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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Reforming the Doctrine of God

Reforming the Doctrine of God

by F. LeRon Shults


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ISBN-13: 9780802829887
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 11/28/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

F. LeRon Shults is professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway. His other books include Reforming the Doctrine of God and Christology and Science.

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Reforming the Doctrine of God

By F. LeRon Shults

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2006 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2988-0

Chapter One


Every presentation of the Christian doctrine of God should aim to conserve the intuitions of the living biblical tradition by liberating them for illuminative and transformative dialogue within a particular cultural context. How can we articulate the gospel of the biblical God within our own contemporary setting? For an increasing number of people both inside and outside the Christian community the proclamation of the existence of a timeless immaterial substance, whose absolute subjectivity is the predetermining first cause of all things, does not seem like good news. The early modern categories that guide these ways of articulating the doctrine of God have been challenged by developments in biblical scholarship, historical research into the theological tradition, late modern philosophical reflection, and discoveries in the natural and social sciences.

Alongside these concerns three trajectories in the doctrine of God emerged in the twentieth century: the retrieval of divine Infinity, the revival of trinitarian doctrine, and the renewal of eschatological ontology. The conceptual space opened up by these trajectories provides us with an opportunity to present the Christian understanding and experience of divine knowing, acting, and being as the gospel in our contemporary culture.

Thisbook is an exploration of this conceptual space, but it is important for us to begin by recognizing that this academic exercise should not - and in fact cannot - be divorced from the practical and liturgical space of Christian life. As the sixteenth-century Reformers saw so clearly, the calcification of particular formulations of doctrine can cripple the praxis and worship of the Christian community. All dimensions of the church - its theological formulations as well as its ministry and doxology - are semper reformata et reformanda, called to reformation by the grace of God.

Martin Luther protested against the "Babylonian captivity" of the medieval church, but in the twenty-first century we are threatened with a different kind of bondage. Much of our theological language is imprisoned by particular philosophical and scientific categories that constrain our proclamation of the good news about the biblical God. It is love for the gospel that leads us to take up the task of reforming theology, to protest whenever and wherever it is being fettered. However, the desire to love God with all of our minds (Matt. 22:37) is also accompanied by a trembling fascination with the absolutely uncontrollable presence of divine grace.

§1.1. The Delightful Terror of Theology

The intensification of fear and desire that accompanies the task of reforming theology ought not to surprise us. If the "fear of the Lord" is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10), we should acknowledge and embrace the existentially delightful terror of theology. In the first chapter of his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin emphasized the existential "dread and wonder" that surround and permeate theological inquiry. He also insisted that "without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God" and "without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self." Indeed, these are so intertwined that "which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern" (Inst., I.1.1). In Reforming Theological Anthropology I focused on the anthropological side of this dialectic and outlined a reconstructive presentation of human knowing, acting, and being in relation to God and neighbor, organized around the traditional loci of human nature, sin, and the image of God. In this book I attend primarily to the theological side. Reforming the Doctrine of God outlines a presentation of divine knowing, acting, and being, but the existential tension of the dialectic is maintained. Does God know us? How can God act for us? Will God be there for us? The gospel is that the biblical God is the origin, condition, and goal of our longing for a true, good, and beautiful life.

Many Christians resist the biblical call to fear God because it seems to contradict the call to love God. How can we love that which we fear? If we define fear as our response to a perceived inability to control an existentially relevant object, then we can begin to see that fear and love are not mutually exclusive. Even in the experience of human love, we find a dialectical relation between fascination and fear. A true lover does not desire to control the beloved, but rejoices in the freedom of the beloved to respond to love. The beloved is the beloved precisely as a delightfully uncontrollable existentially relevant object. If controlled, the beloved ceases to be the object of love. In this sense, "fear" is an essential element of love. Part of the ecstasy of human intimacy is the trembling that occurs in the presence of the unmanipulable beloved. True love does not eradicate the element of fear, but takes it up into itself, transforming it into delight in the other. Human love of God includes the element of fear, but it is infinitely transformed in the joy of worship.

It is our fear or love of other things that keeps us from reforming theology. We fear cognitive dissonance (or love the safety of psychological inertia) and so we resist the reconstruction of cherished formulations of doctrine. We love the affirmation of those with ecclesial power (or fear their political retribution) and so we are tempted to maintain the theological status quo. On the one hand, some are tempted to respond deconstructively to the challenges of contemporary culture, leaving behind the intuitions of the biblical tradition in order to engage in the postmodern play with the "other." The danger here is the dissolution of Christian faith. At the other extreme, some are tempted to respond paleo-constructively, resisting engagement with culture in order to stay behind with the "same" fossilized formulations of Christian intuitions that have been unearthed from modern (or premodern) discourse. The danger here is the petrification of Christian faith.

The re-constructive response must navigate a way between these two temptations. Reforming theology is the ongoing task of presenting the internal coherence and explanatory power of the Christian understanding of God in each new context. The reconstructive theological presentation that follows is guided by four interwoven desiderata: a faithful interpretation of the biblical witness, a critical appropriation of the theological tradition, a conceptual resolution of relevant philosophical issues, and a plausible elucidation of contemporary human experience. Reforming theology is both dangerous and difficult, but it is also delightful - insofar as it serves the gospel of God.

The phrase "reforming theology" indicates both the dynamic reconstruction of theology and the reformative dynamics of theology. Because the conceptual space of theology is wrapped up within the practical and liturgical space of our lives, the struggle to articulate the doctrine of God will also reform us. Reflecting critically on the way we talk and think about God can facilitate the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Theology is not simply a set of propositions "out there" that we can decide whether or not to engage. What we think and how we think are not so easily separated. It is important for us to thematize not only the beliefs onto which we hold but also how we "hold on" to our beliefs. The reconstruction of concepts within our consciousness is an important part of the process, but radical transformation occurs only as the way in which our consciousness orders concepts is itself reformed. God's gracious reformation of our fear and desire can be mediated through philosophical reflection on the categories that structure our theological formulations.

The reciprocity between religious desire for God and philosophical categories will be a recurrent theme throughout this book. Some readers may wonder whether the "god of the philosophers" has anything to do with "the God of the Bible." In 1654 Blaise Pascal had an intense religious experience that led him to pen the following note: "FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.... God of Jesus Christ ... let me never be separated from him." It is important to ask which philosophers Pascal had in mind here. The philosophical categories that dominated much of seventeenth-century theological scholarship had led to a description of the divine nature as a rational causative substance. It was difficult indeed to link this description to the God of the Bible. We can understand why Pascal felt he had to choose. However, if late modern philosophical discourse is no longer constrained by these categories we may find new opportunities for articulating our passion for the "God of Jesus Christ" in contemporary culture.

§1.2. The Philosophical Turn to Relationality

In contemporary philosophy the category of "relation" plays a more significant role than it did for most ancient Greek and early modern philosophers. The pre-Socratics were interested in defining the basic elements of "being," and the notion of "substance" was the dominant hermeneutical and metaphysical category for Plato, Aristotle, and most of the Stoics. Because I have traced this philosophical "turn" in some detail in Reforming Theological Anthropology, and the following chapters offer several concrete examples of the impact of this categorical shift, a brief introductory overview will suffice for our purposes here. Although the story is most easily told in chronological order, the following narrative is not meant to imply a simple line of ascent away from substance and toward relationality. As we will see, an emphasis on relationality may be found in many thinkers throughout the history of philosophy and theology, especially Christian authors whose imaginations were captured by the inherently relational ideas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Pentecost. Our purpose here is simply to point out some of the important moments in the philosophical history of these categories.

Aristotle's book on Categories has been particularly influential in Western philosophy. He argued that "things that are said" simply (not in combination with other things) fall into ten categories: "each signifies either substance or quantity or qualification or a relative or where or when or being-in-a-position or having or doing or being-affected" ([1.sup.b]25). Not only is the term substance first on Aristotle's list, it also has a material priority over the other categories because it is a necessary component of every predication. In other words, making an affirmation (or negation) requires combining a substance, such as "the man," with a predicate that fits into one of the other categories, such as "running" (doing). Aristotle's theory of predication and his theory of substance are intimately connected; the structure of language re-presents the structure of being. He clearly gives the category of substance (ousia) priority over the category of relation, which describes the "toward something" (pros ti) of a thing. What we might call a thing's "towardness" does not really get at its "whatness" for Aristotle. In the Metaphysics he explains that "the great and the small, and the like, must be relative to something; but the relative is least of all things a real thing or substance, and is posterior to quality and quantity; and the relatives are accidents of quantity" (1088-21-25). Aristotle's hard distinction between "substances" and "accidents" (including relations) implies that the latter are not essential to what a thing is.

Both the Platonic and the Stoic lists of categories were less dismissive of relationality. The five "kinds" in Plato's Sophist are "that which is," "rest," "change," "the same," and "the different" ([254.sup.d]-[255.sup.e]). Although "being" is still first, Plato also insists that "the different" (which is the basis of relationality) "pervades" all of the kinds, which "share" in the type of the different insofar as they are in relation to the others, which they are not. The Stoics proposed four basic categories: "substance," "quality," "disposed in a certain way" and "disposed in a certain way in relation to something else" (pros ti pos echonta). Their "dispositional" emphasis in metaphysics has been recovered in several streams of late modern philosophy, but the Stoic list still begins with substance, which is privileged over the other categories. In the third century a.d., the Neoplatonist Plotinus rejected the Stoic list in favor of Plato's. In his exposition of the five "kinds," Plotinus goes out of his way to stress that the term "Relation" is "remote from Being." He asks: "But how could 'relation', which is like a sideshoot, be among the first [general]? For the state of being related is of one thing to another and not of a thing to itself" (Enneads, VI.2.16).

In the early Middle Ages we find a mixture of Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences in the theological appropriation of the categories of substance and accidents. Porphyry, who was a pupil of Plotinus, had accepted the ten Aristotelian categories in his Isagogue, but asked very Plotinian questions about them. Do genera (e.g., "brown," "horse") exist only in the human understanding or also outside of it? Are they corporeal or incorporeal? Do they have existence apart from sensible things? When the Christian theologian Boethius translated the Isagogue into Latin in the sixth century, he also offered his own answers to these kinds of questions. This set the stage for the medieval debate over the nature of "universals," in which most of the interlocutors shared a metaphysical assumption: to be "real" is to be a "substance." As we will see in Part I, theories of knowing (and language) developed hand in hand with theories of being and (to a lesser extent) theories of acting.

While many early modern philosophers (e.g., Descartes and Spinoza) continued to rely heavily on the category of substance, others began to question its dominance and even its coherence. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Locke argued that the ideas of substance and accidents are not of much use in philosophy, because we do not know what "Substance" is, and we have only an obscure and confused idea of what it does, namely "supports Accidents" (II.13.19). He also observes that "the Ideas which relative Words stand for, are often clearer, and more distinct, than those Substances to which they belong" (II.25.8). David Hume spelled out the logic of this critique in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). If Locke's "substance" (or substratum) is merely a "something we know not what" then we cannot predicate anything of it, or know anything about it. Hume argued that anything we do say about "substances" is merely habit or convention. Immanuel Kant, who credited Hume for waking him from his "dogmatic slumbers," offered his own Table of Categories in Critique of Pure Reason (1787). Explicitly referring to his dissatisfaction with Aristotle's approach, Kant made "substance and accident" a sub-category of the broader category "Of Relation."

Relationality was emphasized even more strongly by several nineteenth-century philosophers. In his Science of Logic (1812-1819), G. W. F. Hegel agreed with Kant's privileging of the category of "relation," but challenged the basic separation between the categories of substance and accident. For Hegel, the "whole" (or totality) is not determined by "being" (or essence) but by the dialectical unity of substantiality and accidentality in the reflective movement of the "absolute relation," which is the highest category in the objective logic. Charles Sanders Peirce developed his own "New List" of categories in 1867. Initially he proposed five categories: a major division between substance and being, with the latter having the sub-categories of quality, relation, and representation. In his later work, these sub-categories, which he came to call Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness (the three "classes of relations"), became more dominant. Peirce's "synechism" - the doctrine that everything is continuous - also illustrates his fascination with relationality.


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