Orderly Theology as Imitatio Dei

When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people.  At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.

Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it.  He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead

[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8)(“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)

Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road.  At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.

Any thoughts here?


Theology as Easter Speech

I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.

Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).

What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). […]

Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Gregory & Job on Revelation

I cannot think of another time since we started this blog when I have been more absent. The end of the spring semester was a blur, and I typically go into hiding once grades are submitted. I want to push my kids on the swing, tend the garden, read fiction, and do little else. And I have done little else for the past couple weeks.

Now, with summer projects clambering for attention (a chapter on Radical Orthodoxy must be written by August), I hope to be more consistently present on TF. Let me wade back in by posting part of a brief presentation I made for our University’s student awards night. The student and I had worked together on a research project on Gregory of Nyssa, so I geared my comments on divine revelation in his direction:

In the book of Job, chapters 38-41, God interrogates Job with a series of questions:” “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? . . . Who marked off its dimensions? . . . Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (38:4, 5); “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? (38:12-13); “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (38:16); “Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” (38:18)

God shows Job that he has attempted to reach beyond the limits of his grasp, beyond what his knowledge is able to attain. How does Job respond? “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things to wonderful for me to know.”

Gregory of Nyssa tried to evoke a similar response from his readers in his book The Second Book Against Eunomius. Continue reading

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? (pt 2)

McCall begins the first chapter of the book by lamenting that ‘systematic theology of recent vintage’ has failed to shed light on the ‘threeness-oneness problem’ in theology proper and by finding encouragement in philosophers of religion contending for the coherence of ‘the distinctness and divinity of the persons’ and ‘the oneness or unity of God’ (p. 11).  A number of analytic proposals are recapitulated in this chapter.  Cornelius Plantinga and Richard Swinburne come under scrutiny as representatives of social trinitarianism.  After critics of social trinitarianism (Brian Leftow, Dale Tuggy, and others) have had their say, the ‘Trinity monotheism’ of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig is unfurled as a defense of social trinitarianism.  For Moreland and Craig, there are ‘two ways to be divine’.  The first belongs to the Trinity as a whole, which is ‘the sole instance of the divine nature’, while the second belongs to the persons, which are not ‘instances of the divine nature’ but rather ‘parts of God’ which are fully divine, as parts of a cat are fully feline (p. 31; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, not McCall’s or mine).  For Moreland and Craig, God is ‘one soul endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties’ and hence the persons are ‘three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and volition’ who are still the same divine being, as Cerberus, the three-headed dog thought to guard Hades, would be one being with three centers of consciousness that might be called Rover, Bowser, and Spike (pp. 32-3; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, unembellished by McCall or me).  After Moreland and Craig, Keith Yandell’s trinitarianism is presented as another variation on the social construal.  In Yandell’s account, the Trinity is complex but not composed of parts because the Trinity and the persons and the persons themselves cannot exist without one another.

Continue reading

On Doubting Ourselves (as Opposed to Holy Scripture)

I came across this comment in Bavinck as he examines the doctrine of eternal punishment and aims to bind the discussion to exegesis:

Human feeling is no foundation for anything important (RD, 4:708).

Bavinck has a deep appreciation for nature and for common grace.  For example, he affirms the reality of an implanted knowledge of God and recognizes the force of the consensus gentium (consensus of the nations) as an argument for belief in human immortality.  Yet, at the end of the day, he’s unwilling to crown fallen human intuition king in the realm of theology.

What do you make of the quote?  Is it helpful or unhelpful in relation to contemporary debates about hell and in relation to other theological loci?

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? by Thomas McCall (pt 1)

In view of what he calls ‘a dearth of engagement with the work being done by analytic philosophical theologians’ (p. 4), Thomas McCall has written Which Trinity?  Whose Monotheism?  Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2010) in hopes of promoting more interaction between systematicians and Christians doing analytic philosophy.  Both spheres have much to learn from one another, McCall urges, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The book contains three major sections.  The first unpacks different proposals for understanding the Trinity that have been proffered by analytic philosophers, delineates theological desiderata that demand more attention than they have received in the analytic world, and then evaluates the various analytic trinitarian schemas in light of those desiderata.  The second deploys the ‘conceptual tools of the analytic approach’ in appraising the doctrine of the Trinity in Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, evangelical debates about the ‘eternal subordination of the Son’, and John Zizioulas.  The third concludes the book with ‘theses for scholastic disputation on the future of Trinitarian theology that is both faithful to its truly theological heritage and attentive to contemporary metaphysical issues’ (p. 7).

I’m interested to engage this book on two levels.  First, I’d like to explore how exigent and promising are the proposals being developed by analytic philosophers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Second, I’d like to explore more generally (and perhaps only implicitly) what to make of philosophers who are Christians and passionate about theological issues (not simply theologians with a watchful eye on philosophical stirrings or a keenness to glean things from philosophical resources [say, speech-act theory or Aristotle on causation]) taking up the task of constructive work in Christian doctrine.  A related question: should there be such a thing as ‘Christian philosophy’ or simply Christians who do philosophy in its own right and perchance see some of their insights utilized ad hoc by Christian theologians to whom the work of dogmatics is properly allocated?

Any thoughts before we get into the content of the book?