A word in favour of panentheism

I’ve had a suspicion for some time now that panentheism is closer to Christian orthodoxy than most of my evangelical friends give it credit for. In him we live and move and have our being, right?

Well, Belden Lane makes the case that panentheism is at least closer to Calvin and Jonathan Edwards than is often recognized:

In a similar way, the Reformed tradition from Calvin to Edwards has expressed an extraordinary delight in nature’s beauty as a training ground for desiring God. We don’t usually think of Calvin as an exponent of “creation spirituality,” yet in a rare excess of language, he could go so far as to say that “nature is God” in recognizing the degree to which the cosmos is utterly filled with God’s glory. He celebrated the divine presence in the created world to such an extent that his language could almost slide into pantheism. Jonathan Edwards pushed the same edges in using the Platonic language of emanation to describe God’s relation to the world. He spoke of God’s glory as a refulgence that flows from the divine being into the world and back again to its luminary. Perry Miller noted that the Puritans were “always verging so close to pantheism that it took all their ingenuity to restrain themselves from identifying God with the creation.” The Reformed tradition has persistently discerned God’s glory filling the earth, even as it warns that God’s being is never contained by anything within it. A panentheist amazement lies close to its heart.

Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality, 25

In his later chapter on Edwards’ theology, Lane traces almost-Neo-Platonic themes in the American theologian as they relate to his panentheism:

Edwards’s God is discontent with being beautiful alone. Arrayed in her Shechinah glory, exploding all notions of gender and difference, this God longs to be recognized by others, to be part of a mutual celebration that extends beauty and happiness in every possible direction. “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.” When this happens, Edwards implies, God almost becomes “more” than God had been, as if delight in Being adds something to Being itself. In creating the world and sharing the divine glory with it, God’s happiness is “enlarged,” God’s pleasure made richer.

Roland Delattre argues that Edwards was “a pioneer in the way he envisaged a lively universe created by God, not out of nothing or out of something, but out of the very fullness of God’s own life overflowing into a world as a self-enlargement of the divine life.” This panentheistic conception of a world that is “other” than God even as it is “in” God offered a dynamic way of understanding creation…

Edwards sought to maintain this delicate balance between God’s transcendent otherness and immanent presence, reaching always for what he could not put into words. He knew, as Denys Turner expresses so well, that “all language about God has to be stretched before it snaps.”


Oliver Crips has recently argued that Edwards was indeed a panentheist, on a common-sense definition of the term. Kyle Strobel gives a good outline of Crisp’s essay here.

I’m not ready to sign up as a confessing panentheist. The term is almost inextricably tied up with a broadly Hegelian theology and linked often and explicitly with a process theology (as is made clear in Clayton and Peacocke’s collection of essays on the topic), and I think that is a sufficient reason for hesitation. But, developed with reference to older orthodox tradition (with Plato as grandfather, rather than Hegel) I think panentheism could have some legs.

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