Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’

I

I take special care of those who have publicly criticized our Evangelical Calvinism in published form, as Scott Swain has; especially when they promote mayonnaise as a worthy food product. As such, and on this mundane occasion (since this is a blog post), let me alert my readers to a short essay Swain has written for Pro Ecclesia. The title of his essay is: God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of TheologyThis locus has special place for me precisely because it has to do with a prolegomenological (totally made-up word) issue; as this has been of particular focus for me (even in published form). Here is Swain’s abstract:

Abstract 

In chapter 4 of his book, God in Himself, Steven Duby grounds theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in Scripture’s prior usage of such language and concepts. The following article seeks to fortify Duby’s argument by showing how the discourse of the gospel subversively fulfills the quest of Greco-Roman philosophy and religion to ground divine worship in a proper understanding of the divine nature.1

As we can see Swain’s method will be to engage with Steven Duby’s work (also a friend) on theology proper; with their shared focus on arguing for the classical—and Thomistic!—method of deploying and synthesizing the Greeks with Christian Dogmatic development. They both wholeheartedly maintain that the Hellenic grammar and categories are ‘fitting’ and ‘expedient’ for the Evangel’s promulgation. After describing the problem Duby seeks to engage, as that has ostensibly been presented by the ‘liberal’ (my word) theology of the 19th century moderns, in regard to a development of theology proper, Swain summarizes Duby’s thesis thusly:

In chapter 4 of his book, Duby engages modern Protestant theology’s claim that the discourses of theology and metaphysics are ultimately incompatible. Following precedents in Scripture and tradition, he attempts to show why and how theology may use the language and concepts of metaphysics faithfully and fruitfully in speaking of the gospel’s God while avoiding many of modern Protestant thoughts’ deepest worries.2

II

Swain, subsequent to this, parses out the various highpoint themes of Duby’s response in argument (we will not engage with that for space and time limits). As Swain’s Abstract underscores, his aim will be to ‘fortify’ the groundwork that Duby has laid out in his book length treatment of the matter. In nucethey both (Duby and Swain, respectively) maintain that Greek metaphysics ought to be deployed in helping the Ecclesia to think God. For Swain, in particular, this entails an argument from Scripture; with focused reference on Paul in the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17.22-34). But before we get to that, Swain is clear on one basic premise; this is not unique to him. As a preamble to all else that follows in Swain’s argument for the usefulness of Greek metaphysics towards an intelligible proclamation of the Gospel, he is clear that what makes the “two-books” of nature (general and special revelation) corollary is God’s providence. He rightfully makes a distinction between Divine Inspiration and Providence, but then allows the Divine qualification to bring a conselium between the two such that the former might be complemented by the latter. He writes (in extenso):

Evangelical discourse is a “third language” that “inherits two languages,” the primary language of Israel’s scriptures and the secondary language of Greek philosophy and religion. Evangelical discourse claims to fulfill the discourse of Israel’s scriptures and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion. But it claims to fulfill them in two different ways.

The language of Israel’s scriptures and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine inspiration. These two forms of discourse are authored by one God and proclaim one message of salvation. Israel’s scriptures proclaim this message in the mode of promise. The gospel proclaims this message in the mode of fulfillment. Evangelical discourse announces the surprising fulfillment of the promise of Israel’s scriptures, the revelation of a “mystery” once hidden but now revealed (Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) and, in so doing, often confounds the expectations of its hearers (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, evangelical discourse also holds that the mystery it proclaims is hidden within the Old Testament writings themselves and therefore wholly continuous with them as their necessary fulfillment (Luke 24:26-27; John 5:39, 46; Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 5:32).

The language of Greek philosophy and religion and the language of the gospel are bound together by divine providence. Greek philosophy and religion are not the product of divine inspiration. They are not “pedagogues” (cf. Gal. 3:24) designed to lead the Gentles to Jesus Christ. Greek philosophy and religion are characterized by idolatry, error, and unrighteousness, and the gospel calls their adherents to repentance (Acts 17:30; Rom. 1:18). For this reason, Christian theology cannot hope to find a smooth fit, a hand and glove correlation between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. The gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:23). Evangelical discourse subverts pagan discourse.

That said, there is no absolute metaphysical contrast between evangelical discourse and pagan discourse. Although these two forms of discourse are not bound together by divine inspiration, they are bound together by divine providence. Although Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian do not share a common language, they do share a common human nature; both are objects of God’s providential goodness. The existence of Greek philosophy and religion presupposes the existence of God’s general revelation (Rom. 1:20-23). Idolatry is parasitic on religion, error is parasitic on truth, and unrighteousness is parasitic on righteousness. For this reason, in subverting the idolatry and error of pagan discourse, evangelical discourse may also claim to fulfill its deepest, albeit distorted, longings (Acts 17:26-27). The gospel can take up the language, concepts, and even the judgments of pagan discourse, make them its own, and proclaim in Jesus Christ their fulfillment. The word of the cross confounds the Greek quest for wisdom. But in doing so, it also answers that quest. For Christ is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

In the gospel’s subversive fulfillment of pagan philosophy and religion, we find the evangelical logic for critically appropriating the language and concepts of metaphysics in the discourse of theology. As we will see more fully below, the discourse of the gospel and the discourse of pagan philosophy and religion not only share common language and concepts. They also share a common judgment, namely, the conviction that divine worship should correspond to the divine being and nature. This shared judgment grounds the gospel’s claim to fulfill pagan philosophy and religion and warrants Christian theology’s use of metaphysical language and concepts in speaking of the gospel’s God.3

I shared this in full because I want my readers to understand exactly what Swain’s proposal is (and because by copying and pasting it saves me the time of summarizing his argument in my own words, and thus fulfills the blogger’s dream of covering lots of ground in short amounts of time). So, we can see that Swain presupposes as a basic a priori that a belief in God’s providence is essential in grounding an argument for deploying Greek metaphysics as the most fitting grammar, as a ‘handmaiden’ to the inspired witness of Scripture, in regard to the Gospel’s intelligible and thus kerygmatic proclamation.

Subsequent to this, in the next section of the essay (which you can read for yourself of course), Swain attempts to make his argument by developing an exegesis of Acts 17, and the means the Apostle Paul uses to ‘prove’ to the Greeks that Jesus is Lord; and that the ‘unknown’ god, is in fact the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as revealed in Christ. Whether or not Swain is successful in his argument here, the reader will have to discern (notice his reference to interpretatio). Swain sees what he calls a ‘subversive fulfillment’ in the fittingness of Greek metaphysics for articulating a Christian theological dogmatic. He maintains that while there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between the Greek god of Pure Being, and the God revealed in Christ, at the same time, as the long quote above reinforces, for Swain, there is a ‘parasitic’ correlation between the Greek gods and the true God such that the latter, through the wisdom of the cross, can in-break and subvert the secular with the sacred; to the point that what the Greeks only grasped in part (by reflecting on nature simpliciter), they might now know in [ful]fill through the ultimate revelation of the God of nature in Jesus Christ.

III

In light of the above (hopefully I shared enough in order for you to get the gist) I only have one question: where does Swain get his understanding of Divine providence from? As noted previously, Swain needs this premise about the commonality that providence provides for shared spheres of knowledge between the Pagans and Christians, vis-à-vis God, in order to argue that Greek metaphysics provides the most fitting grammar necessary for articulating God. What if the concept of providence Swain is operating with itself is Hellenic? How does Swain know that God’s providence functions this way; ie as the ground of shared knowledge about God between the Greeks and the Christians (albeit in an asymmetrically corresponding way)?

Is the Apostle Paul’s intent to show the Aeropagites that Zeus or an ‘unknown god’ is in fact Yahweh? Or is it to show them that their longing for ultimacy can only be fulfilled as they place their faith in a God who is sui generis? Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself didn’t come to know God by means of Greek metaphysics; surely a man of his learnedness (and he was brilliant for his day, in general) would have had recourse to think God along with Philo et alia by way of Greek metaphysics. But that isn’t the correlation he makes in Galatians (1.11-17), instead he writes:

 “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”

Should we surmise from Paul that the Greeks provided a framework for thinking the revealed God, as that knowledge-frame is conditioned by a reflection on the natural order of things in the created sphere? Or should we rather conclude that Paul believed that who he encountered in Christ was solely based on a sui generis confrontation such that even his Jewish teachers could never have imagined (like the ones who crucified the Christ)? The Galatian Paul, the epistolary Paul, who by genre is intending to didact his readers and hearers, asserts that he didn’t receive his knowledge of the living God by even his Hebrew fathers, but instead through the revelation of the risen Christ himself. We don’t see Paul affirming the teachings of the Greeks as fitting in regard to coming to a genuine knowledge of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Instead, we see him discomfiting the fittingness of any ‘man’, whether Jew or Greek (see I Cor. 1.17-25), to furnish grounds for thinking the revealed God (Deus revelatus). If anything, according to the ‘apocalyptic Paul,’ as we find in Galatians, there is a discorrespondence between the Greek conception of God, and instead one that is purely grounded in the Hebraic understanding of a God revealed.

IV

In the end, really, I think Swain’s essay is funded by tautologous thinking, and remains petitio principii as far as his major premise on Divine providence. I think that if we are careful to focus on the intention provided for by the literary types found in Scripture, that what we actually get in the didactic (think discourse literature) Paul of the Galatian correspondence is what he wants the churches to understand as sacra doctrinaWhen an argument, such as Swain’s, is grounded in a narrative trope, as we find in the Lukan story of the Acts of the Apostles, it is hard to tell whether what is being communicated therein ought to be taken as prescriptive or descriptive; normative or non-normative. Typically, and I would say always, narrative literature, such as we find in Acts, is descriptive and non-normative. What this means for Swain’s biblical argument is that it doesn’t come with the same force we find in the discourse literature (ie Galatians), which is thus intended to be prescriptive and thus normative, for the Church’s understanding on doctrinal matters. In other words, it would have served Swain better, in an attempt to make a biblical argument on this matter, to do so from an Epistle of Paul’s rather than a narrative account that could be taken in a variety of ways. But then I would argue that the delimiter, in regard to the way that Paul is arguing in the Aeropagus, was purely a situational moment wherein he subverted (or negated) the whole edifice upon which Greek knowledge of the gods was built. Since Paul’s knowledge of God was clearly built on God’s Self-revelation, rather than on Greek metaphysics. That is, he was discarding the bases upon which the Greek’s ‘unknown god’ was built upon, and saying that what they were ultimately seeking for could not be found in the No-God they had left a placeholder for, and instead could only be found in the revealed God that no man had ever thought of prior to His showing up in the face of Jesus Christ.

1 Scott R. Swain, “God, Metaphysics, and the Discourse of Theology,” Pro Ecclesia (2021): 1.

2 Ibid., 2.

3 Ibid., 5-6.

2 thoughts on “Riposte: The Apocalyptic Paul Against Scott Swain’s ‘god of the Philosophers’

  1. I appreciate this posting, Bobby. “…Seeking for what could not be found in the No-God for which they had left a placeholder…yet “could only be found in the revealed God…” This is a just indictment that is well-put. And it has no positive correspondence with any of Paul’s Evangelical discourse.

    Thus it is that man, starting only from himself, can only find he faces a mere image of himself—an idol of of his own making.

    “Hear the word of the LORD… for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land…” (Hosea 4:1)

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