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Contemplating God with the Great Tradition

An Interview with Craig Carter

Craig Carter serves as Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church. Carter’s last book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker, 2018), sent shockwaves throughout the field of hermeneutics. That work, however, was never meant to stand alone. As such, Craig Carter was kind enough to answer some of our questions concerning his upcoming book and companion volume: Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). This work engages with topics such as premodern metaphysics, classical theism, and how both may offer correctives to the errors of modernity.


Craig, you’ve written a new and forthcoming book called Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. It’s directed against what you call the liberal project. What is the liberal project and what does it have to do with revisionist theology?

Everyone knows that between approximately 1880 and 1930 most of historic Protestantism went liberal. I have proposed an analysis of exactly what it was that happened. My theory does not explain everything, but I think it provides insight into what the nature of the shift was all about. This is relevant because another major migration of Evangelicals into liberalism is going on right now and if we want to reverse it or mitigate it, we first need to understand what is happening.

The liberal project is the attempt to revise Christian doctrines in order to make them fit within the metaphysical constraints of modernity. Modernity is a cultural pathology caused by the rejection of God and it entails rejecting the major metaphysical doctrines of the Great Tradition point by point. Post-Enlightenment metaphysics is thus nominalist, materialistic, mechanistic, skeptical and relativist whereas the broadly Christian Platonist tradition of metaphysics—which could be called “Nicene metaphysics” or “scholastic realism” or even “Reformed Thomism”—was anti-nominalist, anti-materialist, anti-mechanist, anti-skepticism and anti-relativism.

Historically, Christians believed in the reality of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. We believe that things are what they are because they have natures implanted in them by the Creator and that those natures participate in universals, which are ideas in the mind of God. Things act according to their natures and this is the reason why nature behaves in a law-like fashion, which is what makes science and technology possible. This is the metaphysical foundation of natural theology, natural law and natural science.

Because of the influence of Christianity on the West, this metaphysical tradition, in various forms, dominated culture for more than a millennium. It originates in the Bible and was formulated by the Nicene fathers, mediated to the middle ages by Augustine, summarized and clarified in Aquinas, presupposed by the Reformers, developed by the post-Reformation scholastics, presupposed again by the Evangelicals and then challenged in the Enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant believed that David Hume’s skeptical arguments had rendered classical metaphysics untenable and so embarked on his critical program in a bid to forge a new metaphysics. But from the death of Kant in 1804 onwards the rejection of Nicene metaphysics remained the bedrock assumption. From this point onwards theologians were forced to work within the limits of philosophical naturalism, and this led to adopting ideas from Georg W. Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher in theology and to embracing the tradition of historical criticism of the Bible stemming from Baruch Spinoza.

The motivation of the liberals was to preserve as much of Christianity as possible in the new intellectual environment. Liberal Protestants like Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack felt helpless to challenge the hegemony of Kant, but they tried to retain distinctively Christian terms like sin, Christ, and redemption. They detached all Christian doctrines from supernaturalism – no miracles, no resurrection from the dead, no angels or demons, etc. They gave theological terms new meanings that could be fit into the new metaphysical constraints. For example, sin was redefined as the animalistic holdovers from our evolutionary past and Christ was redefined as merely a great moral teacher. Redemption became identified with the idea of social progress in history, rather than with eternal salvation. We need to abandon the liberal project altogether and engage in Ressourcement – the recovery of the pre-modern exegesis and metaphysics that makes Nicene doctrine comprehensible. Click To Tweet

All they accomplished, however, in my view, was to demonstrate conclusively how essential the older metaphysics was and still is to the Christian faith and how inextricably interwoven are the metaphysics, exegesis and doctrine of Nicaea with the Christian faith. The history of the twentieth century is a saga of cultural decline into epistemological and moral relativism and the loss, first of natural theology, then of the natural moral law, and now, finally, the politicization and deconstruction of natural science itself. In this situation, I think we need to abandon the liberal project altogether and engage in Ressourcement – the recovery of the pre-modern exegesis and metaphysics that makes Nicene doctrine comprehensible. Liberal theology has no future. It will be historic Christianity versus paganism, but liberalism is going to wither and fall between the cracks. So, we should stop wasting time on it.

What sets the Great Tradition and Trinitarian Classical Theism apart from theistic personalism (theistic mutualism) or relational theism?

Historically, the church fathers accepted the arguments made by the philosophers for the existence of an unchanging, perfect God who is the source and cause of the changing world of flux of which we are a part. The question was:

    1. “How does the God of Israel, who has spoken by the prophets and revealed himself decisively in Jesus Christ, relate to that God?”
    2. Is the God of the philosophers the cause of the God of the Bible?
    3. Is the God of the Bible co-eternal with the God of the philosophers?
    4. Or is the point of the Bible actually that the God of the philosophers has revealed himself to Israel?

The first two options were incompatible with the Bible’s teaching that God is the transcendent Creator of all, which put the fathers in the position of either saying the philosophers were wrong and there is no unchanging, perfect cause of the cosmos or else saying that the God of the Bible is the God of the philosophers.

We should linger a moment over this point. If they fathers had said, “We are not interested in philosophy or science; all we know is that everyone is supposed to worship the God of Israel who has spoken in Christ,” how would that have been understood? Well, for one thing it would mean that Christianity would have been seen as just another mystery cult – a set of superstitions that an intellectual could safely ignore. It would be just a mythological story about things that never really happened that means something to its adherents and gives them comfort. But no one would take it seriously as true. I would argue that the Bible does not allow us to interpret it in that way. So, ultimately, the fathers ended up saying that the God of the philosophers is the God of Israel because that is what the Bible itself teaches. The liberals are the ones reading pagan metaphysics into the Bible. Click To Tweet

Once we understand this, the history of the development of the Nicene doctrine of God in the fourth century comes into focus. The Christian doctrine of God, as it was formulated in the fourth century, consists essentially of a classical theist view of God integrated into a biblical, Trinitarian framework. The result is what I call Trinitarian classical theism, in which the simple, eternal, self-existent, immutable, fully actual, first cause of all that exists has spoken through the Hebrew prophets and become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. As a result, God cannot be understood merely as the God of the philosophers, but must be confessed to be the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This might shock some readers, but you argue that a modern relational view of God is actually a reversion to pagan mythology. If right, then modern theology isn’t just a different type of Christianity, it’s a different religion altogether. Please explain.

Modern relational views of God see God and the cosmos as operating on the same plane, as John Webster puts it. The relational God is not transcendent, does not have aseity and is not metaphysically separate from the creation. The God of relational theism is by nature related to the cosmos in such a way that he affects and changes the cosmos and the cosmos affects and changes him. He is a person like us only bigger, wiser and older. God is a disembodied Mind who exists in time. He is a person conceived on the model of human personhood, which, we know, is inherently relational. God needs the world in order to be himself.

Nicene Trinitarian theology, however, sees the relationality of God to be wholly internal to the simple, perfect, eternal being of God. The only distinction we can identify between the Father, Son and Spirit are the relations of origin: generation and spiration. These relations of origin are eternal and unchanging, and they are part of God’s own being, not ways by which he relates to creation. The missions of the Son and Spirit into the world must not be confused with the processions, which are internal to God.

The missions indeed involve a relation between God and the world but not in a two-way fashion such that God is changed by the world. As Augustine put it, when God becomes our refuge (Ps. 90:1), the change is a result of our faith. By placing our faith in God, he becomes our refuge, but not because God has changed but because we have changed.

Modern relational theism is an attempt to have Trinitarianism without classical theism, but the result is to deny that very thing which makes God different from the pagan gods of ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman mythology. The difference is the God of the Bible is the transcendent Creator of all that is not God, including the angels and other spiritual entities including the fallen ones who pretend to be gods worthy of worship and deceive the nations into idolatry and false religion. To put it as simply as possible: The false gods are relational because they are creatures; Yahweh is not relational because he is not a creature. Therefore, to worship a relational god is to worship the creature rather than the Creator, which is Paul’s definition of idolatry in Romans 1:22.

By the way, Paul says in that passage that “the invisible attributes,” that is, “the eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). So, the fathers reasoned, if Paul is right then how surprising is it really that a few of the best of the Greek philosophers dimly grasped the truth about the existence of God? Yet, most of the pagan world was worshipping the gods of mythology, which is also what we expect from Romans 1 as a whole. Today, modern theology is falling back into pagan mythological views of God insofar as it sees God as involved in two-way, mutually constitutive relations with the cosmos. God is either the cosmos as a whole or an entity within it. Either way God is not transcendent. Today, modern theology is falling back into pagan mythological views of God insofar as it sees God as involved in two-way, mutually constitutive relations with the cosmos. Click To Tweet

I’m not really saying anything terribly new. In his book, Christianity and Liberalism, written in 1923, J. G. Machen said that liberalism is a different religion from Christianity. He also said that historic Protestantism has more in common with the Roman Catholic Church than with liberalism because at least the Roman Church has not denied the Nicene doctrine of God. That is true.

These issues are not merely academic for you. Tell us a little about your own journey? How did you go from being “part of the problem” as you say, to part of the solution?

I did my doctorate under John Webster and my major theologian was Barth. I wrote a thesis on John Howard Yoder and emerged from doctoral studies at the end of the 1990’s as a Barthian pacifist. I was into relational theism, but I believed I was a Nicene Christian. Because of the work of Colin Gunton, John Zizioulas, Miroslav Volf and others I thought that the Cappadocians were social Trinitarians and thus the “real Trinitarians,” as opposed to Augustine who was a “mere monotheist.” After publishing my thesis on Yoder and a book on social ethics, I set out to write a book on the doctrine of God as the basis for social ethics. It was to be along the lines of “the Trinity is our social program” sort of thing.

I go into what happened in the preface to my forthcoming book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, so I’ll be brief here. Basically, in reading the church fathers and serious patristic scholarship by people like L. Ayres, M. R. Barnes, R. Williams, F. Young, J. Behr, K. Anatolios, etc., I became convinced that the whole “East versus West” narrative has no historical foundation, the Cappadocians decisively rejected social Trinitarianism, and all fourth century pro-Nicene theology was an integration of classical theism and biblical Trinitarianism. The single biggest problem we face is a loss of nerve when it comes to defending classical theism Click To Tweet

I had no “Damascus Road experience” – no visions or emotional crises – just a long slow change of mind as a result of reading and reflection. But now I can see how Evangelicals can find the whole relational theism thing to be attractive and I can see how people can easily be led astray. This knowledge is what drives me to write now. It is urgent that the church not go down this path of neo-paganism. Nothing else matters, ultimately, if our doctrine of God is not right.

How did Isaiah 40-48 prove foundational to your discovery of classical Christian theism?

Six years ago, I did not know much about the Book of Isaiah. But I did know that it was complex, profound and very important in the history of theology. When I first read Brevard Childs’ The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, my eyes were opened to the superiority of premodern exegesis and the inferiority of modern historical critical approaches. I began to study Isaiah because I suspected that answers to the deep questions of whether and how the doctrine of God is rooted in Scripture might lie within its pages. I was right.

I taught through Isaiah verse by verse in my adult Sunday School class from 2016-2018. Then I got the opportunity to teach a course on Isaiah at Tyndale and I began to do that every other year. Then I got the opportunity to write the commentary on Isaiah for the International Theological Commentary series and that is in process. I used Isaiah 53 as my main test case in Interpreting Scripture and I have four chapters on Isaiah 40-48 in Contemplating God.

I have become convinced that the main theme of the Book of Isaiah is that God is the Holy One of Israel. The problem of the book is how can a holy God keep an eternal, unconditional covenant (the Davidic covenant) with an unholy people (Israel). Chapters 40-48 offer the hope of a new exodus from Babylon to Jerusalem and a new creation in which the eschatological hope of God dwelling with his people is realized. The key verse is Isaiah 40:9, “Behold your God.” Everything hinges on who God is. Isaiah’s message of hope is rooted in the very nature of God, not merely in God’s words or God’s will. Those who say that we should avoid speculation about the eternal being of God and focus only on his actions in history are going against what Isaiah teaches. The Isaianic move to root the security of our hope as the people of God in the very ontological being of God is also made in the Psalms and it is the deepest answer the Bible gives to the problem of faith. If one does not understand this, one cannot understand the significance of the coming of Christ. Evangelicalism will drift off into neopaganism and die out unless it recovers Nicene orthodoxy. Click To Tweet

What I try to unpack in this book is the doctrine of God that we find in these chapters: God is the transcendent Creator who sovereignly rules over history and who alone is to be worshipped. The church fathers who developed the Nicene doctrine in the fourth century had to say that God is the God of the philosophers – the eternal, self-existent, simple, perfect, unchanging first cause – in order to do justice to what Isaiah teaches about who God is.

Why is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo so critical for a right understanding of the Creator-creature distinction?

Without the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, we do not have the God of Isaiah who rules the pagan empires and directs history to its telos in the Messiah. It is crucial that we understand that God differs from creatures not in degree, but in kind. God is not a projection of creaturely being and creation is not an extension of God’s being. God is the Creator and has no beginning, whereas every creature has a beginning and depends on God for its origin, as well as for its continuation in existence. Creation ex nihilo is the reason why Yahweh should be worshipped, and it is why no creature should be worshipped. It is the reason for the first and second commandments.

All forms of relational theism, from process theology to dynamic panentheism to open theism to theistic personalism to eco-feminism – all deny creation ex nihilo. The fact that many Evangelical Old Testament scholars are denying that Genesis 1 teaches creation ex nihilo should set off alarm bells. It is no wonder evangelical theologians are failing to uphold the Nicene doctrine of God if they buy into this kind of biblical interpretation. These evangelical Old Testament scholars are retracing the steps of the nineteenth century German higher critics as they revise biblical interpretation on the basis of philosophical naturalism. In fact, one could say that philosophical naturalism just is the denial of creation ex nihilo.

What is lost when we underemphasize transcendence? What would you say to the objection that classical theism makes God unapproachable, unknowable, and unrelatable (in a word – distant)?

What is lost is awe and mystery – in other words the worship of the church is undermined. We lose respect for God and our fear of him evaporates. He becomes a fellow creature with whom we can negotiate, rather than a holy God before whom we bow. Nothing is more important than worship. Even mission and evangelism are oriented to the goal of turning non-Christians into worshippers of the true and living God. If you want an idol in your own image you can have a cuddly little god who is your best friend forever. But that kind of God cannot save you from hell, cannot comfort you in the presence of death, and cannot overcome the evil all… Click To Tweet

As to the objection, I have no sympathy for it whatsoever. If you want an idol in your own image you can have a cuddly little god who is your best friend forever. But that kind of God cannot save you from hell, cannot comfort you in the presence of death, and cannot overcome the evil all around you. The last thing we need is a helpless idol. We need the real God and we do not get to design him to our specifications. He reveals himself for what he is, and our only choice is to bow in worship or rebel.

Many Christians start to squirm the minute they hear Christianity and Platonism used in the same sentence. Can you clear things up and help us move pass the many caricatures? What is the relationship between the two?

There is tremendous ignorance today about the history of philosophy and classical thought and culture in general, even among pastors and theologians. It is problematic for many reasons and this is one. The phrase “Christian Platonism” is a benign description used by patristic scholars to talk about the revisions of Neoplatonism made by church fathers like Augustine in the light of biblical revelation. By the time of Augustine, Platonism was an 800-year-old tradition and the central philosophical tradition in existence.

The fathers rejected the hedonism of the Epicureans, the pantheism of the Stoics and the materialism of the Atomists. At least the Platonists believed in a simple, eternal, perfect, unchanging God on whom this changing world of flux depends for it continued existence. So, the fathers could at least open a dialogue with them. Augustine, in The City of God, carefully evaluates Platonism and sees some strengths and weaknesses. He takes a few metaphysical concepts from them, corrects them on many points and calls them to become Christians. What I call Christian Platonism could just as easily be called “Augustinianism.”

In the fifth century, Neoplatonism and Christian Platonism were the two main intellectual systems available to an educated person and Christianity won out. So Christian Platonism mediated through Augustine became the basis for the Christian middle ages. It was modified and clarified by Thomas Aquinas and became known as scholastic realism. This philosophical system was the basis of post-Reformation Protestant scholasticism and was rejected by the secular Enlightenment. But it continued to influence Christians well into the twentieth century. Christian Platonism or Augustinianism is the philosophy of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and we can see it all over their works of fiction, as well as the apologetic writings of Lewis. I believe that the reason why Evangelicals are attracted to Lewis and Tolkien is because the metaphysics of Lewis and Tolkien is so biblical, even though most Evangelicals have no idea what it actually is that they like about Narnia and Middle Earth.

How would you respond to that old objection, “The classical view of God, that’s just a bunch of Greek philosophy in disguise!”

How a non-Christian Platonist from the fifth century would laugh at that one! He would point out that to imagine the unchanging, simple, perfect, first cause of the cosmos speaking, acting and becoming incarnate in the man Jesus is just a bunch of crazy talk.

Evangelicals should bear in mind that this objection is what nineteenth century liberal theologians claimed in order to justify their decision to jettison the metaphysics of the Great Tradition in favor of the metaphysics of Hegel. The liberals are the ones reading pagan metaphysics into the Bible. The burden of my forthcoming book is to show that the Nicene fathers taught the same doctrine of God as Isaiah. How is that possible if they got it from Greek philosophers?

Now this is ironic: you say that the heretics of the fourth century conformed more to Greek thought than the Fathers. How so?

In the debate between Athanasius and Arius, it was really Arius who proposed a Neoplatonic scheme in which God is related to the world through a mediator, the created Son, who is the highest creature. In his scheme the Son could mediate because he is divine in a sense, but also a creature. Athanasius recoiled from this in disgust because it eliminated the absolute Creator-creature distinction. For Athanasius, Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Son of God is eternally the Son. The Father and Son are mutually constitutive and co-eternal. Without the Son the Father would not be Father.

The pagan Greeks could conceive of God as totally separate in being and therefore unable to communicate with the creation. And they could conceive of a kind of divinity that was able to communicate with the creation because it was a creature of the one, high God. But what they could not conceive of was the God of the Bible, who is both utterly transcendent and mysterious and also, at the same time, able to speak and act in history. This idea of God comes from Genesis, Exodus and Isaiah, not from natural theology of any kind.

Evangelicals have a habit of rejecting or revising trinitarian classical orthodoxy. What revision of classical orthodoxy today poses the biggest problem for evangelicals?

The single biggest problem we face is a loss of nerve when it comes to defending classical theism: Divine simplicity, immutability, impassibility, aseity and all the other attributes that make up transcendence. I am convinced that this is the root of all the other problems we face, such as theistic personalism, theistic mutualism, open theism and social Trinitarianism.

It is commonly assumed that the strength of Evangelicalism is its biblical exegesis, but I would disagree. I think that evangelicals are up to their eyeballs in the liberal project of trying to do biblical exegesis on the basis of philosophical naturalism. They call it “methodological naturalism.” If we do not recover premodern exegesis and its metaphysical framework, we will be doomed to repeat the nineteenth century slide into liberalism in the twenty-first century. If we do not recover premodern exegesis and its metaphysical framework, we will be doomed to repeat the nineteenth century slide into liberalism in the twenty-first century. Click To Tweet

I know it is counter-intuitive to suggest that the problem with our speculative theology is our exegesis. But we have been looking at the problem from the wrong end. Here is the key: the Bible must be allowed to reform our metaphysics. Otherwise, we are doomed to relapse into pantheism.

Now that we’re on the subject of the Trinity, tell us, how does classical, Nicene trinitarianism differ from social trinitarianism?

The short answer is that Nicene theology is monotheistic but social trinitarianism is tri-theistic and, therefore, polytheism. The longer answer follows.

In classical, Nicene Trinitarianism we can say nothing about the difference between the three persons except what is revealed in Scripture, namely, the relations of origin. We cannot say what is the exact ontological difference between hypostasis and ousia. Originally these two Greek words were synonyms; the decision to apply one to the Father, Son and Spirit and the other to God in general was made in order for us to be able to say different things about God’s being and the three and not be confused. But we do not know what the difference is beyond the fact of the relations of origin. This is the border of mystery.

Social Trinitarianism, however, is impatient with the mystery. It reads a human concept of personhood into the word hypostasis with the result that it comes to be defined in purely creaturely terms. It makes each of the three a distinct center of consciousness with a separate will. Fourth century pro-Nicene theologians never did that; in fact, they explicitly rejected it. They taught that God has one will and that the operations of the three are inseparable. So, there can be no conflict between them. There cannot even be agreement between them because that implies a kind of change that would violate simplicity. The only way to say it is that there is one will and one power in God and each of the Father, Son and Spirit instantiate it perfectly. Social Trinitarianism, however, is impatient with the mystery. It reads a human concept of personhood into the word hypostasis with the result that it comes to be defined in purely creaturely terms. Click To Tweet

Social Trinitarianism is a kind of polytheism, not biblical monotheism. It has been heretical since the fourth century and it is not going to get any less heretical in the future no matter how many qualifications or redefinitions are proposed. There is one God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Few divine attributes have been criticized like divine simplicity, even within Evangelicalism. What is divine simplicity and what does it have to do with the Trinity? Might Basil of Caesarea and his book Against Eunomius help out contemporary evangelicals struggling to understand simplicity’s importance?

The best way to think about divine simplicity is to understand it as an apophatic qualifier. It marks out the mystery and identifies where rational explanation must stop. It denies that there is composition in God. God is not composed of parts. All that is in God is God.

The attributes are different human perspectives on the divine nature. We need many words to describe its multi-faceted beauty, but it is not because there are a bunch of things tied up with a string. The multiple perspectives are the result of creaturely ways of knowing applied to God. The most fundamental thing we can say is that “God is.” And that is part of why, when Moses asked God for his name, God said: “I Am.” Divine simplicity is understandable as a limit, but it does not explain how God is God in the depths of his mysterious being.

Readers may appreciate just how bold you are in your call to action. You claim, for example, that evangelical theology is the conservative wing of the liberal project. Why do you make this charge and is there hope?

As I mentioned, we need to renounce the liberal project, not just pursue a conservative version of it. Why? Because it is a dead end.

As for hope, of course there is hope for God’s people and the orthodox doctrine of God. When the classical world of the great civilization around the Mediterranean basin collapsed God just went up to the northern woods of Europe and created Christendom. He is doing something similar in Africa today. Don’t fret for God; He will be just fine. He does not need you or me or evangelical megachurches.

But what readers should really worry about is whether or not there is any future for a post-Christian Europe or for modern Evangelicalism as a movement. Evangelicalism will drift off into neopaganism and die out unless it recovers Nicene orthodoxy. Our hope is in the LORD, the God of Israel.

Craig A. Carter

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