What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’

 

The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?

trinityjesus

Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

What is Theology? With Reference to Charles Ryrie, Millard Erickson, and Special Reference to John Webster

Theology is used frequently, and very often, generically. I use it in a certain way, personally, with a certain understanding when I use it. But what has become apparent to me, particularly because of a recent post on FaceBook, is that what theology and theologian actually entail, definitionally, is not as apparent as I had thought. In this post I will try to offer some definition of what I mean when I refer to theology and theologian.

When I first graduated high school in 1992 I attended what at that time was called Southwestern College in Phoenix, Arizona. For my first semester Systematic Theology class we used Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology.[1] Here is my first real exposure to a definition of what Systematic Theology, or simply theology entails:

The word “theology,” from theos meaning God and logos meaning rational expression, means the rational interpretation of religious faith. Christian theology thus means the rational interpretation of the Christian faith.

At least three elements are included in that general concept of theology. (1) Theology is intelligible. It can be comprehended by the human mind in an orderly, rational manner. (2) Theology requires explanation. This, in turn, involves exegesis and systematization. (3) The Christian faith finds its source in the Bible, so Christian theology will be a Bible-based study. Theology, then, is the discovery, systematizing, and presentation of the truths about God.[2]

This a pretty straight-forward vanilla understanding of what theology is. There are components hidden within Ryrie’s definition that I think need some interrogating, and we will do some of that as this post proceeds.

After my first exposure to Ryrie’s theology I left Southwestern (after a semester), and just went home and starting working. After awhile though the Lord, through some circumstances, began to tug on my heart which eventuated in me enrolling and attending Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. The primary, school-wide, go-to Systematic Theology text used at Multnomah was Millard Erickson’s Introducing Christian Doctrine (this text was used at both the under-grad and grad levels). This became the occasion for my next exposure to a definition of what theology entails. Erickson writes:

To some readers, the word doctrine may prove somewhat frightening. It conjures up visions of very technical, difficult, abstract beliefs, perhaps grounded dogmatically. Doctrine is not that, however. Christian doctrine is simply statements of the most fundamental beliefs that the Christian has, beliefs about the nature of God, about his action, about us who are his creatures, and about what he has done to bring us into relationship with himself. Far from being dry or abstract, these are the most important types of truths. They are statements on the fundamental issues of life: namely, who am I, what is the ultimate meaning of the universe, where am I going? Christian doctrine is, then, the answers that the Christian gives to those questions that all human beings ask.

Doctrine deals with general or timeless truths about God and the rest of reality. It is not simply the study of specific historical events, such as what God has done, but of the very nature of the God who acts in history. The study of doctrine is known as theology. Literally, theology is the study of God. It is the careful, systematic study, analysis, and statement of Christian doctrine. Certain of its characteristics will help us understand the nature of the theological enterprise:

1.Theology is biblical….2.Theology is systematic….3.Theology is done in the context of human culture. 4. Theology is contemporary….5. Theology is practical….[3]

These were my first exposures to what theology entails. At a certain level they are pretty benign and descriptive: i.e. theology is the study of God. But on further analysis what these definitions, respectively, provide for, despite Erickson’s protest that theology is not dry and abstract, is a rather intellective-centered, abstractive process of reducing Scripture and God to propositions. And in Erickson’s case, he sees theology quite philosophically, even “world-viewish,” as if a primary task of Christian doctrine is to provide answers to profane philosophical questions about the meaning of life and so forth.

This was not satisfying for me, but until I hit seminary these were the types of definitions of theology I “labored” under. When I finally hit seminary in 2002 things changed. Dr. Ron Frost, my historical theology and ethics professor in seminary, introduced me to historical theology. At this point I realized that theology had a history, and that there was whole lineage underlying the ideas and doctrine I understood to be Christian Systematic Theology. At this point my horizons broadened and the world opened up; I began to read Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Perkins, Gunton, Barth, et al. and the world of theology took on a whole new shape and hopefulness for me.

One thing led to another over the years, and I am where I am currently. Once Frost (and Paul Metzger) opened these doors for me, and as I went through them and kept reading and studying I of course bumped up against Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Barth, and then John Webster (and others). For the rest of this post I will engage with, in particular, Webster’s thoughts on what theology entails.

I am going to share from Webster at extenso (at some length!), as you read what Webster has to say—and it will require some sustained attention on your part to follow the various lines he is tracing—you might think “hmm, this sounds a lot like what was shared from Ryrie and Erickson.” Superficially that could be the case, but if you pay attention closely you will see that Webster is actually critiquing the approach that Ryrie and Erickson describe; Webster highlights the ontology of theology as couched within soteriology and theology proper, as if theology as a human endeavor has an ordered place relative to God and the idea that God has spoken (Deus dixit). Here is Webster:

The presentation of the genus and tasks of systematic theology has to begin quite far back. Understanding what systematic theology (or any other division of theological study) is about depends upon grasping the nature and ends of rational creatures; and such an account rests finally upon an understanding of God and the works of God. Systematic theology is an exercise of reason in the domain of God’s saving and revelatory goodness to creatures. Undertaking it well requires that practitioners orient the work of the mind within that domain, in order to receive instruction and assistance in their task. This is why a primary requirement of the pursuit of the task – neglect of which is so easy and so disastrous – is the confidentia divini auxillii of which Aquinas spoke in the prologue to the Summa theologiae.

To unfold the matter a little more full: (1) Determining the possibility, nature and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. ‘[D]ogmatics does not wait for an introduction.’ The fact that in its prolegomena systematic theology invokes doctrine means that this preliminary stage of the argument does not bear responsibility for establishing the possibility of true human speech about God, or for demonstrating how infinite divine truth can take finite form in human knowing. Prolegomena is, rather, the contemplative exercise of tracing what is the case, and explicating how and why it is so. (2) More closely: specifying a theological sense of scientia is a derivative task, one to be undertaken only after clarification of the economy of salvation and revelation within which theological reason fulfils its calling. Recall the order of the very first two articles of the Summa theologiae: Aquinas only asks whether Christian theology is a science (1a. 1.2) after asking whether another teaching is required apart from philosophical studies (Ia. 1. 1) and, crucially, the answer which he gives to the first question is, in essence, an appeal to the saving and revelatory works of God as that by which the human good is secured and made known. ‘It should be urged that human well being [salus] called for schooling in what God has revealed, in addition to the philosophical researches pursued by human reasoning.’ The setting of theology is thus not simply the immanent sphere of human inquiry, but the transcendent vocation of rational creatures. Schooling in divine revelation is necessary ‘because God destines us for an end beyond the grasp of reason … Now we have to recognise an end before we can stretch out and exert for it. Hence the necessity for our welfare [salus] that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’. (3) A definition of theology and its various tasks thus rests upon teaching about God and the human good; and the deepest disagreements about the nature of theology commonly arise, not simply from divergent conceptions of scientia, but from differing understandings of God and the creatures of God.

Adopting this starting point in the context of mainstream Anglo-American scholarly study of systematic theology presumes what Lewis Ayres has called ‘a wider critique of the culture of systematic theology’. Much might be said by way of analysis of that culture (or cultures: at least on the surface there is not much consensus). One feature, commonly encountered but not often remarked upon, is that of granting a certain priority to an understanding of systematic theology as a mode of public engagement over systematic theology as an act of contemplative intelligence. Positioning systematic theology in this way affects not only conceptions of the ends of theology (as, essentially, a practical science of Christian history and action), but also conceptions of its sources, its modes of argument, the virtues required of its practitioners and – and most of all – its material content, for in systematic theologies of this type, rather little tends to be said of God in se. This may go along with disinclination for, even suspicion of, systematic theology as dogmatics, and preferences for conceptions of the systematic task as open, free and cumulative learning.[4]

As usual with Webster he is careful to sketch out a theological taxis or order or ontology even for defining what theology is in the first place. As Webster does with his doctrine of Scripture, here in his defining of theology, he acknowledges, as he must, that theological endeavor is a creaturely and intellective endeavor, but he places that activity within the realm of God’s Triune life and Self-revelation; more particularly he places theological activity within the prior reality of salvation. It is here where genuine doxological reflection about God can take place. It at this point that theology has the capacity and resource to press deeply into the interior reality of God, and where theology is not just an exercise in answering philosophical world-view questions (Erickson) or a process of rational abstraction (Ryrie and Erickson). Instead, theology is a dialogical exercise where Christians engage with the living God and make Him known as they participate in His effervescent life.

Theology for the Christian, as Webster hits upon, can take on different cues and diverse shape; depending upon the conception of God the theologian starts out with to begin with. Theology in its most base form is simply study of God, but after that things pick up and we get into the complexities of how that task takes shape; and under what type of pressure. I would contend with Webster that the best pressure is the pressure provided for by God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ; this should be the context the theologian operates within, a context where doxology and the living Triune God are at its center.

I would like to say much more, and unfortunately this post ended up taking a bit of a different shape than I’d hoped for in the beginning; but hopefully there has been something interesting communicated.

 

 

 

[1] Which might clue you in on what type of school it was. It was a Conservative Baptist Bible College, with all the doctrinal distinctives and culture that typically attends a Conservative Baptist Bible College.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (USA/Canada/England: Victor Books, 1986), 13.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, ed. L. Arnold Hustad (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), 15-16.

[4] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark International A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 133-35.

God’s Number, His Threeness-in-Oneness: Hugh Binning, Gregory Nazianzen, Thomas Torrance and Bruce McCormack respond to Katherine Sonderegger

Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the
trinityvery fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

As Thomas Torrance notes further, after Binning wrote what we just read from him, he cited Gregory Nazianzen thusly: “I cannot think upon one, but by and by I am compassed about with the brightness of three, and I cannot distinguish three, but I am suddenly driven back unto one.”[2] What a beautiful way to think of the One in Three/Three in One, the Triunity of Godself when considering the depth reality of what has taken place in salvation.

And I would like to suggest to Katherine Sonderegger, who is concerned about the De Deo Trino (Threeness of God) crowding out the De Deo Uno (Oneness of God), and who attributes a Trinitarian emphasis to doing theology in the 20th and 21st centuries to the impact of the modern theological move primarily made by Karl Barth, that there is evidence to the contrary. I.e. This example from Binning helps to illustrate how Oneness and Threeness were not only thought together for the pre-moderns in the post-Reformation period, but it also underscores how Threeness was a prominent reality for the patristics, as Binning himself appeals to Nazianzen. Note Sonderegger’s concern:

… Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God….[3]

I would submit that Sonderegger creates a false disjunction by speaking of Oneness over against Threeness, and vice versa. We see Binning creatively think Oneness into Threeness and vice versa in a way that I should think would be instructive for Sonderegger. She also uses numbers for God in a way that actually flattens out the mystery she is claiming to enhance and magnify by emphasizing God’s Oneness; Bruce McCormack drives this home when he writes:

… The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”).  The relations simply are what God is essentially.  For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity….[4]

And further,

… Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.[5]

For a Christian conception of God it is not possible or recommended to try and think of God as One or Three outwith the other; there is no Oneness of God without His Threeness, and no Threeness without His Oneness. Binning understood this, pre-modern that he was, and indeed helps to uplift the mysterious wonder of who God is, and who this God is with us and for us.

 

 

[1] Hugh Binning, Works, 89 cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), 79.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), XIV.

[4] Bruce L. McCormack, Reflections on the Same God Thesis (Wheaton, IL: Noah Toly’s Blog, accessed 01-27-2016).

[5] Ibid.

Allow God to Tell His Own Story. Albrecht Ritschl, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance: A Better Way to do Genuine Christian Theology

Karl Barth is famous for wanting to think theological thoughts strictly and only after Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’); he is famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. Thomas F. Torrance, in his own way, but in the wake of Barth is likewise famous for his desire to do Revelational Theology. They were both very successful at this, and have left a great heritage for those of us who want ritschlto do theology After Barth&After Torrance. Neither Barth nor Torrance invented this approach; we could identify strains towards this type of approach strewn throughout church history. In this post I want to identify a more recent voice (relative to Barth’s location in history) that helped to foster the kind of trajectory that Barth, Torrance, and others picked up on later. I am sure for those who are Barth-haters that they would be tempted to use this as ammunition to tar-and-feather Barth (and Torrance) to the dump of theological Liberalism; be that as it may, I am going to risk it, and name this voice for you.

As you have been reading this post thus far you might wonder what the big deal is; you might be thinking “don’t all Christian theologians do revelational theology;” “don’t all Christian theologians attempt to avoid philosophical metaphysics in their theologizing and attempt to think God directly from Jesus Christ as God’s Self-exegesis and interpretation (Jn 1.18)?” Most would claim to do so, but most in Protestant theology have cozied up to the idea that some metaphysics (whether that be Thomist, Scotist, Nominalist, etc.) are inevitable; that some philosophical categories are necessary in order to attempt to think and communicate God in an intelligible coherent way. Barth and Torrance, and this voice I am going to identify don’t think this is the case, and they have not cozied up to this idea about using philosophy and metaphysics as the driver for the doing of Christian theology; like I noted they are committed principially to the idea that we can only do Christian theology after God has spoken (Deus dixit), and thus revelational theology.

The ‘voice’ that helped to pave the way for someone like Barth, at least in his emphasis on revelational theology was famed theologian Albrecht Ritschl (1822). Ritschl was anti-Hegel, and anti After Hegel theologians; if you know anything about Hegel you know that he wanted to supplant traditional Christian theology with his philosophically shaped pantheistic dialectically styled theologizing. Ristchl was responding to this style of philosophy and “metaphysics” (as it were); Barth similarly was responding to Hegel, but Kant even more. Nonetheless, it is interesting (at least to me) to see in Ritschl that in an de jure objective and principled way I can agree with; even if I cannot agree with probably anything else Ritschl stood for in his exegetical and theological conclusions.

In order to get an idea about all of this we will hear from H.R. Mackintosh (Thomas F. Torrance’s beloved teacher) as he develops Ritschl’s thinking on this, while at the same time offers a bit of critique.

Our study of this method may suitably begin with an allusion to two pernicious influences which, at every stage of his development except the first, Ritschl sought to drive from the field. One is Speculative Rationalism, with its claim that the true basis of theology is to be found in theoretical metaphysics. No doubt in a broad sense most of us are speculative rationalists in so far as we try to think out and think through the implications of Christian faith, in an effort to correlate each belief with all the rest. And in calling for the expulsion of metaphysics from theology, as I think we shall see Ritschl in form asked for more than could be conceded, and as it were drove the nail in so hard as to split the wood. Faith must always be metaphysical, for it rests upon convictions which, if true, must profoundly affect our whole view of the universe and the conduct befitting us within it. In this important sense, a metaphysical import belongs to every judgment concerning Ultimate Reality. Yet the belief or judgment in question need not have been reached by way of metaphysical argument, and in point of fact no essential Christian belief has ever been so reached, although metaphysical argument may later have been employed to defend it. And this, in the last resort, is the point Ritschl is bent on making. There is a Speculative Rationalism which comes to meet the Gospel with a ready-made framework of philosophical conceptions, insisting that faith is bound to use these conceptions, and no other, when it proceeds to formulate its own living content, and this in spite of the fact that its fundamental categories may have taken shape quite irrespectively of the experiences that make man a Christian. Philosophy as such is, even for the believer, the final court of appeal. This type of thought, of which Hegelianism is the classic instance, Ritschl strove not without success to dislodge from the seat of power. Anyone who knows more than the rudiments of his thought will acknowledge that his view of the living God, of revelation of Christ, of miracle, of the Church, is such as to lift the mind beyond the range of any metaphysic operating with general ideas. It becomes plain that, in spite of its great intellectual value, technical philosophy leaves on one side just those problems which possess a life-and-death interest for believing men. No books on metaphysics can be named which contain a serious handling of such matters as fellowship with God, the guilt of sin, the hearing of prayer, above all the redeeming Person of Jesus. By insisting that the Christian mind must at every point of religious belief be guided solely by revelation of God in Christ, Ritschl did his utmost to expel any and every presumptuous form of Speculative Rationalism; and it may well be that the future historian will reckon this to have been his best service to theology.[1]

And in case you were wondering how Ritschl fits with the trajectory of Barth/Torrance, or vice versa, here is what Torrance commentates in regard to Barth’s approach (which Torrance shared in this regard):

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Moral of the Story:

Allow God’s own Self-exegeis, His own Self-interpretation to impose Godself upon you and the way you think about God and all His works (without separation between His Person and Work). Allow the categories and conceptions supplied by God Himself in Christ to provide the way we think God, and repudiate any approach to theologizing that allows philosophy and foreign metaphysics to set the tone for how we think God. If you do this things will go better; because if we get God wrong everything else that follows will be wrong.

 

[1] Hugh Ross Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 142-43.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

The Theologian for Us, Jesus Christ: The Word “Theology” and its Pagan Origin but Reception by the Protestants

The word theology is a transliteration of the Latin theologia which itself is a transliteration of the Greek. Richard Muller helpfully develops the etymology of how ‘theology,’ the word, came into usage among Christians, and in particular how that took form among the Protestant Reformed Christians during the 16th and 17th centuries. Let me quote Muller at some length on this in two jesusbibleseparate chunks, and then I will close with some final reflection.

The word theologia is of Greek origin, taken over into Latin, and then borrowed or adopted by the fathers of the church from gentile writers. According to Aristotle and Cicero, the poets were to be called “theologians” because they spoke of the gods and of “divine things.” Thus, by adaptation and extension of the classical usage, Lactantius refers in his De ira Dei to those who know and worship God rightly as theologi and to their knowledge as theologia. Early on, moreover, Christians referred to the apostle John as Theologus, “the Theologian,” in titles added to the Apocalypse. Alsted adds to this the fact church fathers, like Nazianzus, were called Theologus because they wrote about and defended the doctrine of the Trinity.[1]

Like so much in the Christian heritage, in the ‘fullness of time’ as it were, us Christians have retexted grammar provided for by the classical Greek thinkers. You could imagine though, that as the Protestant Reformation took place, Christian Humanist movement that it was (i.e. ad fontes ‘back to the sources’ e.g. the Biblical text in its original languages and to the Patristics/Church fathers), the Protestant scholastics almost stumbled over the appropriation of the language theologia or theology; because in their minds it was too closely associated with Hellenistic philosophy, paganism, and what had caused so many of the problems that they were protesting against within the Roman Tridentine Catholic system.

The fact that the term theologia itself is not a biblical but an ancient pagan term cause the Protestant scholastics some brief anxiety. After all, the Reformation was, if nothing else, a profoundly biblical movement, zealous to avoid anything in religion that could not be justified from Scripture and careful, particularly in its first several decades, to formulate its theology upon the text of Scripture and to avoid the use of classical as well as medieval sources. The classic use of the term theologia by Aristotle and Cicero was not easily assimilated by Protestant system either on the basis of the ancient inscription to John as Theologus or on the basis of the usage of the fathers of the church, since pagan “theology” neither had access to supernatural or special revelation nor was capable of a proper use of reason in discerning the truths of natural revelation. What Christians call theology, by way of contrast with the ancient pagan usage,

is a science of divine things … which treateth of God, nor according to human reason, but divine revelation, which showeth not only what God is in himself, but also what he is toward us; nor doth it only discusse of his nature, but also of his will, teaching what God expecteth of us, and what we should expect from God, what we should hope for, and what we should feare. [Du Moulin, Oration in Praise of Divinity, 10-11.]

Some further, preferably biblical, justification of the term was desirable. Turretin resolves the problem by making a distinction between the term theologia and its significance:

The simple terms from which it is composed do occur there, as for example, logos tou theou and logia tou theou, Rom. 3:2; I Pet. 4:10; Hebrews 5:12. Thus it is one thing to be in Scripture according to sound (quoad sonum) and syllables, or formally and in the abstract; and another to be in Scripture according to meaning (quoad sensusm) and according to the thing signified (rem significatam), or materially and in the concrete,; “theology” does not appear in Scripture in the former way, but in the latter. [Turretin, Inst. theol., I.i.2.]

Theologia, then, indicates heavenly doctrine (doctrina coelestis) and has, in addition to the scriptural references to logia tou theou, words of God, a series of scriptural synonyms: “wisdom in a mystery (1 Cor. 2:7), “the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), “knowledge of truth according to piety” (Titus 1:1), and “doctrine” (Titus 1:9). Again, the thing signified by the term is discussed throughout Scripture.[2]

Just as with everything else in the Protestant Reformation words themselves were put to the test by way of the canon of Holy Scripture. The word ‘theology’ passed the test because it signifies something that truly is grounded in the reality found in the text of Scripture as it finds its reality and order of being from Godself. In a denotative or generic sense, just as with its origin, the word theologia and theologi (i.e. theology’s practitioners) can be used very generally with reference to anyone who studies a particular conception of god; however, when Christians use the term we understand that the reference of this word is to the Triune God, and that Jesus Christ himself is truly Theologus pro nobis (The Theologian for us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 152.

[2] Ibid., 153.

The Dilemma Between Divine Simplicity and Analogy Introduced §1

Once, I tried to compare and contrast Thomas F. Torrance’s and Thomas Aquinas’ respective and disparate views on the usage of ‘analogy’ in theological engagement. I did this in our (Myk Habets’ and my) edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; my personal chapter in that book is titled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either aquinasThrough Christ or Through Nature. I wasn’t altogether pleased with how that chapter came out, but it is what it is.

George Hunsinger in his new book Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Essays on Barth and Other Themes engages with the same issue I attempted to, but his comparison and contrast is between Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas; a similar endeavor to mine (I mean in regard to the traditions on analogy being compared). Throughout the rest of this post (which will probably run long) I am going to engage with Hunsinger’s comparative and constructive work here, which will involve engaging with the ostensible problem of Divine Simplicity and analogy respectively.

The Fourth Lateran Council serves as a jumping off point for Hunsinger in setting up this (his) discussion. We will enter into this with him at length (in other words I am going to be doing some extensive quotation work), and then we will follow it up with my own reflections in response to Hunsinger’s salient points on Barth and Aquinas in discussion. So Hunsinger:

A famous formula from the Fourth Lateran Council ran as follows:

For between Creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. (Constitutions, ii)

Whatever this formula might mean, it is not necessarily in agreement with the view taken by Irenaeus. Although both would posit an analogy between the Creator and the creature, the Lateran formula, if taken strictly, seemed to construe their metaphysical difference as a matter of degree (“greater dissimilarity”), whereas Irenaeus, if taken strictly, appeared to adopt a more radical view. For him their difference would seem to be absolute, as set forth through a pattern of negation and eminence, not just a matter of degree. Uncreated light, being wholly other than created light, was placed in a class by itself: God was “unlike any light that we know.”

The idea of divine simplicity seemed to generate a quandary. Defining God as wholly other than any creatures seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse in theology. The idea of analogy, even as construed by the Fourth Lateran Council, seemed to posit that God and the creature were somehow metaphysically comparable. The dissimilarity between them, no matter how great, was finally a matter of degree. Divine simplicity, on the other hand, seemed to require a difference that was not merely relative but absolute. If so, it seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse about God. Language about God, on these terms, could only be equivocal and apophatic. Analogical views of theological language that affirm divine simplicity, or God’s radical difference from the world, need to deal with this dilemma.[1]

To sharpen this dilemma Hunsinger appeals to Denys Turner and Patristic Hippolytus; first to Turner:

There can be no good sense … in any … calculation of the greater and lesser degrees of “distance” which lie between Creator and creatures as contrasted with that between one creature and another; for it is not on some common scale of difference that these differences differ … as if to say: it is this kind or that, only infinitely so…. A term of comparison … presupposes a common scale…. For if God is not any kind of being, then his difference from creatures is not a difference of any kind, hence is not a difference of any size, hence is not incomparably greater, but, on the contrary, is, simply, incommensurable. “Greater” and “lesser” cannot come into it, logically speaking.[2]

Hunsinger then cites Hippolytus:

For comparisons can be instituted only between objects of like nature, and not between objects of unlike nature. But between God the Maker of all things and that which is made, between the infinite and the finite, between infinitude and finitude, there can be no kind of comparison, since these differ from each other not in mere comparison (or relatively), but absolutely in essence. And yet at the same time there has been effected a certain inexpressible and irrefragable union of the two into one substance [upostasin] which entirely passes the understanding of anything that is made. For the divine is just the same after the incarnation that it was before the incarnation; in its essence infinite, illimitable, impassible, incomparable, unchangeable, inconvertible, self-potent [autosXenes], and, in short, subsisting in essence alone the infinitely worthy good.[3]

If God is ‘simple’ and non-composite, if He just is and His predicates are just who He is fully and wholly in all that those are realized in Himself; if God is so unique and other in this regard, such that He is not open to creaturely comparison, then how can we ever speak of God in anything but equivocal ways? This is the dilemma that Hunsinger has introduced us to, and the dilemma that Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth understand and work through in their respective ways.

Since this is running long, and the comparison between Barth and Aquinas will run longer, I will divide this up into two separate posts. Hopefully you see and understand the dilemma that Divine simplicity and analogous language presents us with; if you do you will better appreciate the respective ways that both Barth and Aquinas end up engaging with this issue (no surprise I go with Barth … but Hunsinger doesn’t think Barth and Aquinas are as far apart as some think – stay tuned).

[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 61 kindle.

[2] Denys Turner cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 61-2.

[3] Hippolytus cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 62-3.

I Don’t Believe in the Power[s] of God

What is it that has always turned me off about classical post-Reformed orthodoxy (and many other Westernly derived orthodoxies as well)? It has less, really, to do with labels (like jesusalmightyCalvinism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, etc.) than it does with the material theological implications present within such systems of thought (derivative as that might be in many cases) about God. If you have spent any time at all studying historical theology you will have run across the impact that Nominalism has had upon the framing of the way we think about God. I described this in a 2013 article I wrote for Christianity Today:

But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a “dualism” in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his “transcendent” life and another way in his “immanent” life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that’s because he can act differently “way above yonder” than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.[1]

What I was referring to with Ockham in this article, more technically, is the medieval metaphysic and conception of God that referred to God’s act (being) in two ways: 1) de potentia Absoluta and de potentia  Ordinata; God’s absolute power (how he is in himself in eternity), and God’s Ordained power (or will) (how he is in himself revealed in the contingencies of time and salvation history). Ockham wrote of it this way:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia  ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does  not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do…. These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].[2]

Here is what I wrote, in that same Christianity Today article, relative to what this kind of ‘dualist’ Ockham inspired approach to God can do to us:

The problem with Ockham’s perspective is that it severs God’s transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the “veiled” God and the “unveiled” God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[3]

And so Barth.

This whole discussion on Nominalism should help to explain my ‘turn’ to Barth and After Barth theology (like through Thomas Torrance, John Webster, et. al.). It isn’t really all that concerned with whether this set of theologians or that set of theologians operated in one period of church history or another; I really could care less about that (I operate under the premise that God’s relationship to his church is unremitting, and that he continues to break into his church as the Great Teacher that he is, in Christ, and uses the intellectual furniture of each period and age to lead the church closer to the knowledge of the One Faith [Eph. 4] once for all delivered to the Saints [Jude 1]). I happen to believe that Barth & co. have engaged with the Tradition to the point they had received it in that has been very fruitful and helpful for the catholic church of Jesus Christ. Particularly when it comes to this issue (and many other subsequent and important ones): a Doctrine of God.

One of Karl Barth’s early commentators, a Dutch theologian from the Free University of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer really gets at this point in a very cogent way in regard to Barth’s theology and reframing of the ‘potentia’ theology that so much of Western thinking about God (I would declare) suffers under.

We must note, in the first place, that Barth no longer leaves room for a God-concept whereby it is impossible to conceive of humiliation and self-abnegation on the part of God. Such ideas are not applicable to a God who is “infinite potentiality.” Every conception of humiliation and self-surrender is excluded by such a power, for it would contradict the very idea of the majesty of God.

It is precisely for this reason that every view of God which has been constructed on basis [sic] of natural theology, and therefore outside of Jesus Christ, had to lead and has, in fact, constantly led, to a misunderstanding of Scripture. It was not possible to achieve a right understanding of the being and the reality of God because the thinking of natural theology could not free itself from the schematism of what it already knew about God. The one thing needful here is a radical evolution in theological thinking! We must permit ourselves to be corrected and submit to being instructed anew.

We can come to know God only when we cease assuming that we know beforehand that, with respect to God, this or that cannot be, is not possible for Him, because it is not to be squared with His infinite potentiality.

When we see God only in Jesus Christ, we come to walk in a new path and wholly new perspectives for the doctrine of reconciliation appear. Then it becomes “possible” to see the “God Himself” in the reconciling work of God in Christ. It no longer belongs to the impossibilities of thought to see “God Himself” in Christ in the most ultimate humiliation, powerlessness and self-surrender which can – of course! – not be predicated of a God of infinite potentiality. Those who think that a self-humiliation on the part of God is unthinkable and impossible meet the protest of Barth that their exclusion of this possibility flows forth from erroneous presuppositions about God. In and through Christ we must learn who God is and what the really-divine is and can do. In Him we see that God’s revelation is precisely not concerned about an abstract omnipotence, a potentia absoluta, which infinitely transcends (as the esse absolutum) any and all humiliation and self-abnegation. It is God’s reconciling activity which teaches us who the true God, revealed in reconciliation, really is. Not the self-willed logic of natural theology but Jesus Christ alone must determine our thinking about God. In Him we are able to discern the true features of this God and discover that He does not terrify us by His distant and infinite majesty and pure absoluteness, but that He is near to us in the “powerlessness” of humiliation and cross.[4]

There is a move among younger ‘conservative’ theologians (and I am still very conservative myself!) to simply imbibe and privilege one period (pre-Modern or pre-Critical) theology over others (in particular Modern); but I think we need to get beyond that artificial divide (not uncritically so). Personally, what drives me is not being able to align with this or that theologian from Patristic, Medieval, Scholastic, pre-Modern/Critical, or Modern periods of thought; what drives me is to want to truly and genuinely know God. I think that if this is what drives us we will not get so caught up or concerned with whether or not we are Barthians, Torrancians, Thomists, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox etc., instead we will be evangelically driven and be willing to place the actual theological concerns and ideas beyond the ‘political’ back-biting tribal divisions that in the end have the potential to shut down our engagement with all of the teachers that the body of Christ (catholic) has to offer.

I am not interested, even as I have engaged with him, to follow the kind of ‘powerful’ God that Ockham gives us. I am not interested in the mode of simply and sentimentally ascribing to a certain theological tradition because it seems safe and secure, and purportedly represents sound orthodox traditional theology. I am more interested in truly coming to know God, and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to do that (in conversation will all periods of Christian thought,  constructively so) is to allow Jesus to regulate and condition all knowledge of God (Jn. 1.18).

[1] Bobby Grow, God Behind the Veil: His Ways are Hidden from Ordinary Eyes, but not the Eyes of Faith, Christianity Today (April 1, 2013) .

[2] William of Ockham, Quodlibeta V1, q. 1 cited by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550. An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

[3] Christianity Today.

[4] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 125-26.

On Being an Open but Grounded Christian Thinker

Theological theology, a phrase that theologian John Webster recently entitled an essay he wrote for the Journal of Analytic Theology. The phrase in and of itself is pregnant; it sounds pretty academic, and indeed the way Webster develops it is pretty academic, but it is still highly practical and pertinent for the body life and growth of the church of Jesus Christ.

Instead of elaborating on what exactly Webster developed in this essay of his I want to simply riff on his phrase Theological theology. Embedded in Webster’s intent, I think, is the point of emphasizing what in fact drives theology; or what is theology’s proper object? He argues that in order for theology to be truly theological that what serves ultimately determinative must be theology’s primal object: God. This seems simple and straightforward enough; I think most theologians would affirm this one way or the other.

Here’s my riff and application of this: If theology’s genuine endeavor is an attempt to know God and make him known for the people of God in various contexts (socio-cultural, demographical, etc.) then it behooves the Christian to finally get beyond the theologians that they learn from and ultimately look to Jesus. If this is the case I would contend that the best theologians among us (trained or untrained) are those who offer ways towards thinking about God that genuinely start with and after God. This seems like a good and helpful principle for being able to engage broadly with multiple theologians across various traditions of theological engagement. The Principle: When trying to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (or be a Christian theologian) it is best to engage with the teachings of various theologians from the regulating idea that Jesus is the center and not my favorite pet theologian.

What am I really getting at? Increasingly I am becoming disillusioned with the idea that I have to be identified with this camp or that tradition or that particular theologian in a lock-step way. For example: it is no secret that Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, and John Calvin have been significant shapers of the way that I think theologically; as such (especially because of my online forays) I think that I have become tied to these theologians in absolute types of ways. Meaning that I simply affirm everything that these particular guys have written. The idea being that just because I am highly sympathetic and impacted by them that I have so bought into their “systems” of thought that I must simply parrot every idea and every thought they ever articulated.

But this really isn’t the case. I appreciate Barth and Torrance in particular because they among any other theologian I have ever encountered offer a prolegomena or theological method that fits with the ‘principle’ I mentioned above. It is this that I have adopted from them in rather stringent ways; the idea that Jesus is the ‘key’ the ‘regulator’ and ‘center’ of all theological endeavor. But this doesn’t then mean that I can’t constructively learn from various other theologians, theologians who I might not agree with or who might be in the cross-hairs of Barth and Torrance for example.

At the end of the day Christian theology is much bigger than any one thinker or trajectory of thought (inclusive of Barth or Torrance). Even if particular theologians have tapped into a trajectory that I think better gets at the center of doing theology theologically and Christianly better than other approaches, this should not be taken in a reductionistic type of way. Jesus is bigger than Barth (shocking, I’m sure!), Jesus is bigger than Torrance, Calvin, the Pope, Mother Theresa or anyone else. If Jesus is the Great Teacher of his church, then we need to be able to learn from various quarters within his catholic body.

I am struggling to say what I want to say at this point, but hopefully you catch my drift.

Theology is really dialogue with God.

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.