A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

I wanted to highlight something very important from Torrance’s book Divine and Contingent Order; something so important that I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what I am going to share from him is as fundamental to understanding Torrance’s theology as is anything from him. The fact that Torrance dedicates this book to his long time Greek Orthodox compatriot Georges Florovsky should say something; that is, that this book, per classic Torrance, is going to take us back to the patristic past, and constructively, through retrieval, bring us into some modern and aristotle1contemporary discussion–in the case of this book it will have mostly to do with issues surrounding science, with obvious overlap with theology.

The following quote from this book brings me back to what I have probably become known for best (at least in my past iteration as a blogger) in the theo-blogosphere, that is my rather contentious relationship with what I have called classical Calvinist (and Arminian) theology (but I wouldn’t want to limit my contentiousness to just the Calvinists and Arminians, I believe in offering equal opportunity of contention for other expressions and certain kinds of classical, mostly Aristotelian inspired, medieval theologies). And so this quote is intended to once again–for I fear that people have become lax in regard to the current takeover of North American evangelical theology by tributaries of resource that are flowing directly from the Aristotelian stream of deterministic logico-causality present and funding evangelical movements like The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, et. al. etc.–re-register that Bobby Grow is still watching 😉 , and I haven’t grown lax in my disdain for the mechanical God of classical Calvinism, in particular, even if I understand that many Calvinists have a deep piety and love for God. So consider my vigor, in this regard, to be motivated, in part, by a desire to align said Calvinist piety and love of God, with a ground and grammar for articulating God and dogma in a way that is correlative and consistent with who the Calvinists and Arminians want to love as God.

In step with the above then, let me get to this quote from Thomas Torrance. In this quote Torrance is sketching the impact that Aristotelian and then Newtonian categories have had upon God and the subsequent development of theology that followed, in particular, and for our purposes, in the post Reformed orthodox era of Calvinist and Arminian theology. And given the fact that much of this theology is being repristinated and resurrected by the neo-Calvinists/Puritans et. al., again, it will only be apropos to visit its informing background through the lens that Torrance provides for that. Torrance writes (at length),

It was in terms of these basic ideas that classical Christian theology of the fourth and fifth centuries set out to reconstruct the foundations of ancient philosophy and science upon which the pagan picture of God and the cosmos rested.  Today we can see that they were masterful ideas which lay deep in the development of Western science, and with which we are more than ever concerned in the new science of our own day and its underlying concept of a unifying order. But what became of these ideas in thought subsequent to the Nicene and immediately post-Nicene era? For a short period they bore remarkable fruit in the physics of space and time, and of light and motion, that arose in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries and which, like the theology out of which it grew, was thoroughly anti-dualist in its basic orientation. Before long, however, these ideas became swamped in the massive upsurge of dualist cosmologies and epistemologies which took somewhat different forms in the Augustinian West and Byzantine East. The idea that the created universe is rational because its Creator and Preserver is rational remained, and was to see considerable development, especially in Western medieval theology and philosophy, which thus has contributed immensely to our scientific understanding of the universe. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of God behind it all suffered not a little modification in terms of his inertial motion which was to have considerable effect upon classical Newtonian physics. Here the conception of the impassibility and immutability of God (i.e. that God is not subject to suffering or change), which has patristic sources, became allied to the Aristotelian notion of the Unmoved Mover. Although the idea of the creation of the universe out of nothing remained, that became difficult to maintain when the universe itself came to be construed more and more in terms of Aristotle’s four causes in which the effect was understood as following inexorably from its antecedent and defining cause, for to regard the Creator as the First Cause from which the universe took its rise appears to imply ‘the eternity of the world’ if only the mind of God who knows himself as its First Cause. Mediaeval theology on evangelical grounds had to reject the notion of ‘the eternity of the world’ but it remained trapped, for the most part at least, in notions of impassibility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart a notion of the world which, given its original momentum by the First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal relations in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine contingence. Contingence could only be thought of in so far as there was an element of necessity in it, so that contingence could be thought of only by being thought away. The inertial relation of an immutable God to the world he has made thus gave rise to a rather static conception of the world and its immanent structures. Looked at in this way it seems that the groundwork for the Newtonian system of the world was already to found in mediaeval thought.[1]

Does this, at all, sound familiar to you? Have you been exposed to this kind of over-determined world in what you have been taught at church or elsewhere? What do we lose if we affirm the kind of mechanical world that Torrance just described? We lose intimate relationship with God in Christ for one thing. We also have potential for losing compassion for others; we might conclude that the plight of some people, or a whole group or nation of people are ‘just’ determined to be where they are in their own lived lives, no matter how miserable. We might not overtly or consciously think all of this, but it surely would be informing the way we view ourselves and other selves in relation to God in the world.

Let me just leave off by suggesting that what Torrance describes above, about a mechanical-world is the world you get when you embrace classical Calvinism, Arminianism, etc. (philosophically, theologically, ethically, etc.). And let me suggest that there is a better way forward that is more consistent with the idea that God is love, and that he serves (or should) as the ground and grammar of everything.

Conclusion

I know that for many evangelical theologians the tide keeps pushing on, and for them what counts as the most resourceful fount for constructive Reformed and evangelical theology is the theology produced in the 16th and 17th centuries, or what we might call Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy (as Richard Muller does). I am not so naïve to think that this trend won’t continue, but I want to offer you all an off-ramp through alerting you to what Torrance is getting at in regard to the metaphysics present in the current evangelical and Reformed trend as it comes to doing theology for the church. If you’re okay (I’m not!) with offering the church a conception of God where things (like people’s lives) are determined by a God who relates to the world through abstract decrees (in order to keep God as a philosophical Unmoved Mover), then yes, continue on in your resourcing of classical Reformed theology (at least what is considered that by the mainline of evangelical and Reformed theologians); but if you want to offer a conception of God as lively, dynamic, and triune who relates personally and mediately through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, then repudiate this trendy move, and start engaging with God on the terms that Torrance is interested in introducing us to.

You see, what Torrance is onto isn’t really something new, he is simply looking further back than the evangelicals and Reformed; he is looking back to some of the Patristic theologians (i.e. what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis) who do indeed come up against these Hellenic patterns of thinking, but who resist the temptation of sublimating God to those patterns, and instead allow the patterns of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ to re-text the ‘Greek-grammar’ in such a way that the correlation is no longer to the god of the philosophers, but instead to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I have given up on trying to convince the Young, Restless, and Reformed, but I haven’t given up on you. For me, personally, what’s really at stake isn’t trying to preserve a certain tradition, per se, the picture is much bigger than that. We are talking about reality itself here, and the implications that come along with that. Like I recently noted elsewhere: “Just remember who we have been “saved” to: Not to a denomination, or a tradition, or a sub-culture, but to the triune God in Christ.” As such we shouldn’t be as worried about who we identify with sub-culturally (like what tradition or denomination we think gives us place and identity in the broader body of Christ), but who we are identified by as we participate in and from the triune life of God in Jesus Christ. I think a lot of theology, unfortunately, has a lot to do with identity-church-politics; once we feel like we’ve been given purpose by that (even if it takes us time to find that) it becomes exceedingly hard to move away from that even if confronted with compelling information about how things are and how they’ve come to be in the history of ideas.

I just want to invite you to re-think where you’re at theologically, and think about what Torrance (and I) have been talking about in this post. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion, like I have, that there is a better more evangelical way than what we’ve been offered thus far.

P.S. It isn’t just Torrance who makes this critique about the metaphysics funding Aristotelian formed classical theologies; there are others, and they aren’t even “Barthians.”

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Divine And Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 5-6.

[2] Picture credit: Wendell B. Johnson .

 

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This entry was posted in Aristotle, Classical Theism, Critiquing Classic Calvinism, Evangelical Calvinism, Reformed Theology, T. F. Torrance, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology

  1. Pingback: A Better More ‘evangelical’ and Reformed Way When it Comes to God: Repudiating Aristotelian Metaphysics and its Theology | The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. So I read this, but I’m dead, dead, dead tired, and I’d love it if you’d indulge me by answering the question: What exactly is it that you’re objecting to in the Four Causes — a nascent mechanicalism that gets projected onto God? Second question: are you objecting to immutability?

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  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Yes, for sure. An artificial schemata that is unnecessary to help us articulate God. I have a hard time understanding how folks don’t have a hard time with that once they find out that has represented a way towards developing a theology proper. I’m objecting to immutability in its Aristotelian sense.

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  4. Thank you. In what sense are you _not_ objecting to immutability?

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  5. Bobby Grow says:

    I don’t believe God’s life is predicated nor contingent upon his creation, but that all of creation is contingent upon His word of grace in Christ. So in that sense God is unchanging. But I also think that classical understanding of immutability does damage to understanding who God is and how he has actively reavealed himself in Christ in His being in becoming. I hold to an actualism in regard to God’s life that impassibility in its classical mechanistic and deterministic (i.e. Stoic and Aristotelian modes) cannot cope with and in fact in my view does damage to.

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  6. Bobby Grow says:

    I’m not denigrating the intent of impassibility, but I am denigrating its overly hellenized forms that we have often received that in. I actually think many of the Patristic theologians resisted this overly hellenic form of impassibility even if that temptation was always present.

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