Friday, October 01, 2021

Philosophy and Gospel

"Is the philosophical statement 'man is the measure of all things' nearer or further from the metaphysical implications of the gospel than 'human beings are dependent on something greater than themselves'?"

It's an interesting question, the answer to which sheds light on different Christian approaches to philosophy and specifically metaphysics.  It seems to me that for many who are involved in theological retrieval - that is to say, the project to recover for the church the classical theology of history - there is a conviction that ancient philosophy (broadly Platonist or Aristotelian) provides the underpinnings of much Christian theology, such that theological retrieval cannot really go ahead without philosophical retrieval.  There is a sense in which this is obviously true.  If we are reciting the Nicene Creed, we are dealing in categories which derive ultimately from the metaphysical world of late antiquity - we cannot say 'of one being' without to a certain extent entering that world.  Moreover, an implication of this is that it will indeed be crucial for Christian teachers to have a grasp of those classical philosophical terms.  How else could we be sure that when we recite the Creed we mean the same thing as the Fathers who framed it?

However, many push further than this.  It is not merely that a working knowledge of ancient philosophy is vital for a deep understanding of classical theology.  For many, the loss of ancient philosophy as a functional view of the world leads inevitably to a distortion of the gospel.  Modern philosophy, on this reading, is the enemy.  This, it seems to me, is related to a strand of Christian thinking on philosophy which dates back to at least the second century, and sees Greek philosophy as in some sense a preparation for the gospel.  I think we ought to resist that idea.  It introduces a second revelation, to be co-ordinated with Scriptural revelation.  Frankly, I think in some cases the metaphysics of the ancient world is brought to sit in judgement over Scripture - the Biblical storyline bent and twisted to fit within philosophical categories.  But even absent this particular error, I think it's theologically wrong-headed to suggest that classical culture was a 'preparation' in this way.  It cuts across our theology of grace,  I've pondered this a little before.

So, my suggestion - and the thought which led to me being asked the question with which we started - is that the right motive for seeking to understand the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings of classical theology is so that we can learn to express the same gospel in a very different philosophical climate.  This is not a proposal for metaphysical indifferentism, the idea that Christians should just shrug when it comes to issues of ultimate reality.  The gospel does have metaphysical implications.  My thought, rather, is that we ought to see how our theological forebears allowed the gospel to shape their use of the prevalent philosophical categories; I think we will find that they are basically subversive in their approach.  Take the Nicene Creed again, or perhaps the Chalcedonian definition.  The way in which philosophical concepts - like 'being', 'substance', 'person', 'nature' - are used in these contexts draws on classical philosophy for vocabulary and for conceptual matter, but the final formulation is hardly something which the classical metaphysicians would have endorsed.  Classical metaphysics has been subverted to express the truth of Christian revelation.  And if that was possible then, why not now?

Back to the original question: which is nearest to the metaphysical implications of the gospel, the statement that 'man is the measure of all things', or the statement that 'human beings are dependent on something greater than themselves'?  My answer would be: they're both close, and they're both infinitely far away.  Take the second statement, which my interlocutor of course wants me to endorse as rather closer to gospel thinking.  Unless we are saying clearly and unequivocally that 'something greater' here means 'the Triune God', I don't see how this statement is at all friendly to the gospel.  The Unmoved Mover of Aristotle is an idea utterly hostile to the Christian revelation.  The notion of 'something greater' is not in and of itself at all well placed to service the gospel, or to provide a metaphysical grounding for the Christian doctrine of God.  But on the other hand, we can certainly subvert this notion to express Christian doctrine.  If the prevailing philosophical and cultural climate were theistic in the sense of this statement, it would certainly be worth proclaiming to them that this 'something greater' which they honour despite not knowing what it is has a name, and a face, and he can be known in Jesus Christ.  But once you've filled out the statement with the Triune God is simply doesn't mean the same thing anymore - for the 'something greater' on which human beings depend is found to be the humble baby in the manger and the crucified Saviour.

But still, 'something greater' is better than man as the measure of all things, right?  I don't really see how.  Of course the metaphysics which Protagoras is proposing in this statement is hostile to the idea that there is any unchanging God above humanity.  Protagoras wants all value to flow from humanity.  But in a culture - such as ours! - which is saturated with this sort of unanchored humanism, why not subvert the statement?  For sure, man is the measure of all things, so long as we're talking about the right Man.  And of course, as soon as we've realised that Man is really Jesus Christ, the statement no longer means what it did, and becomes a vehicle for the gospel.

In both cases, there are likely misunderstandings that will emerge, and will have to be worked through.  Hangovers from the philosophical background will distort out theology and need to be carefully worked through.  I would humbly suggest that hangovers from the world of classical philosophical have in fact distorted classical theology, and seeking to express the gospel in different philosophical concepts might help to knock off some of the sharp edges that remain.  We will never get there; our theology will always be an approximation, theologia viatorum.  That's okay.  Better that than to be stuck in a philosophical and theological dead end because we've committed ourselves to metaphysical constructs which are not themselves part of the gospel.

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