The Eclipsing of God’s Personal Holiness by Metaphysics: John Webster is Right

When we think about God, and we do so through the metrics that analytical theology provides, things, at the very least, get muzzled if creationnot distorted (I opt for the latter). I have been writing about this (here at the blog and through our edited book) now for many years; that is, the role that analytical philosophical categories have played in shaping much, if not most of what we consider to be classically Reformed theology. When we focus on a metaphysic of ‘being’ and attempt to fit God into this metaphysic we have the propensity to depersonalize God; his relationality, his Trinity suffers at our hands (even with all of the good intentions in place, maybe especially with these good intentions in place). What am I really getting at here? John Webster unpacks this, my point, in a very eloquent and depth way; he writes (and at length):

… Third, a trinitarian dogmatics of God’s holiness will find itself at a distance from important features of the accounts of the divine attributes offered in some dominant styles of analytical philosophical theology. The reader of such work is immediately struck by the absence of serious engagement with divine holiness in the presentations of the attributes of God that are offered there, and the distinct preference for devoting the lion’s share of attention to the so-called metaphysical attributes such as omnipotence or omniscience. The reasons for this neglect are varied: a strange incapacity to deal with the positivities of particular religious beliefs and practices; a corresponding preference for highly abstract, simplified renderings of the content of Christian belief as a version of ‘natural religion’; a reluctance to allow trinitarian doctrine to play any fundamental role in shaping an account of God’s being; the isolation of discussion of the attributes of God from consideration of the works of God in the economy of salvation. But all these features are undergirded by the way in which priority is often given to questions of the essence of God over questions of the character of God’s existence. One immediate effect of this prioritizing is that metaphysics as the science of being has precedence over exegesis and dogmatics (which are simply the domestic reflection of the ecclesial congregation), since metaphysics, from the early modern period, has assumed responsibility for the task of developing an account of first principles. Modern analytical philosophical theology is in many respects a continuation of that division of labour, especially when the overall project of philosophical theology is conceived to be that of giving ‘reasons’ for the rational intelligibility of the world and of human being in the world in the framework of a conception of God’. The use of the concept of God in this way – its deployment in the task of complete explanation – shapes its content.

Two consequences are to be noted. First, when the concept of God is shaped by proofs for the existence of God which themselves serve to underwrite a complete explanation of reality, then considerable weight is attached to the so called metaphysical attributes of God:

The interpretation of reality which is provided by the theistic proofs is only coherent if God can be seen as a being with specific attributes. As the universal ground of existence and explanation God must be understood as necessary, immutable, uncaused, omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient and in every respect perfect.

Holiness tends to be a causality of this process because it is apparently less crucial in laying out what kind of being God must be conceived to be if he is to be the ground of the world’s existence. Second, this use of the concept of God characteristically restricts the relation between God and the creation to one between causal power and product, language of God as personal agent-in-relation scarcely features. Once again, therefore, holiness recedes from view, for as a ‘relative’ or ‘personal’ attribute holiness is less important in giving an account of God as the world’s ontological ground….[1]

He’s right you know!



[1] John Webster, Holiness, kindle loc. 374.

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