Presenting a Genuinely and Radically Word-Based Christian Theology Contra Theologies of Speculation and Negation

Most of what dominates conservative evangelical Reformed theology these days is rooted in the speculative tradition, or what, more medievally is known as the via negativa (‘negative way’). Katherine Sonderegger, as a contemporary thinker, typifies it this way. Here she writes:

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

There is an ancient pedigree to this approach, one laid down by none other than Peter Lombard in the structuring of his Sentences; we might even call this the salvation-history approach. But inherent to this, as illustrated by Sonderegger, is a need to decentralize the threeness of God over-against the oneness; just because this is the ‘order’ we ostensibly receive in the linear unfolding of the Old Testament disclosure. So, in this sense, in the tradition Sonderegger forays forth for us, we could say she is following the contours of Scripture; but we could also say that she is doing so in an abstract way. Her approach can be characterized as ‘abstract’ at the point that she does not principially ground her ‘Word-based’ theologizing in the Christian understanding of the Logos of God. Contrariwise, what we see the New Testament authors doing, the Gospel of John comes quickly to mind, is a retroactive or recapitulatory reading of the Old Testament wherein the Word of God, who is the Christ, seemingly breaks in and all over the Old Testament and sees Christ as the revelation of God all along. In other words, in light of Christ, we come to recognize, by the Spirit, that the Old Testament was a witness to Jesus the Messiah all along. If this is the case, the so called ‘unicity’ of God is never an abstract oneness, but one that is inextricably understood in the multiplicity of the Triune Life of God as revealed in the Son, who is Jesus Christ.

In contrast to Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies—which is often considered The Tradition of the Church when it comes to theological endeavor in the Western iteration—I want to suggest that we follow the New Testament authors, and understand that our theological entrée must be grounded in the Word of God alone. What I want to introduce us to is not without controversy though. But, I think we can constructively appropriate ways of thinking from contexts that might not end up correlating with the way we end up recasting them vis-à-vis their original context. Here, Eberhard Jüngel, through the telling of David Congdon, helps typify the sort of Word-based theology I think is more principially grounded in the concrete reality of God for us in Christ. Read with me for a moment, and then we will attempt to provide the constructive appropriation I am referring to. Congdon writes:

Jüngel begins by summarizing the way Bultmann differentiates the object of theology from the fides qua creditur of liberal theology, the fides quae creditur of Protestant orthodoxy, and the unknowable God of mysticism. Each of these approaches in theology either loses the divine object of theology altogether or speaks of God in abstraction from God’s “saving deed” (Heilstat) in Christ. If it is not to be mere speculation, theology can be the science of God only as the science of God’s word, the kerygma, the fides quae creditur. But the kerygma is the concrete event in which God’s saving action takes place: it is the eschatological word of God’s justifying judgment in Christ. One can only speak about this event by participating in it and existing as the object of this divine judgment. That is why “theology is the science of God, in that it is the science of faith, and vice versa.” Or as Luther famously put it in his Large Catechism, “these two things belong together, faith and God.” Theology, according to Bultmann, is a particular understanding of God that arises from the event of faith in the word of God. It is a task “enjoined to faith from faith and for faith,” and thus it does not derive from any general account of science or any human capacity for revelation. The encounter with Christ in the kerygma is the sole basis for theological speech and must occur ever anew. According to Jüngel, “the kerygma that faith accepts thus elicits along with faith a cognition [Erkennen], which is a knowledge [Wissen] that is never separable from the event of the kerygma and from the event of faith, but remains related to the Lord who encounters us in the kerygma.” Put more succinctly: “the truth of faith is the event of truth.”[2]

Sounds “existentialist,” right? The emphasis is indeed on encounter, but not an encounter generated by the “I” instead one that comes from the “Thou,” from God in Christ. Some might be concerned that Bultmann’s breath is too close to this to be of value for the conservative evangelical theology. But we can avoid going all the way with Bultmann, and instead critically appropriate the good in the bad.[3] And what we are really being presented with, through Congdon, is Jüngel’s Word-based basis for doing theology that is shaped by the concrete kataphatic reality of God in Christ.

Maybe you also noticed as you read Congdon’s development, the priority that is given to God confronting us, and giving us capacity that we did not have prior to the justification and reconcilation He brings for us in Christ. This, in itself levels a resounding no to the sort of theological method that Sonderegger, and her tradition, gives us. It says no to the inherent analogy of being and natural theology that allows the theologian to speculate about God in the first place; even if that speculation is said to be driven by the salvation-history unfolded in the Old Testament disclosure. For a genuinely Word-based theology there is no space for speculation about who God is, or what God is just because God’s revelation for us is given without remainder in Christ; and our knowledge of God in this frame is fully contingent upon this ‘without-remainder’ givenness for us in the face of God in Christ.

To summarize: Sonderegger, and the tradition she typifies, is committed to a speculative mode for doing theology; a mode that presupposes upon an inherent capacity within the human agent to discern or discover God simply by reflecting on the ‘nature’ of things as they are disclosed in the fabric of the created order. It is this mode of theologizing that necessarily starts with an emphasis on the oneness or monadic quiddity or whatness of God precisely because it starts by speculating about the singular power that might have been able to ‘cause’ what the thinker is discovering via the negative of the negating process they are enthralled by. Contrariwise, the Word-based tradition that Jüngel can help us understand is one that is based necessarily upon the premise that ‘reconciliation is revelation.’ What comes with this axiom is the notion that human agents have no capacity in themselves to discover God no matter how hard they try. In this Word-based approach, the theologian is fully dependent upon God encountering them, rather than vice-versa. Herein, in the encounter, the theologian becomes capacious to know God, but only as God is made known to them, without remainder, in the face of Christ.

I commend the Word-based approach to you; even if we might have to do some constructive work in order to keep it genuinely in line with orthodox premises. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as it is possible to critically appropriate themes from existentialism, as it developed in the modern period and retext them under the pressures presented by the encounter of God Hisself. The fear of existential theology is unfounded just as the object of our theology is in fact also the Subject of theology; in other words, just as theology is grounded in the personal and Triune givenness of God for us in the person of the Son, Jesus Christ. This, I contend, is the better way forward for doing a genuinely Christian and evangelical theology. A theology that elides speculation about God from our own resources, and instead trusts the God revealed to have the capacity to explain Himself to us as both One and Three, Three in One in the tremendous mystery of the God who is for us, with us, and not against us.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 472-73.

[3] The bad being Bultmann’s understanding of the bodily resurrection of Christ and its untetheredness from historical concrete reality. We can follow Barth’s understanding of resurrection while at the same time appropriating some of Jüngel’s Bultmannian-like approach to grounding theological approach in the concrete reality of the Word of God in Christ. Here is Barth’s understanding of resurrection, just for point of reference:

The Easter story is not for nothing the story whose most illuminating moment according to the account of Mark’s Gospel consists in the inconceivable fact of an empty sepulcher, a fact which (in producing atrembling and astonishment) lays hold of the three woman disciples and reduces them to complete silence for they told no one of it, for they were afraid (Mk. 16.8). Everything else related by this story can be heard and believed in the very literalness in which it stands, but can really only be believed, because it drops out of all categories and so out of all conceivability. It cannot be sufficiently observed that in the most artless possible way all the New Testament Easter narratives fail to supply the very thing most eagerly expected in the interests of clearness, namely an account of the resurrection itself. CD I/2 §14, 115

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Providing Critical and Historical Context for the Theology of The Gospel Coalition: Evangelical Calvinism’s Reason for Reformation

The Gospel Coalition’s annual conference is currently underway in Indianapolis, as such I thought it appropriate to post something on the sort of theology that funds TGC as a contemporary iteration and representation of what counts as “Reformed” theology. Instead of re-inventing the wheel I thought I would repost a post I once wrote with reference to the ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation.’ It is rather lengthy, for a blog post, but I thought I would share it because it gets into the antecedents from whence I critique the theology of TGC, and the Federal or Covenantal Calvinism that largely stands behind it. What I will share will give insight into my personal introduction to Reformed theology, and why I have taken the turns I have towards what we are calling Evangelical Calvinism. Let me share the post, and then I’ll offer some closing words following.

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

People who work and are associated with The Gospel Coalition continue, by and large, to ignore the theses I have highlighted in this post. They don’t even seem to be aware of the history of ideas that includes what I have noted as formative within the development of Reformed theology. You don’t have to be Barthian or Torrancean in order to appreciate the critique noted by Frost, indeed Frost isn’t. And this is what I don’t think proponents of the style of Calvinism that shapes TGC theology have begun to grasp. Ultimately the reason this all matters is because who we think God to be is at stake. How we think God relates to the world is at stake. If we get a doctrine of God wrong, we will get everything following wrong as well.

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

The Holy Trinity in Intrarelation as the Divine Monarchia: Attending to the Fatherhood of God as Deifier: The Torrancean Solution

Is the person of Father the source of the Godhead, or is the Godhead (the Divine Monarxia) in intratrinitarian relation the ground of who God is (think perichoresis)? These are technical questions, but ones that have significant theological and ecumenical implications; not to mention fiduciary relevance vis-à-vis the Evangel. Thomas Torrance felt the weight of these questions very acutely, and attempted to address them with heft; particularly as he undertook his dialogue with the Orthodox Church, precisely orbiting around this locus. Indeed, it was Torrance’s response to the above questions wherein he offers one of his most definitive contributions to the theological landscape of the 20th century.

As a way into this I wanted to refer us to John Zizioulas and his response to the questions as I have presented them. Zizioulas thinks from a decidedly Greek Orthodox perspective, and one that is not uncontroversial in his own quarters. Zizioulas is also a contemporary of, and interlocutor to Torrance. As such, referring to Zizioulas makes him that much more significant to what we will be visiting in Torrance’s offering. Here is a key quote from Zizioulas that jumps us directly into this important squabble:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological ‘principle’ or ‘cause’ of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the ‘cause’ both of the generation of the Son and of the procession of the Spirit. Consequently, the ontological ‘principle’ of God is traced back, once again, to the person. Thus when we say that God ‘is’ we do not bind the personal freedom of God . . . but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist . . .Thus God as person – as the hypostasis of the Father – makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the One God.[1]

Here Zizioulas seeks, among other things, to inject a notion of relationality into the Godhead, and the Triune Life that is often betrayed by the dominating Western tradition that works with concepts like ‘substance’ and unity rather than ‘person’ and multiplicity as the bases for thinking ‘who’ God is. One problem that might stand out quite immediately, for the perceptive reader of Zizioulas, is the concern that ‘subordination’ is given prominence in Zizioulas’ attempt to ground the ‘source’ of Divine Monarxia in the personal agency of the Father; as if God, at an ontological level, reduces to the person of the Father, making the ‘generation’ of the Son and the Holy Spirit subsidiary to the “Father’s Monarchy.” Indeed, this is a critique that is often levied at the Cappadocians in particular, at least when it comes to this issue; of which, Zizioulas can be seen as a modern iteration (with his own innovative constructions in play).

I only introduce us, very briefly, to Zizioulas in an attempt to problematize things, with the hope of allowing Torrance’s own innovative work to provide a sort of denouement to Zizioulas’ et al. presentation. Full disclosure: I do think Zizioulas’ presentation, while imaginative, ends up being problematic for precisely the sort of subordinationism that he has been criticized for presenting. While his aims are noble, his means to reaching those aims, in my view, fail. This is where Torrance’s own approach is so rich for consideration. I think bringing up Zizioulas is apropos, because I think he identifies a real problem—the de-‘personalization’ of God—but then, again, does not offer an alternative that ultimately reaches the sort of orthodox heights that I’d like to see. Torrance, on the other hand, while also recognizing the same ‘problem’ that Zizioulas did, offers a very fruitful way forward, in my view, by thinking the ‘Monarchy’ from the three persons (hypostases) in intratrinitarian interpenetrating relation; thus avoiding the significant tinge of subordinationism that plagues Zizioulas’ work.

Here is Torrance at length:

This centering of divine unity upon the Person of the Father rather than upon the Being of the Father, with its implication that the Person of the Father is the Fount of Deity, was to introduce the ambiguity into the doctrine of the Trinity that gave rise to difficulties regarding the procession of the Spirit as well as of the Son which we shall consider later. At the moment, however, it is the problem of a distinction drawn by the Cappadocians between the wholly uncaused or underived Deity of the Father and the caused or derived Deity of the Son and of the Spirit, that we must consider. As Gregory Nazianzen, himself one of the Cappadocian theologians, pointed out, this implied a relation of superiority and inferiority or ‘degrees of Deity’ in the Trinity, which is quite unacceptable, for ‘to subordinate any of the three Divine Persons is to overthrow the Trinity’. He was followed in this judgment by Cyril of Alexandria who, like Athanasius his theological guide, would have nothing to do with a generic concept of the divine οὐσία, or with causal and/or subordinationist relations within the Holy Trinity.

It is at this very point that the introduction of the concept of perichoresis proved of decisive importance. It ruled out any notion of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ or of degrees of Deity and set the doctrine of the Trinity back again on the basis laid for it by Athanasius in terms of the coinherent relations and undivided wholeness in which each Person is a ‘whole of a whole’, while nevertheless gathering up and reinforcing the strong hypostatic and intensely personal distinctions within the Trinity which the Cappadocian theologians had developed so fruitfully especially for spiritual life and worship. This perichoretic understanding of the Trinity had the effect of restoring the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without importing any element of subordinationism into the hypostatic interrelations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and at the same time of restoring the biblical, Nicene and Athanasian conception of the one Being or Oὐσία of Godas intrinsically and completely personal. Moreover, it ruled out of consideration any conception of the trinitarian relations arising out of a prior unity, and any conception of a unity deriving from the underived Person of the Father. In the perichoretic Communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one Being of God, Unity and Trinity, Trinity and Unity mutually permeate and actively pass into one another.

When we consider the order of the three Persons in this perichoretic way we do indeed think of the Father as first precisely as Father, but not as the Deifier of the Son and the Spirit. Thus while we think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Αρχή of Deity (in the sense of Monarchia not restricted to one Person, which we shall consider shortly), that is not to be taken to mean that he is the Source (Αρχή) or Cause (Αιτία) of the divine Being (το είναι) of the Son and the Spirit, but in respect simply of his being Unoriginate of Father, or expressed negatively, in respect of his not being a Son, although all that the Son has the Father has except Sonship. This does not derogate from the Deity of the Son or of the Spirit, any more than it violates the real distinctions within the Triune Being of God, so that no room is left for either a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The statement of Jesus, ‘My Father is greater than I’, is to be interpreted not ontologically but soteriologically, or ‘economically (oἰκονομικός)’, as Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria and Augustine all understood it. In other words, the subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the suffering and obedient Servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations and distinctions subsisting in the Holy Trinity. The mediatorial office of Christ, as Calvin once expressed it, does not detract from his divine Majesty. Since no distinction between underived Deity and derived Deity is tenable, there can be no thought of one Person being ontologically or divinely prior to another subsequent to another. Hence while the Father in virtue of his Fatherhood is first in order, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness and in-each-otherness in such a way that, in accordance with the particular aspect of divine revelation and salvation immediately in view, as in the New Testament Scriptures, there may be an appropriate variation in the trinitarian order from the given in Baptism, as we find in the benediction, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Nevertheless both Athanasius and Basil counselled the Church to keep to the order of the divine Persons given in Holy Baptism, if only to counter the damaging heresy of Sabellianism.[2]

Torrance’s move is to make the ‘being’ of the Father rather than the ‘person’ the reality of the Monarchia. In this sense, it can be meaningfully said, for Torrance, that the Divine Monarxia is indeed, the Holy Trinity lived in co-inhering eternal Life. We can see Torrance’s theo-logic on display, and the way he, ‘classically’, relates the so called ontological Trinity (ad intra) to the economic (ad extra); this becomes a key point for Torrance. It allows him to think God’s inner-life from the economy, and follow the Rhanerian axiom of the ‘Economic Trinity is the Ontological’, while not collapsing the processions into the missions of God. For Torrance there is an antecedent Life of God, but of course we only have access to that through the evangelical life of Jesus Christ; indeed, as He is Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

This way of Torrance’s makes the most sense to me. There seems to be some sort of continued debate about this in certain sectors; particularly online in the theological online world. I commend to you Torrance’s solution on this ostensible problem, and hope it allows you to find shalom for your souls and minds.

 

[1] Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 40–41 cited by Nikolaos Asproulis, “T. F. Torrance and John Zizioulas On The Divine Monarchia: The Cappadocian Background And The Neo-Cappadocian Solution,” Participatio Journal (Vol. 4), 2013: 174.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 179-80.

Bone and Flesh of the Christ: An Imaginary Grounded in the Bloody Cross for Knowledge of God

Something I just tweeted and want to expand upon: “If Heaven and the coming eschaton are pervaded by the face of Christ, all the way through, then what use do I have for discursive and abstract theologies that only attempt to work their way up to Him from other places. Why not start and end with Christ; the Alpha and Omega?” Nothing too off theme from what I often post on, but I keep coming back to this over and again. We live in a barrage of theological methodology—at least we do if we inhabit theological-social-media—that is constantly telling us that the only real, historic, orthodox, and conservative way to do theology is to follow the canons handed to us by our forebears in ecclesial history. We are constantly told that in order to be orthodox—and not heterodox—we must simply follow in the foot-steps of what is understood as classical theism; that we must follow the consensus καθολικός. But why?

As Protestants (sometimes Reformed, or Lutheran etc.) who are committed to the Reformation Scripture Principle, and the attending Theology of the Word, why is it required that we affirm what I take to be a petitio principii? Why must we simply presume that ‘Church Tradition’ just is what God mandates for theological consumption?; as if we can access God’s mind through the panoply of the ecclesial historical offering. Alarm bells usually start going off for folks at this point. If they have insight into the divergencies of doctrinal development in the history, they start to think that I might be veering off into Socinian or Arminian heresy. But in reality, what I am really doing is challenging the common notion that Church Tradition is so concretized that it cannot be challenged, or improved upon in any way. I am not saying that the trad has no value, or that it doesn’t set some sort of baseline parameters by which Christians might move out and in constructively. But what I am suggesting is that tradition, even the ecumenical kind, is purely eschatological. In other words, it is of only proximate value insofar as it represents the machinations of men and women through the centuries as they have been confronted with the living reality of Jesus Christ. In other words, the trad is relative; it is only valuable insofar as it accurately accesses the Holy of Holies of God’s inner life as that is revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Church Tradition, and the conciliar reality that stands behind that, at least for the Protestant, is not something that has sacerdotal force over the confessing Christian. And this, precisely because we are not bound by the creedal but by the living Christ who the creedal is attempting to grammarize and bear witness to the best it can.

It is this ‘best it can’ reality that my tweet is attempting to draw attention to though. My conviction, as so many of you know by now—and this is why Barth has been such an important character for me—is there is only One possible way to the Father, or to the inner-life of God; and that, is through Jesus Christ alone. I am slavishly committed to the reality that Jesus Christ, alone, is God’s Self-exegasto (exegesis), and that without Him there is absolutely no way for the Christian, or non-Christian to arrive at an accurate or compelling knowledge of who God is. And this is important as well; I am committed to the idea that Christian theology is fully and only circumscribed by engaging with Who rather than What God is. Indeed, this is precisely the point that I go off the rails, just as theologians presume to speak as if they know what God is prior to meeting Him as the who. The moment we start thinking in terms of ‘whatness’ God ceases to be a personal God who can only be known by encounter with Him. To bring whatness to God, and allow that to be regulative for the theologically proper task, from the start, subjugates God to human whims and imaginaries. The God Revealed is a Who; I know Him as my elder brother, and my Holy Father; I know God in and from this filial stand-point. It is because of this stand-point, because God is not simply a brute-being, but my loving Father, that I come to know Him as I speak with Him by the Spirit’s breath as I participate in that from the mediatorial-humanity of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, I don’t want to imagine God. I don’t think the developers of church tradition ever had that as their goal either. Nevertheless, the metaphysics they had available to them in the past were only of relative value; just as the tools we have at our behest have relative value as well. But I am persuaded that we can and should advance forward in our knowledge of God. That we can learn and retrieve from listening to the past, but at the same token we can do so constructively. There are too many passages in the New Testament that call us to be growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; to keep pursuing knowledge of God until we are all united in the One faith delivered once and for all to the saints; and to be being transformed from glory to glory as we grow in the eternal life of God which is the knowledge of Jesus Christ as an eternal well-spring that keeps bursting forth with depths of knowledge that cannot be contained by discursive means of contemplation and speculation.

I see so much of what is happening in the sacred halls of the conservative evangelical seminaries and universities as motivated by fear. They seemingly are afraid that we will fall back into the Socinian, Romantic, Rationalist, Enlightened traps and compromise the genuinely evangelical Gospel that they believe was sufficiently cordoned off by our 16th and 17th century fathers. But this is not the way I think. I am just as conservative as these guys and gals in mood and ethos. Yet, I am persuaded that God is bigger than the fear this approach seemingly operates from. I am convinced that God’s Ways are not our Ways, and His Thoughts not our Thoughts; as such, this supplies the ‘orthodox’ Christian with the hope that it’s possible to know Him in greater ways than even our fathers did.

And I happen to think that this quest to know Him in ever in-creasing ways only comes as we are open to seeing Him in the sorts of imaginative and beautiful ways that He alone has revealed in His glory, as that is observed in the inviting Face of Jesus Christ. I believe that only God can reveal God, and that to presume upon some sort of latency or vestiges of God in the created order (taxis) can only lead us to self-project our fancies upon God rather than allow Him to speak to us who in fact He actually is. I don’t think there is any sort of epistemic warrant for humanity to simply come and say ‘well, this just is the way God is … we can know this by observing, and negating the created order, and then use that as the negative mold by which we positively come to understand God.’ Clearly, I am referring us to a theological taxis at this point. I am concerned that we have placed a doctrine of creation/salvation prior to God, through which we subsume God to this order and then assert that the rationality embedded in the created order must be effect[ually] determinative of just what God is as God; as if God left a treasure map in the sand for us to discover Him through. But I am pretty sure that just the opposite is the case.

As far as I’m concerned, the Bible is perspicuous on all of this. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man comes to the Father except through Him. Yes, we have ‘dogmatized’ this verse and sublimated it by our dogmatic category of justification; but I think it attests to something much grander than that (that is, not less than that, but much more and even prior to that in a theological ordo). I think when it says that Jesus is the way, truth, and life that this circumscribes everything! That this means that anterior to any sort of human-cognizing of God, that God in His pre-determined life for us, that His way as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the pre-cognate reality, as that is given ‘whoness’ in His eternal and antecedent (to us) plenitude is the only basis upon which humanity might come to a genuine knowledge of God. Only as God stoops down in the bone and flesh of Jesus Christ and confronts the world, it is here that the scales can be peeled back, and the sons of men can finally see God afresh and anew. I take this to be the Gospel reality; the Gospel reality is a limiting reality, such that it puts humanity in its place with Christ on the cross. And only as such a time as this, as that reality of being constantly given over to the death of Christ might we also know the life of Christ; the life of God. The classical theologies do not give us this God, not in their methods. They have become drunk with the god of the philosophers rather than being drunk with the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 5.18). Yes, they might say “oh, dearest Bobby, we have heard this all before” . . . okay, then repent.

Correcting the Errors of Classical Theism and Its Recovery for the Protestant Evangelical Churches: Get God Wrong, Get Everything Following Wrong

I am reposting the following—not that old of a post—in lieu of writing another one of the same flavor. I was intending on writing a new post that offers more thinking on this most important of issues, but then began scanning through some of my posts, and thought this would do. Young evangelical-reformed theologians are currently being trained, and just in the blossoming years of their careers, to retrieve Protestant theology for the evangelical churches in a certain mode and way. They have largely failed to self-critically question some of the various categories they have simply received (textus receptus) from the past, and instead have embarked upon an endeavor that is enflamed by a burning quest to repristinate or re-present what the golden age that they believe the evangelical churches have lost vis-à-vis her theological heritage. I am not against theology of retrieval, in fact I’m for it, but I believe it must be done constructive-critically with a realistic expectation that the Bible and its reality alone in Jesus Christ is allowed to be regulative for the lenses by which the ressourcement work is done. But I don’t see this as the ultimate lens through which most of this work is being done; instead there is a seeming dismissal of anything that smacks of ‘modernity,’ even if the theologically modern have produced material critiques (despite their formal beginnings) that the ‘repristinators’ ought to be obliged to engage with. Instead the repristinators simply relegate the modern into the abyss of hell, and thus only find things inspired by the devil and his minions therein. As such where they see anti-Christ, ironically, there, often, can be the voice of the risen Christ. Ultimately it shouldn’t matter what period of theological development produces the ideas we Christians rally to. What should matter is whether or not Jesus is being most magnified and identified as prime over and against all else when it comes to theological reflection. I could go on, instead I commend to you a long blog post that says what I want to say, and have already said.

Who is God? This basic but all important question has significant ramifications for everything; it is not just a “theological academic” question, it is a question that people live out of every day of their daily lives (whether they are a theist or not). This question drives me in all that I do, and it has for all the years I can remember; one way or the other. This is why I am so passionate about issues revolving around Reformed theology, and theology in general. As a Protestant Christian I have a certain way into thinking God, it is one that is in dialogue with the tradition of the church, but at the same time is not slavishly linked to the tradition when the tradition veers from its subordination to the reality of Holy Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this commitment, and this reality that continues to propel me forward in my quest to know who God is; it is for this reason that I am an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. An Evangelical Calvinist operates in a mood that is by definition dialogical or dialekin; where an emphasis on a living encounter with God’s Word in Christ is elevated, and the ability, therein, is given to continue to know God in ever deepening and freshening ways. As a result of this way engaging with the tradition of the church, particularly when it comes to theology proper, provides certain concrete parameters, or least grammars, but it is not necessarily the end of the discussion only the beginning. For the remainder of this post we will look briefly at the tradition, in regard to a doctrine of God, and then will use that as the foil to highlight the better way that I have found in Barth’s theology and in modern theology in general. We will conclude this post with my fleeting thoughts on why I think this is important for what I will call ‘church theology’ (some call this “practical theology”).

In one part of the medieval tradition of the church, when it came to a theology proper, we had what is known as nominalism; often William of Ockham is noted as its primary purveyor (even if that is under contest today). In nominalism there are two ways to think God: 1) God as he is in eternity in himself (in se), which is tied into his ‘power’ or what is called potentia absoluta; 2) God as he is in the economy (ad extra) of salvation in temporal history, which is also tied into his ‘power’ and what is called potentia ordinata. The effect of this conception is to present a rupture, potentially, between who God is in eternity (in his antecedent life), and who God is in Jesus Christ in the Incarnation and salvation history (in life concrete). The nominalist way of securing a relationship between these two modes of God was to inject a concept of ‘covenant’ into the mix resulting, as the case may be, in an ad hoc relationship between God and the world; one that was based, indeed, upon God, but one that did not secure a relationship between the God in eternity and his acts in time such that his acts in time in Jesus Christ necessarily had any relationship to who God really was or might be in his interior life (we might also want to bring Scotus voluntarism into the discussion at this point as well).

So we have the aforementioned in the history, and that gets appropriated and redressed in the Post Reformed Orthodox period (16th/17th c.); it is this type of distinction that really never leaves us, even in the modern period. Here is an example of this in the theology of Herman Gollwitzer, as that is critiqued by Eberhard Jüngel, according to David Congdon. What I want the reader to see is not only how this sort of dualism continues to persist, but how someone like Jüngel responded to it. What I hope the reader will recognize is the sort of development inherent to a doctrine of God, and that even the moderns, with all the sloppy talk of them ALL distorting a doctrine of God, instead were steeply engaged with an orthodox doctrine of God while at the same time attempting to provide for better treatments wherein knowledge of God could be secured, and controlled by a concentrated referral to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. Here is Congdon on Jüngel and Gollwitzer:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

This sounds similar to my sketch of the potentias; I think. This is a continuing and pervasive problem in the churches; particularly as the evangelical churches attempt to resource the categories developed for a doctrine of God in the mediaeval and Post Reformation Reformed orthodox periods. Whether the resourcing is on the nominalist, Thomist, or Scotus side, the problem remains in the sense that there is always a rupture placed between God’s inner life and outer life; between God’s essence and acts. The problems, on a continuum, vis-à-vis the various traditions, can be nuanced in significant ways, and some do better than others in closing the gap between the problem we see illustrated by Gollwitzer’s distinction, but the problem remains (e.g. appeal to decrees or the decretum absolutum). We see, according to Congdon’s development, Jüngel’s critique of Gollwitzer; it is this tradition of critique that developed in the modern period (which is constantly derided as doing irreparable damage to a doctrine of God; thus part of the emphasis for theology of retrieval by evangelical conservatives) that we will turn to through appeal to Bruce McCormack’s development of Karl Barth’s own critique and movement beyond another modern theologian named Alexander Schweizer. As with Gollwitzer and the Nominalists et al., Schweizer similarly has this problem of having an excess of God that stands above or behind the back of Jesus Christ. Barth seeks to correct this—and I think he does!—pervasive problem by using the traditional category of election with the function of bringing God in eternity and his acts in time together in the singular person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

That election is “the sum of the Gospel” was grounded by Karl Barth in the fundamental claim that the primary object of election is not humankind but God himself. In Barth’s view, the primal decision of God (the “decree” if you will) is never to be God apart from humankind. Alternately expressed, God chooses himself for us; God decides himself for grace. In this wholly gracious, wholly free, unconditional primal decision of God for grace is contained in nuce all else that follows in time: the election of the eternal Son for incarnation, suffering, and death on a cross; the election in him of the whole of humanity for communion with God; the outpouring of the Spirit, the creation and upbuilding of a community of believers who represent the whole of humanity. It is at this point that Barth’s most original contribution to the historical development of the doctrine of election must be seen to lie. In making God to be not only the subject of election but also its primary object, Barth was making election to be the key of his doctrine of God. Barth would have been in formal agreement with the Schweizerian dictum “What God does in time must be grounded in the eternal being of God”; indeed, it was one of his most cherished convictions. But the material connections in which such a claim stands in Barth’s theology as a whole give it a very different meaning than it had for Alexander Schweizer.

Barth took as the starting-point for all of his dogmatic reflections the Self-revelation of God in the history of Jesus Christ, that is, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-man. To put it this way is already to suggest that the starting-point is not simply the man Jesus as he appeared on the surface of history. The starting-point is the God-man as witnessed to in Scripture, and the history of this God-man begins in the way taken by God in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all its limitations, up to including death). It is this history which Barth has in mind.

On the basis of the Self-revelation, he then asked, what must God be like if he can do what he has in fact done? What is the condition of the possibility in eternity for the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God in time? In taking this approach, Barth was taking a principled stance against the more traditional procedure (followed in large measure by Schweizer) of beginning with an “abstract” concept of God (which is to say, one that has been completely fleshed out without reference to God’s Self-revelation in Christ) and only then turning to that revelation to find in it confirmation of what was already attributed to God without it. Such a procedure, as we have already seen in relation to Schweizer, determines in advance what revelation in Christ will be allowed to say. Against this procedure employed by theism in all its forms (classical and neo-Protestant), Barth proposed to work in an a posteriori fashion, beginning not with a general concept of God or a general concept of human being but with a most highly concrete reality, Jesus Christ. And so, if God has in fact done something, it will not do to say that God cannot do it. Theologically responsible reflection will only be able to ask, What is the eternal ground for God’s acts in time?[2]

The ‘procedure’ for Barth, as McCormack details, was to refer theological method to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, as decisive for reflecting upon who God is. In this procedure the gap is closed between God’s being in eternity and time, not by appeal to speculative or discursive means made by assertion via the theologians, but instead by appeal to God himself as that is revealed by Godself in God clothed with the particular flesh of the man from Nazareth. This becomes important precisely because it dispossesses the controls for considering who God might be away from the theologians, and places that within the control of God as now regulated by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. The ‘God of eternity’ in his immanent life is now the same God we see in the ‘God of the economy’ in the life of Christ. For Barth, according to McCormack, the even more radical reality is that God has freely elected to not be God without us, and has chosen that this be the very ground of his ‘being’ as God; as that is realized in his becoming for us in grace (this of course is not uncontroversial in North American Barth studies).

Conclusion

In closing, in an attempt to make this already too long of a blog post shorter than it could be, let me bring some of this home in more personal terms. When I am sitting in the pew at church on Sunday mornings in my evangelical conservative church that is committed to recovering the God articulated in the Post Reformed orthodox period it becomes difficult for me to sit there without at least squirming. Some people want to reduce Christian ministry to meeting the needs of broken people with the love of Christ, and this reduction entails the minimization of rigorous doctrinal reflection in the name of expediency for the Christian ministry. But what if the God you think you are doing ministry for and in the name of is different than the God you think you are doing ministry for; viz. will who God is, and your understanding of that impact the type of ministry you are doing? Is all of this awash in the end such that our good intentions will cover the multitude of theological errors we operated under? God’s grace is certainly bigger than our misunderstandings, but this does not excuse us from being people of the truth and ‘aiming for perfection’ as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to. But this is why I am troubled when sitting in church and I hear, over and again, things asserted about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that I KNOW are not from the Bible but instead derive from the speculative thoughts and developed traditions of the theologians; and these traditions simply received based upon the good-will of the people in the name of conservative Protestant orthodox theology.

In short: I want my understanding of God to be regulated and controlled by God, under the constraints he has set out for himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Does this mean we no longer have to rigorously work out what even this type of theology proper looks like? No. But it means we are much better footing than before. If we get God wrong all subsequent thinking following, all subsequent doctrinal developments will be awry. Simply dismissing this—as almost ALL conservative evangelical theologians do—as merely Barthian or modern theological rubbish shouldn’t be taken that seriously, and they should quit taking themselves so seriously. I realize that I am mostly speaking into the wind, but be that as it may, hopefully there are some of you in the wind who have ears to hear and eyes to see even in the midst of the storm.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 57-8.

A Response to Peter Leithart and Steve Duby: ‘In Defense [or Critique] of Christian Philosophy’

God and philosophy, and age old discussion; i.e. ‘what hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ I want to broach this topic in this post, and with particular reference to an exchange that has taken place between Peter Leithart and Steve Duby; in regard to Leithart’s interaction with Steve’s book Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account. I will not recount everything they have written, but let me attempt to summarize.

Leithart offers, as I recall, eight critiques of Duby’s thinking on the relationship between God and philosophy; or the wisdom of attempting to speak God from philosophical categories rather than ‘biblical’ ones. Here is a helpful nutshell of Leithart’s larger critique[s]: “3) Philosophy bewitches by her rhetoric. She makes us think that speaking in her dialect is more precise or profound than speaking in the poetic dialect of Scripture. I contend, on the contrary, that the Scriptural talk of God is the most precise and adequate language we can have. It’s God’s own talk about Himself.”[1] And Duby’s basic response to this is as follows (also part of his larger rejoinder), at length:

Accordingly, Leithart’s third statement takes us to the heart of the problem with his post: when a theologian tries to claim the high ground by asserting that he or she is simply drawing from Scripture while his or her opponents are indulging in “philosophy,” the theologian is either being naïve or deceptive. Neither Leithart nor anyone else is simply repeating verbatim statements from Scripture. Leithart, along with everyone else, has to engage and draw upon knowledge developed by the use of the natural (and God-given) intellect. When someone is bent on trying to claim the aforementioned high ground, they are misleading their readers. Until someone like Leithart concedes that he is making use of extrabiblical knowledge to articulate his theological position, little can be gained from engaging in a debate about the doctrine of God and other particular topics. The first challenge is to dispel the naivete and establish some initial common ground.[2]

And:

However, philosophy is fundamentally a knowledge or study of things discoverable by natural reason without necessarily being informed by supernatural revelation. It is a setting forth of things typically known implicitly by ordinary human beings (like the difference between an efficient cause and a final cause or the law of non-contradiction). What contemporary Christian theology needs, I would suggest, is a renewal of the traditional Protestant commitment to Scripture as the cognitive principle of theology and to reason or philosophy as a subordinate instrument for expounding what Scripture teaches.[3]

Now, you’re going to have to go and read exactly what Leithart actually wrote (in full) in response to his reading of Duby’s book. As you read Duby’s rejoinder, in full, as I have, he sort of misrepresents what Leithart actually is saying; albeit, the quote I shared from Leithart leaves him open for this sort of misreading. I don’t think, as I read Leithart, that he is actually taking the naïve route, or the sort of fundamentalist nuda scriptura that Duby attributes to him. It seems to me that Leithart is merely pushing back on the idea that biblical language itself isn’t sufficient to explicate and communicate who God is. What I see Leithart, potentially doing, is overreacting to the tradition that Duby represents; i.e. the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition that shapes much of the tradition being retrieved in the 16th and 17th century theological developments found in what has come to be called Post Reformed Orthodoxy. In this sense, Leithart’s critique is not far removed, not at all!, from my sustained critiques of the same tradition.

Further, I am not fully persuaded that Duby has read Leithart all that accurately; and as such, if this is the case, it makes Duby’s rejoinder almost unnecessary (at least in the form it was given). I don’t actually think Leithart is either naïve or attempting to intentionally mislead his readers (as Duby suggestively claims) when he commends people to use the ‘poetic’ language of the Bible rather than the metaphysical language of the philosophers, in order to speak God. I don’t actually think Leithart repudiates the catholic faith represented in the ecumenical councils such as we find in Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. If anything, what I see Leithart doing is attempting to push church people back to the Bible, but not in a Socinian attempt to undercut the basic theo-logic given grammar by the ecumenical councils; but instead, to redress that grammar with the biblical language and emphases us Protestants are so presumably accustomed to (sola scriptura).

So that is my précis on the exchange, as it stands now, between Leithart and Duby. But what do I think about God and Philosophy? This will represent a summary perspective, and will further engage with Duby’s rejoinder to Leithart.

Let me respond to this part of Duby’s response to Leithart; this large quote from Duby will have to serve, for our purposes, as the sort of distillation of his broader pushback to Leithart, and his larger push back at anyone who challenges an overly analytic or Thomist frame for doing Christian theology. And this is what always piques my interest; i.e. the discussion revolving around how the Christian ought to think and speak God. This quote from Duby gives his general belief about what he thinks represents the best ‘philosophy’ for articulating God, and it does so as he is engaging with some material points about the Arisotelian/Thomist categories of substance/accidents vis-à-vis God and his explication—we will not get into the nitty gritty of those details, but instead focus on the general point about the relationship of God and Philosophy, and what ‘philosophy[s]’ are best suited for the Christian’s explication of God for the church in the 21st century. Duby writes:

However, the fact that the use of the metaphysical language is not absolutely necessary does not mean that the metaphysical resources in question are detached from reality. It does not mean that what they offer us is just a set of coherent rules for saying things – rules that we might either take or leave. On the contrary, the classical metaphysical tradition developed by Christian thinkers like John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas or the early Reformed theologians and philosophers involves a knowledge of how things are. Indeed, it is fundamentally an exposition of things human beings know to be true prior to engaging in any formal academic work. For example, things do have natures by virtue of which they are similar to other things. There really are substances in which accidents inhere. It is true that a whole is greater than any of its individual parts. The ad hoc nature of the decision to incorporate Aristotelian philosophical resources concerns the fact that explicit use of these concepts is not absolutely necessary for articulating doctrine. It does not concern the truthfulness or explanatory fecundity of the basic natural insights into the created order that are unpacked in the Aristotelian tradition. The notion that a whole is greater than its parts, for example, is true and is implicit in a statement like the one found in Colossians 2:9. As we seek ways to express what God is like according to scriptural teaching, we should look to this philosophical tradition, not Kant or Hegel, because it sheds light on reality. Of course, we will have to clarify how certain things that are true in the case of creatures are not true in God’s case, but that is precisely one of the ways in which someone like Aquinas puts this tradition to good use in saying, for example, that God’s attributes are not accidents but really are just God himself.[4]

As a prius, Duby is committed to the idea that there just is a natural or profane knowledge of how things are vis-à-vis the creation and the Creator, as such he premises from there that this natural knowledge (metaphysically) just is the way we have for rationally (not rationalistically) thinking God. This is what we see him getting at with his appeal to the Aristotelian tradition; the intellectual tradition Duby believes is the best suited for the Christian reality and theological ambition. This becomes his basic or major premise in response to Leithart, and any like detractors.

In further interaction with Steve (on FaceBook), he informed me that his response has nothing to do with whether or not Thomism etc. is the best frame for doing theology, but instead, according to him, his response simply has to do with the idea that we all operate with extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus when it comes to working out the inner-logic of Scripture. Yet, as I read Duby’s rejoinder, particularly what I just shared from him, this doesn’t really seem to be the case; and it never really does seem to be. When folks like Duby (who by the way, I actually like and appreciate) make the sorts of arguments they do about God and Philosophy, and when they think the Tradition of the church, they have a certain strand of that tradition in mind; again, in Steve’s case it is the Thomist/Aristotelian strand. But at the end of the day I am unaware of an ecumenical church council that has asserted that the Tradition just is what we see climaxing in Thomas (other than say the Catholic Church). I think this is an important piece, and it is one that I would suggest that Leithart himself is pushing; that is, that the tradition itself is very expansive, made up of both East and West, and in-between. In the expanse of the tradition, even in the post reformed orthodox aspect, Thomas and Aristotle are not the crème de la crème that they are for many, like Duby, who are attempting to retrieve the catholic tradition for the evangelical churches. Again, I recognize that Duby is attempting to do more than one thing in his response to Leithart; i.e. 1) To simply argue that all responsible theologians use extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus to speak and think God for the church, but 2) to also argue that Thomas, and the Aristotelian/analytic frame represents the most responsible way for explicating a Protestant and biblically theological orthodoxy. And I think that these two, rather than being exclusive for Duby, are in fact mutually conditioning, in regard to what he thinks the tradition at its best looks like.

Conclusion

I have already gone too long. I will have to make this at least a two part posting. In closing let me assert that: I don’t disagree with Duby, in toto; but of course I do disagree with him when he claims that only the Aristotelian tradition represents the best (and presumably orthodox) way for doing Christian theology. Along with Barth et al. I maintain that the Evangel does indeed contain its own emphases and categories that come not from an abstract human form of reasoning (which is Duby’s major premise about how we get to extrabiblical language and metaphysics), but instead from the Gospel reality itself Revealed in Jesus Christ. This is where I depart with Duby et al., I reject the idea that the analytical frame (the frame Duby is committed to) is the best suited for providing the Christian with a theological methodology and biblical hermeneutic in that process. Instead, as an Evangelical Calvinist, along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, I am committed to what Barth (in his Göttingen Dogmatics) calls ‘dialectical’ theology, and what Torrance calls dialogical theology. The ground for this approach to theology is in Reconciliation as God’s Revelation, as such it necessarily repudiates any notion that we can do theology from a natural ‘sight’, as Duby’s theological methodology premises, and instead requires that we theologize from ‘the faith of Christ,’ as that is mediated to us by His vicarious humanity and the new creation that He is for us in the Resurrection. It is in this frame that ‘extrabiblical’ language can properly be reified under the pressures provided by Godself, and the center we have to think Him from in His triune life for us in Jesus Christ. This is the fault-line in Duby’s thinking, I contend. And I think, in Leithart’s own way, it is this that he is calling out.

There is a way to redress/reify the “philosophical,” but I contend that that can only happen through an analogy of faith and relation with God in Christ, such that a ‘natural reasoning’ process does not become the basis for our theology; which is Duby’s premise. I ultimately believe that this is Leithart’s push-back to Duby. I think Leithart is challenging Duby’s idea about ‘our capacity’ to think God based on a metaphysic that is formed otherwise from God’s Self-Revelation. I might differ from Leithart in regard to his theory of revelation, but in principle I think we have convergence (but who am I?).

There may or may not be a part two to this post. I already have a million part twos that I’ve written over the years. Pax Christi

 

[1]Peter Leithart,  Source.

[2]Steve Duby, Source

[3]Ibid. The emboldened part from Steve is the common refrain of those who are committed (as Duby is) to a medievally and post reformed orthodoxy mode of theologizing.

[4]Ibid.

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.

Semper Reformanda-Always Reforming Regulated by the Eschatological Life of God For Us In Jesus Christ

See, I don’t agree with much of David Congdon’s conclusions (as he has continued to develop personally-dogmatically), but I do agree with him on the Christian reality being an eschatological reality and what that ought to do to the theological endeavor. What that ought to do is ground theological practice in the reality that God has spoken (Deus dixit) as that is given to and for us in the faith of Christ. It is as God reveals himself to us in the reconciliation of God and humanity in the man Christ Jesus that theology has place to happen. And it is in this combine that the eschatological becomes the domineering frame by which theology ought to find its orientation; an orientation that is always already outside of us, yet for us; it is in this ‘for us’ in the mediatorial and Priestly work of Jesus Christ that our knowledge of God is refreshed anew just as God’s mercies are new every morning great is his faithfulness.

We will see, as I quote Congdon at length, that Congdon’s explication is mediated through Rudolph Bultmann’s theology; but also with Barth’s presence felt. I am afraid that because of Congdon’s progressivism that people of a more conservative orientation (such as myself) will be put off, and won’t even give this analysis of things a listen. I’m hoping that people can appreciate how we can constructively appropriate theology from places that might seem antagonistic towards our general theological dispositions, and come to the realization that it is possible to reify theologies under more socio-conservative pressures (vis-à-vis the tradition); even while the theology (like Bultmann’s) being reified itself is a reification of the socio-traditional theologies of the 16th and 17th centuries in particular.

Here is how Congdon details the reality of faith, and how ‘the faith that is believed’ is grounded through ‘the faith by which we believe’; hopefully you will come to see how that impacts an eschatological understanding of the theological task—and for my interests, how that implicates a semper reformanda (always reforming) mode.

Glossary of Key Terms: Fides quae creditur (the faith that is believed) and fides qau creditur (the faith by which one believes)

At the other end of the spectrum lies orthodoxy, by which Bultmann primarily, though, not exclusively means the Protestant scholasticism that developed in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but persists  in the supernaturlistic reaction to rationalism and historicism. This alternative to liberal theology fares no better. To be sure, orthodoxy correctly grasps that “the object of theology is God as the object of faith, as the fides quae creditor,” and in this regard Bultmann stands with orthodoxy over against liberalism, a key fact often lost in the debate over his New Testament exegesis. But orthodoxy loses its object also in its misguided concern to secure a universally valid understanding of the Christian faith over against heterodoxy. The result is a “confusion . . . of kerygma and scientific theory” such that “a doctrine appears as the object of faith.” Orthodoxy makes the same error as liberalism but in an inverted way. Whereas liberalism sets itself (the fides qua) in place of the object (the fides quae), orthodoxy sets the object in place of itself. Either way, faith becomes faith in something human and objectifiable. Whereas liberalism makes history and experience into its object via the projection of the fides qua, orthodoxy reduces the divine fides quae to the level of rational human inquiry. The latter occurs “when it attempts to prove the faith (the fides quae creditor), whether by a natural theology or even from reason, or from an authority, such as scripture,” and “when it . . . requires assent to correct doctrine as to specific notions that are submitted to people from somewhere.” Orthodoxy is thus identical with (a) apologetics, the attempt to establish the object of faith as something one can acknowledge as true (assensus) prior to and apart from faith (fiducia), and (b) confessionalism, which sets up a test of conformity to certain doctrinal formulations as the condition belonging to the (true) Christian community. Each requires isolating the fides quae from the fides qua, so that the object of faith can be rationally verified and discussed as a human artifact.

If liberalism makes science of faith, orthodoxy makes a science of the kerygma. In both cases faith becomes a work, and theology becomes philosophy. What is lost in either case is God as the true object of theology. Theology is supposed to be the science of God, the logos of theos. But if God is an eschatological reality, then theology has to be an eschatological science. This has crucial implications for our understanding of the fides quae and the fides qua. It means, among other things, that the object of theology is not something “in hand” that can be fixed to a specific formula, a single authoritative interpretation: “God cannot be made into an object of our conduct. . . . God does not ‘hold still,’ as it were.” The eschatological being of God requires a strict differentiation between the kerygma, the fides quae, and theology: “Fides quae creditor = quod deus dixit! Theology = what human beings say.” Hermeneutically, therefore, an eschatological fides quae is never finalized and always open to new understandings, and that is because, ontologically speaking, the divine fides quae is transcendent and free, never at the disposal of any person or institution, whether church or state. It further means that the fides quae is not an object one can ascertain and understand prior to the mode of faith and obedience. The notion of “Christian apologetics” is an impossible contradiction; to give an apology for “God’ is to abandon talk of God. Science, as the general discipline that analyzes the ontological, cannot speak of God, who is the event of the ontic.

If God is eschatological, our only access to God must come from God’s own self. The fides quae creditor is “quod deus dixit,” what God has said. God must give Godself to us, must speak to us, in order for God to be known. And since such giving is inherently an act of grace—there being no separation between an intellectual self-giving and a salvific self-giving, since the latter is the former: the word of justification is the word of revelation—it follows that our only access to the fides quae is through faith in God as the Lord: “Should there be talk of God, it is of course clear that there can only be talk of God as the Lord, i.e., as the one who sends the moment and delivers God’s claim in it,” and thus “there can only be talk of God on the basis of God’s revelation, and revelation can only be heard in faith.” The fides quae only gives itself in and through the fides qua: “revelation is only revelation in actu and pro me.” And since the fides qua is given by the eschatological fides quae—since “faith is the answer to revelation”—it further follows that genuine faith is itself an eschatological event in that it is included within the singular eschatological event that is God; faith is an eschatological mode of relating to the eschatological. Concretely, this means that faith takes the form of love, in obedience to the “new commandment” of Jesus (John 13:34). The eschatological age inaugurated in Christ is “the new aeon of love . . . and life.” The eschatological science of theology is an eschatological praxis.[1]

There is hardly anything I find objectionable here. The only thing I would want to qualify is that I maintain a stable core of catholic orthodoxy even as that is continuously attenuated and “filled out” by the eschatological in-breaking of God’s life in and for the church, as that comes with a “fuller knowledge” of the living God; but not a knowledge that is dispossessed of the knowledge of God once for all delivered to saints (as that has been unfolding through the centuries). In other words, David doesn’t contain things enough; in my view. Congdon gives the impression that everything is “open,” and his developing personal dogmatic attests to that. What I affirm though is the eschatological nature of the faith; and that knowledge of God can only be grounded in God’s spoken Word (fides quae) as that is apprehended by the vicarious faith of Christ for us (fides qua). This is the basis, I contend, for a robust Reformed understanding of semper reformanda (‘always reforming’). God is not something we can handle, but someOne who handles and approaches us. In this, we have capacity to be confronted and given over to ‘repentant thinking’ such that our thoughts can be continuously reformed as that is regulated (regula fidei) indeed by the faith of Christ. Not something we own, but someOne we are owned by and learn of by constant confrontation of the living Word as the basis of our lived lives in and from the living God who is Triune, Immanuel.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 385-88.

No to the ‘Just Is’ God: Knowing God in Fulfillment Rather than Promise; Knowing God as Christians Rather than as Pre-Christian Christians

Classical theism, particularly of the medieval and post reformed orthodox (16th and 17th c.) style operates from a rather discursive notion of God. We might come to imagine that we just do know God; that is if we press our powers enough and rely heavily enough upon the yet unintroduced Holy Spirit in our lives. It is from this posture that many classical theists pick up their Bibles, at least of the Protestant sort, and just think that the God they have come to accept as their personal Lord (soli Deo gloria) starts out as God for them in Genesis 1:1 and linearly eventuates through the turns and eddies of salvation-history as the Savior they have met in Jesus Christ. It is upon this type of basis—as I have severely oversimplified it—that many classical theists operate from a just is assertive posture about God’s existence and their relative knowledge of this God (aided by the creative quality of grace each of the elect have in the accidents of their souls).

We have covered this ground on this blog a million times; I know! But I want to reiterate it again. I cannot get over how significant this is; viz. how we have knowledge of God, and which God we actually have knowledge of. If we get this most basic point wrong then everything else following will have the shape of how wrong we are or how right we are; in the sense that the God we believe we’ve come to know is actually the real and living God or not. What I am after—always—even as dramatic as I’ve just painted it has to do with prolegomena (or theological method and how that is given pre-Dogmatic shape by the God we believe we’ve come to know). Do creatures just have an implicit knowledge or sense of God; or is knowledge of God something completely and utterly and absolutely alien to us; is knowledge of God in its most intensive and principial modes something that is fully contingent upon God encountering us? More pointedly, is knowledge of God something that we can principally call Christian Knowledge of God?

Here is what I think (you know this): I only have come to know God, in my Christian experience and realization through the Son, Jesus Christ. As such my knowledge of God, even in the Old Testament, does not have an abstract character to it, instead it always already has a Christ conditioned character to it. My knowledge of God, as a Christian, never was generic; my knowledge of God has always been filled out by the illumination that has come from my position as a Christian in union with Christ (unio cum Christo). So I didn’t come to the God of the Old Testament without the Son; I’ve only come to God, as a Christian, within the fulfillment of the promises made about him as the new creation of God in the vicarious and mediatorial humanity he assumed in the incarnation. As such my knowledge of God is not from a hypothetical space as if I was born a Jew in the ancient near east; my knowledge of God, as a Christian, at a definitional and prescriptive level comes bound up in the man from Nazareth. If this is the case we have, what I would like to call, a ‘retroactive recognition’ and knowledge of God; meaning that as Christians we don’t read God linearly from Genesis 1:1, instead we read God starting in the reality of John 1:1 and understand God, even in the Old Testament, only as the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit.

If the above is true then a just is knowledge of God, of the sort that we find in many classical theisms does not make sense as a genuinely Christian mode for knowledge of God. For the Christian, in principle, there has never been a generic starting point for knowledge of God; there has never been a time where we, as a Christian, would pick up the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and think of God in any other terms as the Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit, as if we could think of God in a time before (in salvation-history terms) we first knew him as the God who first loved us in the Son, Christ, that we might love him. We wouldn’t have the motivation or care to read the Old Testament and think God in personal and relational terms without first having relationship with this God as the Father of the Son Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit. But this is the route so many classical theists of the classical type want us to take in our knowledge of God. I don’t want to take this route; I don’t think it’s consistent with my position as a Christian. In other words, my knowledge of God as a Christian is necessarily what it is precisely because I am a Christian. As such the knowledge of God I have access to is fully and contingent upon his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. As a Christian I don’t have another way, no churchly way, and no profane way of knowing God. God is either Self-explicated for us or he is explicated as is by us in abstraction from his Self-explication. There is no just is God; there is only the God for us that we know through Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father Father of the Son by the Holy Spirit. If this is so we can’t have a refracted knowledge of God that beams off of Scripture as if we meet God in the promises; no, our knowledge of God only comes to us in the fulfillment of the promises, in the seed of David, Jesus Christ. This does things to theological methodology, and subsequently to Christian spirituality.

‘God by nature is technically indifferent towards Creatures’: Worshipping the God of the Philosophers Rather than the God of the Bible

The Bible uses metaphors, analogies even, when referring to God. One of those, the one I think is most apropos for the topic of this post is: Rock. The idea of ‘rock’ connotes thoughts of immovability, hardness, strength, stability, security so on an so forth. The Christian classical theistic tradition likes to emphasize these realities about who God is—and rightfully so. But as we have covered so many times here there is a problem, from my perspective, with the metaphysic classical theism, by definition, has chosen. Before we go further it is important for me to qualify that I recognize that there are different instantiations of classical theism. That is to say, at some level all Christian theological tradition, particularly with reference to the development of a theology proper, must engage with some sort of metaphysical tradition; I am not a proponent of the thesis that anyone has actually achieved a post-metaphysical approach when engaging in theological endeavor. Further, whilst (I’m American so I use ‘whilst’ under advisement) metaphysics are necessarily the case for the theologian; some do better than others in ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ (h/t Peter Leithart for that phraseology). Recognizing that there is a certain continuity that has accrued in the Christian theological trad, I do not believe that this means that say medieval classical theistic development, most prominently undertaken by Thomas Aquinas, is equal with other or earlier classical theistic development under the ecumenical councils, or other theologians like Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor et al. I know people will disagree with me on just that point, but we will have to disagree. I believe Aquinas, for example, elevated Aristotelian categories in ways that other classical theists hadn’t prior to his unique and even genius movements of thought. While Aquinas was virtuoso I think he helped supply subsequent appropriations of his movements, such as we find in iterations of Post Reformed orthodox theology, with wrong emphases in regard to how we think God.

After the long qualification and sketch I just offered, what I want to do now is quote someone I respect and consider a friend, Steve Duby. Steve did his PhD on the very issues we have just been addressing, particularly with reference to the medieval classical tradition and how that impacts a doctrine of God. What I want to highlight, in particular, is how appeal to the classical theistic trad, so understood, affects, and more, correlates, or doesn’t, with the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As Protestants we like to assert that we are subordinate to the authority of Holy Scripture, as one of the principles of the Protestant Reformation; but in practice I often think that this assertion gets negated. In other words, in our attempt to, in good-faith, explicate the inner-logic (or theology) of Scripture, we end up affirming traditions that at the end of the day transmute God into a deity that I would contend does not fit well with the God Self-explicated in Jesus Christ. In this attempt we end up allowing the metaphysic we have adopted to do this type of heavy lifting for us to transgress the prior principle we say we are committed to when we assert that we are committed to the categorical authority of Holy Scripture. We allow the metaphysic and its categories to ‘essentially’ dictate to us what the categories of God must be even if those categories are not concurrent with the God we continuously encounter as we turn the pages of Scripture.

To help illustrate what I have been blathering on about further, let us now hear from Duby on God. I will appeal to what he has written in an effort to make clear what I have been asserting in regard to what happens when a faulty metaphysic is appealed to in a good-faith attempt to grammarize and articulate God for the church (no easy task to be sure!). Here is what Steve writes; for those familiar you will notice the Aristotelian over and undertones as the informing categories.

In His perfect actuality, the triune God freely creates a contingent world. The concern that we noted earlier in theologians like Moltmann and Torrance about preserving the contingency of the world should not be brushed aside. At the same time, that contingency is grounded, not in a divine temporal succession in which God might exist in temporal priority to creation, but rather in God’s fullness and completeness that entails, in scholastic terms, His “liberty of indifference” (freedom to create or not to create the world without any fulfillment or declension of His being hanging in the balance). Given that God is already actively fulfilled in Himself in trinitarian fellowship, He needs no external counterpart or external object of love. In choosing to create the world and in performing the act of creation itself, He does not fulfill a potency in His being but instead generously directs or turns His essential actuality toward the world. It may be asked whether God accomplished His outward action by His essential actuality would mean that the outward action is just as necessary as God’s own act of being. Why should God’s outward action still be taken as ontologically subsequent to His (necessary) act of being? My response is simply to clarify that the argument here does not posit a total identity of essential actuality and outward action. The former is complete in itself and absolutely necessary in God, while the latter is a matter of the application of the former toward creatures. Since the former is perfect in God’s triune life, God is by nature “indifferent” toward creatures in a technical sense (unable to be improved or attenuated by willing to create or not to create). His outward action is thus located under an externally directed, free application of His essential actuality, which then entails a distinction between the (contingent) action or egression and the necessary essential act of God.[1]

We can see that Duby is attempting to offer a treatment of God that appeals to classical theistic categories within a discussion about a God-world relation in a doctrine of creation. We also see appeal to, in particular, the categories of immutability and impassibility; the ideas that God cannot be moved from an extraneous reality to himself, and similarly that God has no passions contingent upon external sources such as human agents represent; indeed God has no passion given his fully actualized state, according to this iteration of the classical tradition. Duby earlier in the chapter notes that it is possible to arrive at such categories about God by way of ‘general revelation’ outwith the special revelation provided for by the Bible or more specifically, Jesus Christ; Duby writes, “. . . various authors in the Christian tradition have (justifiably, in my estimation) gleaned from general revelation that God is “pure act” (never inactive or having any unrealized potential in Himself) . . . .”[2] And this gets us to the nub of my concern. Why would we, as Christians, by way of theological method, want to affirm that we could arrive at ‘basic’ conclusions about God without first giving priority to the categories we are confronted with by the disclosure of Holy Scripture and the Revelation that grounds that in Jesus Christ?

I emboldened the primary point of illustration I wanted to make from Steve’s treatment. Beyond the various scholastic distinctions being made between God’s actuality, potency, and how that works in an ostensibly Christian doctrine of creation, what I wanted to highlight is how that cashes out when it is applied to a Father/Son-humanity relation. ‘Technically God is indifferent towards creatures’ for the Dubyian account because God’s actuality, his impassibility must remain intact; in other words the Creator/creature distinction must be maintained such that any suggestion that God might be contingent upon his creation for his being must be ameliorated. I would agree that we don’t want to make God contingent upon creation, this would be the worst type of pantheism; but if we must use the classical theistic categories in order to arrive at this conclusion is something lost? I would contend: Yes, something is lost!

All throughout Scripture, Old and New Testaments, God is referred to in the most relational of terms; not just in anthropopathic terms, but in real existential (and ontological I would argue) terms. He ‘walks in the cool of the garden’ in fellowship with the prelapasarian Adam and Eve; He is the Father of Israel; He is the Shepherd of Israel; He broods over Israel as a Mother Hen broods over her chicks; He weeps; He is the Father of all comfort; He cries for His people; God is love. My point: Scripture does not offer us with a conception of God that is ‘technically indifferent towards creatures,’ in fact just the opposite! This is what I mean when I speak of a metaphysic that offers us a conception of God that is discordant with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Why would we want to affirm such categories to do such heavy lifting that in the end does something to God’s character that God himself according to Scripture does not emphasize about himself; at least not in the terms that said metaphysic requires?

 

[1] Steve J. Duby, “Divine Action And The Meaning Of Eternity,” in Bradford LittleJohn ed., God of our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), Loc 2227, 2235, 2242 kindle version. [Emphasis mine]

[2] Ibid., Loc. 2107.