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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.