Natural Theology

Part of the spillover of the Trinity debate is into the area of natural theology. The tension between presuppositionalism and classic apologetics that R. C. Sproul insisted on maintaining and is now being maintained by J. V. Fesko has to do with that. Classical Theism requires natural theology, and attempts to deny it are going to continue from presuppositionalists because that is predicated on the hard rejection of natural theology. I haven’t gotten into the debate and am the last person anybody should consult on apologetics, but I understand the difference to be thus.

The approach of classical apologetics is to address the atheist and the agnostic in terms of natural revelation and natural theology. The atheist has to be refuted, the agnostic persuaded of theism. But not on the grounds of special revelation. They can be reasoned with using general revelation. One can use the five ways to demonstrate that there can’t not be a God. The second step of classical apologetics is to use the evidence of special revelation for Christian theism as the only true alternative. It is where the evidentialist begins, so that the difference is that the evidentialist always begins here, and the classical apologist finds the toolkit the evidentialist uses unnecessarily limited. (I wonder if the evidentialists don’t confuse clarity with authority, and on those grounds dismiss the theology of natural revelation. But I don’t know, apologetics only being an interest of mine in the effort to get away from the presuppositionalism which annoys me.)

Presuppositionalism rejects both natural theology and evidentialism. It is about affirming a perspective, the perspective that presupposes God, and then shows that no other perspective is adequate. I don’t think this is an approach so much calculated to persuade as to assume its triumph merely. I find presuppositionalism disagreeable to me for two reasons: one is that it has always struck me as condescending to any position that doesn’t share its perspective, especially pagans and, alas, C. S. Lewis; the second is that it works too much like an ideology.

An academic discipline, Roger Scruton has somewhere said, is a set of questions. In order to master that discipline you master a set of questions, and the conversation that has resulted in search of answers. Because the questions are fundamental in nature, and because the answers they seek are not simple, there is an openness to an academic discipline, a development and also something constantly unfinished about it. It is an exploration that could continue indefinitely. Of course, it develops a substantial body in the ensuing conversation, but there is room for the conversation to continue down through the ages. An ideology, on the other hand, is a set of answers. It masquerades as an academic discipline but is not really inquiring and not fundamentally honest.

An academic discipline can be hijacked to a lesser or greater degree by something like an ideology or on the way to ideology. For example, you can ask a historical question and then limit the answers to those which contain women. You can still get accurate history, but you are limiting the discipline. That has a very limited usefulness, and is more of a way of sorting results, assuming you have achieved a meaningful result. An ideology is when you pretend that the only valid questions are the ones whose answers only contain, for example, women, or mostly women. To the degree that you control by means of the answers, you are being ideological.

Presuppositionalism is perspectival. It is one of these worldview things. A pox on worldviews! Perspectives tend to limit the answers. They are used under a guise of humility, like sheep’s clothing, but they are about controlling more by answers than by proper questions and the diligent integrity of the conversation. The open-endedness of something controlled by the search for honest answers is unwelcome to the ideological mind. And what presuppositionalism does must be that way if you foreground the noetic effects of sin so that natural theology is altogether impossible.

I think the problem there is that the noetic effects of sin, while distinguishable from the moral effects of sin, are not separable and not quite as preponderant as presuppositionalism makes them out to be. What hinders a person’s mind from grasping natural revelation? A lack of truth is caused by a lack of honesty, which is a lack of integrity, which is a matter of the heart. A lack of truth may be cause by a lack of boldness, by a refusal to persist in some adversity because it is right to persist. Persistence is courage, and clarity of mind requires courage. Courage has the word heart in it! Courage is moral. So moral that God says that all cowards will burn in hell, and hence so noetic that the Rabbis said that the timid student will never learn. But there are degrees of integrity and certainly of courage in the unconverted. So, they achieve partial degrees of knowledge of God by natural theology. Of course, they need the second step that the evidentialists are so good at, because natural revelation is only adequate for establishing theism.

What I find that the present debate has established clearly for me is that without natural theology you will struggle to have a proper grasp on Classic Theism. Natural revelation is not as clear as special revelation in terms of redemption, but it is authoritative. Authority, after all, depends on the source. Treat it otherwise and you will have a problem with God.

Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism, by Craig A. Carter

I think Carter’s second step in hermeneutics, after exegesis contemplation, is the one that we are not trained for. That’s when most read commentaries, isn’t it? We have been told to avoid things like allegory and sensus plenior, and Carter’s argument is that by doing so we forfeit the inheritance of theological interpretation. The problem with that is that we erode the inherited theology that rests on the hermeneutics of theological interpretation. I can tell you his argument is right having lived it.

The argument Craig Carter makes is that interpretation must be wiser than simply to function on the basis of modern prejudices, that you need to learn to meditate. And this is a skill that Carter is urging on us, in one way, by consulting the more ancient commentaries.

Because that is what they did.

The problem is that in order to meditate, you need a grasp of metaphysics, because that is the realm of meditation, and you need the guidelines of theological formulation because there is a cumulative reserve of correct interpretation. It is a problem because metaphysics are nowadays considered irrelevant, and we are trained to approach the text without that cumulative reserve of correct interpretation.

He further believes the problem is a problem with our whole civilization and traces it back to nominalism and voluntarism, and he believes these bring on the anti-metaphysical posture of the Enlightenment, which leads to an inadvertent recovery of the mythological pagan cosmology, which, as theologians adapt to that attitude, leads to theistic personalism and theistic mutualism, which is being taught in Evangelical seminaries such as the ones I have attended. (In the first seminary I attended, we were required to read both Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and told that God might actually be in time. Fortunately, though I resisted him early, Richard Weaver won out. I must say that in that unexpectedly compendious place I was encouraged, with the aid of A. W. Tozer, into the reading many works of mystical devotion, which opened for me a more contemplative approach. In the second seminary I attended, in some ways less compendious, they used God with Us as a textbook till, I understand, they more recently were buying up the remaining copies to pulp it due to the ecclesiastical controversies it caused.)

Modern exegesis is about letting the meaning arise naturally from the text, rather than using the text as an entrance to a higher reality, as it was for Origen of old. The problem that Carter sees is that meaning does not arise. It is more accurate to say that we need to ascend through the text to a meaning to be found above. Or we supply it from dubious sources, smuggled in.

Modern exegesis foregrounds the mind of man, and Craig Carter argues that hermeneutics should be about understanding the mind of God, contemplating God. Not just the mind of God as a man of the 6th century BC understood it (although that may be better than the mind of God as a man of the 21st century AD understands it) but the mind of God as God reveals it beyond the temporal and cultural limitations of each writer’s circumstances, beyond any devising that from man arises.

I think he is strongest on his sections on Isaiah, and I think, while I don’t too much disagree with him, that he is weakest in his broad descriptions of the history of Western Civilization. He quotes the great Christopher Dawson, a man who was a great historian because he read and thoroughly digested exhaustively the primary sources for the history he was doing. Craig Carter has not done quite the same. But he has done a great deal, and there is a great deal of good in this book. I wonder if he isn’t doing something similar to but deeper than what David Wells was doing way back in his trilogy from the 90s. I look forward to the final volume.

No Abiding City

Nothing says to me that it is a deeply and universally acknowledged truth that the human race is a race of exiles like this mad and glorious desire to colonize the universe. We want to go to Mars, we want to live on Mars, and yet we know that Mars can only be a step on the way. So what are we searching for?

There is nothing more purposeless than the desire to go to space. We make up purposes, but we do not recognize the real purpose.

It is good for learning things, for example, because the truth is that if you pursue practical learning, your learning will be limited. Learning needs to be speculative, you need to get knowledge for the sake of knowledge because all true knowledge exists to tell us something. Our problem is we do not always know what the question is to which we are obtaining an answer. Practical pursuits only seek answers to questions we have, but what about questions that will arise?

You can see this in church history. Origen of Alexandria, that glorious and speculative theologian lay the foundations for the hermeneutics and metaphysics of the fourth century, when very, very pressing and unanticipated questions arose. The import of those questions was remote and recondite, but needed to be discerned from afar. Origen was like Plato’s stargazer. We often talk about how we advance in our theology thanks to the questions that heretics raise. And that is true because we are too little involved in speculative theology; instead of being responsible, we end up scrambling. In the providence of God, there was Origen in the third century.

The same goes for the desire to be a space-faring race. It yields, and continues to yield. We have superior breathing apparatuses for firefighters, enhanced surgery techniques, and many such other kinds of safety and medical improvements. What killed the Apollo missions? When they were viewed merely as a geological survey of the moon and information about its formation. Billions of dollars were spent, and they could not continue to justify them on that practical objective. But that was not its original impulse; that is how the nebulous desire to go was badly clarified and as a result dissolved.

We search for life elsewhere because we want to find kindred. It is part of our search for a home. What is a home, after all? We talk loosely of home ownership, as if there really could be such a thing. It is the devaluation of the currency of our words to do so. You can’t own a home, you can at best own a building. Buildings are such things as can be owned, but a home . . . a home! That’s something that we will cover light years searching to obtain! We desperately want one, and there is a deep and largely unacknowledged sense that this planet is not it. A home is something you obtain by grace. It is something to strive to enter and yet that which you cannot earn. There is something given in a home, it is a blessing, it is received because it is greater than anything we can give ourselves. We are searching for life in other places to try to find out if that is where something belongs, and what belonging would be like, and if perhaps it is the place to which we can ourselves at last belong. We know ourselves to be exiles so fundamentally.

Nothing says to me that we are pilgrims and that we deeply know ourselves to be pilgrims like these daily videos of the massive effort in south eastern Texas to achieve a lasting presence for the human race, a home, a dwelling-place that is certain and enduring. “We need to be an inter-planetary species if we are going to survive.” Survival! If it were about survival we would not be trying to exit a survivable planet.

We want a home, that’s what we want. And we do not realize that what a home is, is a place where we are accepted. Isn’t that why we search for “life”? A home is a place were we live in relationship, conscious relationship, accepted and accepting in a deep and lasting way. It is glory as C. S. Lewis explains in his Biblical theology of the term in “The Weight of Glory.” And we long for the deep things that we in the wisdom of the awe of our religion of technology know; we long for the deep of distant space to accept us. And we toil, and watch, and pray to the gods of that religion, fervent about the designs of our priestly engineers and that highest priest of all, the driven and homeless Elon Musk, eager for them to bring us to the glorious temple that surely the right vehicle will find.

I would love to be a chaplain on that mission and colony on Mars. Don’t you think it will be poignant once there, to stand up and tell them about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob?

Deeper Implications

I’m enjoying Dominic Legge’s book on the Trinitarian Christology of Aquinas. It was promoted a while back by Craig Carter. He was trying to think of a better book on the subject of Christology by a protestant, but couldn’t come up with one. I don’t know why we need one though, unless we don’t think of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as our common heritage. I would rather we did, and would make the argument from history that we should. Not that I think Carter disagrees. He’s fighting the fight for abandoning the rash abandonment of the perennial theology of all the former ages of the church. He wants to recover the metaphysical certainties of natural theology that structure our careful and advanced theological formulation. He calls this philosophical theology the great tradition of Christian Platonism.

One of the funniest things (of many) that Roger Scruton said was when he observed that he considered the Enlightenment a kind of light pollution. We all live with physical light pollution if we live around other people, because we all agree that it is better to be able to see the ground nearby than to be able to look above and to the stars beyond. It is a practical thing, and shows one way in which our concern for safety and well-being is not focused on distant and cosmic determinations. Which practical considerations are probably fine for the kinds of considerations that go into having people live close to each other. The philosophical problem of the Englightenment, however, is another thing. The philsophical assumptions of modernity light up immediate rather than transcendent considerations, and it turns out that theology is improperly illuminated when that happens. This change in lighting is not always so apparent, but has been increasingly dawning on theologians. And the insights of gazing at the stars–the time invested, the skill to draw proper conclusions from so doing, the opprobrium of not being practical in this age–turn out to be pretty important for navigating the ship of theology. The Engligtenment, we could say, lit up the seas around the ship, but it turns out that being able to see the waves and billows is not as important as being able to recognize the guiding stars.

The reason Aquinas gets singled out–besides the fact that he is simply one of the greatest theologians God ever gave to the church–is that in continuity with Aquinas we are in continuity with the stargazers of all the ages of the church prior to him. He labored in times when not even the clouds of nominalism had arisen, and there’s much to be said for the philosophical clarity of that moment. We should also remember that the difficult doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were contributed to by Aquinas. Positive contributions to orthodox theology are nothing less than effects caused by the Holy Spirit, and should be remembered and valued as such.

We need the wisdom of those who gazed on the stars because, as we can tell by the present lighting, the nearer waters roll and the tempest still is high. We need their charts in the high seas we navigate. Read Legge’s book on the Christology of Aquinas. Read, for that matter, Aquinas.

Farrowing

The intriguing Douglas Farrow is the author of the stupendous takedown published in First Things of David Hart’s treatise on universalism. What an interesting public venue for that engagement. I have not read Hart’s treatise, but I have enjoyed the annoyance it occasioned online. I also think Hart is intriguing; it is hard to think of a more interesting book than The Experience of God. He and Farrow seem to me to be real heavyweights of theological disputation. Of course they hit a lot harder than the featherweights! Don’t you think there is a grand magnificence to watching the heaviest blows being calculated and landed, regardless of the side you are on? Besides his ability to go to war, you will also notice in Farrow’s bio the puzzling statement that he is “sometime holder of the Kennedy Smith chair in Catholic Studies.” What speech act is going on with that?

I do not know at what point Farrow swum the Tiber, or indeed why. He also has a lament of the Pope’s latest legislation on First Things. First Things has been walking a tightrope all through the pontificate of a Pope named after a barbarian tribe, struggling to remain within the bounds of loyalty and deferent disagreement. That Farrow is accorded the response to the latest encroachment on that particular space tells you something. I gather he was at that point on the other side of the Thames. I just read his Ascension and Ecclesia, which takes Calvin’s view of the supper as the point of departure. I am not sure that it would have caused perplexity to be known for such a book and then swimming the Tiber, but that also is a bit intriguing.

Farrow is a penetrating thinker and a dense and acerbic writer. One of the benefits of reading Ascension and Ecclesia (which is cheap because it is now outdated) is that any subsequent book you read will be so much easier. The argument is difficult indeed, depends on making much of Irenaeus, disparaging Origen, and eventually . . . a takedown, yes, of the whole tendency of modern theology, including of course all of its major proponents. (That’s actually where I get bored; 20th century theology consistently fails to intrigue me at all.) It may be that Irenaeus is to be rated over Origen as a theologian, though I am somewhat dubious. Still, even if you don’t agree with Farrow, following his arguments—let alone going up against them—is a salutary and invigorating activity. He is definitely not among the Christian Platonists, but then, it is good to have intelligent opposition. Christian Platonists can be grateful for any intelligent opposition since at least the adjectival part if not the substantive is notably rare.

I obviously enjoy Douglas Farrow. I wrote to my sometime advisor asking him how he rated Farrow, and the reply was that Farrow was top notch, worth reading even when you disagree. It is good advice.

The argument of Ascension and Ecclesia is to highlight the importance of a right understanding of the doctrine of the ascension. This doctrine shapes ecclesiology. His argument is that getting the ascension wrong has warped the identity of the church and diluted its mission. A substandard interpretation of the ascension of Christ as been used to “dissolve Jesus’ humanity” and one of the knock-on effects of this is to render the Church irrelevant.

What did the ascension accomplish? Where is Jesus? How do his physical absence and mystical presence define the church? And once you answer the question of space, what about time? It is worth winding through all of Farrow’s argument in order to find out. He has published a more recent book for those whose research is more efficient than mine: Ascension Theology. I understand it is more accessible and no doubt more complete.

Ordination Dreams

From what I remember, positions on the origins of the soul were presented as options to me in seminary. Like the choice between trichotomy and dichotomy. It may be this is not how they were presented, but how I remember them. In many ways, I was a frivolous student.

I have preferences, but understanding with utter clarity what difference these make is not something I have. Surely there are theological implications down the line for both! But this is what I’m mostly ignorant of.

I prefer traducianism, and I attribute this to my platonism. Traducianism has problems, but I think creationism is a solution more than an explanation. The covenantal aspect of the fall, the imputation of original sin, is more foregrounded in creationism, this is true. Berkhoff’s treatment, which prefers creationism, is not entirely persuasive. Perhaps I should consult the Doctor Angelicus—he had a way with clarity. There are a lot of questions that arise from creationism. . . . at least for me.

But then, what do we know of the immaterial man? The point at issue seems to dissolve into a greater mystery. It makes me wonder if there aren’t pieces still to put in place before the issue becomes altogether clear.

Before the fourth century, reputable teachers in the church struggled with expressing the doctrine of the Trinity. Sometimes people study these figures and try to hold them to a standard of doctrinal development to which they had no access. Talking of Origen as having subordinationist tendencies makes it sound like he was not quite the theologian he might have been, when in fact the trajectory to robust formulation leads straight through him. He represents a necessary preliminary stage.

What I wonder is if issues like those I started out with are still in a preliminary stage.

See then that you walk circumspectly

In other words, Theology is practical: especially now. In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones–bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties today are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression–like believing the earth is flat.

-C.S. Lewis, 1943

Not Helpful

“The Council of Nicea (325) was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in order to resolve the issue. Athanasius (296-373), the champion of orthodoxy, though often standing alone, contra mundum (against the world), guided the council into the truth.” Johnson, The Identity and Attributes of God, 37

I actually graduated with an MDiv believing this. I don’t mean to single out Johnson or to reproach any one person, but it does show a collective failure to have the history we teach be accurate. Fiction is where we go for inspiring stories, mythology. This does not give enough information about what happened and in fact gives wrong information about what did.

Here are the inaccuracies.

  1. Athanasius was only present at Nicea as the secretary of his bishop Alexander. He guided nothing in the council, nothing at all. He wasn’t ordained bishop till three years later.
  2. The Council of Nicea was only the beginning of the global conflict. While Arius was condemned, the Arian cause went on to dominate the Empire and was not finally defeated till the Council of Constantinople in 381, almost 60 years later. It was during this period subsequent to 325 that Athanasius came to be a Bishop, went through his numerous exiles, and persevered in the face of defeat (against the world), and died, along with most of those present at the Council of Nicea.
  3. The original formula of Nicea demonstrated how slippery any of the proposed terminology could be without the stability that a theological culture gave to the terms. Athanasius himself “did not insist on the term homoousios until the 350s” (Thompson, Athanasius, xi).

One of the most important things achieved in that century of controversy was a theological culture in which being faithful to Scripture when teaching the doctrine (specifically, the doctrine of God) is possible. That’s Lewis Ayres conclusion, whose book has been around since 2004 and is a good source of accurate history on Nicea and its legacy.

I can understand not getting into the minutiae of history, but how does it help to tell us what did NOT actually happen? Don’t you think things like this are why we have the issues regarding the Doctrine of God that we do? The issues this very book is admired for addressing? I don’t see how it can be otherwise.

Classic

The knowledge of each Creature, in the Divine Understanding, arriveth from without, or ariseth from within. The first of these hath following it an horrid train of direful inconveniences represented above, such as I may well tremble to mention and the holy Angels stand amazed to hear, the passibility, mutability, dependency, imperfection of the Divine Essence it self, compositions, divisions in the Divine Nature: in a word, the desposing of God from being God.

-Peter Sterry

Aquinas and Salvation

Thomas has made it clear that we can do nothing that effects our salvation without grace. Having been given grace, though, we must act so as to cooperate in God’s work for our salvation. Cooperating grace enables and prompts us to achieve our salvation by our meritorious action. That final question of the treatise on grace addresses the notion of merit. Here Thomas is concerned to forestall misunderstandings, common throughout the church’s history, regarding the relation between merit and grace.

We have seen the Pelagian view of merit – the notion that, if we do our best, God will give us the grace of our heavenly reward – is far too simple-minded. We may indeed do the best we can, but without grace, not one of our actions has any bearing whatsoever upon our relation to God. A more subtle form of the Pelagian view, sometimes called ‘semi-Pelagianism’, contends that we, while yet unaided by grace, must make the initial move. We must merit grace by showing our worthiness, for it and its effects  before we are given it. Once it has been given to us, we can then go on to merit salvation more or less the way Thomas describes. . . . On this view of merit, we would earn our subsequent justification without the aid of grace. Augustine himself later retracted this view, as Thomas notes, acknowledging that faith itself is from its very beginning an effect of grace; ‘we believe, whilst we are being justified’ (ST ½.114.5 ad 1). Any notion that God becomes indebted to us because of our natural efforts is thus ruled out.

-Nicholas Healy, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life, 116

Contrary to the hagiography that one sometimes encounters, there was development in Aquinas’ thought, and one of the areas in which he developed was soteriology. Joseph Wawrykow chronicles the development through three of Aquinas’ treatises chronologically, showing how he began a semi-Pelagian and worked his way to a more Augustinian view. This is the view which Healy presents above. Wawrykow’s book is God’s Grace and Human action: ‘Merit’ in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas did what everybody who got a master’s degree in theology did in his time, he wrote a commentary on what had become a standard book of theology, Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The Sentences was a 12th century book of which two useful observations can be made.

Lombard’s Sentences represents a response to a growing medieval population and civilization. Books were still hand-copies, laborious, costly and therefore rare items. As a result, books of sentences, books of crucial quotations from the authorities of the past were elaborated and implemented. It was far cheaper and easier to copy a selection than to acquire the necessary library. I have read one historian speculating that Bernard of Clairvaux was probably one of the last figures to read the ancient authorities in context as part of his education. He would have been reading and studying in the late 11th and early 12th century. As the population increased in Europe, the need to train priests to pastor them did too, especially in cities. Along with the cathedral schools came the books of sentences.

As a consequence of compiling assorted quotations, European teachers were faced with the problem of organizing and classifying their material. This development of topics is part of the development of systematic theology. A second consequence was that differences among the authorities became obvious as never before, and this led to the procedure of debate known as the disputation. If you think of Luther’s 95 theses for debate and the Heidelberg disputation, you will realize that the scholastic method of evaluating options, discarding opinions, and reconciling contradictions is exactly what the Reformers were still doing 300 years later. Lombard’s sentences today read like a disputation, the way Aquinas’ works often do. That organization was not original, so that the text was more dynamic than our common ideas of medieval times might lead us to believe. The final organization of Lombard’s Sentences was achieved in Aquinas’ own lifetime.

Aquinas commented Lombard’s Sentences in the 1250s, very early in his career, and it is at this stage that Wawrykow describes his semi-Pelagian view of merit. Aquinas was concerned with grace as a formal rather than an efficient cause, Wawrykow explains. A formal cause is a more intelligible causality, rather than one focusing on agency. It is one that shines as an ideal in the mind. It pulls rather than pushes, I think we could say, and because if this a formal cause leaves the agency unstated, and that tends to shift agency onto the subject of salvation, the human rather than the divine party.

What happened is that Aquinas was able to read Augustine and as a result he worked to reconcile this indisputable authority with his early and vaguer notions of grace. Wawrykow shows the struggle in an intermediate book called De Veritate and then in Aquinas’ developed theology which is found in the first section of the second part of the Summa Theologiae. Here grace is considered an efficient causality, and the principal agent in Salvation is divine. That doesn’t mean there is no room for human agency, but that the Augustinian emphasis is squarely on the divine, so that Aquinas is no longer vulnerable to the charge of semi-Pelagianism.

That is a gross simplification. It is a sketch of a very detailed and extensive book-length argument Wawrykow carefully develops. And it is worth observing that that is the problem when dealing with Aquinas, there aren’t simple arguments in his compendious and subtle thought. He taxes patience because he requires so many complex and seemingly infinite distinctions. And I believe others, just as I am, are tempted to dismiss what he is saying as too subtle just because it requires more work than we are used to putting into things. The question is, however, why should we think causality is simple, or that theology should be? One of the factors helping this conclusion has to be laziness, even though another one is the dubious aesthetic preference masquerading as a rule of thought commonly known as Ockham’s razor. It is, as subsequent philosophy and theology have demonstrated, a knife for cutting oneself off from metaphysics. Aquinas never cut himself off from metaphysics.

Assessing Aquinas’ soteriology, we can see that the problem is not that he is semi-Pelagian. The real objection we would have to his soteriology is that it is considered almost exclusively in transformative or ontological categories, without the familiar forensic or judicial categories that the Reformation gave us. A crucial distinction is missing, and this makes him collapse distinguishable portions that are nevertheless inseparable. If you don’t have some way to distinguish things that need to be inseparable, then you are going to conflate them.

That is to be expected. Luther saw his way to those categories because his thinking was focused by voluntarism and nominalism, so that the resulting tunnel vision allowed him to see only the forensic and declarative nature of justification, and at the beginning to the exclusion of any other consideration. What Aquinas’ and Luther do not have in common is that Aquinas’ was a metaphysical realist and Luther decidedly was not. Aquinas’ did theology in the Christian Platonic approach of theological intellectualism, and Luther did his theology in the Scotist and voluntarist way, coupled with a nominalist approach to metaphysics, in which power, relations, and judicial pronouncements determine reality. If the Christian Aristotelianism of Aquinas focused on the reality of substance, Luther’s nominalist approach focused on the reality in terms of powerful agency.

We need both the categories of law and of being to understand salvation. We need the ontological and transformative categories that have to do with the consequences of what God has done in us, those which foreground the human response to the divine activity. But we need those consequences only after we have the initial cause, the status-changing forensic declaration of justification by faith alone and the double imputation this impliess. What Aquinas’ and Luther had in common, however, was the Augustinian approach, the need for divine initiative. The missing part was a theological development requiring something Aquinas and all good people recognize as a problem: nominalism.

Nominalism gives us justification by faith alone and all the benefits of applied science, including the nuclear bomb and the iPhone. Nominalism has brought clarity in limited areas, by focusing our attention toward something we needed to see. This doesn’t mean that I embrace nominalism, but it does mean that whatever it is we of the human race hold to, it is, however admirable, provisional and in unexpected ways subject to correction. We should think that way of what we have, just as we should think that way of what Aquinas had, and what Augustine himself way back in the day had, whose insight, as the Healy quotation above indicates, came as a retraction.

Continuities and Discontinuities

Sounds like a post on dispensationalism, doesn’t it? It is a post about historiography, and so it is a post about hermeneutics, and if dispensationalism is principally a hermeneutic, then there is no wonder that it sounds like a post on dispensationalism. It was a hermeneutical and historical issue for the early church to distinguish themselves from the OT economy without separating themselves from the OT message, after all.

I’m studying the period known as the modern church in most periodization, which in terms of what I need to know can also be described as the American church (the other periods leave it out, so perhaps it is only fair). The American church begins with the puritans in the 17th century, leads into that struggle over its heritage of the 18th century as experience gains prominence and collides with doctrine, as the resulting kaleidoscope highlights one thing and another and you come into the modern sensibility of what were then first called Evangelicals. The great awakening is when they take the stage, and it really is a watershed.

You can tell it was because preaching changed. The history of homiletics seems to me a useful one for marking some of the most important changes in Christians’ sense of what their religion is. One of the things that would spark awakening in New England was exchanging pulpits, which seems like a very curious fact. It was also the time for the introduction of a greater informality not only in venue but also in manner of preaching, and this of course led to a flowering of informality in worship and adherence. Here, then, is a study in continuity and discontinuity.

Individualism, for example, is often bandied about. One of the reasons that Benedictine monasteries were allowed to grow and thus grew up in Europe the Christian civilization without which the Reformation would not have taken place was that there was a weak sense of the individual in the early middle ages. If a person could have monks on his land praying and doing holy things, then it was really perceived as a spiritual benefit to him just by virtue of his connection. It cannot all attributed to superstition but was in large part due to a weak sense of the individual. If you read C. S. Lewis’ Discarded Image you’ll get an idea of the connectedness that the premodern notion of the cosmos encouraged.

Emerging from an animistic cosmos into one more deterministic and mechanistic meant strengthening the sense of the individual which had been simmering along in the Renaissance and in humanism. A person who is cut off from his connections stands more alone. The protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone strengthened it also, coming as it did from the nominalist world in which declarations and power were the overriding realities, a world of a profoundly legal character. When you go to the law you are no longer in a world of presiding ontologies, you are in a world of relating persons.

Relations require individuation, and the more immediate and newly forensic soteriology of the protestant reformation, as opposed to the mediate and mainly ontological soteriology of the medieval church, leads eventually to the logic of personal conversion, and a further individualism of personal experience, and to a further individualism of personal preference and taste, and so on.

Empiricism is another factor. No Nominalism, no empiricism, as Heiko Oberman has argued. Once you dismiss the overriding reality of the invisible, then you affirm the overriding reality of the visible, and you turn to it with all your philosophy. The trajectory is suggested in Roger Scruton’s quip about the Enlightenment being a form of light pollution. The Enlightenment is the exclusion from consideration of anything violating the Nominalist prejudice. Attention was focused on the visible; that is, the lights were turned on and turned up so that the stars were no longer visible. The stars of metaphysical reality were relegated to the land of fairy, and the result was a boon in applied science by which modern man defends all his ignorance.

The epistemology of Nominalism is experimental. Not surprisingly, then, as Aristotle’s instrument of education is abandoned for Bacon’s new one, you also get in theological circles a concern for experience. It begins to overshadow doctrine because it is part of the bias of its underlying and presupposed Nominalism to be empirical. So you begin to see Pietism, and Preparationism, and experimental Calvinism.

What strikes me as interesting in experimental Calvinism is that Jonathan Edwards takes a Lockean sensualism and psychology and does more than merely idealize or ‘spiritualize’ it. It is common for people with Nominalist assumptions to think that metaphysical realism is nothing more than a premodern idealism. No doubt the exact nature of realism and idealism and that continuity and discontinuty is something more than less characterized by confusion in our times. What, after all, is mind? What was it for Edwards? As Ahlstrom comments about The Nature of True Virtue, “One who consults it now can see clearly how Edwards’ highest thought moved out of the realm of Lockean psychology and into the great tradition of Christian Platonism.”

Great tradition indeed!

And that is my point. How are these things to be interpreted? Mercersburg theology held that the Reformation was the flowering of the best medieval piety, which is a way of accenting the continuities, the way the Oberman – Steinmetz – Muller – historiography is once again doing . . . with discontinuities. There can’t be history, there can’t be an account of how one things develops, or breaks with, or comes after in an intelligible way without continuity or discontinuity. The question is which do you accent. And why.

Edwardian Considerations

One of the distinctions that I’ve long appreciated and which I got from Jonathan Edwards is the distinction between a natural and a moral inability. Edwards understands, I understand, that human beings are responsible before God because we possess no natural inability to respond as God wishes, but we in fact do not, lacking a moral ability to do so. That is to say, human beings fail to respond to God because they culpably lack any desire to do so, not because they are unable to do so otherwise. So he distinguishes a moral and a natural inability.

This is something of which Richard Muller is extremely dubious and of which I have been wanted to inquire. There is a pervasive but not altogether clearly defined (at least to me) distrust in confessional Calvinist circles—which are not of the experimental variety—of the theology of Edwards. Theology, changes with him, they suggest, or, alternatively, they wonder what his underlying philosophical categories are, intimating they are not those of reformed scholastics. Why after all, the aspersion goes, is he the patron saint of something so terminally dodgy as American Evangelicalism? Why indeed.

Can it be that to distance oneself from experimental Calvinism—experimental Calvinism with its affinities to pietism, with its tendencies toward conversionism—is the result of an occult anthropological intellectualism? I find it a most tangled issue. I have found that those who are wary of experimental Calvinism tend to be more strict confessional types with a definite rational (in the sense of thought being primary) take on things, foregrounding that which is noetic over what is moral. That is, head over heart guys, rational over affective. (Of course, it may be that it is how I perceive them because I’m a heart over the head guy. Perhaps they maintain both equally and because of my point of view I distort them. I am temperamentally of the romantic rather than the classic persuasion, no doubt of that. I also think in the end you will be judged by what you desire, that what is most fundamentally you is what you want, that your desires are the core of your being, and so depravity is that you desire anything but God.)

Here is a bit of the issue, in terms of reliable documents made by professional theologians back when the underlying philosophy was still the perennial philosophy:

Q. In what consists the sinfulness of that state into which man fell?

A. The sinfulness of that state into which man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the lack of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin, together with all actual transgressions that proceed from it.

‘The corruption of the whole nature’ is what I want to bring to your attention. Is my way of taking Edwards not entirely what the catechism expects? Is nature what Edward’s has in mind when he stresses that we have no natural inability? I don’t think so. The distinction been a natural and a moral ability is one that qualifies the corruption of the whole nature, not one that denies that corruption. It specifies the pervasive corruption by locating its ground or core, and so it fits with more general statements.

Shedd however, says: “he differs from the elder Calvinists, who regarded a mental faculty and its moral condition as inseparable.”

Really? Inseparable is not the same as indistinguishable, which latter is the domain Edwards actually moves in. Perhaps this confusion is why Shedd is able to utter this enormity: “Edwards conceives of the will abstractly and separate from its inclination, and as so conceived contends that it is ‘naturally able’ to obey the law of God. The elder Calvinists denied that the will can be so conceived of.” And so, as I understand him, did Edwards. Shedd is being a bit unsympathetic to a necessarily abstract consideration of something handled in distinction to other things but not in absolute isolation from the whole of man. One of Muller’s reservations about Edwards is that he is no longer a faculty theologian as the ‘elder Calvinists’ were, which I think neutralizes Shedd’s reading.*

Because I think an anthropological voluntarism with a moral inability specifies the pervasiveness of the corruption by locating it precisely at the core of the nature and from there radiating to all of it, which is not, after all, separate from moral considerations, but is distinguishable nevertheless.

_______________

*Can we therefore not say that Muller takes Shedd to the shed?

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern ExegesisCraig Carter’s argument in this book is that modernity has changed our attitude toward Biblical interpretation, and if we wish to interpret as the church whose doctrine and practice we inherit interpreted, we need to recover the premodern attitude toward biblical interpretation. He explains that originally he set out to write a book on the classic theism of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine; but then he found that before he could do so, a preliminary volume on the interpretive practices that gave rise to that theology was required.

I think his argument is sound. Carter begins with Isaiah 53, posing the interpretive problem of whether we can legitimately see Christ in that text. He points out that modern hermeneutical procedure goes against it. He also points out that Christian homiletics nevertheless harvest Christ from that classic text, having the example of Scripture to guide them. What he wants to show is the inconsistency between our actual practices on the one hand and the hermeneutical approach we get from the academy on the other.

What Carter wants is a way to bring theory and practice together. He does this first by setting up the theoretical framework and second by vindicating his framework in historical examples. The theoretical framework, he argues, must be premodern. Modernity evacuates the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions without which Scripture cannot be interpreted coherently. He defines Christian Platonism as an adaptation of Platonism which took place in the early centuries of the church. Any historian reading this section is going to feel that the historiography is a bit thin. There is plenty of room for work to be done that will make a more solid case for the adaptation of ancient philosophy to Christian purposes. But we must remember that Carter is writing a preliminary book to deal with another concern. He cannot get lost in the endless regression that is the historian’s constant temptation.

Carter sticks to Lloyd Gerson’s analysis of Platonism (Gerson who argues that Aristotle was for all practical purposes a Platonist) and defines it as: antimaterialist, antimechanist, antinominalist, antirelativist and antiskepticist (79-81, for more detail). It is not a bad definition of Platonism, but it is hardly the most satisfying one. One of the weaknesses of the book is that since Carter is trying to make a case without provoking unnecessary fights about it, he thins Platonism out so much that he has no trouble calling Calvin a Christian Platonist, nor including Vanhoozer and Carson in his Great Tradition (Great Tradition = Christian Platonism). There is a good point to be made by this, but he is opening his thesis to criticism which will destabilize, I am afraid, some of what he achieves. Still, if he is read in the spirit of his argument, it is not altogether implausible.

Carter not only sets up a theoretical framework to explain his proposal, he then goes on to defend it from history, making a series of points about how his Great Tradition is a demonstrable tradition of interpreting Scripture Christologically, responsibly controlled by the literal meaning, though not limited to it, and rather than implementing typology—which he dismisses as a modern strategy and not a premodern one—is allegorical and prosopological. Prosopological exegesis, to risk being reductive, is finding the face of Christ in Scripture by hearing his voice in the Old Testament specially.

Carter’s explanation of prosopological exegesis demonstrates one of the strengths of this book: Carter is able to synthesize and assimilate diverse and large quantities very recent scholarship. It is a great shift in biblical interpretation, or perhaps the most unanticipated aspect of what is shifting (back—as Carter would remind us). It may be bewildering, but the bibliography is generous and more than competent. Skeptics should inquire before dismissing, because Carter gives every evidence of knowing what he is doing, for all that he does seem sometimes to be rushing ahead too fast. His bibliographical support ought to be considered carefully.

Carter concludes the book demonstrating from Isaiah 53 how the Great Tradition operates, using as his chief example Alec Motyer. It is a good strategy, calculated to allay suspicions. I think Carter knows that the terminology of Christian Platonism and of an exegesis continuous with the practice of Origen and Agustine is not calculated to allay suspicion, and so his exposition and argument endeavor to do so, though sometimes with perhaps too much zeal.

Carter is right. What is happening in this book is part of the ongoing recovery of a catholic approach to Scripture and a general attitude of ressourcement in protestant theology. He very helpfully lays out the cards of his influences and where his sympathies lie in the first chapter. We need books like this because we are finding that our doctrinal formulation has no stable meaning unless it is in the context of a theological culture. That means that a bare subscription to a confession without a culture of interpretation is not enough. A theological culture is a theological tradition, and if theology is Scriptural, then it is an interpretive tradition. Carter has opened a way, and much remains to be done and to follow. Christian Platonism requires better exposition, better understanding, better definition, and it deserves much more attention. But Craig Carter is opening the way. This book is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, no doubt about it.

Hermeneutics

The present debates about the doctrine of God are, of course, not limited to that doctrine. There are several areas in play. One of those is obviously theological method, and another related one is the role of philosophy in competent theology. Not unexpectedly, because theology that is Scriptural is interpretation, a third is hermeneutics. That is why Craig Carter set out to write a book about classic theism in Nicene Trinitarian formulation and instead found he had to write about hermeneutics first.

The ground that is shifting in hermeneutics is moving away from an approach that controls for objectivity, reducing the interpretation to a single authorial intent, smuggling the rest that Christians have in the past retrieved in terms of meaning into the various applications. It is, of course, an epistemological shift as well. What can we know, you might ask, when we interpret? What are the objects of knowledge Scripture presents us with? The mind of God, is the answer.

That last is Christian Platonism. I am afraid that is how people with whom I talk think, and it is largely due to ignorance of John Eriugena who would have told you that the objects of knowledge are not in the mind of God, they are in the image of God. How long before Eriugena appears on people’s radars? I have read a description of him as the greatest Christian metaphysician ever, you know. Will Christian Platonism mean that you should know your Eriugena? That would be a pleasant expansion on the Carolingean pause in Medieval Church on the way to the tenth century and Anselm.

Anyway, the answer that I now see being provided, curiously enough, is a return to the quadriga: the literal, the allegorical, the analogical, and the tropological. The hermeneutics of redemptive-historical preaching are allegorical hermeneutics, the difference is that since people today think allegory means irresponsibly imaginative interpretation, the term is avoided and Origen smeared. Which is silly. Origen was often incorrect, but he was seldom irresponsible. (That is a failure of church historians. I think a recovery of the Great Traditions, as Carter advocates, is going to involve speaking more accurately, more honestly in terms of how we present the past.) The Analogical is when we ask how does this passage help me orient my Christian life in terms of the life to come. Hardly something we can afford to suppress (2 Pet 3:11). And the tropological meaning is when you ask about present conduct: Christian morality, ethics, and such matters, which Scripture clearly addresses.

The return to a fourfold interpretation is first to recognize at least a twofold: human and divine. Can God have meant more than the human author intended? That is a question getting an affirmative. Is Scripture a book like other books? Negative. And the whole thing is not really that controversial, if what has been developing can be connected to the right terminology.

On the surface at least, much of what creates the confusion and controversy is a combination of bad historiography and careless terminology. Below the surface has been a whig approach to history (or a protestant triumphalist narrative) in which what we have gained is so prized that we are not reluctant to sever our connections altogether or dangle by the thinnest of implausible threads.

Premature Exultations

I’ve seen my twitter infoscope lighting up recently with comments on Craig Carter’s hot-off-the-press book on the interpretation of Scripture. I don’t actually often buy books, I hate to order from Amazon for several excellent reasons I shall not here go into, and I prefer to make sure of what I’m getting by looking at it in a library first. But I ordered Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition in violation of all the above strictures.

Then I saw the blurbs, three of which mention Christian Platonism. Then I started reading, and there is a whole chapter, apparently, making the case that the Great Tradition is Christian Platonism!

I am a little bit enthusiastic about that!

I should forebear till I see what he says. I should wait till this evening when I’ve actually got the argument of the book in hand, but who can do so?

The debate which simmered into a full boil in the summer of 2016, the Trinity debate, which James Dolezal then drove further in and further up with his challenge to Calvinist Theistic Mutualism, and the resulting confrontation over Classic Theism that is lighting up the radars everywhere has perhaps glimpsed a logical conclusion. It is, as was pointed out back in 2016, a problem of theological method, and that is a problem of hermeneutics, and Craig Carter, it seems to me, has put his finger on what needs to be addressed for everything else to be resolved. This is the heart of the issue, I think.

In the first five centuries of the church creeds were elaborated. Today, you cannot retain a healthy Christianity without acknowledging the authority of those creeds. They interpret Scripture accurately, and because of that have a very high authority derived from the absolute authority of Scripture. In the Reformation confessions were elaborated. To fail to acknowledge the authority of those confessions—within the ecclesial structures of Protestant Christianity—is to expose yourself to a diminished Christianity. So you need the creeds and you need a confession. But four hundred years on, we find that the confessions are being handled in the context of an alien theological and metaphysical culture, one that degrades and reinterprets them. So what is the next step?

That’s why I plan to devour Carter’s book. The Great Tradition may just be the thing. We need a premodern, hermeneutically continuous tradition. We need to be connected back to Origen folks! We need to examine the what and also the why of the philosophical assumptions of the church in its first 1500 years in order to make sure we are handing on what has been handed on to us.

Can you believe it? Hard for me to, but hence the enthusiasm. Creedal, confessional, and now Christian Platonical churches.

The Pseudo Dionysius

One of the ancient influences on Christian theology is a collection of books claiming to be epistles from Dionysius the Aeropagite to Timothy. The name is taken from a convert of Paul’s preaching in Athens mentioned by Luke. The correspondence purports to explain the things known and taught by the Apostle Paul. Timothy, the conceit goes, has had some difficulty understanding the more recondite matters Paul at one or another time touched on, and wishes further elaboration. Happily for him, Dionysius, being a trained thinker gloriously converted, is in a position to oblige.

With the exception of some pockets of Eastern Orthodoxy, I understand, most people today recognize that the writing is pseudonymous, and that its provenance is probably from Syria in the 5th century. This date is given because it is mentioned in another letter early in the 6th century and because its thought bears an uncanny resemblance to the thought of the pagan philosopher Proclus, who was delivered from his material body in the year 485. As to the location, when the thinking going on in these short books is studied and compared with records of what other Christians were thinking, Syria seems to be the most likely location for these interests and pursuits.

This pseudonymous correspondence was an ingenious ruse, and I think so for at least four reasons. (1) The most obvious is that it really seems to have taken almost everybody in for a very long time. There was some dubiety expressed as to the genuineness of the works early on, but that soon vanished. They entered the canon of serious theology, dangerous interpretations were eliminated by none less than Maximus Confessor, the thought was assimilated, and today it is impossible to understand the history of Christian theology without some acquaintance with these curious writings. The ruse worked amazingly well! It is hard for us to take something pseudonymous seriously, but the fact is we have to.

(2) The ruse was also ingenious because the figure himself, Dionysius the Aeropagite, serves as a symbol for what the author wanted to accomplish. He appears to me to have wanted to smuggle a philosophical approach which already informed Christian thought further in. He did it at a time when philosophy was increasingly viewed with suspicion. So he got a trained philosopher who had been converted and put in his mouth the theological insights he had achieved. I think he got the most qualified person you could desire. A less ingenious person might have picked Apollos, or Titus, or even Mary Magdalene—persons with higher profile, having perhaps more described abilities, or enjoying corresponding holy auras. That is not what our subtle Syrian did, and he did well.

What he accomplished was to Christianize the later insights of a philosophical approach already assimilated to Christianity, and in this way he made sure it was fruitful. Christians have always had an uneasy relationship with philosophy. We seem to be more skeptical of its influence than we are of any other activity we share with unbelievers. By the fifth century when philosophy—an ancient critic of pagan religion—was being degraded into a kind of pagan theology, the attitude was understandable. But if you think of it, philosophy had no way forward in paganism, it did have a way forward in Christianity (and later in Islam). Thanks to our ingenious author, that which could be harvested even from late neo-Platonism was stored in the Christian barn.

(3) The Pseudo Dionysius, as he is known, coined a very important word: hierarchy. That, one may say, was one of his main contributions. We moderns are trained and even brainwashed against the concept of hierarchy. What the Pseudo Dionysius did was to employ it for theology. Without hierarchy, there can be no order; there can be no order of all-pervading equality. There was hierarchy before, but the actual word that we use comes from the Pseudo Dionysius, and coining a word that actually stays is an ingenious thing to do. Had he not done so, who would have? Credit to whom credit is due.

(4) Apophatic theology is probably the main contribution of the Pseudo Dionysius. It is theology by negation. If the Pseudo Dionysius did not originate the approach, he certainly brought it into focus. When we speak about God we neither speak univocally or equivocally. When we say that God sees, we know it is a metaphor; when we say that God knows, we understand that it is analogical: there is some way in which it is similar, but not altogether. If it were altogether similar, we would speak univocally and reduce God. If it were altogether dissimilar, we would speak equivocally and say nothing or just nonsense. Both must be avoided. Apophatic theology is a way of approaching this which emphasizes the difference: it wants to proceed with the constant reminder that God is not like us and always hold before us his strangeness. God is so not like us, the Pseudo Dionysius says, that we cannot univocally ascribe any category we know to him, not even being. Bearing in mind this is not all there is to say, that there is a kataphatic approach (which pulls us away from the equivocal error because it is theology by affirmation) and even a hyperphatic (theology by denial and affirmation, by way of eminence), apophatic theology is a useful and necessary part of theology. It keeps theologians on the knife edge of analogical language. As long as it isn’t used to make our language about God merely equivocal, as long as it pulls us away from merely univocal language, it serves to keep reverence in our theological discourse.

Doing theology with reverence is something our age could use more of. Which is why I think the Pseudo Dionysius is worth getting to know. However strange, he has been very influential. If you like savoring the writings of the early church (you should learn to do that), he’s another one you can read through with deliberation and attention.

the unattainable divine What

Dealing with the great problem at the heart of his proposed solution, Karl Barth speaks of the reception of divine revelation as the How. “This How is the attainable human reflection of the unattainable divine What. Our concern here must be with this reflection.”

Concern indeed! Barth’s radical rejection of natural theology, because—I think—he wants a solution to the problem of liberalism’s contradictory anti-supernatural theology (and so whenever I read him protesting natural theology, I supply instead anti-supernatrual theology and what he means then makes sense to me), Barth’s rejection of any natural theology makes his reception of divine revelation problematic. And, I think, modern, as opposed to pre-modern.

I cannot read Barth and believe his god is anything but a god of becoming. It seems to me that that is the modern dilemma: there are no modern theologies in which there is an immutable God. The problem is not simply a denial of classic theism, it is a denial of the corresponding intellectualism. Intellectualism is only possible with language that is analogical or univocal. The anti-supernatural theology of liberalism with its immanent-but-not-transcendent god represented a univocal intellectualism, and Barth reacts to this. But if there is no analogy, which voluntarism essentially denies, then all you have is equivocation. And a god about which nothing can be asserted is conceptually no different from a god of becoming. For all practical theological purposes, all voluntarism, it seems to me, has to involve a god of becoming. Barth’s Trinitarian thought can be reduced to a serial, uninterrupted modalism, which is to say, he has a god of becoming. The stability of the unchanging God of such utter perfection that he is pure actuality is exchanged for the instability of the god of ineffable dynamism, a sheer untamed and indescribable power with no other dominant quality. The problem for Barth, then, is not simply that the Immutable is revealing himself in the realm of the mutable, it is that the unattainable divine What offers no point of reference himself. He has reacted to univocity by affirming equivocity, rather than reverting to analogy.

I am beginning to wonder whether the rejection of natural theology is a position incompatible with pre-modern assumptions. I wonder if you have to be modern or post to accept it. Is it, in short, an innovation subsequently read back into theology and Scripture?

Essentially, you can accept the analogical intellectualism of pre-modern theology, the theology of classic theism, or you can go with the theological manifestation of philosophical nominalism, which is voluntarism, a radical skepticism about our ability to know what is transcendent. You can either deny transcendence by only speaking in terms of exalted human experience, or you can effectively deny transcendence by denying any point of contact whatever. If you want to argue that it is not that simple, I am open to persuasion. At this point I just can’t see how an argument against what I’m saying can be made. The argument for what I’m saying is that of continuity with the assumptions on the basis of which theology was done, of the palpable affinity between nominalism and voluntarism, and of the trajectory we see devolving from both the philosophical and the theological assumptions that are nominalism and voluntarism.

In which Richard Muller Distinguishes Edwards from the Reformed Orthodox Tradition

If you want to understand the thinking of the fathers of the early church, you have to be conversant with the thinking of classical antiquity. One does not come up with sophisticated intellectual tools all by oneself. The Christian thinkers of the early church realized and appreciated this, if they did not always give credit where credit was due. If you want to understand the thinking of the theologians of the middle ages, you need to be familiar with the philosophy that was employed then. You have to understand the Christian Platonism that arose in the first few centuries and was dominant until the twelfth. You will have to understand this Christian Platonism as the context in which a more taxonomically versatile and methodologically explicit Christian Aristotelianism arose in the thirteenth century. If you want to understand the thinking of the Reformers and of Reformed Orthodoxy, you still need to be conversant with the philosophical commitments of medeival theologians because there are more continuities than discontinuities. Richard Muller is eminently conversant in the philosophical approaches and distinctions that inform the theology of the reformation.

This lecture is nothing new, but it was to me, and very interesting. Reformed Protestants with a strong commitment to the authority of confessions have been expressing disquiet about Jonathan Edwards, and this has puzzled me. It is no doubt part of the unease with American Evangelicalism, of which all American Reformed Protestants are in some way a category. They wish always to stress the differences. Jonathan Edwards’ star is bright in the firmament of American Evangelicalism.

Richard Muller argues that Edwards’ determinism is not that of the calvinism of the Reformed tradition. If I understood correctly, he claims that Edwards’ departure consists in claiming for causality a much reduced definition, one in which there is little more than an efficient causality and not the full range of causality the Christian Aristotelianism of Reformed Orthodoxy accepts. The result is that rather than having all the necessary distinctions to allow for free choice, fundamental indeterminacy of the will, and faculty psychology, Edwards develops in a more Amyraldian way, taking as his philosophical forebears Hobbes and Locke.

There is Q & A following, which is worth listening to also.

 

Not Enough Virtue Signaling

You know you’re a theistic mutualist when you write a review of James Dolezal’s book that cracks down on him for not having sufficient theistic mutualism. You know you are a theistic mutualist when you think it is balanced to include some theistic mutualism to the doctrine of God as a concession to modern theologians, since so many of them are. Dolezal’s excellent book argues that theistic mutualism is wrong, and he shows that it is far more pervasive than we might think. This book review inadvertently demonstrates both things.

What is theistic mutualism? It is the confused assertion that God really changes in response to us.

One form of theistic mutualism is process thought and open theism. In open theism God responds to us because, like us, he is not altogether sure what is going to happen and his being is dynamic. That is one way of accounting for what Scripture teaches, but it is not a Christian way of doing so. And yet it is more consistent, alas, than the second form of theistic mutualism, which is Dolezal’s target.

The newer kind of theistic mutualism affirms that the immutable God changes in response to us. The mechanism here is sovereignty. Sovereignty, for Calvinist theistic mutualists, is God deciding he can behave in a way that really contradicts what he actually is; God gets to do so. And it is explained as if this is in some way mysterious and not simply irrational. Not only is God unchanging, they might say, he also can at the same time decide to change . . . somehow. That, they say, is what Scripture plainly teaches.

From Dolezal: “Let us again consider Bruce Ware’s doctrine of God’s relational mutability in chapter 2. Ware writes, ‘God changes from anger to mercy, from blessing to cursing, from rejection to acceptance. Each of these changes is real in God, though no such change affects in the slightest the unchangeable supremacy of his intrinsic nature.’” I know it sounds arrogant to theistic mutualists for me to say that this is nonsense, so I won’t. I’ll go with what Dolezal says, who goes on to argue that if you posit real changes that are not part of God’s nature, then you no longer affirm simplicity in any meaningful way. You can affirm the words, but divine simplicity is an idea incompatible with any divine change, and what divine reality is not . . . all that is in God? Call the change real, unreal, or whatever category you please. Be honest, then, and just say you deny divine simplicity.

At least Andrew Moody is honest: he plainly denies it. “Dolezal’s refusal to allow any complexity in God’s inner life creates some other peculiarities in his theology of creation too.” What is baffling is that he commends Dolezal for affirming it. “As Dolezal rightly points out, if it isn’t a real unity of essence it isn’t monotheism.”

Theistic mutualism can be charitably described as full of paradox, and it can only arise in a theological climate in which the reliable philosophical insights (clear thinking about difficult things) are ignored, distorted, despised, or repudiated altogether. The result is what Dolezal describes in his book. Exhibit A could be the book review.

“Dolezal is right to insist that humans can’t affect who God is in himself. Yet Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that there is a sense in which we can increase God’s glory—in the sense of his renown—by declaring his praises. In fact this is the very reason we exist.”

What is the word ‘yet’ doing there? What exactly is it Moody affirms? That we somehow enhance what God is in himself by bringing him glory?

I love how he makes it sound as if Dolezal has denied the very reason for our existence! What enormity will Dolezal commit next? Here’s my absolute favorite thing Moody says: “Unhappily, however, there is not a single reference to the cross in this book.”

What would a reference to the cross add to the argument of this book? It amounts to a statement about not understanding what is being argued. The book needs a reference to the cross like it needs a reference to Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty or Baptist ecclesiology. It has nothing to do with what he’s arguing, it just sounds pious.

Who would have thought there are so many things you can say about God that you can write a whole book on the doctrine of God and not mention the cross? Could it be that Dolezal talks about it when he’s dealing with Christology, or even Soteriology or writing on the doctrine of God exhaustively rather than just refuting theistic mutualism?

I wonder, is it that it is reviewed by the Gospel Coalition? Is that why the cross comes up? If you add things that do not have to do with the argument but push buttons for certain people you know what you’re doing? Virtue signaling.

And that is the real problem with Dolezal’s book, isn’t it? There is not enough Gospel virtue signaling.  The problem is that virtue signaling is not sound judgment or a persuasive argument, which is what Dolezal’s book actually contains.

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Note: David Bentley Hart calls theistic mutualism monopolytheism, and if that terms works for you (it is my favorite) then it explains a lot. Hart’s argument is that when you deviate from classical theism what you get is a lesser god, a god of the realm of the pretty amazing gods of polytheism but not the utterly transcendent God of classical theism. What sets the God of classical theism apart? Incomprehensibility, immutability, impassibility, infinity, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and above all, simplicity; he is God without potency because he is pure act, altogether perfect and in no way potentially so; there is in God no distinguishing being and existence, for his being is absolute—there cannot not be God. If you deny that which makes him wholly other, even if you nitwittedly first affirm his wholly-otherness, because you don’t understand what can and has to be understood about his transcendence you have put him in the realm of the gods, which is the inferior realm of polytheism. So when you diminish the one true God but still claim only one, Hart calls you a monopolytheist.

Natural Theology

A book was written on Aquinas recently, and published by Crossway P & R. Richard Muller wrote what I understand is an 11-page book review (for the Calvin Seminary journal) exposing the historiographical shortcomings of this book. Someone (perhaps Muller himself) has reduced that book review down for blogging and is posting one section a week every Monday on Reformation21. Next Monday we should see the third and last installment of the most fascinating series posted on Ref21 in living memory.

The problem with the view of Aquinas Muller dismantles is that it is not uncommon. And when it comes to history, the problem with failing to understand something is that you can’t remember what you don’t understand. Richard Muller can be nit-picky; Richard Muller can be tedious; but Richard Muller is seldom wrong, and there is something to be said for that.

Jordan Peterson said it, and it is true: if you can’t understand it, you can’t remember it. Not only because you may have something that was not the case, but also because you can’t retain it until it makes sense. Which last consideration also means that if misrepresenting Aquinas makes sense to you, it is because you have a whole higher order of nonsense in which it is set. I think it also means, in this case, that Aquinas is forgettable, and that should cause any serious theologian alarm. There is a reason why in all these present skirmishes the better historians are consistently lining up on one side, not another. It is worth thinking about!

Richard Muller demonstrates that the book Crossway published on Aquinas is riddled with inaccuracies. It ought, incidentally, to be an indication of the climate of evangelical thought and of the integrity of the publisher if the volume is not pulped once Muller gets done. Really, it is hard to read what Muller wrote and not feel embarrassed for his object. What the book represents is a problem in terms of history because for us human beings neither the past or the future exist: all we have is the present. The only way we have the past is by way of human memory. If we cannot understand, if we distort what happened, we cannot remember what actually happened. We won’t have the past, won’t be informed by it, and are adrift in the present merely. So it matters.

The most amazing thing about the series of blog posts is how easily they expose the error being perpetrated on Aquinas. After all, it isn’t as if Aquinas were a writer who made his views unclear. To get him wrong because he is difficult is one thing: he is difficult. But to get him wrong in what is not that difficult, in what is not that recondite but obvious and foregrounded in his writing just comes across as careless at best or perverse at worst.

I personally think that any historian tainted with presuppositionalism has to live with some contradictions. It is an ideology contrary to honest memory, because it has counterfactual controlling assumptions, such as the denial of natural theology. Let me offer a small example, continuing along the trajectory of apologetics.

David Bentley Hart as a book called The Experience of God. What an amazing book! I do not mean that there are things in there with which I’d disagree, but unlike presuppositionalist books, I can find nothing unintelligent in what Hart writes. In fact, there is so much wonder and wisdom, one hesitates to apply to him the category of mere apologetics.

One of the main things Hart does is natural theology. Hart has apparently done a lot of work in interfaith dialogue; and I think that if you accept the premise of natural theology, in some sense you’re committed to interfaith dialogue. What better way to explore the actual limitations of natural theology? If there is such a thing as natural theology, then there are religions that have a better grasp of it than others. The way to test it would be to go to false religions and measure the amount of truth available, what has been actually done in terms of unaided natural theology. The older the religion, the better, right? If you think about it, those that have a greater degree of truth are more likely to have endured over time and are less influenced by special revelation.

The problem with denying natural theology is explaining the historical instances of it. Plotinus worshipped a divine simplicity, and it is a dodge to say that he somehow extracted it from special revelation. He was no Christian, he had no decent hamartiology to speak of, but his theology proper was not undeveloped. What Plotinus did with what he had was not sufficient for salvation, but that hardly means that it was not breathtaking and sophisticated. It cannot be said he did nothing with it. (Let us not here lapse into a presuppositionalistic totalitarianism of language, the heads I win, tails you lose tricks they play with this sort of thing.) All one has to do to defend Plotinus is go back in time. Plato does natural theology, was he influenced by special revelation? (Augustine amusingly claimed that Plato met Jeremiah while sojourning in Egypt.) You could say that the case against Socrates Plato gives us was a case against what he got right in terms of natural theology. And what about Xenophanes? He was the first one to criticize the gods of polytheism. He understood that God has to be transcendent, immutable, impassible, and disembodied ( and this is where Hart is so brilliant, calling theological mutualists monopolytheists because they have put God back into the realm of the gods, which is, incidentally, a view substandard even in rudimentary Greek philosophy). It makes more sense to me (though I don’t agree with it) to make the argument that Greek thought polluted revealed religion than it does to agree to the classic theism of Christianity and still argue against natural theology.

All of this needs a quotation, doesn’t it? How about the stalwart of Geneva, the pillar of Old Princeton theological clarity, Turretin the Reformed Thomist? “The principles or axioms drawn from reason or philosophy in order to prove some article of faith are not so peculiar to philosophy as that they cannot be supposed to belong also to natural theology (which ought to come before supernatural and revealed).” I.9.18.