.

Neoplatonic and Aristotelian thought became deeply embedded in Christian ideas of the nature of God and the relationship of God to the world. Early medieval Christian philosophers conceived of the universe in Neoplatonic terms as a hierarchy from divine spiritual perfection to the relativistic, changing world. Medieval Christian thinking reached its high point in the thirteenth century in the Aristotlean philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Perfection as the nature of God was also the central feature of one of the primary medieval arguments for God’s existence, the ontological argument of Saint Anselm in the twelfth century. Anselm maintained that God is defined as the greatest and most perfect of all conceivable beings and that a god who does not exist would not be the greatest being conceivable because one can conceive of a still greater being: A god who does exist.

The connected themes of the perfection of God and the absolute, unchanging nature of God posed major problems for Christianity. Christianity is based on faith in a grace offered by God to humans and on the unceasing activity of God in the world. If perfection is so central to God that it establishes divine existence and perfection is a matter of absolute unchangeability, then how can God be connected to a perpetually changing world? If God is in the world, then how can God exist separate from the world as a source of grace? Hartshorne attempts to address these problems by reanalyzing the concept of God as perfection and arguing that relativity is not contrary to perfection and that perfection entails both absolute and relative aspects.

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