Steve Duby is a contributor to this blog and recently published his second book, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (IVPAcademic, 2019). I was asked several months ago to endorse the book, and without a moment’s hesitation I agreed. But, alas, the manuscript languished in my inbox until the semester wrapped up and I could clear some time.
Having now read it, and happily written my endorsement, I struggle to express the impression the book made upon me. It is stunning. Here is what I wrote.
This rich and rewarding study demonstrates how the contemplation of God himself, theologia, is not some idle speculation—a distraction from the Christian life or descent into abstraction—but is in fact a spiritual exercise that fuels our communion with God and affirms the shocking nearness of God to us in Jesus Christ. God in Himself is a courageously scriptural work of theology, for Steve Duby dares to let Scripture lead where some have supposed that only metaphysics will take us: to gaze upon the resplendently complete life of the triune God.
God in Himself is at once beautiful and rigorous (in the best sense). Beautiful in the sense that Steve is a great writer. His prose carries you along as the argument unfolds through his intuitive structure and organization. It is rigorous in the sense that Steve fulfills the very difficult task of doing Christian theology in the classic tradition. By “classic tradition” I mean this: Steve is attentive to the life of faith, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, trained on Scripture, and he situates his theological work squarely within the Great Tradition of orthodox Christian reflection about the life of God. Beautiful and rigorous.
Let me say one last thing before I interview Steve. God in Himself is dedicated to a region of Christian theology we have far too little being written about today: God. Yes, I mean that. I don’t believe enough theology trains itself specifically on God.
Sure, much writing, academic and popular, is focused on God’s actions – rightly and appropriately so. We need Christian theology that draws us deeper into the Truth and wonder of what God has done in time and space (what we call God’s “economy”). But, we also need theologians with the courage, skill, and Spirit-inspired attentiveness that is required to theologically attend to God’s own life. This region of Christian reflection requires caution and humility, for we are dealing not with a man, nor some general notion of deity – No! We are dealing with the Living God of the gospel, the creator and sustainer of the universe, the beginning and the end, the one in whom all fullness rests. Wise theologians have always known this, and proceeded appropriately.
Steve doesn’t rush, nor should he. The doctrine of God is nothing if it’s not deep waters. Indeed, in these waters theologians have waded about for thousands of years, the wise ones never forgetting – never forgetting – that reaching the bottom isn’t the goal. To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to know the Living God as a branch knows its vine, to contemplate the completeness of God’s life from which his saving actions flow – that is the goal. For a theologian to address these matters rightly … well, I just can’t impress on you enough the care and skill required. But Steve does it.
K: Steve, would you summarize your argument so that we get a broad picture of the whole?
S: In this book I’ve argued that God communicates to us knowledge of God in himself (theologia in the strict sense), not just knowledge of God’s outward works or God’s relationship to the world. God made us for communion with himself, and the knowledge of God in himself facilitates this communion. Reasoning from Scripture’s teaching on the knowledge of God, the first chapter makes the case for this fundamental claim and then also takes into account the limitations and eschatological development of our theology and the need to distinguish between “God in himself” and what authors like Luther and Barth would call a Deus absconditus (hidden God behind Christ).
The remaining chapters then unfold some of the key features of Christian theologia. Chapter two deals with the contribution of natural theology to the doctrine of God and engages some concerns about natural theology in modern thought. Chapter three deals with the contribution of supernatural revelation (especially the incarnation) to the doctrine of God, both relativizing Christology’s contribution in light of certain excesses in recent “Christocentric” thinking and also positively taking into account how the incarnation is the greatest revelation of God. Chapter four then deals with the relationship of Christian theologia to “metaphysics” by distinguishing firmly between the two and then specifying how the former makes use of the latter. Finally, chapter five treats the question of how we can speak about God in himself by retrieving a doctrine of analogy in the midst of contemporary concerns about the so-called analogia entis.
K: Given the scope of the book, and the vast number of sources you interact with, not to mention the amount of work you do in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, what was your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge may have been discerning how best to bring together a diverse mix of sources and dialogue partners into a coherent whole. The ground covered in this book pushes us to think about Scripture and about patristic, medieval, early modern, and more recent theologians and philosophers all at the same time. This sort of challenge is one that I enjoy as a systematic theologian, and I hope that the book has turned into something that offers a well-integrated line of thought that will be useful to others.
K: As I read your book, I kept thinking about the church and all the pastors I regularly interact with. The number of self-help-ish books on the offer is multiplying by the day. But I kept thinking how they should be reading your book instead. I have my own reasons for that, but why would you say the church needs this book?
The church needs to focus on this topic simply because the church needs to know the triune God –not just the things God has commanded us to do and not even just things God has done in history. Jesus said to his Father, “This is eternal life: knowing you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (Jn. 17:3). We are prone to get distracted by many things in life and in Christian ministry. We can even neglect to contemplate God in himself when we are doing ostensibly theological work. However, discipleship, ministry, and theological study all have to be oriented to the God from whom and through whom and for whom all things exist (Rom. 11:36). When all these things are oriented to God, they are enriched and strengthened in all sorts of ways.
K: As you know, many of our readers are pastors. Can you focus that question even more narrowly on pastors? How do you hope your book can serve them?
I hope the book can help pastors grow in their understanding of the one who stands at the center of the Bible, preaching, and pastoral guidance. I hope it will remind them of the infinite richness of God and will, in turn, help them to rest in the prevenience and goodness and power of God whatever they may be facing in ministry. I hope lay Christians will be encouraged to grow in their knowledge of God and in humility and trust before him as the one who does not need them but has created and called them to himself nonetheless.
K: I pray that God grants you the time and energy to continue your work, Steve. What do you hope to write about next?
The doctrine of God continues to be a major area of interest for me. At the moment, I’m focused on the Trinity and Christology and working on a book with Baker Academic on the person of Jesus in connection with the claims of “classical” Christian theism.