The Metaphysics Behind the Reformed Confessions: Philosophy for Understanding Theology
The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Confessions every Christian should read. The following is one of the issue’s featured articles by Craig A. Carter. Dr. Carter is Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto.
Protestantism has been in crisis mode since the early nineteenth century. The effects of the Enlightenment began to affect Protestant theology in the eighteenth century, but after Kant, knowledge of God became increasingly problematic and Christianity, in general, began to pall as a result of the philosophical naturalism that settled over Western culture like a blanket snuffing out faith. This trend accelerated after the Darwinian revolution in the mid-century and Protestantism was most affected. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the result.
Another Religion Altogether
Protestant liberal theology was a desperate attempt to save as much Christian content as possible from what Walter Lippmann would later term “the acids of modernity.” The liberal project involved restating Christianity within the constraints of modern metaphysics and modern metaphysics was essentially the rejection of the broadly Platonist metaphysics that had formed the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition for well over 2000 years.
As the philosopher Lloyd Gerson has demonstrated with great scholarship in a series of books, the main alternative to Platonism historically has been philosophical naturalism and, in the nineteenth century, philosophical naturalism triumphed decisively over Platonism. This was the context in which liberal theology attempted to preserve at least some elements of the Bible and theology. Even though many Christian words such as “sin” and “redemption” were retained, their meaning was dramatically changed. The definitive judgment of the failure of the liberal project was pronounced by J. Gresham Machen in 1923 when he said that liberalism is not Christianity, but another religion altogether.
From Fundamentalism on through the period of Neo-orthodoxy to the rise of Evangelicalism, the search for a Biblical and orthodox expression of Christianity has been intense. If liberal theology is no answer, what is to be done? If modernity excludes Christian orthodoxy how can we live in the modern world as Christians?
What it Means to be Protestant
Our problem today is that we do not understand the Protestant confessions and so we do not really understand what it means to be Protestants. We believe that the Reformation recovered biblical teaching after centuries of decline in the late Medieval Roman church but we cannot give an account of how the content of the confessions expresses biblical truth. Contemporary Evangelicals are not really Protestants; for most of them, Protestantism is a movement in history.
That in turn means that the great Evangelical movement in the Anglo-Saxon, trans-Atlantic world is cut off from its own heritage. Some of us may read John Calvin and John Owen occasionally, but we do not comprehend them on certain points and much of their depth escapes us. We do not grasp what some have termed “reformed catholicity.” In what sense are we in communion with Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas? We cannot say.
Soft Theistic Mutualism
If you doubt me, consider the sad decline in the doctrine of God that we have seen over the past 50 years as documented in James Dolezal’s little book, All That is in God (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017). There Dolezal shows that “soft theistic mutualism,” a view of God in which God is in time and affects and changes the world and the world, in turn, affects and changes God. This is essentially a pagan, mythological understanding of God and yet it has wormed its way into otherwise orthodox and evangelical writers. This is astonishing!Every confession of the Reformation and post-reformation period teaches that God is immutable and impassible. Click To Tweet
It indicates that something very deep and fundamental is malfunctioning in contemporary theology and the danger is that this view of God will – if not corrected – metastasize into a spiritual life-threatening cancer in a generation or two. Every confession of the Reformation and post-reformation period, including the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession and the Second London Confession, teaches that God is immutable and impassible. And none see any contradiction between affirming those attributes of God and simultaneously affirming that God speaks and acts in history to judge and save. Moderns cannot, for the life of them, comprehend how they can be so inconsistent.
My contention is that conservative Protestant theology today needs to undertake an alternative to the liberal project that is comparable in scope. We need to channel a great deal of time, energy and resources into a project of ressourcement. This French term brought over into English means a return to the classic sources of Christianity including the church fathers, Thomas Aquinas and other forms of premodern faith. Recently, in an encouraging development in the work of a number of theologians, many inspired by John Webster, the project of ressourcement has taken the form of looking back to the post-Reformation, Reformed scholastic tradition.
This movement is growing and spreading among many who find the shallow biblicism and ahistorical forms of evangelical faith that are so common today to be unsatisfying. Scholars like Richard Muller and Carl Trueman have led the way in recovering the riches of seventeenth-century continental and English pastors and theologians who utilized the metaphysics of the Great Tradition to do theology and write and expound the great confessions of Protestantism. We may not understand their philosophical assumptions, but we can see that they took the Bible seriously and wrote doctrinal treatises that need to be taken seriously by believers.
The biggest obstacle to a recovery of confessional Protestant faith today is that, as moderns, we are cut off from our heritage by the philosophical naturalist metaphysics that we have unconsciously and uncritically absorbed from our environment. We desperately need to step outside of modernity long enough to perceive its weaknesses and limitations. But we only absorb contemporary media and read recently-published books and we rarely encounter premodern thought. Even more rarely do we encounter premodern thought that is profound and deep. Perhaps stepping into a Gothic cathedral or listening to Handel’s Messiah evokes that same longing for beauty and truth that we sense in Scripture on the rare occasion that we meditate on it without distraction. But how do we get from here to there?
One practice John Webster urged on his students was that of reading sympathetically the great texts of the tradition. Even better, he suggested, was the practice of apprenticing ourselves to one of the great masters for a time by seeking to immerse ourselves in their thought. C. S. Lewis pointed out that reading old books is important, not because ancient writers never made mistakes, but because they tended to make different mistakes than our contemporaries do. We can spot those mistakes because they stand out to us, whereas the mistakes we and all our contemporaries commonly make seem like common sense to us.
So what to do? I believe that we need to do whatever it takes to break out of the cave of modernity and breath the free air of the premodern period where philosophical naturalism is not stifling the truth. But how? One way to do it is to engage in the study of ancient philosophical texts so as to be initiated into the great conversation that has gone on between the greatest minds in the Western tradition for 2000 years.
As I argue above, the infiltration of relational theism into Evangelical and confessional theology documented by James Dolezal in his book, All That is in God, is a matter of conservative theology taking on board ideas and assumptions that were widespread in 20th-century liberal theology. The concept of God as being in time along with us as part of the cosmos and as being changed by the creation in a two-way relationship is a serious departure from the mainstream of classical orthodoxy as it endured from the early church fathers to the 19th century.
In the trinitarian classical theism of the Nicene Creed and the Reformation confessions, God is the simple, eternal, immutable, self-existent, transcendent Creator who nonetheless speaks and acts in history in Israel and Jesus Christ. Today the doctrine of God is often historicized in such a way that God becomes part of the evolving cosmos and interacts with it in much that same way as the pagan gods of the ancient Near East did. Western theology is sinking back into the mythological conception of God that characterized Israel’s neighbours and against which the prophets polemicized.
“Immutable” and “Merciful”
This situation creates many problems. One is that many late modern theologians simply cannot make sense out of the tradition when it affirms both God’s immutability and God’s ability to act in history to judge and save. It seems contradictory to many people today to even contemplate saying such a thing. They find themselves advocating a novel concept of God in which the Divine being is composed partially of an unchanging essence and partially of a changing element. How this comports with the Westminister Confession’s statement that God is “without body, parts or passions” (WCF 2.1) is never satisfactorily addressed.Sound theology contains many paradoxes, but it cannot be built on contradictions. Click To Tweet
This is what I mean when I speak of the difficulty many have today in understanding the confessions of the Protestant Reformation. How can the Confession (like the 39 Articles and other Protestant confessions) speak of God as both “immutable” and also as “merciful”? How can he be “without passions” but yet “hating all sin”? It is difficult to reconcile these contradictory evaluations of the eternal being of God in himself if passions are simply attributed to God in the same way they are attributed to creatures. Sound theology contains many paradoxes, but it cannot be built on contradictions.
Classic Christian Metaphysics
Classical orthodoxy made judicious use of paradox and mystery, as well as a finely-tuned account of the creator-creature distinction, a doctrine of analogical language and careful distinctions between degrees of knowledge available to the creature both through general and special revelation. Over the centuries, particularly in the struggle to define the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation, the tradition developed certain metaphysical doctrines that enabled such distinctions and provided language in which the doctrine of God could be articulated. These metaphysical doctrines were developed primarily out of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. We could refer to a body of such metaphysical doctrines as the “metaphysics of Nicaea” or as “scholastic realism” or simply as “classical Christian metaphysics.”The reason it is so hard to understand the Reformation confessions today is that the metaphysical framework in which the authors of those confessions worked has not only been lost; it is no longer even understood. Click To Tweet
The body of metaphysical doctrines to which I refer is not large, but it includes ideas that are essential to the exposition of creedal orthodoxy. For example, it includes an account of the participation of the natures of things in universals, which is what makes them the kinds of things they are. Universals are understood to be real and as ideas in the mind of God. Included in this body of metaphysical doctrine is also an understanding of existing things as created according to a rational principle by God through his Logos and therefore knowable, in principle, by the human mind because of its creation in the image of God. Fundamental to the whole set of doctrines is the distinction between the world as changing flux in which everything is a mix of potential and actuality, on the one hand, and God as the unchanging, unactualized actualizer, and thus First Cause of the world, on the other. Out of this grows a distinction between primary and secondary causation and an understanding of the teleological directing of history toward the creation’s fulfillment in Christ.
The Reformed orthodoxy of the post-Reformation era used scholastic realism in its articulation of the doctrines of God and creation. The Protestant confessions made sense within this context and no tension was felt between the simple, immutable God and the effects of his will on the creation. However, the Enlightenment era introduced a crisis into Protestant orthodoxy because the radical thinkers of the Enlightenment built on the nominalism and mechanism that had been gaining ground in the early modern period and added the materialism of radical French thinkers such as d’Holbach to that witch’s brew. By the late 18th century, the time was right for Hume’s outright rejection of traditional metaphysics and, tragically, Kant swallowed Hume’s skepticism hook, line and sinker. Most modern theology fails to challenge this rejection of classical metaphysics.