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.

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

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Robert Jenson, Thomas Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.

Summary

In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Robert Jenson, Thomas Torrance, and Thomas Aquinas

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.

Summary

In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas

Peter Leithart Critiques, John Webster Constructs … T. F. Torrance on Revelation and Scripture

I just finished a really good book, Athanasius by Peter Leithart. There are a few things I am intending on addressing from the book, on various fronts that he addresses in the process of getting at Athanasius’ theology (like a critique of Michael Horton’s Federal Theology … which is lovely). But this piece, this post comes from a hunting-gathering expedition I took into the Forest-land of end notes; which normally I tremble to enter, given its distance from the land of the living in the body of the text itself—but I was brave this time. As a result of my adventurous move, I came across a little critique that Leithart drops on T. F. Torrance’s reading of Athanasius. It’s really not a surprising critique, but it brings up an interesting discussion–methinks–and so I want to address it here.

In the following quote, Peter J. Leithart provides a mini-critique of the Barthian way that Torrance reads Athanasius relative to a theory of revelation (the context of the note is a discussion that Leithart is developing on the tripartite method of biblical interpretation that Athanasius follows—he is noticing how Torrance, according to him, misreads Athanasius). Note Leithart,

[…] and Torrance, “Hermeneutics of Saint Athanasius (Part 1),” Ekklesiastikos Pharos (1970-1971), in four installments. For all its virtues, Torrance’s series imposes a Barthian framework on Athanasius. Torrance detaches the res [reality] of revelation from the word of Scripture in ways that I think Athanasius would have rejected, and he attempts to explain his use of biblical paradigms while holding to Barthian scruples about natural revelation, scruples that Athanasius was far from sharing. [brackets mine] -Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 182 fn. 19.

This might mean nothing to you, but to me it is, obviously, interesting. Leithart is simply seeking to provide a critical reading of Athanasius, and so I think his reading is quite fair; further, that his little critique of Torrance, is most likely accurate (Torrance is known for his, as some have noted before, his hagiographic readings of folk … I prefer to think of it as constructive). But this does bring up something, and I wonder how this impacts you. What Leithart is noting when he speaks of Torrance and how he ‘detaches the res of revelation from the word of Scripture’ is in reference to Torrance’s Barthian theory of revelation; wherein there is a depth dimension to scripture, such that the meaning of scripture can’t simply be read off of the syntactical, grammatical structure of the text of scripture, but that scripture itself points beyond itself to its, reality, or Christ. Note what John Webster has written in his abstract to an essay he has authored for the most recent volume of the Scottish Journal of Theology entitled, simply: T. F. Torrance On Scripture; he writes,

Although it was never completed and has had only slight impact, T. F. Torrance’s work on the nature and interpretation of scripture is a primary element in his theology, though largely unstudied. For Torrance, a theology of scripture and its interpretation derive from a theology of revelation; revelation takes creaturely form in the incarnate Word, out of which is generated the apostolic community and its witness, which in turn generates scripture, the human word which ministers the divine Word. Scripture is the divine Word accommodated to human form, and so a sacrament or sign which refers to revelation; its social location is the life of the apostolic community. Interpretation of scripture is properly ‘depth-interpretation’, following the semantics of scripture by which reference to divine reality is made, rather than terminating on scripture’s syntactical surface. Fitting interpretative practice follows the text’s reference, penetrates to the thing signified, indwells its subject matters and listens to the divine Word. The interpreter is summoned to mortification of prejudice and constantly renewed attentiveness…. (see full biblio and abstract here)

So what do you think? 1) What do you think about a theory of revelation? Would you follow what Leithart attributes to Athanasius?; which is really just the traditional understanding of revelation. I.e. that scripture itself is God’s special revelation to humanity. Or, would you prefer Torrance’s and Barth’s approach which hold, that properly ordered, God’s Self-revelation is not collapsed into paper or a Pope; but, instead, it is God’s personal Triune self-revelation of himself through himself, through his eternal Word, his Son? This, as Webster underscores, will have impact upon, at least, the emphases of your biblical interpretation (like your methodology, and the ethics of reading the text etc.).

I would like to know what theory of revelation you follow, and why? Only if you want to let me know though …

Peter Leithart Critiques, John Webster Constructs … T. F. Torrance on Revelation and Scripture

Theological Exegesis and St. Athanasius

I am an heir of the Literal Grammatical Historical approach to biblical interpretation; an approach, that at least of yesteryear (and even now at some levels) has dominated Evangelical biblical exegesis. The LGH was given its genesis in the history of religions school, and what can be called the higher criticism of enlightenment rationalism. We see it alive and well today in the discussions that take place amongst so called biblical studies guys and gals  (just go read a biblical studies blog somewhere, you’ll see what I mean … or an excellent illustration of this kind of exegesis [form-redaction] is Grant Osborne’s book Hermeneutical Spiral). But this post isn’t really intended to be about the LGH, instead I am just using this as the foil that introduces what I want to highlight; something that I have become a convert to, theological exegesis. Christian theological exegesis has been around from the beginning, and no one better epitomizes what this whole project has been about but St. Athanasius himself; that stalwart of contra mundum theology. Peter Leithart in his gem of a book Athanasius in the Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality series, gives a great little summary of what theological exegesis entails; and how it served as the matrix through which Athanasius engaged the scriptures:

Theological interpretation of Scripture thus involves respect for the premodern interpretation, attention to the doctrinal tradition of the church, recognition that Bible scholarship takes place within the church and exists for the edification of the church, and acknowledgment that interpretation is not a clinical scientific enterprise but a form of piety and properly preceded and followed by prayer, praise, and worship. Athanasius is among the precritical interpreters of Scripture whom contemporary theological readers of Scripture seek to emulate. Lessing’s ditch was unknown to him, as was Benjamin Jowett. Of course, so too was the Nicene tradition to which Reno appeals. Athanasius does appeal to the authority of the “fathers” at Nicaea, but he is one of the key formulators of the Nicene tradition, rather than an heir of it. His biblical interpretation is therefore of peculiar importance, since by following his lead we can discover some of the paths by which he moved from Scripture’s narrative, law, gospel, and epistle to the metaphysical claims inherent in Nicene theology. –Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 28.

It is through a theology and hermeneutic of retrieval that we can appropriate the impulses that made someone like Athanasius’ theological interpretation beat. Clearly we can’t repristinate Athanasius’ precritical theological exegetical practices—we are at least, critical if not post-critical exegetes—but that is not to say that theological exegesis is doomed to the history of ideas. As those in the know, theological exegesis is making a come back—even amongst some evangelical exegetes (most notably Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier). What appeals to me about theological exegesis is 1) it is the method that the Apostles followed when writing scripture, 2) it is rooted in positive Christian axioms of interpretation, 3) it does not require a negative defense [like inerrancy and veracity of scripture] for the ground and foundation of its interpretive life, and more.

I hope you appreciate the quote from Leithart; I do …

Theological Exegesis and St. Athanasius

‘Dare I?’ Worshipping in Augustinian Tune, Leithart, part 1

This is long, and sweet! I can’t not share this with you. I read this this morning at work (on break), and the Lord ministered to me through this. It was a time of doxology. Notice the two distinct movements in the prayer. Leithart offers a prayer in the tune of Augustinian; from his recent book on Athanasius. The following is his Introduction to the book, the intro is entitled: Scripture and Metaphysics (in the Augustinian Mode). And it is sweet! I have provided a link to some reading music below (which is what I was listening to when I first read this). Leithart,

[W]hat is the nature of things? What are things, ultimately and in their most basic structures and essence? You, O Lord, know, for you made them all, sustain them all in existence, direct and guide all things to your good ends. You know every thing, love every thing, are good to every thing. You know them all more nearly than they know themselves. But how shall we know?

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.

Should I even ask? Can I ask? Dare I ask?

Have not some of your servants turned to such idols? Have they not bound you in forms and substances and concepts of their own imagining and bowed to worship what their own hands have made? Have they not turned your glory, the glory of the incorruptible God, into idols more ethereal than four-footed beasts and crawling creatures, and worshiped and served the creature rather than you, the Creator? Have not your servants all but denied that you were Creator, following vain philosophers who spoke of eternal matter and changeless forms? Have they not said that you are subject to time and development, denying that you are eternally complete and fulfilled? Have they not danced and sung before other gods? They asked, what is the nature of things? And were they not turned from your ways?

Dare I ask?

Yet, I cannot escape the question, for others have spoken before me. Others have asked, what is the nature of things? and have given answers. Are their answers true? Should I, O Lord, ignore their questions and answers and devote myself to prayer and service to the poor? Or shall I seek to answer? Shall I seek to determine if they speak the truth? How can I not? Can I tell whether their answers are true without asking the same questions? If a philosopher says that all things exist by participation in forms, should I, O Lord, believe him? If another says that matter is eternal, shall I, O Lord, accept that? If yet another says that all substances are informed matter, shall I receive that? If another says that we can know nothing of things beyond their phenomenal appearances, what shall I say? If the philosophers are correct about the nature of things, do they also describe your nature, O God? Are you one of the the things whose nature these philosophers describe?

If you would not have me believe these philosophers, I would know why. And if they are false, I would know what truth to speak in place of their falsehoods. [Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi]

This is just the first part. We will have to finish the rest tomorrow. This is honestly one of the coolest, dramatic, and worshipful things I have read for quite some time. Really, we are just breaking off right before we get into the second (kataphatic) movement of Leithart’s ‘Augustinian’ tune; the best part. The answer.

‘Dare I?’ Worshipping in Augustinian Tune, Leithart, part 1