In what he describes as “common ground with atheists”, Archdeacon Rod Bower in the Diocese of Newcastle has told a documentary interviewer,
When we explore, perhaps, what I mean when I use the word “God” we can come close to a common ground [with atheists] because I’m not talking about some divine being. God is the very act of existing. And so there’s a point of meeting for atheists and people of faith.
The interview is part of a short film “The Bower Effect” made for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival by Kate Follington. The words cited above begin at 4:20 into the video.
Archdeacon Bower has published the video on his parish’s Facebook page where he was immediately asked about whether his position on the nature of God was compatible with Christian and Anglican doctrine.
Bower’s answer to the question (screengrab also available here) was to argue
First this is biblical. This is the proper translation of the Tetragramme in Exodus 3. The Divine name is a verb not a noun. Secondly this is the view of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiea. If you want to argue with Aquinas and the writer of Exodus, you my friend are a far greater man then me. Therefore Yes this is the view of the Anglican church and also my personal view.
The Anglican Church’s official view on God is far more than simply “the very act of existing”.
Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
So where is Bower getting this stuff from?
The language of “very act of existing” is indeed used by Aquinas to speak of God, but in a very particular way. In Summa I.Q44 Aquinas is developing his argument on the existence of God. He uses an argument that can clearly be traced by (not least by his own reference) to Aristotle. Aristotle argued that there must be a “prime mover”, i.e. some origin for all the motion and action we see around us. The only other alternative is an infinite regress. Put even more simply, Aristotle argues that everything came from something or somewhere and he calls that something or somewhere “the Prime Mover”, i.e. God.
Aquinas makes full use of this argument in his Summa Theologica. In the first question of Article 44 (“Whether it is necessary that every being be created by God?“), Aquinas has this to say (my emphasis):
It must be said that every being in any way existing is from God. For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially, as iron becomes ignited by fire. Now it has been shown above (Question 3, Article 4) when treating of the divine simplicity that God is the essentially self-subsisting Being; and also it was shown (11, 3,4) that subsisting being must be one; as, if whiteness were self-subsisting, it would be one, since whiteness is multiplied by its recipients. Therefore all beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation. Therefore it must be that all things which are diversified by the diverse participation of being, so as to be more or less perfect, are caused by one First Being, Who possesses being most perfectly.
His argument is clear.
- Everything has its cause from a related thing and have their being by participation. i.e. one thing leads to another.
- This chain of “cause” can be followed back all the way to the “one First Being”.
- Since the First Being is the origin of being, that First Being is the most perfect or pure being “possesses being most perfectly”.
Here Aquinas is replying upon an even more basic argument made in Question 3, Article 4, which is well summarised by Jairo Mejia (and here we see a typical use of the “very act of existing” terminology)
1.4.1 God as Existence
Thomas Aquinas says that “God is not only his own essence, but also his own existence” (Summa Theologica, Qu. 3, art. 4) because his nature is to exist, and this essence is not different from his existence. He is the very act of existing, Actus Purus, with no potentiality at all, but just act.
As another member of clergy on the Facebook points out, Bower’s appeal to Aquinas is utterly unfounded. Aquinas is not making an exhaustive claim about the nature of God but simply pointing out that, as opposed to all other things which are reliant on something else for their action and existence (describe as “potentiality”), God Himself is pure existence in and of Himself. Of course as the Summa continues Aquinas will go on to argue for much more about God’s nature and person as seen in His acts nevertheless his focus here at the beginning of the Summa is simply to establish God as different from His creation. But Bower ignores all of this by isolating one part of Aquinas’ argument as though it were his total description of the nature of God.
A similar (and briefer) response can be made with respect to Bower’s appeal to the Tetragrammaton (the divine name יהוה “Yahweh”) in Exodus that “The Divine name is a verb not a noun”. Well yes it is; the verb it derives from is the verb of being, best translated in it’s usage as “I am that I am”. But this “I am that I am” goes on in His own self-disclosure to speak, act, promise and personally interact with human beings (so Exodus 3) in a way that is so very clearly more than a simple “act of existing”. There is quite obviously a divine being at work, personally interacting with His creation rather than the quasi-pantheistic “God” that Bower believes in and so woefully misrepresents Aquinas and Exodus as describing.
This public declaration and defence of heterodoxy by Archdeacon Bower will only add to the controversy over his appointment last year by Bishop Greg Thompson which was met with dismay by many Newcastle clergy and laity, outraged that such a senior position be given to someone who rejects the Biblical teaching on heaven and hell and Jesus’ salvific death upon the Cross. At that time many wrote to Bishop Greg to express their dismay and call him to act.
Bishop Greg Thompson can be contacted via his publicly available email address or the following contact form which I thought would be helpful for readers:
image: Gosford Anglican facebook