Natural Theologian Xenophanes

One of the problems I have with denying natural theology is that there appear to be theological gains not only for Christians to make, but already accomplished by pagan philosophers. One argument to counter this, offered by Augustine, was to have Plato run into Jeremiah in Egypt, and so have proper Greek theological conclusions (assumed by the church for doctrinal purposes in late antiquity) derive from special revelation. Another argument would be to say that we are reading the conclusions we achieved afterward into these earlier times.

Natural law and natural revelation are part of the present debate about classic theism, and an authoritative role for natural theology is a question coming down the pike. Personally, I’m not sure Romans 1:18 denies natural theology—as in, natural man going beyond what is simply natural revelation. This is not to affirm natural soteriology, now. I wonder if some of the (what I perceive as) confusion has to do with failing to distinguish a theological insight from a usefully soteriological conclusion. It occurs to me that another line of argument against natural theology is by making careful distinctions between philosophy and theology, but I don’t personally see exactly how that would proceed. In fact, it is very late in time before we can usefully distinguish them, and so it seems difficult though not impossible to insert a distinction where it is not yet perceived.

But let me put it another way. What if you believe something true and are unaware of how it might condemn you? Would you still suppress it? What if you believe something true and are aware how it might condemn somebody else, though not yourself—hypocrisy being quite a natural failing of mankind? Wouldn’t you be inclined to accept it with some enthusiasm?

Anyway, here’s a good podcast on philosophy in general, and this one is about the pre-Socratic Xenophanes.


Mystery and Theology

Theological discourse is always threatened by the intrusion of irrationality. As far as I can tell (not being a particularly acute theologian, but aspiring to competence), one of the most important things theologians do is draw the line where mystery begins. Distinguishing between what is mysterious and what is irrational is difficult. Still, to confuse the two seems to me fatal, and one of the big problems that has to be addressed in this debate about Classic Theism.

God is mysterious, he must be. But that God reveals himself means that he is not altogether mysterious. The problem with drawing the line between what we can know and understand and what we cannot is a crucial one. We are, in a way, tracing the upper boundaries of human reason. At what point does our finite capacity meet something greater? When it comes to God, soon. And if you say that we can know what in fact we cannot, you are a rationalist. The result is that you will domesticate God.

If, on the other hand, you say we cannot know what we in fact can, you are making things harder than they should be. And you’re degrading what is mysterious in an effort to preserve it. That is when you introduce the irrational. If something is not really mysterious but you insist that it is, then the effect of such mislabeling is not to dignify something lesser with greater status, but to abuse the lesser and to degrade the greater category. To abuse knowledge is to become unknowing, to abuse understanding is to misunderstand, and to abuse reason is to be irrational. Mystery is not irrationality, though distinguishing them is not always easy.

Heating Up

The debate between classic theism and theistic mutualism seems to be heating up. Back in June, James Dolezal published a book naming names (All That Is in God—a good book). Recently, John Frame embarrassed himself with a reply—having been named—from which he is not likely soon to recover. In fact, this reply was so bad that it seems to have brought out some eerie irenic behavior in Mark Jones. He wrote a piece that could almost be described as kindly, urging Frame toward greater coherence as if herding together a scattered collection of marbles. And now Keith Mathison has engaged at length, endeavoring to point out to John Frame in suitable language that disagreement is not the equivalent of a personal attack. Dolezal came up with the term theistic mutualism, but Mathison may have trumped him with a clever play on yesteryear’s battle against open theism: unlatched theism.

In the meantime, I’m working on a song called “O where is your door, Frame?” I’d like to contribute, you see. My review of Dolezal’s book came out a week after the book was released, you’ll remember. More measured, thorough and deliberative reviews have appeared in these last days. There is Kevin DeYoung’s, which is generally positive if blandly subservient to the spirit of the Gospel Coalition in deploring something or other; there is Keith Mathison’s, which is positive, and different from the engagement mentioned above; and there is D. Scott Meadows’, which is enthusiastic.

I also note all this because it seems to me that this is the Trinity debate 2.0. Evangelical systematic theology has problems. But this is to be expected, evangelicalism is a very depleted and diluted form of Christianity. Problems are going to arise naturally. One of the problems, not surprisingly, is careless doctrinal formulation. But this is not the main issue, it is only a symptom of a deeper problem.

I think that the main issue is really the extent to which theology is informed and ordered by philosophy. The conversation keeps going back to scholasticism versus Biblicism. The conceit is that Biblicism is more exegetical and scholasticism is more philosophical. You can tell which side is being favored when the problem is framed that way. Nobody is going to choose philosophy in order to chuck exegesis. The problem is, however, that it is not simply an issue of repudiating philosophy for exegesis, or of neglecting exegesis because one is enamored of philosophy. To frame the issue that way is to smuggle in a conclusion (that philosophy is opposed to exegesis) without properly debating it.

And that is what makes me glad: the debate is being forced.

What Rattles Around after Reading Secondary Literature

“Whereas in Thomas’ metaphysical ontology the natural and supernatural realms are organically joined by the Being of God in whom we participate by reason and faith, the metahistorical alternative retraces nature and supernature, creation and redemption, to the Person of God, and points to God’s will as – to use air traffic terminology – the ‘ceiling’ of theology. His eternal decree of self-commitment has established the limits of theology which to surpass is to trespass, yielding sheer speculation.”

Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation, 6-7

Aristotelian definitions yield a great deal, and they are therefore prized. One may question whether in this case too much is yielded. The alternative, however, is radically to limit what can be said. My sense is that a third, a Platonic alternative, more concerned with gestures, with identifying symbols in their place, is harder to understand and to use but may yield both language and possibility. I am not, however, a theologian.

I am also struck with the contrast that Oberman’s own emphasis makes between being and person. Does that use of the word person not sound an awful lot like Van Til? I hate to introduce that name to a discussion of anything, but I only do it in hopes of finding munitions.

“The warning against vana curiositas and academic speculation gave weight and new authority to experiential – the experience of man and nature, of history and society, of daily life – which would soon put the validity of the tradition to the test.”

Ibid., 16

Oberman is more interested in the development of the scientific method (38) than he is in the late 16th century puritan (and beyond) development that leads to experimental Calvinism. Still, his answer will serve for a beginning answer to the question, how is it that practical rather than speculative theology is often and still preferred? It seems that the answer has to do with what we conceive reality to be.

Politics and polity were also affected.

“Nominalism did call traditional truths and answers into question in order to replace them with a new vision of the relationship between the sacred and the secular by presenting coordination as an alternative to subordination and partnership of persons instead of the hierarchy of being.”

Ibid., 29

In theology, a new distaste was introduced.

“In other words, the transcendence of God is what really concerned the nominalist here. The distinction – and this we have not seen before – works itself out in two different ways: in theology and physics, which includes, of course, astronomy. In theology . . . the irrelevance and irreverence of speculative theology and man’s absolute dependence on God’s own revelation.”

Ibid., 193-4

So that, “In both theology and physics the distinction between possibility and reality helped to free man from the smothering embrace of metaphysics.”


The “smothering embrace of metaphysics” is all the vast realm of possibility. Once it has been eliminated, a reduced reality can be explored. Highly unsatisfactory, I think.

Oberman also makes a comparison between theology and physics, and you can see it clearly in the realm of astronomy. Without speculation, you get rigorous observation: practical, sensible, useful astronomy. With speculation, on the other hand, you get astrology. That he should insinuate a parallel between theology and physics is unfortunate, though I am sure it is intentional. Obviously Oberman, great historian though he is, finds both the comparison and the distinction useful. And the distinction is useful, when we can usefully distinguish possibility and this limited notion of reality as that which we perceive, we get applied science. We get, as I am not tired of observing, a whole set of goods of lesser value. But do we not also lose a whole set of goods of a higher value? We get a theology that is anti-speculative, and on the move. Could we expect that it will be metaphysically ill-informed?

* * *

I proceed now more specifically to Calvin. Why did Calvin, Steinmetz asks, reject the medieval distinction between absolute and ordained power of God? There, if anywhere, was some kind of remaining metaphysical distinction!

“Calvin rejects the distinction in part because he fears that it encourages the natural human tendency to speculate about the being and nature of God apart from revelation.”

Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 48

So far, so continuous.

“Calvin is unwilling to entertain even a hypothetical separation of God’s power from his justice. Of course, Scotus and Ockham do not seriously intent to separate God’s power from God’s justice, except as an experiment in thought. But Calvin refuses to do even that. God’s power and justice are so tightly bound together that they cannot be separated. What the scholastics regard as a useful experiment in thought, Calvin regards as shocking blasphemy.”

Ibid., 49

Have we come a step further, or is this a step back? Is this Calvin making an intellectualist point? Can it be he is giving them some of their own medicine?

“Calvin reads the distinction between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata, not as a distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, but as a distinction between potentia ordinata and inordinata, between ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered’ power. What the scholastics call the absolute power of God is a disordered power because it disjoins God’s power from his justice. In that sense all power of God, realized and unrealized, actual and potential, is potentia ordinata, power ordered by God’s justice.”

Ibid., 49

It is always useful to note that Calvin never received formal theological training. One of the things Steinmetz demonstrates is that Calvin was aware of the theological conversations of his day, but his approach may not have been guided. This, of course, does not mean his thinking is to be despised. It must be understood, and he must be sorted out. We do see, however, that he appropriates late medieval developments in his own way. It turns out it is his own zeal for order that accounts for his rejection of that distinction.

For Calvin “Reformation is the re-ordering of the lives of the faithful. Confusion and dispersal is the undermining of the God-intended order by Satan and his evil instruments.”

Oberman, 237

One can only wish Calvin had been more interested in metaphysical order. Clearly, he is not behaving as a voluntarist at this point, though he seems to be operating on unacknowledged nominalist assumptions. It is as if the framework of nominalism cannot be questioned, though the conclusions it requires can. I am no theologian. I do think, however, that inferior theology is what results.





Permanence and Change

Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa has an account of his sister Macrina’s life. A surprisingly large portion is dedicated to her impassibility in the face of death, which is contrasted with the passibility of Gregory and the mourners. It seems to me the main point of his hagiography: her saintliness was demonstrated in her control of passion. I would not be surprised to find the parallels between Gregory’s account and Plato’s of the death of Socrates numerous.

After the death of their mother, Macrina and her brother Peter “devoted themselves in a still more sublime fashion to philosophy.” It is not how we usually speak of piety, which is what Gregory has in view. He is writing the life to illustrate a Christian ideal, to show how a saintly person to whom he was close lived. One of the things you see is how much a man of late antiquity he is. To them philosophy was not what it most immediately is now to us.

“Self-control was their pleasure, not to be known was their fame, their wealth was in possessing nothing and in shaking off all material surplus, like dust from the body; their work was none of the concerns of this life, except in so far as it was a subordinate task. Their only care was for divine realities.” It might be Porphyry writing about Plotinus. Gregory would not, I think, be put off by that comparison. The only distinction he would want to stress is that unlike Plotinus, Macrina really was dealing with divine reality; that she had the advantage of the truth.

Macrina’s wish was to be buried were her parents lay. So they dig up the grave in order to lay her there. But, thinks Gregory, I remember the story of Noah. I can’t look on the corruption, the shame of my parents. What can he do? He gets inspiration from the same story, and they place a sheet over the decomposing bodies before he can look in to deposit Macrina’s.

Impassibility is the virtue of a saint. Corruption is shame. What is the common factor? Change. Change is a real problem. It reminds me of a quotation from Aquinas in which he is describing the consummation, the state for man of eternal life. It is described a perfection of immobility. A perfection of immobility! Not exactly what springs to mind as the best way to sell people on heaven. Even admirers of Aquinas find it hard to stomach. But I think it at least shows that change does not mean for us what it meant for antiquity or even for the Middle Ages.

I don’t care if you don’t agree with Aquinas—so much the worse for you. What really interests me is understanding what is must have been like for someone to say with all seriousness that what we most long for–the possession of those things which God promises–is a perfection of immobility. There is a mysticism of permanence there, a fascination.

How Gregory of Nyssa can believe as he does in human impassibility intrigues me. Was he naïve? I do not think it can really be said of him. Of course he believed in all sorts of miracles and wonders, but that was late antiquity: Apuleius did, Plotinus did, nobody reputable would have believed otherwise, and they were intellectual giants. We, in turn, live in a world in which change is exalted. Are we any less creatures of our times than Gregory was of late antiquity? We’d like to think not, but the test is in how we behave. We do not speak, do we, as Gregory did. Part of that is that we know better. But part of that, I think, is also that we are missing something they had.

Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?



Theology, Philosophy and History

One of the important discussions taking place in the centuries of the Reformation had to do with the nature of theology. Is theology wisdom? Is theology science? Does theology exist to give us instruction about God so that we can have correct understanding, primarily, or does it exist so that we can behave accordingly? The reason these questions matter is that the way you answer is going to shape the theology you do. If you emphasize one thing at the expense of the other, you will end up paying for that over time (you can breed error in unattended places, for instance). So the best definition of theology is the one that leaves nothing crucial out of consideration.

Wisdom is obviously an Old Testament theme. That it is a theme of the whole Ancient Near-East is acknowledged, and that the Old Testament’s concern was a part of this wider concern would be hard to dispute. From what I can gather, the writers of the Old Testament were involved in the context of international wisdom. They participated in it by reading and examining, by studying and appropriating from it. You can find a large number of Proverbs that had their origin in Egyptian lore, to name just one example. What the writers of the Old Testament seem to have done is taken things and put them in the context of Israelite monotheism. Here these shards and pieces lost their rough edges and found their place in a coherent pattern. If international wisdom offered patterns, Hebrew wisdom contributed positively by offering a distinctive pattern which we know to be true.

Wisdom was also a concern of Hellenic civilization. All the wisdom of the Old Testament is the wisdom of a pre-speculative people. There are no real abstractions, no dealing with geometrically pure abstract arguments. Greek philosophy sought to move beyond the manipulation of analogies and physical entities into a purely mental realm because the Greek philosophers believed the purely intelligible was either more fundamental or at least key for acquiring wisdom. This became a very important influence in the development of Christian doctrine.

The Ancient Church was also an international movement. It arose in the sheltered context of Judaism, appropriating the institution and order of the synagogue and Jewish education methods. But these institutions and methods alone were not sufficient for Christianity. It had to grow beyond the limited ethnic bounds of Judaism. It had to be much more of a phenomenon of the wider world. So you see men wrestling with interpreting the Old Testament differently from the Jews, seeking an education that could yield better answers to their questions. Like the Old Testament appropriators of an international culture of wisdom, Christians grappled with the international philosophy of the Greco-Roman culture. They sought ways to expand their own understanding, to appreciate Scripture better, to defend themselves in that sophisticated context, and to explain the wonder of what they possessed. If philosophy begins in wonder, it is no wonder ancient Christians turned to philosophy to grapple with the wonder of their religion.

Stoicism was a much admired philosophy. It lacked robust metaphysical development but was strong on logic and ethics. Many ancient Christians appropriated it, and it has influenced people as distant from it as John Calvin. Stoicism is more of a practical wisdom, and therefore more rudimentary—we might say. It is a good beginning, but it had to be left behind. In the third-century collapse of the Roman Empire, a more otherworldly philosophy became dominant: Neoplatonism. And it was this metaphysically sophisticated philosophy that most influenced Christianity for the next thousand years.

It is true that in the collapse of the pagan consensus and the end of the Greco-Roman culture of antiquity, ancient Christians disparaged philosophy. But what must be acknowledged is that these disparagements came only after it had been so thoroughly absorbed that the Christian Platonists who were disparaging Plato and Proclus were quibbling about in-house matters, much as today Presbyterians debate whether or not the Covenant of Works is republished in the Mosaic Law: you have to be a covenant theologian to appreciate it. To appreciate what the Fathers were reacting to, you’d have to be a Platonist to begin with. All the advantages of classic antiquity thoroughly shaped not only Origen and the Cappadocians, but also Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. These were all Christian Platonists.

The millennium of Christian Platonism was a millennium of deep and fundamental theology: the doctrine of the Trinity, the Christological controversies, the elaborate Christian metaphysics, cosmology and ontology of Eriugena’s system, the deep-theological-space contemplation of Anselm, the cosmic-liturgical symbolism of Maximus Confessor and Rupert of Deutz all speak to this. It was a millennium of theology as wisdom. (What is wanting today is an appreciation, a way to understand and enter these difficult things. The wonder is so distant from contemporary experience and sensibility that it is difficult for people to grasp it. It requires someone with the sensibility of Charles Williams to do so, and someone with the appreciation for a Charles Williams such as C. S. Lewis to promote it. Which is to say, this is very difficult to appreciate. You would have to cultivate the imagination as a way of knowing, and who does that?)

What Christian Aristotelianism brings (arising in the very Christian Platonist 12th century) is a new sense of theology. Theology is not only wisdom, it is also something lower which we call science. Science means knowledge, and knowledge is something that wisdom contains, but wisdom is the greater category. It was the genius of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to see how theology could be something lesser (a science) without ceasing to be something greater (wisdom). The result of thinking of theology not only as philosophy but also as something more specialized, science, is systematic theology.

Why do you only get theological prolegomena, then, in the centuries of the Reformation? Not because Protestantism somehow lends itself to a more self-conscious approach. The reason you get these discussions on method is that theology was only approached with a method when it began to be regarded as a science. In the fullness of time, as a result of the interchange of the crusades, because plundering Constantinople had a precedent from the fourth crusade, thanks to Aristotle’s more crabwise, horizontal approach—to name a few influences—we start reflecting on whether theology is principally a science, whether it is aimed at knowing or aimed at doing, and all those questions.

What is the best definition of theology? What is theology? And what philosophical principles undergird it? After the first millennium of Christian Platonism we had what Richard Muller is willing to describe as a half-millennium of Christian Aristotelianism. This epoch includes the Reformation and Reformed Scholasticism. This last collapses as the new Rationalist Cartesian influence become prevalent. It is something to wonder about Edwards—to what extent was he an empiricist, to what extent old-school? What were his philosophical principles? There follows also a Kantian Christianity (which I do not call Christian Kantianism) and Idealist Christianity. Modern Christianity, we might say, and Post-modern as well, and now post-Christian. That is why classic theism (besides having the catholic—which is to say historic—appeal) appeals: it is based on pre-modern philosophical principles. I have found that theologians moving back prefer to move to Christian Aristotelianism. Christian Platonism is too confident in Reason, too much a pure discipline of Wisdom for people attempting to recapture a pre-modern outlook. Method is what you get when you do not have Anselm’s soaring confidence and use of Reason. When you just write reason and not Reason, one might say. Christian Aristotelianism, however, is a move in the right direction.

Of course, there will always be the Christians saying that we don’t need philosophy. These I name smugglers. They smuggle in unexamined philosophical assumptions because philosophical principles are necessary, speaking unphilosophically about that which is philosophical. This produces incoherent theology.

Next time you use a book of theology, look at the definition and think about it.