Monday, December 18, 2017

Classical Theism

This is a tentative post - and if it doesn't read like it, that's just because I like to make strong arguments!  It's tentative because this is a set of some of my problems with classical theism, a position held by almost everyone in the history of Christian theology prior to the twentieth century.  So I'm up against the consensus, and that is not a safe place to be.  So I invite contradiction and argument.  I would be happy to return to the fold if anyone could show me biblically why it is right to be there.  In the meantime, this is, I guess, where I stand.

1.  Classical theism starts with the distinction between Creator and creature.  God is fundamentally 'other'; he is 'unlike' us at an ontological level.  There will be no disagreement from me regarding this distinction.  My only question is whether it is the right place to start.  I think it serves very well as a conclusion, but rather less well as a presupposition (this will be a recurrent theme).  When Scripture talks about God's 'otherness', it is not advancing a metaphysical position, but saying something about God's character.  Isaiah 55:8-9 is a great example: God is not like us - but what does that mean?  In context, it means that God forgives his people's sin!  He is unlike us, because he forgives.  In fact, the way in which God is most unlike us, according to the NT, is that whereas we grasp, from our lowly position, at power and prestige, he lays aside his glory to come near.  When we stand before the Son of God in his triumphant humiliation on the cross, then we can surely say that God is utterly unlike us.  Never would this have entered into our minds.  Here - and I would suggest only here - do we see that there is a distinction in being between Creator and creature that we could never bridge.

2.  Classical theism in its evangelical mode, ironically, doesn't make enough of the Creator-creature distinction.  When it comes to thinking of God, evangelicals who are committed to classical theism want to make sure that we are disciplined in continually observing the distinction between Creator and creature.  "...[W]e can think about God in an appropriately different manner only with considerable self-conscious effort", suggests Peter Sanlon in Simply God: Recovering the Classical Trinity.  This is a theme which recurs throughout that book.  It will be hard work to think of God as uniquely other.  It stands behind the whole understanding in classical theism of analogical language: when we attribute qualities like 'love' to God, we do so analogically, purifying them of the imperfections which naturally attach to human love.  But is this work really sufficient to get us over the infinite divide?  Despite the talk about the importance of revelation in evangelical versions of classical theology, I am reminded of Pseudo-Dionysius or Bonaventure, who both envisage an ascent to knowledge of God by way of denial and purification of concepts.  That is not a compliment: apart from the fact that this idea of an intellectual/spiritual ascent sits very uncomfortably with the gospel of grace, the God these two figures arrive at is essentially defined in the end as a nothingness.

3.  Classical theism assumes too much knowledge.  When, for example, we are instructed to purify our concepts of whatever smacks of imperfection, or when we are told that God could not have certain attributes in certain ways because this would imply imperfection, where is the idea of 'perfection' coming from?  How can you or I know what perfection looks like?  One hears a lot from classical theists about how we fail to attain to the lofty classical vision because we intuitively think God must change, or must be passible, or whatever, if he is to be love. But to my mind, the classical God looks just how I would intuitively imagine God to be, if it weren't for his revelation in Christ: big, aloof, utterly beyond.  What is counter-intuitive is the God of weakness, God in the manger, God on the cross.  Classical theism seems to know what God must look like before it sees what God does look like.

4.  Classical theism seems to hide God behind his revelation.  Here I want to tread especially carefully.  I am aware that classical theists would see what I am about to say as a distortion of their thinking.  I am aware that classical theists do not hold, and indeed explicitly disavow, the conclusions which I think follow logically from their starting point, so let me be very clear: I do not think that classical theists believe that God's characteristics and attributes as described in Scripture float above, and are ultimately not connected to, the real, simple God sitting underneath them.  It is just that I am not sure they can really avoid such a picture in practice.  The doctrine of analogy is an attempt to get around this problem, by saying that the attributes of God are analagous in some way to those attributes as we know them in humanity.  So, that God loves means that there is something in God which is analagous to human love.  Great, but what does that mean?  Given that the classical concept of God requires us to drop almost everything that usually makes up the concept of love - and requires us to somewhat explain away those aspects of the biblical story which look most like love to us - what are we really able to say about God?  It seems to me that the language of the attributes becomes a smoke-screen, behind which there sits a God who bears no relation to the concepts used to describe him.  I think it would be reasonable to extend this critique even to the Persons of the Trinity.  Again, I don't think classical theists think this, but I think their starting position makes them incapable of effectively overcoming the gap (created by them!) between God's revelation and God as he is.

There is other stuff - for example, I think classical theism only makes sense on an Aristotelian metaphysic, which makes it a philosophical cul-de-sac of the sort which Christian doctrine must avoid - but those are my main problems.

What would be the alternative?  Is our thought about God to be less disciplined than the admittedly rigorous system of classical theism demands?  Is God in fact more like us than we thought?  Where should we start?

Our thought about God must indeed be disciplined: strictly disciplined.  The discipline is: look only where God has revealed himself.  Learn God only from the place where God is seen.  "A Christian ought not to seek or find God otherwise than in the Virgin's lap and on the cross", said Luther.  It is in the face of Christ that we see God.  It is in the history of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension that we are to see who God is and what God is like.  Here God has come down to us.  We are far safer taking our language for God from his coming down, than from any attempt spiritually or intellectually to climb up to him.  I would encourage my friends who are committed to the classical vision to consider carefully what it means when Paul discourages the Roman Christians from seeking to ascend or descend to bring Christ down or up, rather than focusing on the word of faith which is near to us.  I want to encourage them to take seriously Christ's rebuke to Philip: has he been with us so long, and yet we don't know him?  Don't we know that we are to see the Father in him, and him only?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent theology

Recent conversations I've been having with people around the merits (or demerits) of classical theism have driven home to me again that theology, like everything the church is called to do, is an advent discipline, which is to say, it's grounded, provisional, and eschatological.

Theology is grounded because it is based in the original advent of Christ.  We in the church have seen something of God, and therefore we must speak.  Because it matters that we speak faithfully - that what we say conforms to what God has revealed - we have theology, a discipline which aims to critique our talk about God so as to achieve that faithfulness.  What that means is that theology is far from being an anything-goes affair.  The real God has really revealed himself, and it matters that when we speak of him our speech reflects his revelation.

Theology is provisional because we live between the times.  We look back to Christ and rejoice in what he has done, but we acknowledge that we still await our redemption.  That means that we have to recognise two things.  One is our own continuing sinfulness and weakness.  Everything that we say is open to critique, and nothing that we say will perfectly express God's being and action.  The other is the movement of history.  Things that were said in the church yesterday cannot just be repeated today as if they definitely still made sense.  Human speech which was faithful to God's revelation yesterday may be unfaithful if simply repeated verbatim today.  It is not as if God has changed!  But in this between-the-times world, nothing stands still for long.  Words change their meaning, cultural resonances shift, philosophies rise and fall.  We must speak today, knowing that the church of tomorrow must speak again and afresh.

Theology is eschatological because we look forward to seeing Christ.  On that day, theology will become defunct, as we will know even as we are known.  Or, to put it another way, the human discipline of theology will give way to the divine theology, which will once and for all correct our faulty notions and purify and complete our stumbling efforts to speak.  Faithful theology looks forward to its own dismissal, its service done and no longer required.  The goal, after all, never was theology as a discipline, but knowledge of God as a relational reality.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Karl Barth on Divine Simplicity

Karl Barth addresses divine simplicity as part of his teaching on the unity of God (CD II/1, 442ff.).  God is one.  That implies, on the one hand, his uniqueness; on the other, his simplicity.  But what does 'simplicity' mean for Barth - and what does it not mean?

That God is simple "signifies that in all that He is and does, He is wholly and undividedly Himself." (445)  God is not composite.  He is not composite in the three Persons of his existence, nor is he composite in his distinguishable attributes (or as Barth prefers to call them, his perfections).  God is never distant from himself, never in conflict with himself.  He is always all of himself in all his fullness.

The divine simplicity also implies divine lordship.  "Nothing can affect Him, or be far from Him, or contradict or withstand Him, because in Himself there is no separation, distance, contradiction or opposition." (445)  Being completely and unconditionally the Lord of himself, God is the Lord in all other relationships and situations.

So far, so classical.  Where does Barth differ from the tradition, if indeed he does?

In his brief sketch of the historical origins of the doctrine, Barth points out that the early church clarified its doctrine of divine simplicity as it grappled with the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.  His complaint is that already in Augustine, and throughout the periods of Catholic and then Protestant Orthodoxy, the doctrine comes to be developed in "a purely logical and metaphysical" way (446), no longer anchored in the gospel.  This is problematic, because a purely logical and metaphysical doctrine of simplicity both points away from the Holy Trinity toward a generic theism, and "leads to an underlying nominalism or semi-nominalism in the doctrine of the attributes" (447) - that is to say, the wealth of perfections in God cannot be taken with full seriousness, even where the attempt is made to do this.

The issue here is whether the concept of simplicity is still flowing from revelation, or whether it has become detached and absolutised.  Whilst it is true and necessary to say that God is simple, "the assertion of the simplicity of God is not reversible in the sense that it could equally well be said that the simple is God." (449)  The mere idea of simplicity will not serve us well here.  "In Scripture, the utterly simple is 'simply' God Himself in the actuality, the superior might, the constancy, the obviousness, or even more simply, the factuality, in which He is present as God and deals as God with the creature, with man." (457)

Barth's critique is that the idea of simplicity has replaced the actually simple God.  Who and what, then, is God?  For Barth, the important thing is to resist every instinctive feeling for what God ought to be like, or what simplicity must imply, and to follow Scripture.  That leads him to ground his doctrine of simplicity in the fact that the prophets and apostles all heard this one God and found themselves called to obedience.  And in each case, it was the same God.  In all his words and works, he is found to be himself.  He is trustworthy.  "And He is not merely casually or accidentally trustworthy, so that He could also be untrustworthy.  On the contrary, He is trustworthy in His essence, in the inmost core of His being.  And this is His simplicity." (459)  Barth goes on to equate God's simplicity with his faithfulness.  When we say God is simple, we say that in all his multiple words and works he is the same God, wholly himself and the whole of himself in every act.  It is God's 'simple' faithfulness that warrants and draws forth our 'simple' faith. (460)

The key thing, for Barth, is that we get things in the right order: that we hear God's self-witness in Scripture and acknowledge that in every way he is always himself, and therefore that he is simple.  God himself will determine what his simplicity means, what it means for him to be wholly himself and the whole of himself in all his ways and works.  We don't get to decide on the basis of an analysis of the concept of simplicity what God can or can't do.  We can't use simplicity to go behind God's revelation.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Creator/creature distinction

We would not know that God stood infinitely above us unless God in Christ had decisively bridged that infinite gap.  It is not natural or obvious to think that God is profoundly other; in fact, most of the deities of the ancient world look like big human beings, and nowadays we worship normal-sized human beings, which is to say, ourselves.  It is only by making infinite descent that God reveals himself to us as the one who dwells in unapproachable distance.  It is only by taking on our nature in Christ that God shows his nature to be qualitatively different from ours.

The ironic result is that it is only from a position where God has enabled us to speak of him in very human terms that we see that our human thinking and speaking is entirely inadequate to grasp him.  We don't first know God as infinitely different (how could we?  what concepts would we deploy?) and then breathe a sigh of relief that he accommodates himself to us.  We see God in Christ in the manger and on the cross, and then we understand that this God whom we see here in the flesh is beyond us, utterly beyond us.

The only reason we know that there is a stark distinction between the Creator and the creature is that Jesus Christ has in his own person united the two.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Don't mine the Bible

When I was a younger man, and learning how to read and teach the Bible, there were always particular warning signs posted around those sections which were classified as 'narrative'.  One had to be particularly careful when reading narrative, and especially when drawing doctrinal affirmations or practical applications from it.  Narrative was slippery, capable of multiple readings, uncomfortably open.  The common wisdom seemed to be: 'never make a doctrinal or practical point from narrative which is not found explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture'.

"Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers."  Thus Herman Bavinck, with an image also utilised by Hodge and Warfield.  It is interesting to pick at some of the assumptions behind this metaphor.  One obvious one is that the purpose of Holy Scripture is to teach doctrine; the gold which Bavinck envisages being extracted from the mine of Scripture is a set of true propositions about God and man.  Then there is the idea that these truths have to be excavated.  The stuff of value is hidden in there.  The thing with a mine is that most of the stuff that comes up from it is just rock.

Now, I don't want to push these theologians on a particular metaphor; I do understand that one cannot in one image say everything that one would like to say on a particular subject.  But I do think that this notion of what the Bible is and how it works leads fairly directly to that practical approach to Bible reading which makes the story of Scripture very definitely secondary to the more straightforward 'teaching' sections of, for example, the Pauline epistles.  I think it's no coincidence that the NT epistles are privileged in many evangelical churches.  I think people who think that this is what the Bible is will obviously relegate the narrative sections - and let's be clear, that's most of the Bible - to the status of 'illustrative material', adding some colour to the real business of the doctrinal matter.

The way we typically use Scripture in our lives and in our churches backs this up.  Normally we have a fairly small chunk of Bible in front of us for our morning devotions, or read to us for exposition in the sermon.  And because this is our shot of Bible for the day or the week, we want fairly immediate pay-off: a take-away that we can meditate on or take action on during the long hours and days of secularity.  We want to know what the point is.  Now, when we read doctrinal or ethical statements from the NT, that seems straightforward.  But when we read narrative, we naturally start to try to boil it down: what am I mean to think, believe, do?  In other words, what propositional truth or practical instruction is hiding in this story?  What is the gold, and how do I mine it?

This has an effect on our theologising as well.  We construct a view of God based on the propositional statements we see made in parts of Scripture, and then explain the narrative (dare I say it, often explain it away) in light of these.

But what if the story is the point?

A simple reflection on the gospel should tell us that this is absolutely correct.  The gospel is a narrative.  And yet - wouldn't some evangelicals be fairly happy if the Gospels went missing from their Bibles, so long as they could still construct a doctrine of the atonement from Paul?

So, here's the plan: let's just read the story, in bigger chunks, with less attention to immediate application and more determination to just accept that this is the story.  And let's shape our thinking about God around the fact that he is the God who made this story.  When we make our systematic theologies - and please don't hear me as saying anything negative about this process! - let's make sure that our ideas and our vocabularies are shaped by Holy Scripture as the witness to what God has done - that is to say, by the story.

I suppose if I were to offer a different metaphor, I'd say: let's be in the Bible like we might be in a river, being carried in a particular direction, 'at the mercy' of the current.

It's more exciting than digging.

Friday, November 24, 2017

How to ignore the Bible

1.  Consider that there are people out there who interpret this passage differently; some of those people probably have advanced degrees, and may even have written books.  Bearing this in mind will have numerous beneficial effects.  Primarily, of course, you will be able to ignore what the Scripture says.  But you can do it without being forced to arrive at any particular conclusion - you can't be pinned down, and others will find it very hard to dispute your position.  Note that this doesn't involve nearly so much work as you might imagine.  There is no need to actually engage with any scholarship, or check whether the alternative interpretations being offered are more plausible.  Just knowing that there are people out there who read things differently enables you to effortlessly render the passage of Scripture in front of you innocuous.

2.  Consider that there is a background, a Sitz im Leben if you will, to every part of the Bible.  It is a truism accepted by all that Scripture was not written from, or addressed to, a vacuum.  But you can use this simple fact in two ingenious way to get around any part of Holy Writ which doesn't suit you or the current zeitgeist.  Firstly, you can note that we don't the details of the situations of the Biblical authors or the original recipients.  Surely this lacking information is essential to reading the Bible properly?  Without it, the meaning of the passage in question remains indeterminate, and once again, without having to advance any sort of argument or do any intellectual work, you have successfully neutered Scripture.  However, if you want to be a bit more creative, you can pursue a second route: that of constructing a more-or-less plausible background for the passage at hand, and then insisting that Scripture can only be read with your (admittedly imaginary) backdrop if it is to make sense.  With a little work, this sketchy background can make the Bible mean exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean at first reading.  In fact, the creative student of Holy Scripture can make it mean literally anything at all by this method.

3.  Consider that the Bible is a human as well as a divine book.  Again, this is accepted by all, at least in theory.  The personalities of the human authors, along with their assumptions about society, their limited horizons, and their basic ignorance, were not completely overwritten in the process by which God brought about the witness of Holy Scripture.  It is child's play to assign any objectionable aspects of the passage at hand to the limitations of the human author, leaving only the parts which are more acceptable to be ascribed to divine inspiration.

4.  Consider that there is a trajectory to the teaching of the Bible.  Making use of the theologically unobjectionable idea of progressive revelation, it is easy to argue that later parts of the Bible show a deeper understanding of God and his purposes than earlier parts.  All that is then necessary is to extend this upward line beyond the close of the Canon.  Surely one must conclude that even the Apostles, with the benefit of twenty centuries reflection, would in fact have written what you would prefer them to have written, rather than the words they actually wrote.

By these four methods, it should be perfectly possible to avoid ever being challenged by Holy Scripture.  So, rest easy in your presuppositions, mes amis, and go with the flow.  Properly interpreted away, even the difficult parts of the Bible can become proofs that you and people like you were absolutely right all along.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

When it is awful

When everything is awful and life is too much to bear, we need the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Bible story.

We need the beginning because we need to know that it wasn't meant to be this way.  We need to know that God did not intend for us a world of suffering and tears and chaos.  In fact, Genesis 1 and 2 can be read as stories of the systematic binding of chaos and the perfect provision of spreading goodness respectively.  We need to know that God isn't cruel, that he didn't set us up for a fall.  The beginning of the story is all goodness, and we need that if we are going to remember in the darkness that God is good.

We need the middle of the story because we need to know that we are not left alone.  We see in the incarnation of the Son of God that the Creator has not abandoned his creation.  Far from it, as far from it as can be: he has entered his creation, become a creature, the Author inside the story.  And paradoxically we see how deeply committed to the non-abandonment of creation God is at the point where the Son of God casts his eyes towards heaven on the cross and finds himself... abandoned.  God is with us, and he is with us right at that point of God-forsaken agony.  The middle of the story is God-with-us on the cross, and we need that if we're to remember that his care is not removed from us in our own suffering.

We need the end of the story because we need to know that it will not always be like this.  It is small comfort to have a God who would have loved to help, and would even travel into the depths to be with us, but could not ultimately change anything.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ points forward to a future in which God himself will make every wrong right, will wipe away every tear from the eyes of his suffering people, and will make of our sad ruin a glorious future.  That is the ultimate hope, and it bleeds through into the little hopes for today, yes, even the very little ones.  The end of the story is a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells, and we need that if we are going to persevere in the darkness.