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The Great Tradition Retrieval Project: Correcting a few misunderstandings

What is the Great Tradition retrieval project all about? For twenty years I have been on a quest to find deeper roots for my faith than the shallow soil of contemporary Evangelicalism. The third volume in the Great Tradition trilogy, which is now in process, will treat metaphysics. Soon after it comes out, I will publish a one-volume overview of Christian dogmatics incorporating what I have learned from the study of the history of biblical interpretation, the history of the doctrine of God, and the history of Christian metaphysics. My goal has been to re-orient myself to the classical orthodoxy of the mainstream of Christian tradition much as Tom Oden did years ago.

But some people seem to be confused about what this is all about. They want books full of footnotes nuancing every point and discussing every opinion on every matter. This is not the purpose of these books. These books are programmatic analyses of the broad trends that are always presupposed but seldom analyzed. Many scholars never examine the basic assumptions they are using to classify and utilize the materials they employ in writing theology. Why not?It is easier to use an over-simplified version of “sola Scriptura” as an excuse for not knowing the Christian tradition. Click To Tweet

For one thing, the sheer mass of historical detail necessary to come to terms with the Great Tradition is too much for any one person to grasp. To do Christian dogmatics, one must draw on many academic disciplines, but no one can be an expert on everything. In dogmatics one must incorporate the insights of experts from academic specializations ranging from biblical criticism to Greek philosophy to the history of the ecumenical creeds and the Reformation confessions. It also involves understanding how medieval thinkers integrated the best of Greek philosophy with the patristic heritage. It also requires being critical of one’s own culture. Dogmatic theology is difficult because it involves synthesizing so much disparate material, which requires that one operate with some sort of criterion for choosing what to use and what to leave out.

Given that we live in such an age of “chronological snobbery” (C. S. Lewis) in which modernity claims that newer must be better and that the heritage of Western civilization is oppressive and outdated, it is hard for scholars to be motivated to invest much time and energy in the study of the past. The sad truth is that most theologians today do not do so. It is easier to use an over-simplified version of “sola Scriptura” as an excuse for not knowing the Christian tradition.

Narrowly focussed scholarly monographs are necessary and useful. So are large-scale statements of systematic theology. My books seek to mediate between the two extremes and make it possible for the conclusions of specialists to inform large-scale systematic theology projects.

In what follows I want to clarify three features of this project.

1.     The Great Tradition retrieval project is an attempt to recover an understanding of Christian theology in which classical philosophy plays the role of handmaid to theology, the queen of the sciences.

It is a serious mistake to think that the Great Tradition project privileges philosophy over theology, natural theology over special revelation, reason over faith, or science over Scripture. But it inevitably looks that way to moderns who have been convinced by Hume and Kant that natural theology and natural law should be rejected as mere superstition. Many influential Christian thinkers, including Soren Kierkegaard, Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth, unwittingly gave aid and comfort to the liberal Protestants and agnostics on this point by denigrating the ability of human reason to discover any truth whatsoever about God. (Often their followers went much further than these thinkers themselves would have gone and over-simplified very complex questions.) The 20th century saw a big swing toward agnosticism as to the ability of human reason to say anything true about God’s existence or attributes.

The goal of the Great Tradition retrieval project is to restore a balance between what can be known by human reason and what can only be known by Divine revelation. The work of Etienne Gilson is of crucial importance here because he led the recovery of the historical Thomas from the distortions of the neo-Thomism of the modern period. Ressourcement is absolutely crucial for understanding the Great Tradition. When you hear someone opine that Thomas just repeated Aristotle’s philosophy, you know someone has not read Gilson carefully.It is a serious mistake to think that the Great Tradition project privileges philosophy over theology, natural theology over special revelation, reason over faith, or science over Scripture. Click To Tweet

For Thomas, philosophy has a role in the articulation and defense of sacred doctrine, but it is a ministerial role, not a magisterial one. He integrated certain elements of Aristotle’s teaching into Christian theology (such as the cosmological proof for God’s existence), modified other elements radically (such as Aristotle’s view of the nature of God), and rejected other elements contradictory to biblical revelation (such as Aristotle’s view that the world is eternal).

Thomas’s method was similar to that of patristic writers such as Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers and Augustine, all of whom critically appropriated elements of Neoplatonism into their thought where appropriate. When the writings of Aristotle became widely known in the West in the 13th century, they were perceived as a secularizing threat to orthodox doctrine. Thomas critically appropriated them in the service of his work in restating the Nicene doctrine of God. But Thomas was first and foremost an Augustinian and so he integrated Aristotle into the Christian Platonist framework, which had been developed by the church fathers, mediated to the medieval period through Augustine, and had become traditional by the high Middle Ages.

Philosophy should not be rejected totally or accepted uncritically. True philosophy is good; false philosophy is bad. Both Augustine and Thomas exhibited a horror of rejecting any sort of scientific truth in the name of Christianity lest the name of Christ be sullied. For them truth is a unity, and all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, reason and faith cannot ultimately be in conflict. Pope John Paul the Great’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, was an attempt to restate the Great Tradition’s understanding of wisdom. It characterizes the relationship between faith and reason as follows: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” For Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, and Thomas faith and reason need each other. This conviction is central to the Great Tradition including the “Reformed orthodox” (Richard Muller), that is, the post-Reformation Protestant scholastics (Lutheran as well as Reformed) who composed the Protestant confessions that define Protestantism.The goal of the Great Tradition retrieval project is to restore a balance between what can be known by human reason and what can only be known by Divine revelation. Click To Tweet

To see faith and reason as being in harmony, however, does not mean that there is no room for mystery in the Christian faith. A paradox is an apparent contradiction and must be distinguished from a real contradiction. Christian theology contains mysteries, such as the exact relationship between the Divine ousia and the three hypostases, which may involve paradoxical statements, but it does not teach contradictions. Philosophical distinctions between words used to describe different aspects of God’s being are crucial for preserving sound doctrine. The goal in using philosophy is not to eradicate mystery but to state it carefully in a non-contradictory manner.

2.     The Great Tradition retrieval project is premised on the assumption that modern, Western culture is in trouble because in the so-called “Enlightenment” it has departed radically from its classical foundations including metaphysical realism, a teleological account of nature, belief in rational proofs for God’s existence, and natural law.

Central to the Great Tradition project is a radical critique of modern culture that sees Western modernity as a culture in sharp decline despite its fabulous wealth, advanced technology, and rich, Christian heritage. Skepticism, relativism, irrationality, and ideology dominate public affairs and are eating away at the foundations of society. Postmodernism is the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment rejection of metaphysical realism.

The modern project began with the nominalism of William of Occam and the voluntarism of Duns Scotus but gradually, over several centuries, went far beyond anything imagined by these late medieval thinkers. By the time of Hume, even the principle of causality was denied, and the very basis of natural science was thus jeopardized. During the 19th century the descent into irrationalism laid the foundation for the rise of postmodernism in the twentieth century. Nietzsche saw that the will to power had replaced the submission of the intellect to reality as the basis of “truth.” This, as Lloyd Gerson argues, led to the demise of the project of philosophy itself, which had begun in the work of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (See the Introduction to his Platonism and Naturalism). Much of what is done today in most Western university departments of philosophy is not philosophy in the classical sense.Postmodernism is the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment rejection of metaphysical realism. Click To Tweet

Radical modern thinkers such as Hobbes and Bacon, saw fit to reject all revelation, (including both general and special), and to make all knowledge depend on reason and empirical investigation alone. But this places too heavy a burden on reason because, as the biblical wisdom literature teaches clearly, human reason is insufficient to acquire true wisdom on its own. It can go part way, but inevitably falls short of being capable of defending first principles against the skeptics and the sophists. Greek philosophy never was able to shape Greek culture over the long haul and only the mass conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity was able to provide a secure foundation for wisdom. Natural science flourished in the West because the Christian doctrine of creation gave good reason to suppose that at the heart of reality is Reason in the form of the Logos of God. As our culture loses its grasp on the doctrine of creation, we can expect science to degenerate into ideology, which is exactly what we see occurring right now.

Some of the criticism of the Great Tradition retrieval project emanates from those who reject this radical critique of modernity and who are comfortable in the late modern academy, having found (so they think) a suitable compromise with modern metaphysics. Those who believe they must begin from a starting point within modernity tend to deride the Great Tradition retrieval project as “unacademic,” which really means in this context “anti-modern.”

3.     The Great Tradition retrieval project seeks to recover the theology of the Reformed confessions including the classical doctrine of God, the rational proofs for God’s existence, and the metaphysical attributes of God.

The doctrine of God, which had been stable from the 4th to 17th centuries, became fluid in the 19-20th centuries after the Enlightenment brought the late-Medieval seeds of modernity to flower. The Nicene doctrine of God was a synthesis of monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity, and it was articulated lucidly in the first 43 questions of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. This masterful exposition follows the pattern of Scripture in that the first 26 questions deal with the one God (the Old Testament) and questions 27-43 deal with the three persons of the Trinity (the New Testament). If one compares this statement of the doctrine of God to 4th century pro-Nicene theology one finds that it is the same doctrine stated more systematically in the Summa. If one compares this statement to the Reformation confessions, one finds no change to the basic doctrine of God. This means that the Protestant Reformation introduced no change into the Great Tradition as far as the doctrine of God is concerned. The whole Great Tradition is our tradition as Protestants. This means that when Protestants dismiss Thomas’s thought completely they are implicitly dismissing the doctrine taught in the very confessions they profess to believe!

The 17th century Protestant theologians who wrote confessions such as the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster standards, and the Second London Baptist Confession, all stood in an unbroken tradition with Thomas and the Nicene fathers on the doctrines of God and Christ. (Their differences with Rome related to soteriology, Scripture, and ecclesiology). The Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon is restated as basic Christian doctrine in the Reformation era confessions. Doctrines such as Divine simplicity, immutability, and impassibility – all of which have come under fire in recent years – are all clearly taught in the Reformation confessions.When Protestants dismiss Thomas’s thought completely they are implicitly dismissing the doctrine taught in the very confessions they profess to believe! Click To Tweet

One of the alarm bells that went off in the late 20th century was the tendency of theologians such as John Frame and Bruce Ware to accept modifications to classical theism as they sought to refute open theism. In fact, the very term “classical theism” came into common parlance in the early 20th century in order to distinguish the innovations of process theism from traditional theism. Christianity always has been a theistic religion; theism has been taught in Scripture, the fathers, the medieval period and Protestant scholastics. After Hegel, however, there was a major departure from Scripture and tradition toward a view that identifies God with the historical process or with the creation itself in its movement through time. The temptation to deny Divine transcendence of time and space in this situation is strong.

Some philosophers, such as R. T. Mullins (The End of the Timeless God), have denied God’s timelessness and fallen into an ahistorical biblicism that views God anthropomorphically and blurs the Creator-creature distinction. For Mullins, God is in time with us and is mutable like us. I show in chapters 3-6 of Contemplating God that the God of Isaiah is the transcendent Creator and sovereign Lord of history who alone is to be worshipped. The god who changes in time with us is not the God of the Bible. In fact, such a god more closely resembles the deities of the ancient Near Eastern myths, which Scripture views as mere creatures of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It should be noted that none of my critics have refuted my exegesis in this book, which demonstrates the biblical basis for the classical theism that is taught in our Protestant confessions. The denial of this doctrine and the adoption of an unbiblical, rationalistic biblicism vitiates Evangelical theology and leads to theological liberalism.

In the 20th century, Evangelical theologians began to view classical theism and neo-classical or process theism as two variations of theism either of which can be used in doing Christian theology, despite the fact that the latter is actually a radical departure from Scripture and tradition. Now we see Evangelicals theologians seeking some sort of via media between what they call “strong immutability” and change in God. In this approach, classical theism is seen as only one view – usually designated as the Thomistic view – among several options, all of which supposedly are compatible with orthodox doctrine. But classical theism is nothing other than the theism taught in the Reformation-era confessions. Therefore, all modifications of, or departures from, classical theism are really modifications of, or departures from, the Protestant confessions.All modifications of, or departures from, classical theism are really modifications of, or departures from, the Protestant confessions. Click To Tweet

Ironically, many “Reformed Baptists,” such as James White, who proclaim their allegiance to the Second London Confession of 1689, do not teach it faithfully. They appear not to understand what the Confession means when it says that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” (2LBC 2.1) This seems to be because they fail to understand the 17th century Protestant scholastic theology from which the confession arose. They echo rationalistic modernists in denying Divine simplicity because they do not see how important it is for safeguarding monotheism in trinitarian theology. They also show no sign of grasping the importance of speaking analogically about the attributes of God in order to maintain the oneness of God when speaking of the triune nature of God. The category of “mystery” does not work in their theology. Nor do they distinguish between what the fathers called theologia and economia, that is, the immanent and the economic Trinity. There is only one Trinity, of course, but not everything that can be said about the economic Trinity can properly be said about the immanent (or eternal) Trinity because of the historical fact of the incarnation.

In 2016 a major debate on the doctrine of eternal functional subordination (later called eternal relations of authority and submission) broke out. Wayne Grudem popularized this teaching in his widely read Systematic Theology, which I reviewed here. This debate is still on-going. Recent books by Matthew Barrett (Simply Trinity), Scott Swain (The Trinity), and Fred Sanders, (The Triune God), have pointed Evangelicals back to the orthodox doctrine of God. The most important point the whole controversy reveals, however, is how tenuous a grasp most Evangelicals today have on the finer points of the historic doctrine of God and the implications of the confessions that Protestants are supposed to be teaching.

Another closely related controversy relates to the recent rise of social trinitarianism in liberal theologians like Moltmann and conservative ones as well. Many Evangelicals apparently see nothing wrong with viewing the three persons as three distinct centers of consciousness with separate wills. The 20th century “revival” of trinitarian theology was a swing of the pendulum away from the anti-Trinitarian Deism of the Enlightenment period. But the pendulum swung too far, and the result was to imperil the carefully balanced pro-Nicene theology which taught that the three persons are one ousia with one will and one power.

This problem is not limited to Baptists. Some Presbyterian and Anglican theologians suffer from the same lack of understanding of the theology that shaped the confessions they profess to believe and teach. The problem is pervasive and can only be addressed by a long-term, complex, and diligent program of retrieval.

The heart of the Great Tradition retrieval project

In sum, the heart of the Great Tradition retrieval project is an attempt to take our Protestant confessions seriously, to understand the theological and philosophical context out of which they arose, and to restate the doctrine of God they contain in a way that avoids the many errors of recent theology.The heart of the Great Tradition retrieval project is an attempt to take our Protestant confessions seriously and to restate the doctrine of God they contain in a way that avoids the many errors of recent theology. Click To Tweet

This inevitably results in stepping on toes. Too many Evangelicals today have a simplistic understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity which veers dangerously close to tri-theism. In fact, the whole 20th century “revival” of the doctrine of the Trinity failed to take monotheism seriously enough. The Fathers and scholastics were highly sensitive to the danger of using biblical language about the Father, Son, and Spirit in a way that might imperil the biblical teaching of the Shema that our God is One. For this reason, they distinguished between the immanent and economic Trinity, insisted on using analogical rather than univocal language for God, made room for mystery, synthesized faith and reason rather than playing them off against each other, and insisted that we state our doctrine of the Trinity in a way that makes it clear that it does not undermine monotheism.

We need to listen, learn, and humbly seek to rise to their level of theological and philosophical sophistication in our interpretation of Scripture and our dogmatic formulations. This is the goal of the Great Tradition retrieval project.

This article was originally published in Dr. Carter’s newsletter. 

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the author of Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). He is currently writing a third volume in the Great Tradition trilogy on the recovery of Nicene metaphysics. Other upcoming projects include an introduction to Theology in the Great Tradition and a theological commentary on Isaiah. He serves as Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church. His personal website is and you can follow him on Twitter.

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