Posted by: mattcolvin | October 19, 2018

Classical Theism’s Ethos Deficit

Above: diagram of the epicycles of the planet Mercury by Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375).

I had a debate with some online friends over Classical Theism this week. (“Honey, come to bed!” “I can’t. Someone is wrong on the internet.”) It left me examining myself and asking, “Why was I so unpersuaded? These Classical Theists are good guys. They are friendly, irenic, smart. They have advanced degrees and know a lot of stuff. They can write.” So why didn’t it work on me?

It is partly a problem of ethos. Students of rhetoric are told that abstractions, Latinate words, and opaque philosophical discourse create rhetorical distance. But the problem goes deeper: The striking contrast in vocabulary, degree of abstraction, and style of argumentation between Classical Theism and the Bible makes it difficult to see CT as having any explanatory power. There is a constant tension between the discourse of philosophical ontology and the language of Scripture that causes mental dissonance for anyone who is not persuaded of classical ontology on other grounds. CT’s recourse to apophaticism and to non-exegetical dodges like “anthropopathism” strike outsiders as something akin to epicycles in Ptolemaic astronomy: these devices are not there to save the phenomena, but to save the hypothesis of CT from the phenomena. Classical Theists are found employing inconsistent hermeneutics: Passages where Scripture talks about God not changing are siezed upon and paraded as though they were descriptions of the inner ontology of God, while passages that appear to conflict with CT, e.g. by saying that God changed his mind, are explained as metaphors or accomodations to human understanding that tell us nothing about God’s being. In all this, there is no exegetical insight: we are never given the sense that the hypothesis of CT has led us into a deeper appreciation for the inner workings of the apostles’ thought, let alone the self-understanding of Jesus himself. There is no “ahah!” moment, no “ring of truth” as mysterious or puzzling passages are resolved into new clarity. There is no discovery that this hypothesis solves multiple riddles and problems; quite the reverse, in fact.

Far from finding that puzzling passages of the Bible are cleared up by CT, I find that if I accept its system, I will be saddled with new propositions that I cannot understand: “God is pure act”, “The persons of the Trinity are their own relations” and the like. These claims challenge my ability to parse them: they appear to reduce agents to actions, nouns to verbs. The hypostases of the Trinity turn out to be something like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

Classical theists claim that their system is useful. Alastair Roberts says:

“Without something resembling classical Trinitarian theology and a Chalcedonian understanding of Christ, the entire gospel narrative will assume a different character. The Creator will not be allowed to exceed His works and the deity of Christ, a truth revealed through the gospel narrative, will be radically constrained by His human nature.” (A. Roberts, “‘Arid Scholars’ vs the Bible” in B. Littlejohn, ed. God of Our Fathers)

I don’t see that this is the case at all. Alastair speaks as though this experiment has not been tried. But what did Christians do before 451 AD? During the reign of Diocletian, for instance? Did their lack of Chalcedonian categories for parsing Christology cause them to ”radically constrain the deity of Christ”? Has the Church at any time since Chalcedon ever equaled their fervent worship of Jesus as God? Does Classical Theism make anyone more ready to die for the faith? No, the faith that was ready to die for Christ was made perfect by the words of the apostles and prophets.

Contrast all this with the persuasiveness of Richard Bauckham’s account of “early high Christology.” Passages like 1 Cor. 8:6 are unfolded and placed within their rhetorical context. The inner working of the apostle’s deliberate transformation of the Shema is disclosed. Bauckham shows that Paul echoes Deuteronomy’s polemic against idolatry and especially against the eating of food sacrificed to idols. He shows that Paul transposes this OT monotheistic rhetoric into the key of exclusive loyalty to Jesus. Lines that were not appreciated before — “non-gods”, “provoke the Lord to jealousy”, “are we stronger than He?” — suddenly strike us with new force. Bauckham explains how these phrases echo the OT, and thereby also reveals how Paul’s language was persuasive to his first-century audience. Bauckham’s hypothesis of divine-identity Christology thus opens up a new appreciation of Paul’s argumentation: the reader feels that he now, at last, understands why Paul chose the words he did. Where fourth-century and 11th-century metaphysical explanations bump up against Paul’s field of discourse without entering into it, Bauckham’s early high christology discloses the inner workings of that Pauline discourse. This is the theology that inspired the martyrs of the early church to face the lions rather than burn incense to Caesar.

Whence, then, is the persuasiveness of CT for those who do believe it? I have to think there is some intellectually satisfying resolution that is beyond my ability to appreciate. Perhaps it is something like the solution of a problem in Calculus? The mind that is used to traveling in the realms of metaphysics evaluates metaphysical hypotheses by criteria that I lack. I am not a philosopher for some of the same reasons that I am not a sommelier or a chessmaster or a soccer fan. I know that there are, in each of these fields, criteria of excellence. But I also know that I have not acquired knowledge of those criteria. When my friend Tim G. enthuses about soccer as “the beautiful game”, I take his word for it, because I am aware that if I had more understanding of how the game works, I might appreciate it too. In the same way, perhaps I have not done what would be necessary to become a connoisseur of metaphysical systems.

And yet, I did six years of PhD studies in Greek philosophy: seminars on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, private tutorials on Parmenides, reading groups on Plato. I am pretty familiar with the discourse of classical metaphysics. I ought to be a prime target for CT. If Classical Theists cannot make me see the attractiveness of their system, whom can they persuade?

For these reasons, it is rather appalling to find that the primary argument they use in public debate is an appeal to authority: “Are you cleverer than your forebears in Church history who devised this system? Have some humility!” Are they so bankrupt, so bereft of any ability to kindle others with the joy they feel in this theology? If Classical Theism is true, there ought to be a desire to welcome others into an appreciation for it. It ought to be exciting, infectious, delightful.

Alastair Roberts, at least, recognizes this rhetorical deficit. “I generally fall on the Classical Theist side […], while believing that we need to do a lot more to connect classical theism with the reading of Scripture and trying to do some of this work myself.” But he appears to be virtually alone in this awareness, and the task is immense. He has certainly done some nice work in Biblical theology, but I haven’t seen anything from him that really bridges the gap that divides that enterprise from Classical Theism.

Classical Theists need to recognize that the problem is pervasive — centuries in the making — and runs very deep. They need to look in the mirror and realize that they are, most of them, philosophical theologians. Having realized that, they need to recognize that Biblical theology has different criteria of persuasion, and that they are not meeting those criteria at all.


  1. The one thing Bauckham really highlights in his early high-Christology and brief forays into patristics is that the questions revolved around practice and actions. From the very beginning, Christians worshiped Christ, hymned to him, praise Him as the Name, and the NT reveals how all of this makes sense (perhaps simultaneously) within the parameters of Scripture. But then later debates further raise questions within the broader, Hellenistic, world.

    But what really disturbs me, perhaps best encapsulated in Florovsky, is when the categories of philosophy become not contingent vessels in an era, but become necessary to the gospel. Florovsky comes out and says it: Hellenism is key to Christianity, and hence the gospel will not make sense without the philosophical categories of Platonism. I think many Classical Theists share this sense, though they’re not keen to admit it.

    And perhaps these categories of thought can help, maybe Aristotle helps clear up some things. But when these categories don’t even make sense anymore, when we have to hyper-qualify what we mean by ‘hypostasis’, what’s the point?

    But it really comes down to popular engagement. To understand Christology, do we have to turn people back to Scripture or teach them what a ‘nature’ is according to Aristo-Platonic categories?

    However, I am sympathetic to how many of these ecumenical concilliar decisions were supposed to do. For example, Maximus in his dyothelitism, utilizing metaphysical categories, was trying to make sense of how Christ prayed in Gethsemane that not his will, but his Father’s be done. Maybe there’s a way of trying to extract the conclusions and find surer footing than merely trying to repeat the same paradigms. I don’t know.

    2 cents,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s