I have great respect for Bruce McCormack, Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary; from him I have learned much over the years, in particular with reference to Karl Barth (who else?). He just weighed in on the Wheaton Controversy debate, the debate prompted by Wheaton College’s Political Science professor, Larycia Hawkins, and her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. As you all know by now she is in the process of being terminated from Wheaton as a result of her assertion, and of course this is no source of little tempest for many people paying attention to its goings on.
Getting back to professor McCormack, and his response; Noah Toly, also a professor at Wheaton, just a couple of days ago posted McCormack’s response to this debacle at his blog, you can read that here. What I want to do in this post is respond further to McCormack’s thoughts, and provide greater reflection than I originally did here; I’ve had a whole day to process it out a bit further. McCormack, as I noted earlier, engages in an abductive exercise of comparing the strongest arguments for and against holding to the same God position (i.e. Hawkins, Volf, et al.), and not (i.e. McCormack, me, et al.). I will let you go ahead and read what McCormack wrote himself, and then check back in here, and finish this post; go ahead I’ll wait for you … okay, back, good, let’s get started.
Summarizing the Arguments
As you read, McCormack makes a strong argument for the not-same-God position, and says that he feels most compelled by it. The logic of his argument fits well with what I originally wrote (anecdotally) in one of my posts on this: “referent [God] is necessarily delimited to be who He is in His inner life by His own Self-revelation, Self-interpretation, Self-wording in Jesus Christ.” And as McCormack quotes Barth himself, “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (The Göttingen Dogmatics, pp.97-8). And even more to the point, which I also originally posted on one of my posts on this issue, this also comes from McCormack, something he wrote in a comment in correspondence with me on my Facebook wall (I feel okay sharing his name now since he has gone public with his post at Toly’s):
Whether anyone’s ‘one God’ is the ‘one-in-three God’ depends entirely on the source of one’s concept of one-ness. If the source is the things or persons of our experience (to which the logic of numeration applies univocally), then the concept of ‘one’ being applied to God is the concept of a creature. It is not God. Put another way, the concept of the ‘one God’ – whose identity has been established in abstraction from Trinity – has no reality. It doesn’t exist outside the minds of those who create it.
Okay, this is all compelling stuff to me, and I would be happy to leave it right here; but McCormack had to go and problematize it all by going further. Basically as you read in McCormack’s blog post he believes the onus is on him, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, and anyone else who comes along and claims that the threeness-in-oneness/oneness-in-threeness paradigm and grammar for understanding God is the only and absolute way for understanding God. McCormack makes a shift, turns the table on himself, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, and others by playing the orthodox card; he writes:
The place to start is with the recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the fourth century. Development is obvious on the face of it; concepts like ousia,hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT. What we do find there, in many places, is a “high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1). We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of Israel. But none of these affirmations adds up to a doctrine of the Trinity. What they provide are the building-blocks for constructing one. But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination – a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28. All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some time. Four centuries, in fact. And one then has to ask: what understanding did Christian theologians have of God in the meantime? Now that is a most interesting question. (see here)
As you read the rest of McCormack’s article you see where he takes this, right? He believes the same God thesis finds its space in the pre-Nicene-Constantinopolitan period; in that time in the first three centuries where Christians were monotheist, and understood God to be one (in a very Judaic way), but at the same time were confronted with the Apostolic deposit and teaching that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all seemed to be referred to as eternal God. McCormack seems to surmise from this period in doctrinal development (the first four centuries of the Christian church) that Christians during this time still were in limbo, so to speak, and it is this limbo-space where monotheisms of all types (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) can find some sort of common, shared ground. Beyond, the fourth century, into the post-Nicene church, McCormack also seems to believe that even though Christians worked out the necessary grammar for thinking God as three-in-one/one-in-three, and found a sufficient mechanism, perichoresis, for deploying this grammar, the oneness of God still took pride of place. So it seems that McCormack is suggestively arguing that there is some continuity between the type of monotheism that shaped Christian theology pre-Nicene with the type of monotheism that shaped Christian theology post-Nicene; and it is here, McCormack appears to think, that the orthodox position has always maintained a privileged place for emphasizing God’s singularity, unity, and simplicity, even if for Christians this was then curtailed by the Niceno-Constantinopolitano grammar and Christian expression. McCormack thinks that this reality allows someone like Hawkins, Volf, et al. to tie themselves into these early periods of theological development within the Christian church, both pre/post-Nicene. That to claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God can find precedence in this type of classical theist tradition where a genuinely generic conception of God’s singularity prevailed at one level or the other.
- As he should, Professor McCormack believes that tone in this debate is very important; my guess is that the Apostle Paul would agree (I Corinthians 13). This seems to be a big part of McCormack’s purpose in writing his blog post; to set a tone and create space where genuine, generous, and collegial debate can take place. I think this is commendable, but I am wondering if he gave up too much to gain this type of space and peace.
- While I agree, of course, that the first four centuries (and all the rest following) represent a very fluid time of development, doctrinally, for the Christian church, and with particular reference to developing a doctrine of God, and a doctrine of Christ, I am not fully persuaded that this creates the type of space that McCormack suggests. The Christian conception, even and especially in the New Testament, with particular reference to the Apostle Paul’s writings of God, even with its belief that He is One (the Shema), always had the reality and confession (as we see in the very early Baptismal pronunciation found in Matthew 28, what we now call the ‘Great Commission’) that the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit were all God. In my mind whether or not the grammar was there to work this together with the idea that God was one, singular, a unity, and simple (these concepts themselves being products of the Christian appropriation of Hellenic thought) is moot. Christians, by definition, have always ‘worshiped’ the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God; they weren’t waiting for the fourth century to hit before they did that. If this is so, just because Christians didn’t have the grammar we have today (because of the 4th century) to think God’s oneness together with His threeness and vice versa, doesn’t mean Christians had an unspecific understanding of a singular God. The Christian trajectory for understanding God, because of His Self-revelation, has always been in the triune direction (in other words Trinitarian grammar did not develop in a vacuum).
- So whether pre-Nicene or post-Nicene the Christian conception of God has always been contingent upon His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which McCormack affirms in his not-same-God argument); it has always been a particular understanding of God’s oneness, unity, singularity; and thus has always been removed from abstract appropriations of said oneness by either Jews or Muslims (which is why early Jews considered early Christians as idolaters and Greco-Romans considered them as atheists because they also denied the Roman pantheon conception of God or polytheism).
- If all of this is the case I don’t see how the onus is on McCormack, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, or anyone else who claims that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. Not even the history of doctrine of God development itself, from within the Christian development, allows for such space. If anything Barth’s re-emphasis upon the Triune, non-generic concept of God was a grand correction that the church needed (Western in particular); Barth’s innovation and emphasis was not a hearkening back to his own 20th century Teutonic theological development; it was not a return to a 19th century development; but it was, again, a return to the early thinkers of the Christian church (both pre-Nicene and post-Nicene). Barth was correcting classical theism, particularly as it took Thomist shape among his own Reformed tradition, following the synthesis of Aristotle’s categories with Christian theology most prominently developed by Thomas Aquinas (so Thomism). This is why I think McCormack is giving up too much! Barth, the one that McCormack takes his theological cues from, might be considered a modern day Church Father.
- If we are looking for an ecumenical statement that exalts Barth to that level, we of course will never get that (in fact we will never get that, that period of the church is history). But insofar that Barth is calling us back to material Christian theological categories in regard to a doctrine of God, early thought patterns, it locks him in with orthodox Christian thought that has always already been tensed by an incipient-Trinitarianism; into a pattern of thought that even pre-Nicaea never thought of God’s singularity in generic abstract terms.
- One final point, Muslim theology started in the 7th century, in a post-Nicene world; a world where the Christian conception of God’s oneness never came without a conception of His threeness in relation to His oneness. But ultimately, not even that point is all that pertinent. Muslim theology always claimed a distinct revelational source (which I’ve already noted more than once in other posts); a source that claimed to have ‘personal’ agency behind it (i.e. Allah, the angel Gabriel, and mediated through the Prophet Mohammed). It seems like this is all over-looked as spurious superstition in this discussion, but it clearly is not, and is pertinent. Christians and Muslims have unique and disparate revelation traditions and streams they work from; their conceptions of God can be explained from there. Christians have always been Trinitarians (even if in incipient form); Muslims have always been Unitarians.
This remains a contentious thing, and I believe McCormack’s call for charity is well heeded! We should continue to debate this, and not say too much, or too little or give too much away when discussing it.
It looks like I have concluded, at this point (I’m always processing), that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, even with appeal to considering the development of Christian doctrine. It looks like I somewhat disagree with McCormack in regard to the idea that pre-Nicene/post-Nicene and even Tridentine developments in a Christian doctrine of God provide for the space to make the claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (like in real life, not in abstract speculation). And it looks like I think that Karl Barth, and those working after him, were making a correction back to early Christian thinking in regard to a doctrine of God; a correction that desperately needed to be made especially with the impact of Aristotelian thought upon Christian theology proper (and if you’ve read Feser’s argument you will see how this applies).
Addendum: Also, see Ben Myer’s post which somewhat builds on McCormack’s: Another Thing About Wheaton: Do Christians and Jews Worship the Same God?