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Exodus 3:14 and God as Being

July 28, 2008

**The purpose of this post is not to give a grammatical historical interpretation of the above mentioned text nor to set up the opinion of the Reformers et al as the bastion of Truth.  The purpose is to demonstrate that certain traditions of interpretation were carried on by the Reformers et al, thus marking a plane of continuity between them and the Scholastics.  Secondly, although I disagree with particular methods and opinions of John Frame I must admit my indebtedness to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  If it were not for Van Til and Van Tillians such as Frame I probably would not even be reading books. They definitely awakened me out of a fundamentalist lethargy and anti-intellectualism. Ironic, aye?

John Frame thinks Aquinas’s (and other “Scholastics”) interpretation of Exodus 3:14 (God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”) is way too old-timey (i.e. Medieval). For those who don’t know Aquinas interpreted the sum qui sum (greek: ho on) of this passage to mean that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent Being). He says in his Summa:

This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God … because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other, it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form. (ST I. Q.13, a.11)  

Therefore, because God does not receive existence from a different source than himself his existence is his essence, and it is he who gives existence (i.e. being) to all of creation.  Also, “Existence” is not a univocal term, as if God exists in the same way the Statue of Liberty does.  Aquinas explains:

As we read in the book of Causes, God’s existing is individually distinguished from all other existing by the very fact that it is an existing subsistent in itself, and not one supervening on a nature other than existing itself. (Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia, Q. 7, a.2)

One could and should ask why Aquinas interprets God’s revelation of himself in this passage as ipsum esse subsistens.  Fran O’Rourke says that he does this for two reasons.  First, because God refers to himself as sum qui sum (Vulgate).  Second, because Dionysius interprets it ontologically as well.  He says, “Aquinas discovered in reliance upon Dionysius both the theological and ontological signification of this passage.” (O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 131) Of course Aquinas was just as much an Augustinian as he was a follower of Dionysius and Aristotle.  For example, compare Aquinas’s interpretation of sum qui sum from his Summa with St. Augustine’s statement in the City of God:

… understand that which God spoke by the angel when He sent Moses to the children of Israel:  “I am that I am.”  For since God is the supreme existence, that is to say, supremely is, and is therefore unchangeable, the things that He made He empowered to be, but not to be supremely like Himself. (XII.2)

Therefore, the interpretation of the sum qui sum of Exodus 3:14 as Subsistent Being in Aquinas is just as much Augustinian as Neo-Platonic.  And guess what else.  It’s Calvinistic.  Here’s how Calvin interprets this same passage in Exodus:

The verb in the Hebrew is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be:” but it is of the same force as the present, except that it designates the perpetual duration of time.  This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature. (Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses)

This interpretation of Calvin’s is almost identical with that of Augustine and Aquinas.  In fact Richard Muller points out that this position was also held by many of the later orthodox reformed theologians.  He states:

Following out the medieval tradition, Mastricht rests the doctrine of the essence and independence of God on Exodus 3:13-14, specifically on God’s answer to Moses’ question concerning his name:  Mastricht renders the answer, “ero qui ero,” “I will be who I will be,” noting that the Hebrew might also be rendered “sum qui sum.” His sensitivity to the implications of the Hebrew verb reflects the arguments of Reformers like Bullinger and Musculus and of early orthodox writers like Zanchi and Polanus, just as his doctrinal conclusions echo the results of exegesis in his time:  Diodati, for example, interpreted the text as saying “I am the only true God, truly subsisting, & not only through the opinion of men as Idols are; I am he that have an everlasting beeing, unchangeable, substisting of its self, not depending from others, infinite, most simple, the author and cause of the beeing of all things:  not a borrowed, changeable, finite, dependent, and compounded being, etc. as all other creatures have.” (Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 233)

Muller notes that this Reformed interpretation is not a proof-texting for certain metaphysical and rationalist presuppositions.  He notes, “Here too, we are not encountering a rank proof-texting, but rather an application of the older hermeneutic whereby either direct declarations of Scripture or conclusions capable of being drawn from the text are understood as the basis of vaild [sic] teaching.” (Ibid., p. 237) John Frame, in critiquing Aquinas’s interpretation is also critiquing an Augustinian and Reformed interpretation.  Furthermore, he is not quite clear about why he believes it to be erroneous.  He says:

This text, plus a number of premises from Platonic (especially Neoplatonic) and Aristotelean philosophy, forms the basis for a rather complicated metaphysical theory of the divine being that has influenced many theological discussions of the doctrine of God.  The relationship of this theory to Scripture is rather tenuous, especially if we reject, as I think we should, Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14. (The Doctrine of God, p. 220)

Frame then goes on to state charitably that Aquinas had a deep desire to maintain a Creator/creature distinction.  He even catalogues certain Scholastic definitions such as essence, substance, being, form, etc. in order to give his readership a greater contextual knowledge.  However, despite Frame’s statement of his opinion that Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14 should be trashed he never offers a more thorough critique than:

… we should remember that Aquinas and his followers distinguished quite sharply between divine and human being, between Being and beings.  All the same, the structure seems rather univocal for a thinker, Aquinas, who elsewhere insists that all, or at least most of our language about God is analogical. (Ibid., p. 223)

This critique, Frame informs the reader, is based on the fact that Aquinas does not discuss the anologia entis in his De ente et essentia. (Ibid., p. 224) Firstly, I almost can’t make sense of that argument (is that even an argument?).  Secondly, the De ente et essentia, according to Jean-Pierre Torrell, was one of Aquinas’s early works in which he makes certain statements in agreement with Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina that he would later be more cautious about (due to certain controversies).  Thirdly, Aquinas is very clear in his Summa and in the passage quoted above from Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia that God’s Being is hyperousion (beyond being). Frame’s opinion here stated is simply wrong. 

Frame continues stating, “I have no problem affirming that God is a necessary being, but on the basis of Scripture … rather than on specifically Thomistic premises.” (Ibid., p. 224) With this statement one can sense Frame’s presuppositions regarding Medieval Scholasticism – he also says that the scholastic concepts are “an unnecessary complication.”  As I shall discuss in a following post Frame presupposes that the Scholastics used terms based on autonomous reasoning to subvert the Biblical text and distort the original meaning, accepting instead the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.  I shall deal with this contention later.  For now it has been my point to demonstrate at least two points in regard to John Frame’s critique of Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14: (1) Because Frame fails to realize and note the fact that his critique of Aquinas is also a critique of a traditionally Christian and Reformed hermeneutic his presentation of the problem as “Scholasticism” cannot be more than a caricature. (2) Because Frame’s disagreements with Aquinas on this point are never substantiated beyond mere conjecture and opinion he leaves the reader suspicious at best of a straw man fallacy.  This also makes the reader suspicious of Frame’s motive in attacking Aquinas.  Is his motive based on scholarship or a bias toward a particular apologetic method?  Stay tuned…

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2008 2:09 pm

    Good stuff. Somewhere in the 19th cent. Reformed guys started getting uncomfortable with traditional theology proper. Both Hodge and Dabney criticize divine simplicity, but they seem to misunderstand it just like Frame and others misunderstand Thomas.

    For God to be existence is not to say He is *our type* of existence. Indeed, simplicity insists on the opposite. All creation is composite. God is simple.

    Thomas was a good Van Tillian on the question of God’s infinity.

  2. July 30, 2008 3:08 pm

    Thanks! Yeah … Frame mentions in his Doc of God that Neo-Platonism saw all Being as univocal. He says Van Til used to draw two diagrams on the chalkboard: (1) Creator-circle and separate creature circle – representing the Christian view, and (2) Being-circle – representing the Neo-Platonist reality. I think he really wants to squeeze Aquinas into the later, but that just doesn’t work.

  3. July 30, 2008 3:45 pm

    Yeah, those diagrams strike me as very suspect. From what I know of Christian neo-Platonists like Augustine and Nyssa, they’d fault VT’s diagram for even having a Creator circle. There is no circle. Its boundless.

  4. August 2, 2008 6:56 am

    Here’s a quote from Van Til about Thomas’s presupps:

    “It is only if first with the early Greeks we assume that all reality has one character, that we can also with Anaximander assert that God is both wholly determinable and wholly indeterminable by man. But as a Christian theologian he [Aquinas] does not believe this. The result is that he confuses that which he believes as a Christian and that which his method requires him to hold as a would-be neutral reasoner.” (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 174)

    Here Van Til presents Aquinas as adding Aristotle to Christianity as if the later was missing something without the former. “It is a synthesis of Aristotle plus Christ.” (Ibid., p. 175) The assumption here is that pagan thought cannot be true, but even if it were Christians do not need it since the Bible explains everything.

    • keith smith permalink
      February 2, 2010 11:04 pm

      Eric,
      Aristotle assumes and wants you to believe it was he who thought of it whatever truth he’s arrived at. This pride leads to speculation about the way things are objectively- a subterfuge to throw God off his path and to convince others of the same would-be truths. His speculation which Thomas swallows as true, is not. Aristotle has cast the Triune God out of his reasoning at the get go and so much of his subsequent “truth” is foolishness the Scriptures say. The wicked heart of man “articulated” is Greek philosophy an attempt at trying to rewrite reality without God. Ethically Aristotle with his anything- can- happen empirical technique has declared that the Triune God
      ( who limits what is possible in His Revelation) can’t exist. So what Aristotle teaches is pregnant with a worldview that is not scientific but biased against this God, or our Lord, as John Frame would contribute.
      Van til would ask you in the end how do you KNOW if Aristotle is true, has truth, or for that matter, if Aquinas does. It’s Revelation or Natural Law, can’t have it both ways.
      Keith Smith

  5. May 21, 2010 3:31 pm

    Keith, Paul thinks we can have Revelation and Natural Law since Natural Law is just General Revelation – God has revealed Himself even to the Gentiles (Rom. 2:15); and Paul does not tell the Greeks that their idea of God is “foolishness” as you say. Rather, he quotes Aratus (a Greek poet) agreeing with the Greeks concept of God (Acts 17:28)! What Paul corrects is a mistaken aspect of their concept of God. He does not deny them General Revelation. It seems that Paul was not a Van Tilian.

    I KNOW that Aristotle’s idea of God is true because Aristotle believed that God is one, and that is a true statement. Reason is God-given. We should never use it as an alternative to God as atheists do. But, Aristotle was no atheist. Apologists must argue differently with Theists than with atheists. Unfortunately, Van Til’s apologetic is one size fits all.

    Eric

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