Classical Theism

God’s Personal, Dynamic and Relational Being: His Ousia is Parousia. Thomas Torrance’s Hebraic Model for Thinking God

The ‘being’ (ousia) of God is largely, is hugely important when it comes to differentiating what we are doing in Evangelical Calvinism versus classical (Federal) Calvinism. If you peruse my blog you might find that addressing this point is something of a theme by now. In order to keep in theme I thought I would post another post that engages with what I would claim, despite those who protest this, that Post Reformed orthodox theology operates from a Pure Being theology and doctrine of God. In other words, even though folks like Richard Muller argue otherwise, it is very hard to see how this just is not the case. What Pure Being theology (like that produced by appropriating classical philosophy with Christian theology i.e. Aristotle et al.) gives us is a God who must engage with his creation through impersonal decrees; he must somehow keep himself untouched by his creation. We end up with an impersonal God who engages with us through laws and decrees, and not with the personal touch we might expect a God who is Triune love to engage his creation with. Here is how Richard Muller argues this:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayahdenotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

Okay, so we see Muller among many of his contemporaries claiming that the classic Reformed were just doing good biblical exegesis and not borrowing their conceptual apparatus from the Greek philosophers. But when you actually read Reformed theology, particularly in the 16th and 17 centuries, and even now as that gets repristinated in the 21st century, it makes you wonder how Muller et al. can claim what they do.

As an alternative T.F. Torrance highlights the role that the Hebraic mind and categories played in early ecumenical thinking when it came to conceiving of God by way of his Self-naming to his covenant people. This is ironic, really, because Torrance is addressing the same tetragrammaton context that Muller is; yet they arrive at totally different conclusions. Here is what Torrance has to say in this regard:

I have been directing considerable attention Hebraic way of understanding I am or ἐγώ εἰμί of God to which the Early Church so often appealed in seeking to understand the Being or οὐσία of God, for it is very different from the static metaphysical notion of essence or substance found in the Greek philosophical tradition. The Being of God, known only in the fellowship created through his personal self-naming, self-affirming and self-giving to his people, is the living dynamic Being (zwsa kai energhtikh οὐσία) of God’s redeeming presence to them, with them and for them. It is to be understood not simply in terms of the self-grounded Being of God, but as the Being of God for others with whom he seeks and creates fellowship, although that is to be regarded as flowing freely from the ground and will of his own transcendent Self-Being. While the Being of God is not to be understood as constituted by his relation to others, the free outward flowing of his Being in gratuitous love toward and for others reveals to us something of the inmost nature of God’s Being, as at once transcendent and immanent — God in the highest and God with us and for us, the divine ousia being understood as parousia and the divine parousia being understood as ousia. Hence it may be said that the Being of God is to be understood as essentially personal, dynamic and relational Being. The real meaning of the Being or I am of God becomes clear in the two-way fellowship he freely establishes with his people as their Lord and Saviour, for it has to do with the saving will or self-determination of God in his love and grace to be with them as their God as well as his determination of them to be with him as his redeemed children.[2]

There is a deep personalism informing the type of Trinitarian conception of God’s Being that Torrance describes and develops for us. Not of the existentialist type that so many classical theologians worry about today, particularly when it comes to modern theology in general, or maybe even Barth and Torrance in particular. The personalism that Torrance pushes us into is informed by what we find the ecumenical Patristic theologians working with; one that is oriented from the type of Hebraic mode of thought that Torrance alerts us to. A personalism that is truly relational insofar as that relationship is defined by God in his inner and eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which we are then included within by way of God’s gracious and free choice to be for us and with us which allows us to be eternally within him in the Son, Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

While much of this might sound academic, it really isn’t. It has profoundly pastoral and practical implications for someone’s daily spirituality. Who we think God is determines everything else downstream, even how we live before and with God. Who God is will impact what it means to be creatures in the image of God; it will determine the way we understand grace and what it means to have grace in the conversation of our Christian lives; both in the church and outside of it. These are not merely academic platitudes; they are real life and significant issues for every single Christian and non-Christian alike. How we understand God, and who we understand him to be, and from whence find basis for that will determine everything else.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 123-24.

How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

Language About God’s Life: How Language Ought to Be Transformed By God’s Self-Revelation in Theological Discourse

As Trinitarians Christians often, and rightly, refer to the inner reality of God’s singular life as his ousia or ‘being.’ The fear might be that Christians might be imposing Hellenistic (i.e. classical Greek philosophical) categories onto God thus morphing him into an tertium quid, or even worse something completely alien to who he actually is. This is the critique I often bring against classical Calvinists in their deployment of Aristotle to articulate their Pure Being theology relative to the Christian God;[1] I don’t think they are successful in allowing the Revelation to determine the language’s shape; I think they carry over too much of the Aristotelian philosophical implications in their endeavor to give grammar to articulating God for human understanding. As such, I think they eschew everything else downstream; i.e. whether that be in the area of doctrine of creation, theory of revelation, theory of history, doctrine of Scripture, soteriology, so on and so forth.

Us Evangelical Calvinists, like classical Calvinists (and other iterations of classical theists), also use the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ (hypostases), among other expressions. But unlike—and here I’ll just keep picking on the classical Calvinists—the classical Calvinists, or as Richard Muller calls it, the “Christian Aristotelians,”[2] we follow Athanasius’s style and mode in regard to allowing the antecedent and ontological reality of God’s life to give shape and reify the Hellenic language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’; our intention is to allow God’s Self-revelation to retext the Hellenic language in such a way that the language’s meaning itself becomes brand new (recreated even) because of the new context it finds itself in (since context determines meaning anyway). Thomas Torrance explains how this worked out in the Athansian mode:

Athanasius much preferred to use verbs rather than nouns when speaking of God as the mighty living and acting God, for abstract terms or substantives seemed to him (as indeed to the biblical writers) to be inappropriate in speaking about the dynamic Nature of God, or in expressing who God is who makes himself known to us in his mighty acts of deliverance and salvation. For Athanasius, here as elsewhere, the precise meaning of theological terms is to be found in their actual use under the transforming impact of divine revelation. This is how he believed that the words ousia and hypostasis were used at the Council of Nicaea, not in the abstract Greek sense but in a concrete personal sense governed by God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. He preferred a functional and flexible use of language in which the meaning of words varied in accordance with the nature of the realities intended and with the general scope of thought or discourse at the time. Hence he retained the freedom to vary the sense of the words he used in different contexts, and declined to be committed to a fixed formalisation of any specific theological term for all context which might have violated his semantic principle that terms are not prior to realities but realities come first and terms second. This intention is nowhere more evident than in his cautious and differential use of human terms to speak of the Being of God or the Subsistence of Persons in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.[3]

Us Evangelical Calvinists go with TF Torrance and Athanasius; particularly when it comes to the idea that the reality precedes and thus should be allowed to control the terminology in its context and sense.

If you ever wonder how Evangelical Calvinists can use the language of ‘being’ and ‘persons’ and not fall prey to the same temptations as the Christian Aristotelians, refer to this post.

One more important point in closing: If we get our doctrine of God wrong (which includes very much so how we employ theological language), then everything else following will be eschewed. This is why Evangelical Calvinists place such emphasis on our Trinitarian Doctrine of God as the ground and grammar of everything.

[1] See this post.

[2] See Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 45, 62, 107, 121, 132, 140, 150, 367, 545, 553.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 117-18.

Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

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 .

 

We Don’t Need Nature, We Only Need Jesus to Know God

I know natural theology, or the idea that God can be known through simple discovery and reflection on nature is quite popular among contemporary Christians as well as in the tradition. But as I read the Bible this seemingly intuitive belief is not confirmed; mantreeinstead, there is an emphasis upon special theology, or the Self-revelation of God as the only source for genuinely knowing the true and Triune God. For example, and this can be multiplied over and again from the Pauline corpus, the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1:

11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul, in context, is arguing for his Apostleship against pseudo-Apostles, but as part of his argument he expresses an idea that is premised in a non-natural theology approach towards God; he implicitly is arguing for revelational theology. T.F. Torrance elucidates what revelational theology entails further:

By its very nature divine revelation is what Karl Barth called ‘a self-contained novum‘, for it has its reality and truth wholly and in every respect within itself, and so can be known only through itself and out of itself, on its own ground and through the power of its own self-evidence and self-authentication. It is as such that revelation proceeds from God to man, breaking sovereignly into human life and thought, calling into question what people claim to know, and directing their thinking beyond themselves altogether. It creatively evokes an entirely new mode of consciousness, in faith and understanding, conditioned by a new relation to God initiated and set up, not from man’s side at all, but from the other side of the boundary between man and God. The knowledge of God given in this way through divine revelation is not from the known to the unknown, but from the hitherto unknown to the known. It is a mystery so utterly strange and so radically different that it cannot be apprehended and substantiated except out of itself, and even then it infinitely exceeds what we are ever able to conceive or spell out. Far less may it be assimilated into man’s familiar world of meaning and be brought into line with the framework of its commonly accepted truths, for the radically new conception of God proclaimed in the Gospel calls for a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order which cannot be derived from or inferred from anything conceived by man before. In point of fact it actually conflicts sharply with generally accepted beliefs and established ideas in human culture and initiates a seismic reconstruction not only of religious and intellectual belief but of the very foundations of human life and knowledge.[1]

All of this is important for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason, I contend, is that it keeps us from imposing our ideas on who God is, and allows him to impose who he is on us instead.

I don’t expect advocates for natural theology and the so called analogia entis to repent anytime soon, but I think they really should. No matter how prestigious of a pedigree that natural theology has in the Christian tradition, that prestige cannot be the final word; God’s Word in Jesus Christ must be allowed to be that. We don’t need natural theology to know God, we need Jesus Christ alone as God’s Self-exegasato (exegesis).

 

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 19.

 

The Doctrine of Re-creation or Resurrection in Christ as the Foundation for Everything in the Theologies of Barth and Torrance

I thought I would quickly share this from Dawson as well; on Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. For some reason I love this concept, it’s probably because it is so distinct from the usual ways I have thought of resurrection. As an evangelical resurrection has always been a touchstone related to apologetics and/or historiography in the field of higher critical Jesus Studies. It is more than refreshing to come across a theologian like Barth who simply approaches resurrection as a non-analogous novum; something for which all else in the created order hinges. It is refreshing to come jesuscreatoracross resurrection as a doctrine of re-creation, as if we must, as Christians, start all of our thinking about God and created reality (including ourselves) from there. This has to be one of the most ground breaking earth shattering things Barth has bequeathed to Christian theology; i.e. his doctrine of re-creation, or resurrection.

Robert Dale Dawson comments on this monumentally shaped doctrine of Barth this way:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[1]

If you think you might be seeing some corollary with the classical patristic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo here I think you’d be right to see that; the idea that all of reality is contingent upon God’s Word.

TF Torrance has this line of thought in his thinking as well, and in this particular quote he comes at this in a bit of a different key from Barth:

All this means that any christological approach that starts from the man Jesus, from the historical Jesus, and tries to pass over to God, and so to link human nature to God, is utterly impossible. In fact it is essentially a wrong act: for it runs directly counter to God’s act of grace which has joined God to humanity in Christ. All Attempts to understand Jesus Christ by starting off with the historical Jesus utterly fail; they are unable to pass over from man to God and moreover to pass man to God in such a way as not to leave man behind all together, and in so doing they deny the humanity of Jesus. Thus though Ebionite christologies all seek to go from the historical Jesus to God, they can make that movement only by denying the humanity of Jesus, that is by cutting off their starting point, and so they reveal themselves as illusion, and the possibility of going from man to God is revealed as likewise illusory.

No, it is quite clear that unless we are to falsify the facts from the very start, we must face with utter and candid honesty the New Testament presentation of Christ to us, not as a purely historical figure, nor as a purely transcendental theophany, but as God and man. Only if we start from that duality in which God himself has already joined God and man, can we think God and humanity together, can we pass from man to God and from God to man, and all the time be strictly scientific in allowing ourselves to be determined by the nature of the object.[2]

The moral of the story between both Barth and Torrance is that God’s Self revelation in Jesus Christ is brand new ground; it is foundational ground for how all else might be conceived vis-à-vis  God. In this frame there is grace (God’s life) preceding the original creation, and grace funding the second re-creation in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In other words, there is no“natural” way (or purum naturum) to think the Christian God from[3]; there is only what God has graciously given of himself in Jesus Christ. This is why the only analogy we will find in Barth’s and Torrance’s theologies respectively is either the analogy of faith or for Barth the analogy of relation; either way, the center for thinking God is only found in the faith of Christ—who is the telos and condition for all of creation and now re-creation. As David Fergusson says “the world was made so that Christ might be born.”

 

 

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, edited by Robert Walker, 10.

[3] Which means that philosophers have no access to God through philosophical categories ostensibly discoverable or latent in “nature.”

Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”

Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

On Being a ‘Dynamic’ Christian Thinker versus Being an ‘Unmoved Mover’

This post deals with some technical stuff that might not be interesting for all readers, but I find it quite instructive towards better understanding why it is that Thomas Torrance rejects the determinism that shapes frameworks of thought like that found, theologically, within Arminianism and Calvinism. And it should also help to illustrate an alternative route to thinking about things in causally determinative ways; which implicates the ways that, in the West, in general, we have become most accustomed to think, even though someone like Einstein and his theory of relativity aristotle2has demonstrated that reality, in fact does not work in mechanistically determinative ways. If this is so, then systems of thought like classic Calv/Arm are no longer viable in their classical theistic forms. Here is what Torrance writes about such things—just for a little context, he has been discussing the role of order, and contingency that we experience in creation; he persuasively argues that contingency (like creation presupposes) must presuppose a ‘rational’ ground of order beyond contingency, such that creation and contingency both find their orientation beyond themselves thus bequeathing to us an open-structured mode that only asks us to seek and think in accord with the intelligibility that stands beyond contingency … so contingency then allows for things, like knowledge, to be held in a dynamic relation relative to the personal ground of its reality V. a static relation that requires that we fill in the gaps between an unmoved mover and  what we experience in creation (and us), thus maintaining some sort of necessary constancy between the Creator and the creation (I doubt the context I just provided helps very much; like I said, this is rather technical material). Here is Torrance:

Now let us consider the other concept mentioned above, that of inertia. It is not difficult to trace its source either, in late Patristic and mediaveal theology — not to mention Neoplatonic and Arabian thought — particularly as the doctrine of the immutability and impassibility of God became tied up with the Aristotelian notion of the unmoved mover or a centre of absolute rest which was resurrected and powerfully integrated with Latin scholastic philosophy, science, and theology. In theology itself, it induced a deistic disjunction between God and the world, which scholastic thought tried to modify through bringing into play all four Aristotelian causes, the ‘final’ and ‘formal’ along with the ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes. The effect of this, however, was not to overcome the dualist modes of thought inherited from St. Augustine, the Magister Theologiae, but actually to harden the dualism by throwing it into a causal structure. This was particularly apparent in the conception of sacraments as “causing grace”, which was further aggravated (as in the doctrine of “real presence”) by the acceptance of Aristotle’s definition of place as “the immobile limit of the containing body”. In mediaeval science, on the other hand, the conception of a causal system ultimately grounded in and determined by a centre of absolute rest had the effect of obstructing attempts to develop emperical interpretations of nature for it denigrated contingentia as irrational. [Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Frame of Mind, 24-5]

The moral is that we will either operate with something like an Aristotelian static view of metaphysics offers, or we will operate with a dynamic view of reality that is offered through a Trinitarian theology (and illustrated by an Einsteinian theory of relativity). One that is mediated through the contingencies of God become human in Jesus Christ.