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Who is responsible for the death of God?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 21 October 2002


Last month I discussed the "death of God" theology that arose in the last century. This month I would like to gives some pointers about how such an event as the death of God could be achieved. The God that was pronounced dead was the objectivised subject, the supernatural agent who was able to suspend the laws of physics and who was responsible for the origin of the cosmos. This God was an object in the universe like other objects whose properties were derived from philosophical reflection. Thus God was omnipotent omniscience, all loving, all wise, mighty etc etc. This God was the God of superlatives.

However, being an object in the universe, this being was open to scientific investigation just as, for example is the planet Jupiter. As modern cosmology and Darwin’s theory of evolution did away with the need for an intelligent creator many concluded, and I agree, that this God did not exist. Although there are physicists who persist in the theory of the existence of God from design, the great majority of scientists have, like Laplace, "no need of that hypothesis".

The loss of the argument from design removed an important argument for the existence of God. There were other arguments, the most profound from theology itself, that added to the fall of this conception of God. One of these was simple, if God is all-powerful, loving etc, how do you explain the senseless suffering of the world? This objection produced protest atheism that had its origin in a deep disappointment in the way the world runs.

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My point about the death of God that is much heralded by natural scientists, especially biologists, is that it was possible only because the early scientists, produced heretical theologies. Who objectified God? It was Isaac Newton and his contemporaries. Above all, it was Newton who abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ to produce God as agent in the cosmos.

It was Newton who wanted God to correct the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn so that they would not wander off from the solar system or fall into the Sun. When it was found that the perturbations in these orbits were periodic and thus did not need correction, Newton removed the act of God to the provision of the lateral motion of the planets in the original act of creation. Thus, like so much physics pretending to be theology, the act of God was removed to the beginning of time and away from our inspection.

The change in theology came about when we began to think of the cosmos in terms of cause and effect and we found that we could describe physical phenomena, like the orbits of the planets and the appearance of comets, in terms of mathematics. Where was God in all of this? More importantly, where was God the child for whom no room could be found, and God in despair in the garden and dying a criminal’s death on the cross? There was a mismatch between Newton’s grand mathematical descriptions of the heavens and the scandal that Christ represented to thinking men and women.

It was obvious that Jesus did not fit and the only conclusion was Newton’s much hidden Unitarianism and Arianism. God became a cause in the universe even if that was a first cause. When you couple this with the celebration and promotion of Newton in Britain and Europe to almost divine status, it was no wonder that traditional theology was eclipsed.

That the theology of Newton is unsupportable is obvious from the neglect of his theological texts and from the demise of his disciple Samuel Clark’s theology. While academics may have known this, the damage was done to popular understanding. The death of God was but the working out of the wrong turn produced by eminent scientists

If I might labour the point, the irony of the present standoff between science and theology originated when scientists turned their back on the more subtle theologies that went before them and on the biblical texts that disallowed the objectification of God as any image held in the mind of human beings. It is a bit rich for scientists, who set up an impossible understanding of God in the first place, to now disavow His existence.

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There lingers the doubt (not in my mind!) that the discipline of theology is as moribund as its putative object. For this doubt to be dispelled, theological writing will have to be done without the presupposition of the God that is the subject of "death of God" theology. A key area in this is the doctrine of creation. How can we have such a doctrine if the agent of the act is missing? The key is, that in creating, God did not create a thing. Rather, God creates a history or a people with a history. God creates the nation Israel and God creates the holy people of the church.

In the Old Testament what follows from the two creation narratives is the history of Israel that begins in the faith of Abraham. What follows from the act of creation in the resurrection of Jesus is to be found in Acts, the history of the church. If our theology is truly Trinitarian then it is not only the Father that creates but all three, equally and together. That this is so in the New Testament is obvious from texts like John 1:1 which mimics Genesis 1:1 and by Col.1:16: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him." Thus creation is not an event in the past performed by the Father but a continuing event that involves Father, Son and Spirit. Anything else would be Modalism and an error in Trinitarian theology.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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