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?

21 comments:

  1. Thanks Daniel for expressing those questions so carefully. I am drawn to many aspects of classical theism, but share your doubts about the way revelation is upheld/ functions within it. Some very austere language is held to be univocal, while all other (even scriptural) language is held to be merely analogical. Which leaves "the real God" more or less unknowable.

    Is the answer god's choice. God has chosen to be the God who creates and becomes incarnate. That is who he is eternally. That is who he has eternally chosen to be (because he is free). We might speculate on a necessary being of God (wisdom, power, goodness, trinity etc) so that God's choice is not arbitrary, but tat encessary of being is not "more real". The real God is the God who has chosen to become incarnate in the world he has made.

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    1. That, or something like it, is Barth's answer, for whatever that's worth. It's why he treats election within the doctrine of God rather than within soteriology - the original election being God's election of himself as *our* God in Christ. I find it fairly convincing, personally.

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  2. Edit: that necessary being not "tat encessary of being"

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  3. I may well be in over my head here, but I think I see what you're getting at. Some scattered thoughts:

    If the issue at hand is how philosophy relates to theology, I've certainly become very wary of the former shaping the latter. I think we need to embrace what the Scriptures teach regardless of apparent incoherency, and be fairly stubborn about not making further 'logical' developments. Within Protestantism, Reformed Scholasticism has a lot to answer for in this regard.

    In the earlier tradition, for example, the use of the terms 'substance' and 'person' with regards to the Trinity. It would be hard to define what either of those things are, with or without Scripture, let alone relate them. Better to say God is one person in thinking and speaking with one will... who exists eternally and simultaneously as three persons. Let the contradiction stand as mystery.

    Or, as you discuss, the meaning of attributes... I wrote something on God's goodness here, which may or may not be along the lines you're thinking:

    http://behindgoodevil.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/plato-nominalism-goodness-of-god-and.html

    I'd be reticent to 'start with' God as being like us, but would want to just hold both His incomprehensibility and His revelation in dialectical tension or oscillation. The same would go for the visible/invisible church, the efficacy of the sacraments, and saving faith/fear and trembling. A philosophical development of one side of the dialectic invariably results in neutering certain passages, I feel.

    Maybe something there helps...?

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    1. I get nervous about straightforward contradiction i.e. God is one person and God is three persons, with person used in the same sense. Tensions I can't solve and haven't fitted together logically I am learning to live with.

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    2. The trouble is that a host of problems arise when you start to use 'being' as distinct from 'person'. Or 'substance' as distinct from 'hypostasis.' How do they differ? What is 'being' anyway? Such questions lead some distance away from the Bible.

      Perhaps better to say it's an apparent contradiction in the form I put it... one that our limited minds can't resolve but ultimately can be resolved on some level unknown to us.

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    3. Ben, I think I'm partly with you and partly not. I think that a good case can be made for the traditional ousia/hypostasis distinction IF and ONLY IF the impetus for it is coming from the Bible. As is generally observed, the words did not in general usage mean what they were taken to mean in the dogma; they have been drawn into theological discourse and given shape and form from the data of revelation. I have no problem with that at all. In fact, I think it was historically necessary to make the distinction, and if we feel we can't make it in quite the same way today we will have to find another way to explain what the Bible assumes about God.

      I think as well that it is too easy to be down on scholasticism, whether Roman or Reformed. There is nothing wrong with thinking with rigour. My only question is whether the impetus for the thinking is still springing from Holy Scripture, and whether it leads back there or not. I think it's inevitable that we use the currently prevalent philosophy to understand and explain the facts of revelation, but we want to avoid that superstructure becoming ossified and hiding revelation rather than drawing us back to it.

      Christianity isn't illogical - it is all about the Logos! But the Logic of the gospel is not to be contained fully and finally in our philosophies.

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    4. I agree about thinking with rigour. It's more about when we have a particular idea of what logic involves when it comes to theo-logic... when such matters may well be above our ability to iron out according to rules of logic that work well enough elsewhere, if you see what I mean. Why would we assume they work equally well for the things of God? Which may be part of the question you're asking.

      Interesting quote to agree or disagree with:

      "In the theology of Zanchi, at the very point of transition from Reformation to Orthodoxy, the spirit of medieval Scholasticism has thus begun to replace that of the Reformers at a point where it counted most. To the extent to which—under the influence of Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition—the christocentric orientation of Calvin's thinking shifted toward a metaphysics of causality in the thought of his successors, Reformed theology ceased to be a theology of revelation."

      Otto Grundler in 'Thomism and Calvinism'

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    5. To put it typologically, the closer you get to the holy of holies, the more things get blended beyond what you'd find in the world outside - mixed threads, amalgamated creatures, etc.

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    6. Mystery and tensions may remain, and indeed be sharpened as we try to think things through Christologically. There may some senses in which God is like one person and some senses in which he is like 3 persons (and arguably Genesis 1:27 leaves us with that tension as we think about where the image of God is located). But in so far as we are seeking to talk about God, we had best not become incoherent or embrace direct contradiction. “Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.” (C.s.Lewis)

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    7. I wouldn't want to embrace apparent contradiction unless Scripture seems to warrant it. Then I trust that the apparent contradiction is resolvable, but at a level of reality beyond what our language is able to express. The question I would ask (genuinely, not in a snarky or aggressive way) is, 'why not?'

      Incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is the only teaching I've come across so far that I think would require this... not surprising, since it's about God Himself. Other tensions tend to be easier to comprehend... 'Not all of Israel are Israel' with regards to the visible/invisible church' and related sacramental issues. Care must be taken, though... I wouldn't want to speculate much on the mechanics of God's sovereignty/human responsibility.

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  4. This makes at least three people who are interested in the topic!! I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing. I read 'Simply God' a while back, and wanted to explore further but chickened out of taking issue with CT because no one seemed to be batting an eyelid at it.

    You've quoted Luther, and referenced Barth - is there anything in particular by these guys (or others) that's worth a read on this or related topics (revelation etc.)?

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    1. The best summary of Luther's thought in this area is expressed in the Heidelberg Disputation, which you can find online pretty easily. Barth is notoriously difficult to access. The little lecture 'The Christian Proclamation Here and Now' (published in 'God Here and Now') is a good intro on this topic - and in fact the rest of that volume is probably the best way into Barth.

      Enjoy!

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  5. Thinking out loud: Evangelical theology at its best says the key problem in our knowledge of God is sin. Some forms of classical theism give the impression that the key problem in our knowledge of God is creatureliness.

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    1. "The saying 'finitum non capax infiniti' cannot really prove what has to be proved at this point. If the real experience of the man addressed by God's Word is against this saying, then the saying must go, as every philosophical statement that is in contradiction with this experience must go. As a philosophical saying it does not interest us in the slightest. We do not say 'finitum' but 'homo peccator non capax', and we do not continue 'infiniti' but 'verbi Domini'." (CD I/1, 220)

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    2. So I'm not being original- and in theology that is generally a good thing.

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  6. Hi Daniel

    I know I'm very late to react to this blog post. But it was nice to read something that expressed far better than I could some of my concerns with classical theism. I have tried to wrestle with these questions and found it difficult to come to any conclusions. When I raise similar objections I find people very quick to point out what might be lost if God is not the God of classical theism yet my concerns still remain. The biggest concern is that I can't really know the God I was made to love for the revelation of him feels like death by caveat. It says he loves but this doesn't mean x, y and z and I'm never sure what it does mean.

    Is there anything that would be good to read that might help me find answers to these questions?

    Many thanks

    Joe Houghton

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    1. Hi Joe,

      Glad if anything I've written was useful. I wish I had a book I could recommend, but sadly I don't. Most of my thinking on this topic has been shaped by interacting with the theology of Karl Barth, and if you like weighty theological tomes then I think his Church Dogmatics part 2 is the best treatment of this sort of question - but it really is weighty. His little book 'God Here and Now', especially the essay 'Christian Proclamation Here and Now' is a relatively accessible introduction.

      But really I think the book I'd like to recommend has not yet been written...

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    2. Thanks for responding Daniel. I guess I feel a little intimidated reading Barth but maybe I should just dive in.

      Maybe you should write a the book :)

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  7. A brief postscript: I've been revisiting vol 1 of Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology and it's very helpful. He specifically addresses the impassibility problem with reference to the inner life of the Trinity; also, a way beyond problems with substance/persons as I laid out, suggesting the use of 'personal' in different ways, stressing the arche of the Father. You won't agree with everything he says, but it's worth a read in these areas.

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