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’

‘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.

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