The Impact of the Greek Mind on the Christian Body: The Bread that Binds is the Broken Body of Christ Rather than the Broken Minds of Men

I wanted to press something I haven’t for awhile; the idea that operating from a genuinely Trinitarian doctrine of God means that we will think of a God-world relation (Creator/creature relation) in personalist-relational-filial terms rather than static and necessitarian. The continuous drive of young evangelical theologians to retrieve theology from the 16th and 17th centuries and the developments that happened in Post Reformation Reformed (PRR) Western Europe ends up giving us an understanding of God that fits better with a static and necessitarian understanding of God rather than the relational one that I contend explodes from the Trinitarian reality. Richard Muller calls the type of Christianity that developed in PRR: Christian Aristotelianism. It was Aristotle’s categories mediated through people like Thomas Aquinas and appropriated by post reformed orthodox Thomists wherein a God who looked more like the monad of Aristotle and Plato—a Pure Being—was produced rather than the relational God who would be understood through a properly exegeted understanding of God as Triune. Colin Gunton notes the developments, to a point, in this way:

This takes us to the second point, which is that along with the demystification of nature, there developed a doctrine of the contingency of the world. Greek thought, as Foster shows, tends to be necessitarian: it seeks for forms, that is, patterns in reality that have to be, and that remains essentially the case with Aristotle, for all his naturalism. (Recall that according to the Timaeus both form and matter are eternal, and therefore necessarily what they are.) Scientific enquiry on this understanding becomes the quest for logical rather than factual links between things. In contrast to this, the world that results from a free act of creation does not have to be: it is therefore contingent. This contrasts with most Greek thought, for which contingency is essentially problematic: it is irrational because not necessarily and eternally true. A form of Gnosticism recurs in this context: truth is not to be found in material things, because that is the realm of the contingent. Therefore truth has to be sought somewhere outside the material world, in something or some principles underlying (or overlying) it. On this account, ‘Objects are intelligible in so far as they are informed, sensible insofar as they are material.’ Contingency, and so materiality, is thus a defect of being. In contrast to this, in the words of T. F. Torrance, ‘contingent rationality’ is a quest for a rationality inhering in the order of space and time, not beyond it. This, it is claimed, is the unique gift of the Christian doctrine of creation. The material world is contingent but rational.[1]

I drew a line between late medieval theology, and Thomas’s impact, and the developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. It is difficult to generalize the period because it is made up of various characters and personages with just as various perspectives and theological conclusions. But in general, the style of classical theism the reformed orthodox appropriated, and developed, came with the Aristotelian tendencies; even if they wanted to affirm rather than deny (so Aristotle) creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). That’s what this discussion we are engaging with is about: viz. creation out of nothing, and the attendant understanding of contingency that follows.

My contention is that the theologies produced by the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were not altogether successful in emphasizing the freedom and thus requisite contingency that would attend such Divine freedom in a God-world relation. The consequent, one of them, is that the way people understand God’s relationship to the world, in the Christian Aristotelian model, is one wherein we end up with a Decretal God who relates to creation through decrees and the attending doctrine of causality (predeterminism that ends up making God in Christ in the incarnation a predicate of creation rather than its predicator; thus rupturing God’s person in Christ from his work in Christ). This continues to be an issue that plagues the current excavation work that people like Mike Allen and Scott Swain, among other young stalwarts, are engaged in at this very moment. Because folks like this ostensibly spy problems in modern theology they paradigmatically reject the idea that a fruitful or corrective understanding of a doctrine of God might be found there. They’d rather cast their lot with the so called tradition, and appeal to the natural theology required to make such an appeal.

At the end of the day I’m left wondering: what makes an idea about God orthodox? Is it really the period of ideation and development that said ideas developed within; and by whom? Or is there a greater regulative principle we ought to consider? What if Holy Scripture was in fact the norma normans and principium theologiae that so many of these younger evangelical theologians laudably affirm (as good Reformed thinkers). What if Scripture’s res (reality) was in fact the risen Christ, and the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) was in fact greater than the tradition that so many of these theologians appeal to as regulative for their own recovery projects? Some fear a Socinianism, a fallacious biblicism run amok, when they hear such words as mine. But what if the reality of Holy Scripture still speaks fresh and new words today, such that the tradition itself is called into relief when standing in the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? What if theology has an eschatological character to it, such that theology itself is always only a proximate endeavor that requires renovation over and again as it is pressed up and further into the lively reality it claims to be speaking of (rather than about) and to?

These are the kinds of questions and issues that continue to drive me as a Christian thinker. I don’t see a lot of fresh work being done in the theological realm, per se. Instead I see a constant desire to re-iterize what has already been said, a desire to return to the ‘old paths’ to the golden age of a theological yesteryear that somehow eclipses the present and its ability to produce constructive theologies on their own terms in dialogue with the living voice of God in Holy Scripture and its reality in Jesus Christ. This is not to suggest that the categories of the tradition do not offer valuable trajectories and insights, but it is to suggest that a repristination of these periods is of only relative value for the Christian churches catholic. The catholicizing reality that binds the church together is not tradition, but the risen Christ; as we proclaim his coming in eucharistic unity.

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1581, 1587 kindle.


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