Christian Aristotelianism: Understanding the Reformed and evangelical Intellectual and Theological History

I originally wrote this post on September 5th, 2010, I thought I’d share it again. It’s relevance hasn’t gone away in these last seven years, and remains unchanged for many folks either just cutting their teeth on Reformed theology, and/or for those who are flamingly Reformed and have been for years. Aristotle’s place in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox (or simply classical Calvinist) heritage will always be unchallenged and unshaken; anyone who has spent any time at all studying the history of Reformed theology will know this. But in my experience many people don’t know aristotle1this, many ostensibly Reformed people; they just think that what they are getting in Reformed theology is the meaty stuff, the purely “biblical” stuff. Yet, many have not done the self-critical, or just plain old critical work required in order to really know what they have gotten themselves into. These folk think they are working in a tradition known for its sola Scriptura – and indeed they are – but they remain unaware that historically sola Scriptura does not mean just pure Bible alone; no the Reformers were much more sophisticated and honest than that. They understood the role that philosophy, substance metaphysics, so on and so forth will need to play in order to unpack the inner-logic, the theo-logic resident and underneath the text of the occasional writings that make up Holy Writ. Of course, my contention is that Aristotle need not play any role in un-packing the theo-logic and reality of Holy Scripture; but that’s not to say that there is no place for the retextualization of philosophical language under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is to say, though, that Aristotle, particularly as we have received him in and from the medieval tradition, in my view, has done irreparable damage to how millions of Christians across the globe conceive of God today. But developing that is fodder for another post (that I’ve already written many times over here at the blog). Let’s stay focused though.

The following is to alert Reformed people, and other interested Christians to the role that Aristotle’s philosophy has played, is playing, and always will play in the center of the most dominant strand of Reformed theology today; the theology of the so called Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians. In case you didn’t know, these theologians are those who followed on the heels of the magisterial Reformers (i.e. Luther, Calvin, et al.) in the later 16th and then into the 17th century. Aristotle was present prior to the 16th and 17th centuries by way, primarily of Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy. Unfortunately the Reformation really never shook itself loose of this impact; it did for awhile say in Luther and Calvin, but then in the Post Reformation period this mantle and way was picked up once again. This long quote from historian, Richard Muller is intended to alert you all to this, if you’re unaware.

Trajectories in Aristotelianism and Rationalism. Although the early orthodox era (from roughly 1565 to 1640) is also the era during which the new science was being set forth by Kepler, Galileo, and Bacon, and the new rationalism was being initially expounded by Descartes and Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century. For the most part, early orthodox Protestant theologians doubted the new cosmology and rejected rationalist philosophy, resting content with the late Renaissance revisions of Christian Aristotelianism at the hands of Roman Catholic philosophers like Zabarella and Sua´rez and of Protestant thinkers like Ramus and Burgersdijk. The new cosmology had to wait until the latter part of the seventeenth century for Isaac Newton’s physical and mathematical discoveries to make any sense at all and seventeenth-century rationalism, particularly in the deductive model presented by Descartes, has never proved entirely congenial to traditional theology and was never incorporated either universally or without intense debate into Reformed orthodox thought.

Just as the Ptolemaic universe remained the basis of the Western worldview until the end of the seventeenth century and continued to affect literary and philosophical forms of expression well into the eighteenth, so did Christianized Aristotelianism remain the dominant philosophical perspective throughout the era of orthodoxy. Here too, as in the area of theological system, important developments took place in the context of the Protestant universities in the late sixteenth century. Where Melanchthon, Vermigli, and others of their generation had tended to content themselves with the teaching of rhetoric, logic, ethics, and physics without giving particular attention to the potential impact of these disciplines on theology, in the second half of the century, the philosophical disciplines began to have a marked effect on Protestant theology. Aristotelian physics served the doctrine of creation in the works of Hyperius, Daneau and Zanchi; aquinas2Agricolan and Ramist logic began to clarify the structure of theological systems, and metaphysics re-entered the Protestant classroom in the writings of Schegk, Martinius, Keckermann, Alsted, and Timpler.

This development of Christian Aristotelianism in the Protestant universities not only parallels the development of Protestant scholasticism but bears witness to a similar phenomenon. The gradual production of philosophical tradition was set aside followed by a sudden return to philosophy. Instead, it indicates a transition from medieval textbooks, like the Summulae logicales of Peter of Spain and the De dialectia inventione of Rudolf Agricola, to textbooks written by Protestants for Protestants, like Melanchthon’s De rhetorica libri tres (1519), Institutiones rhetoricae (1521), his commentaries on Aristotles’Politics and Ethics (1536) and the De Anima (1540), Seton’s Dialectica (1545), Ramus’ Dialectica (1543) and the spate of works based upon it, or somewhat eclectic but also more traditional manuals like Sanderson’s Logicae artis compendium (1615) and Burgersdijk’s Institutiones logicae (1626) or is Idea philosophiae naturalis (1622). The absence of Protestant works from the era of the early Reformation points toward a use of established textbooks prior to the development of new ones under the pressure not only of Protestant theology but also of humanism and of changes and developments in the philosophical disciplines themselves. The publication of Protestant works in these areas parallels the rise and flowering of Protestant academies, gymnasia, and universities. Schmitt summarizes the situation neatly:

. . . Latin Aristotelianism stretching from the twelfth to the seventeenth century had a degree of unity and organic development that cannot be easily dismissed. . . . the differences distinguishing the Catholic, Lutheran,  or Calvinist varieties, are far outweighed by a unifying concern for the same philosophical and scientific problems and an invocation of the same sources of inspiration by which to solve them.

Furthermore, the continuity must be understood in terms of the subsequent trajectories and modifications of late medieval schools of thought — Thomism, Scotism, nominalism, the varieties of via antiqua and via moderna — and the ways in which these schools of thought were received and mediated by the various trajectories of theology and philosophy in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For if the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist theologians shared a common Christian Aristotelian foundation, they differed, even  among themselves, over the nuances of the model and over which of the late medieval trajectories was most suitable a vehicle for their theological formulation.

The continuity of Christian Aristotelianism and scholastic method from the medieval into the early modern period together with the relationship of these two phenomena to Protestant orthodoxy pinpoint one further issue to be considered in the study of orthodox or scholastic Protestantism. It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers (as in the case of the “Calvin against the Calvinists” thesis). It is also an error to discuss Protestant orthodoxy without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages, through the Reformation, into post-Reformation Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation is surely the formative event for Protestantism, it is also true that the Reformation, which took place during the first half of the sixteenth century, is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed, as it were by the five-hundred year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism. In accord, moreover, with the older scholastic models as well as with the assumptions of the Reformers concerning the biblical norm of theology, The Reformed scholastics uniformly maintained the priority of revelation over reason and insisted on the ancillary status of philosophy. In approaching the continuities and discontinuities of Protestant scholasticism with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the chief task is to assess the Protestant adjustment of traditional scholastic categories in the light of the Reformation and the patterns according to which it mediated that tradition, both positively and negatively, to future generations of Protestants. This approach is not only more adequate to the understanding of Protestant orthodoxy, but is also the framework for a clearer understanding of the meaning of the Reformation itself.[1]

Points of Implication

  1. Muller’s thesis is somewhat acceptable — given the expansive nature he sets for the accounting of the various streams represented by the “Reformed tradition.”
  2. petervermigliChristian Aristotelianism is the framework wherein Protestant theology took shape in the main.
  3. Muller admits to both a conceptual and methodological Aristotelianism within the period known as the “post-Reformation.”
  4. Muller holds that the continuity which he argues for between all periods of the “Reformation” is grounded in late Medievalism — thus construing the magesterial (early and “high”) Protestant Reformation as a hick-up in comparison to the tsunami that swept through from the 12th into the 17th century.
  5. For Muller, it seems, the only real difference between Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist Aristotelians is a matter of emphasis and theological order. In other words, for Muller Christian Aristotelianism is the best philosophical framework commensurate with articulating Christian dogma.

Popular Implications

  1. There is a “popular” ground-swell towards returning the church back to our Protestant heritage — this move works under the assumption that our “past” is a “strictly biblical one.” What is never presented is what we are looking at here, and that is the history and conceptual frame from whence “most of the Protestant” heritage has taken shape (at least in the “Reformed” heritage). People naively assume that the categories that the “Reformed” provide them with are actually Gospel truth (i.e. not associate with a school of interpretation).
  2. These are in fact, typically, the categories that ALL “Evangelical” Christians think through when they approach Scripture (this is the vacuum from whence they/we typically think).
  3. If people fail to realize the affect Aristotle has had upon the way they understand God, they will fail to understand the true nature of God, and thus their daily walk with Jesus is going to be severely skewed.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. One,  71-73.

 

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No God Behind the Back of Jesus: God is Love not an UnMoved Mover

I don’t know about you, but as a North American evangelical, growing up, I was taught and given the impression, theologically, that God is somewhat performance driven; i.e. that he is concerned with me keeping his law in order for me to maintain fellowship with him (a quid pro quo type of relationship). Don’t get me wrong, it was never quite this explicit, in fact just the opposite might have been what was on the surface; i.e. that ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ But underneath the pietism that the Sunday school song captures remained a God who was shaped goodshepherdby his relation to me and the world by us (humanity) keeping a rigid performance shaped spirituality. Even if I was told that God was love, and even if those telling me that he is love were genuine, there still, even at a tacit level, remained a detachment or rupture between what they were saying and the theology they, and then I had available to fall back on; in other words there was a fissure between the pietism, and the actual theology behind said pietism. If I am not being cryptic enough what I am referring to is the classically Reformed theology that funded, ostensibly, the piety I lived under as a child and young adult; bearing in mind that my background was just a basic baptistic “biblicist” Free church mode of being.

An antidote to all of this came for me in seminary, particularly through my professor, Ron Frost’s instruction; he introduced me to Trinitarian theology (at that time it was presented to me through Colin Gunton’s work). Since, then, of course, as many of you know, Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth have become my teachers in regard to informing the way I think about God as Triune love and what that means for my development as a Christian person. I thought I would share a lengthy quote from Thomas Torrance that illustrates the type of teaching I’ve been sitting under for the last eleven years. Here Torrance explicates what it means for God to be love:

… Just as we can never go behind God’s saving and revealing acts in Jesus Christ and in the mission of his Spirit, so we can never think or speak of him truly apart from his revealing and saving acts behind the back of Jesus Christ, for there is no other God.

It is of course because God actively loves us, and actually loves us so much that he has given us his only Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he reveals himself to us as the Loving One, and as he whose Love belongs to his innermost Being as God. If he were not Love in his innermost Being, his love toward us in Christ and the Holy Spirit would be ontologically groundless. God is who he is as he who loves us with his very Being, he whose loving is as inexhaustible as his infinite Being for his Love is his Being in ceaseless triune movement and activity. It is precisely as this living, loving, and acting God that he has come to us in Jesus Christ and unites us to himself by his one Spirit, interacting with us in creation and history, and in our human and physical existence in time and space, all in order to be our God and to have us for his people.

It is thus that we understand why Christians believe the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be the one and only God and Saviour of the world. He is not different in himself from what he is in the activity of his saving and redeeming love in the singularity of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the God who is loving and saving us has once for all given his very Self to us in his Son and in his Spirit, and who in giving himself freely and unreservedly to us gives us with him all things. It is in the Cross of Christ that the utterly astonishing nature of the Love that God is has been fully disclosed, for in refusing to spare his own Son whom he delivered up for us all, God has revealed that he loves us more than he loves himself. And so it is in the Cross of Jesus Christ above all that God has both exhibited the very Nature of his Being as Love and has irrevocably committed his Being to relationship with us in unconditional Love. In Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit we know no other God, and believe that there is no other God for us than this God, who freely seeks and creates fellowship with us, utterly undeserving sinners though we are.[1]

There are no decrees, no artificial covenants (of works/redemption/grace), or stipulations in regard to how we can relate to a God like this, or who we are relating to. It is all contingent upon who he is in his triune life, and how that shapes his uncomplicated but ineffable relationship to us through his election and free choice to not be God without us, but with us, Immanuel. This is the God, the One revealed and explicated in Jesus Christ, that the piety I grew up with has been in search of; it is not the God, in my evangelical Calvinist view, who we get through Aristotelian, Thomistic, and scholastic decrees and covenants—the God who hides behind the back of a pretty soft face of Jesus.

It is unfortunate to see a whole new crop of young evangelical theologians drinking deeply from the well of scholasticism Reformed theology, and the God provided for in that schema. It is not the God simply revealed in Jesus Christ, and thought of from there. Instead the God of the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox, the God evangelical theologians are pressing into currently, is a God conceived of through philosophical speculation and appeal to the analogia entis; a God conceived of in abstraction, and then fitted to the God revealed in Christ.

If we cannot simply look at Jesus as the fullest explication and exegesis of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit then I would highly suggest that we not talk too much about any other conception of God. This is a serious matter, which I realize the other “side” would agree to. Unfortunately for some vested reason they can’t seem to accept the fact that the classical theism they have embraced unnecessarily layers a conception of God with the dregs of philosophical projection that muddles the face of God in Jesus Christ to un-recognition. Yes, you might end up with a sense of apophatic transcendence, in regard to the philosophically conceived God, but that sense of transcendence, so conceived, really, ironically, is more of a psychological sense of ‘feeling’ God which is generated by the self, more than a real sense of God’s transcendence as that is given in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ unmitigated. Torrance speaks of this unmitigated God, I wish the evangelicals would swarm towards his approach to things rather than to what they have been now for these past many years.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4-5.

We Don’t Need Nature, We Only Need Jesus to Know God

I know natural theology, or the idea that God can be known through simple discovery and reflection on nature is quite popular among contemporary Christians as well as in the tradition. But as I read the Bible this seemingly intuitive belief is not confirmed; mantreeinstead, there is an emphasis upon special theology, or the Self-revelation of God as the only source for genuinely knowing the true and Triune God. For example, and this can be multiplied over and again from the Pauline corpus, the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1:

11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul, in context, is arguing for his Apostleship against pseudo-Apostles, but as part of his argument he expresses an idea that is premised in a non-natural theology approach towards God; he implicitly is arguing for revelational theology. T.F. Torrance elucidates what revelational theology entails further:

By its very nature divine revelation is what Karl Barth called ‘a self-contained novum‘, for it has its reality and truth wholly and in every respect within itself, and so can be known only through itself and out of itself, on its own ground and through the power of its own self-evidence and self-authentication. It is as such that revelation proceeds from God to man, breaking sovereignly into human life and thought, calling into question what people claim to know, and directing their thinking beyond themselves altogether. It creatively evokes an entirely new mode of consciousness, in faith and understanding, conditioned by a new relation to God initiated and set up, not from man’s side at all, but from the other side of the boundary between man and God. The knowledge of God given in this way through divine revelation is not from the known to the unknown, but from the hitherto unknown to the known. It is a mystery so utterly strange and so radically different that it cannot be apprehended and substantiated except out of itself, and even then it infinitely exceeds what we are ever able to conceive or spell out. Far less may it be assimilated into man’s familiar world of meaning and be brought into line with the framework of its commonly accepted truths, for the radically new conception of God proclaimed in the Gospel calls for a complete transformation of man’s outlook in terms of a new divine order which cannot be derived from or inferred from anything conceived by man before. In point of fact it actually conflicts sharply with generally accepted beliefs and established ideas in human culture and initiates a seismic reconstruction not only of religious and intellectual belief but of the very foundations of human life and knowledge.[1]

All of this is important for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason, I contend, is that it keeps us from imposing our ideas on who God is, and allows him to impose who he is on us instead.

I don’t expect advocates for natural theology and the so called analogia entis to repent anytime soon, but I think they really should. No matter how prestigious of a pedigree that natural theology has in the Christian tradition, that prestige cannot be the final word; God’s Word in Jesus Christ must be allowed to be that. We don’t need natural theology to know God, we need Jesus Christ alone as God’s Self-exegasato (exegesis).

 

[1] T. F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 19.

 

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

Martin Luther’s ‘Real Reason for the Protestant Reformation’, and What Critics of evangelical Calvinism Don’t Get about evangelical Calvinism’s Impetus or Their Own Mode of Theologizing

Martin Luther famously critiqued and rejected Aristotle, and the impact that Aristotelian philosophy had had upon Christian theology in the late medieval period; particularly as mediated through the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas’s theology with Aristotelian philosophy. This was such a fundamental piece for Luther, that it can be said, as Alister McGrath, and my former seminary professor luthermartinand personal mentor, Ron Frost have said, that this rejection and repudiation of Aristotle’s impact on Christian theology led, theologically, to Luther’s “breakthrough” in regard to his understanding of sola fide, and the material principle of the Protestant Reformation theology. The implication of this, if followed, is that theological reasoning is strictly reduced to reliance upon the revelation of God in Christ apprehended by faith.

As McGrath sharpens this further, he underscores why this move for Luther was so important; he underscores why working away from Aristotelian and forensic conceptions of God’s righteousness, and working from the righteousness of God revealed by Christ is so important and so delimiting for a genuinely Christian approach to the theological task. McGrath writes:

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which had been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, commen-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter, which he took to be equivalent to iuste, and had therefore applied to a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God. The young Luther appears to have adopted precisely such a concept of iustitia in his early attempt to expound the Psalter: indeed it is of particular significance that Luther should choose Psalm 9 (10). 9 to expound the relationship between iustitia and equitas in the divine judgement, as Julian of Eclanum had earlier used exactly the same passage to demonstrate the divine equity in dealing with man according to his merit! It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae, with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology — but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realised. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he recognised that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realisation that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt, but qua in scriptura accipitur. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s ‘evangelical irrationalism’ is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres — but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked — and, as Luther emphasised, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners. It is clear that this critique of human wisdom, which is ultimately based upon Luther’s deliberations upon the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’, foreshadows the theologia crucis of 1518 in a number of respects. Before moving on to consider the nature of the theology of the cross, however, it may be helpful to summarise our conclusions concerning the nature and the date of Luther’s theological breakthrough.[1]

It is precisely for what McGrath just detailed that Ron Frost in 1997 wrote an essay for the Trinity Journal entitled: ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’ Frost believes, and I agree with him, that insofar as the following Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology imbibes a ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ it has skipped off the central critique of Luther’s protest movement; which is very ironic indeed. Note Frost’s analysis here:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

This is quite profound, to say the least! It is this very premise and insight as developed by Ron Frost, and illustrated by the work of McGrath, that has led me to my form of evangelical Calvinism. It is this fundamental critique and insight that not a single contemporary Reformed thinker or theologian I have come across has grasped whatsoever. I know many who read me seem to think that evangelical Calvinism, my form, is wholly contingent upon Barth and Torrance, but that is way too quick and limited of a conclusion to draw!

It is ironic, indeed, that the most adamant of Reformed voices today simply and uncritically accept the research of someone like Richard Muller who advocate for the Post Reformed orthodox re-appropriation of a ‘Christian Aristotelian’ mode; this is ironic because the very thing that kicked off the Protestant Reformation was in protest to Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology; particularly the impact that played on defining God’s righteousness and how that implicates a variety of things; including how ‘faith’ is conceived. If someone wants to critique evangelical Calvinism, at least my form, then start with engaging with Luther’s critique of ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ the informing “theology” of what now constitutes most of Reformed theology, proper.

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 139-41.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

Ontology of Grace and Substance Metaphysics

Some have said that talk of ‘substance’ metaphysics is erroneous, I’ll do a post on who in the days to come. Until then I think the following is instructive towards understanding, theologically, what substance metaphysics is referring to when the locus is grace. It is unfortunate when grace is depersonalized, because insofar as God in his being in becoming is grace, if this ontology of grace is aquinas2applied to God we end up with a monad and not a personal God who is Triune.

As of late I’ve been talking with a few folks about Grace, and what Thomas Aquinas thought of it, and how he defined it using Aristotle’s categories of substance and qualities. Below I’m going to give a definition from a Latin theological dictionary on created grace or habitual grace.

habitus gratiae: habit or disposition of grace; a divine gift infused into the soul in such a way as to become a part of human nature. The habitus gratiae can therefore also be called gratia creata, created grace, as distinct from the uncreated power of God that brings it into existence, gratia increata. In addition, according to its function, the habitus gratiae can be called justifying grace (gratia iustificans) or sanctifying grace (gratia sanctificans). This concept, together with a related concept of an infused righteousness (iustitia infusa, q.v.), was rejected by the Reformers in so far as it cannot be correlated with the doctrine of a forensic justification (iustificatio,q.v.) on the ground of the alien righteousness (iustitia aliena) of Christ imputed to believers by grace alone through faith. The habitus gratiae implies an intrinsic righteousness to the believer, whereas the Reformer’s concept of imputed righteousness is extrinsic. Righteousness is viewed by the reformers and the Orthodox as inherent, or intrinsic …, in relation to the work of the Spirit in sanctification (sanctificatio,q.v.), but the concept, here, is expressed in terms of cleansing (renavatio, q.v.) rather than in terms of an infused disposition or habit. [Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, 134]

In other words, created grace, for the Protestant, is incommensurate with the concept of grace as foreign and external mediated by the righteousness of Christ;and applied by the Holy Spirit. For Roman Catholics, historically as noted above, grace becomes part of the person, in the accidents, which is intrinsic to the person. The implication is that grace is something that can be manipulated by the person, depending on their particular disposition — this typically has been known as semi Pelagianism.

Miscellanies on the Thomist Intellectualist Tradition and its Impact on Reformed Theology

westminster

Something that I don’t think most Reformed theologians, whether yet budding, or senior are all that concerned with or cognizant of is the role that their respective anthropology plays in their theological prolegomena. I would say that most if not almost all of North American (and Western) Protestant Reformed theologies are funded by thinkers who are committed, in one form or another, to what is called an intellectualist anthropology. The originator of this type of anthropology, for Christian theological consumption, is most prominently, Thomas Aquinas; indeed Norman Fiering, in his index of medievally derived anthropologies, calls Thomas’s anthropology Thomist intellectualist—which would be a general label for anyone who receives Thomas’s intellectualist anthropology after him, in one way or the other. Here is how Aquinas describes the centrality of the ‘intellect’ or reason as definitive for what it means to be human:

In the original integrated state of man reason controlled our lower powers perfectly and God perfected the reason subordinated to him. This state was lost to us by Adam’s sin, and the resulting lack of order among the powers of our soul that incline us to virtue we call a wounding of nature. Ignorance is a wound in reason’s response to truth, wickedness in will’s response to good; weakness wounds the response of our aggressive emotions to challenge and difficulty, and disordered desire our affections’ reasonable and balanced response to pleasure. All sins inflict these four wounds blunting reason’s practical sense, hardening the will against good, increasing the difficulty of acting well and inflaming desire.[1]

For Thomas, the intellect, in a faculty psychology, is the defining component of what it means to be human. As we can see from his Summa Thomas does not believe that, during the fall, the ‘intellect’ was touched[2], instead it is only the ‘disordered desire [of] our affections’ that corrupts the rest of our humanity; as such the mind/intellect becomes central to what it means to be human relative to God as ultimate mind/intellect and Creator.

Ron Frost develops this further, and the impact this type of intellectualist anthropology had on the theology/soteriology of Post Reformed orthodox theologian William Perkins:

… William Perkins was answering the question of how God reaches humanity—the relation of grace to nature—by reengaging Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century cooperative approach to salvation. Aquinas, with Aristotle, believed that morality is determined by the will, so that virtue is gained by making the virtuous choice. In its Christian expression the human will must be engaged in a saving choice to believe. But Aquinas also held, with Augustine, that the will is crippled by sin. Aquinas’s solution was to synthesize the moral axiom of Aristotle and Augustine’s axiom of disability: God places a newly created gift of grace in the souls of the elect that enables the will to operate once again. By this means of gracious enabling the will receives the necessary power to embrace salvation by an act of faith. This enabling “habit of grace” allows a person to make the saving decision, a decision God crowns with merit.

This cooperative scheme featured the human and divine wills working together, with the mind using the information offered by God. When the will has a set of operations set before it, its challenge is to overcome distracting affections. The greater power of the properly informed will, the greater its ability to defeat faulty passions. The act of believing is thus the premier work of the will, and is only accomplished by the prevenient enabling grace God provides.[3]

It is the mind/intellect that is given primacy in Perkins’s theological anthropology, and we can see (as reported by Frost) how this gets cashed out in Perkins’s soteriology.

Perkins was not alone, he was simply expressing what was common fare among the Post Reformation Protestant scholastic theology he was a part of during his period of history. Richard Muller speaks to the reality of this Thomist intellectualist tradition as he describes Arminius’s context as a theologian of his time:

The enlightenment of the intellect that draws man spiritually into final union with God leads to the “enlargement” of the will “from the inborn agreement of the will the intellect, and the analogy implanted in both, according to which the understanding extends itself to acts of volition, in the very proportion that it understands and knows.” Arminius, in summary, places himself fully into the intellectualist tradition.

What is more, Arminius’ argument for the priority of intellect in the final vision of God perfectly reproduces the classic intellectualist thesis of Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, intellect is higher or nobler than will inasmuch as the intellect does not merely address an object that is external to itself (as does the will) but, in addressing the object, also in some sense receives the object into itself and possesses in itself the form of the object. In the final vision of God, according to Aquinas, the soul has direct vision of the divine essence that is higher and nobler than the will’s love of God.

The juxtaposition of an intellectualist philosophical perspective with a practical orientation in Arminius’ theology represents, as noted earlier, a significant departure from the major medieval paradigms and a use of the scholastic past that is best characterized as eclectic. Praxis is, typically, associated with love and will, speculatio or contemplatio with intellect: the intellectualist model will, therefore, advocate a theology that is either primarily or utterly contemplative while the voluntarist model will define theology as primarily or utterly practical. Thus Aquinas assumes that theology is primarily contemplative whereas Scotus defines theology as practical. The Reformed tended toward a compromise that respect the balance of intellect and will but recognized the underlying soteriological issue as voluntaristic and, therefore, defined theology as both speculative and practical with emphasis on the practical….[4]

An Evangelical Calvinist Response

As we have just surveyed—I fear too fragementedly—what was predominate in Post Reformed orthodox theology was a mind/will centered anthropology that reflects (through an analogy of being) upon who God is conceived to be in this frame. The intellectualist tradition presumes that God as eternal ‘being’ implicates (as reflection as it were) what it means to be human being; and thus reasoning from the effect back to the cause, the intellectualist tradition believes that what it means to be God is someone who exists a se as a big intellect. This shapes the way classically Reformed (inclusive of Arminians) thinkers think of God, and it follows then that ‘feeling’ or ‘movement’ in God, which love presupposes upon, is simply an anthropopathism; in other words, love is not real, in an ontological sense. What defines God is something like an ultimate-Spock like being of existence, as such this God relates to humanity in a God-world relation in very impersonal ways (like through decrees).

The evangelical Calvinist after Barth and Torrance, on the other hand, does not think of God from within an intellectualist speculative tradition. Instead evangelical Calvinists along with Athanasius think it is better to think God, and as consequent, theological anthropology, from the eternal relation of Father-Son revealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ in the incarnation of the Son. As Athanasius famously asserts, “Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” Evangelical Calvinists don’t attempt to think God from an analogy of being (analogia entis) in and from an abstract humanity; we think God from a center in God, in His Self-exegesis in the Son, Jesus Christ.

As we have illustrated in this post, if someone is committed to an intellectualist anthropology and tradition it gets cashed out in interesting ways; particularly with reference to how a thinker conceives of God, and how salvation is understood and given shape after that conception of God. As is the case in all instances, how God is conceived in the first order, will have subsequent and second order consequences for every other theological loci following.

I am afraid I have only started to pull on a whole bunch of threads all at once in this post, but I wanted to start pulling those threads so that maybe someone’s curiosity might be piqued to the point of doing further research themselves. I realize this post has a kind of palpable incoherence to it, but I am simply wanting to provide soundings for you as you come to realize that there are alternative traditions available to you, even in the Reformed world of thought.

What evangelical Calvinism does is to eschew thinking from a center within an abstract humanity; in other words we repudiate the idea that there is an analogy of being between God and humanity. There is no point of contact, then, between God and humanity from whence God can be conceived of apart from God’s own Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. If this is true, evangelical Calvinists have the advantage of the ground of all theological grammar, anthropology, and worship being the Triune life of God itself as ‘mediated’ to humanity in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. We do not have to think God from a faculty psychology as the ground of being from whence we think God. We can eschew thinking God from the accidents and effects that we discover and observe in the created order[5], and instead think directly of God, mediated in the hidden-ness of God in the humanity of God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Concise Translation, 270-71.

[2] This is an important point because it keeps it keeps the imago Dei intact, and an analogy of being can be interconnected between God’s being (who is ultimate intellect) and human being (who is penultimate intellect).

[3] Ronald N. Frost, “The Bruised Reed: By Richard Sibbes (1577–1635),” in The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics, eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88-9.

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 78-9.

[5] See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.: “. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.”

Is the Reformed Faith a Thomistic Faith or a Biblical Faith?

The Reformed faith is a Biblical faith, an exegetical faith; as such it remains an open endeavor per the confessional norms provided for by Scripture. Richard Muller writes, “… the theologians of the Reformation neither produced a monolithic system nor set up their own theological systems as norms apart from the exegesis of Scripture, ….”[1] It doesn’t seem as if those who claim to be
thomasstampReformed today appreciate this. Instead what seems to have obtained in the Reformed world, in general, is that a certain reading of Scripture, from a certain commitment to a form of the Reformed faith gets conflated with the idea that theirs is the sole representative of the Reformed faith; both contemporaneously and historically. As if they are simply just reading the Bible for all its worth, but it really isn’t that simple.

The fact of the matter is is that there are prior commitments, by all Christian readers of Scripture (Reformed or not), prior theological commitments imported into our reading of Scripture; commitments that help us arrive at our exegetical conclusions. Within the pale of the Reformed faith it is no different; what is different is that for many in the Reformed faith there is an uncritical (sometimes it is critical though, as we will see) adoption of a certain metaphysic as if this metaphysic is self-same with the Bible itself. But why should any critical thinking person accept this? Why is one metaphysic, one theo-logic, more sacrosanct, more holy than the others? Answering these questions is challenging, but we need to at least identify that these are questions. I don’t see many in the Reformed world acknowledging this; instead I see a triumphalism about their version of the Reformed faith, and in this triumphalism all others who take a different approach to the Reformed faith are considered heterodox, or even heretical (think of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance to an extent).

I have highlighted, over and over again, the metaphysic and “system” that the Reformed faith is by and large shaped by in large swaths of its quarters (but not all); in the history and contemporaneously. The metaphysic, the hermeneutic is what is called Thomism; i.e. the synthesis of Aristotelian categories with Christian theology through the work of the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas. It is this synthesis that funds so much of the shape of the Reformed faith, but most of its adherents simply believe that what they believe is the Bible alone as they shout sola Scriptura from the rooftops.

Richard Muller, one of the premiere ecclesiastical historians of the late medieval, post reformation reformed orthodox period substantiates my points about Thomism this way as he sketches the developments that took place during the scholastic Reformed period (you will notice that Arminius is part of his discussion):

Finally, we must address the question of the intellectual tendency of Protestant scholasticism, particularly the tendency of Arminius’ theology. Why did Protestant scholasticism take on a decidedly Thomistic character—why, specifically, did Arminius’ theology lean toward Thomism rather than toward Scotism and nominalism, despite the clear impact of a more Scotistic or nominalistic perspective on Reformed epistemology and on the definitions of theology found in the Reformed theological prolegomena? In the first place, the relationship of the earlier codifiers of Reformed theology was quite different and considerably more pronounced than the relationship of members of the same generations of Reformers to either Scotism or nominalism. Of the early codifiers of Reformed theology, only Musculus was trained in Scotist and nominalist theology. As Ganoczy has shown, the Scotist tendencies in Calvin’s thought relate not to early training in Paris but to later reading and they hardly indicate an immersion in Scotist theology. By way of contrast,  Bucer, Vermigli, and Zanchi were all trained as Thomists and, in the case of the latter two thinkers, elements of Thomism were integrated into full-scale theological systems. The Thomistic model, particularly as developed by Zanchi, was highly influential in Reformed circles—as is witnessed by the parallel interest in Aquinas by other writers of Zanchi’s generation like Lambert Daneau. In addition, contemporaries of Arminius instrumental in the development of early Protestant orthodoxy—thinkers like Arminius’ predecessor at Leiden, the Basel theologian Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, and the great Lutheran dogmatician Johannes Gerhard—all drew heavily on the scholastic tradition, in particular on the work of Thomas Aquinas.

In the second place, the revival of Aristotelianism and of scholasticism in Roman Catholic circles in the sixteenth century had, as its intellectual centerpiece, a revival of Thomism. Not only was there a flowering of interest in Aquinas’ thought as witnessed by the many fine editions and commentaries on Thomas’ works printed in the sixteenth century, there was also a notable shift of emphasis in the study of Aquinas. Whereas medieval Thomism, due to the reliance of medieval theological study on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, had focused on Aquinas’ commentary on the Sentences, the sixteenth century, because of the work of Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, and others found the greater Aquinas, the mature Aquinas of the Summa theologiae. Although many other scholastics received attention in the sixteenth century—many scholastic systems and treatises appeared in print—none were given the close analytical attention that Thomas received. Not only were the Summa theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles printed in five editions, they were also the subject of numerous commentaries. Here again, the work of Cajetan must be noted. In addition, this interest went beyond the bounds of the Dominican order: the Jesuit order, at the insistence of its founder Ignatius of Loyola, looked to Thomas Aquinas as its primary theological guide. This revival of Thomism represented a marked shift from the theological and philosophical tendencies of the fifteenth century. As Oberman has argued, the Thomism of the later Middle Ages was hardly the force that it eventually came to be. Not only was it the “young Thomas” of the sentence commentary who “determined the profile of the total Thomas,” it was also a highly “metaphysical Thomas” who was taught by the late medieval Dominicans rather than the careful interpreter of Scripture and the fathers. In this context, Franciscan theology, particularly the theology of Scotus appeared as powerful and attractive alternative, which worked its way into some of the theology of the early Reformation. The rising tide of Thomism in the sixteenth century, presenting as it did the Thomas of the Summa, offered the world a more strictly Augustinian doctrine of grace than that found in the commentary on the Sentences and, in addition, a Thomas more adept at scriptural and patristic argumentation.[2]

Concluding Remarks

Without a doubt the Reformed faith is a faith deeply marked by a high theology of the Word; it is a “Biblical faith.” Nevertheless, as Muller so clearly delineates for us, it isn’t all that simple. Even during the post reformed orthodox period (i.e. 16th and 17th centuries) there was a hodgepodge of metaphysics bandied about in order to help work out what might be called the ‘inner-logic’ of Holy Scripture. But as Muller makes clear, Thomism rued the day; an Aristotelian-Augustinianism provided much of the bed rock and theological bases from which Scripture was exegeted. It is this form of the Reformed faith that for some reason has become absolute for so many today (I would say for various reasons).

I think that what this should illustrate, at the least, is that the triumphalism of many in the Reformed faith should be squelched; it should be turned down a bit. You are not purist Bible interpreters, anymore than us evangelical Calvinists are after Barth. You chide Reformed people who follow after Barth for not being truly Reformed, but on what basis? Is it because we do not simply want to repristinate the post reformed orthodox past and assert loudly THAT THIS IS WHAT THE BIBLE MEANS in its disclosure? The fact that you all are committed to an Aristotelian faith, by and large, should at least make you more humble when approaching others in the Reformed faith (like evangelical Calvinists) who believe that we have found, if not a better way, at least an alternative way to read the Bible in the same type of confessional ‘always Reforming’ mode per the dictates of Scripture that you all believe you are doing. Unless you want to claim that Thomism (Scotism, et al.) are univocal, self-same with the teaching of Holy Scripture, it would be an error to look down your noses at those who repudiate that metaphysic for something else; something that we (as evangelical Calvinists) believe is more proximate with the ‘dynamic’ and ‘dialectical’ nature of Scripture’s teaching.

 

[1] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1991), 33.

[2] Ibid., 34-6.

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

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

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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