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The Empty Promises of Relational Theism

How Classical Theism Has Shaped My Spiritual Life

My first contact with theology was in the home. I grew up in what had been a Communist country until 1989, in Oradea, on Romania’s Western frontier with Hungary. My father, a chemical engineer by training, had taught himself English and theology. Ordained as a Baptist minister on the eve of the Romanian revolution, he had a passion for the Old Testament. With a complete embargo on theological literature during the final years of the Ceausescu regime, he had translated Sidlow Baxter’s Explore the Book – all 1700 pages, initially in handwriting, eventually transcribing it on a smuggled Olympia typewriter. His enthusiasm for theological learning was only matched by his passion for holiness, a constant theme in his preaching. He set a compelling example, and I quite naturally found myself walking in his footsteps towards ministry.

Theological Education

My theological training took place in a theological seminary founded immediately after 1989, the Emmanuel Bible Institute, currently Emmanuel University in Oradea, Romania. At that time the theological and academic energy of the place was incredible. What was most exciting at the time was the discovery of the Church Fathers. My first contact with theology was in the home. Click To TweetThis treasury of the faith came as something of a surprise for many of us, conditioned as we were to think of Eastern Orthodoxy, the majority religion in Romania, as being in need of evangelization. Confronted with the towering figures of Athanasius and Maximus the Confessor, the pop-theology of evangelicalism (that we had been exposed to) seemed positively childish and trivial. Together with patristic theology came a rediscovery of trinitarian doctrine – another point of contact with Eastern Orthodoxy. There were two primary influences in this rediscovery of the Trinity: the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae, one of the most influential 20th century Eastern dogmaticians; and the late Colin Gunton, who was teaching at that time at King’s College together with John Zizioulas, the late Metropolitan of Pergamon. Gunton had directly influenced at least two of our professors who studied under him, he came to teach several lectures at our seminary, and succeeded in setting the terms of the trinitarian resurgence among Romanian evangelicals during that time.

Romanian Evangelicals are broadly Arminian in their theology. Those of the Reformed faith in my country tend to be so as a matter of ethnicity, mostly Hungarian. I do not know why this Romanian Protestant tapestry came out the way it did – had we become Arminian by direct influence, or as a result of the conflict with Orthodoxy, as our primary interlocutor? Whatever the answer, a different inflection of evangelicalism was forged in this cauldron to the north of the Danube in the last two centuries. We were engaged in different conversations, primarily debates about Scripture and tradition, dead-versus-living religion, etc. Evangelicals were euphemistically called “repenters” – the imperative of obedience and changed life being so central to our preaching. Western controversies over faith and works, predestination, covenants did not detain us very much. Here the theological conversations found a different riverbed. My theological formation, as a result, was steeped in an unreflected Arminianism, and under the primary influence of Gunton, Zizioulas, and Catherine M. LaCugna’s social trinitarianism. Additional readings in Moltmann and Pannenberg cemented a neo-Protestant suspicion of classical metaphysics in general.

Graduate Work in Philosophy

For my masters degree, I turned to philosophy and to the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Many of the professors teaching in their master of philosophy program were of the French post-modern/Marxist type. My thesis was on the moral philosophy of Foucault and Levinas. This only consolidated my suspicion of “foundationalism,” and metaphysics. The same post-foundationalist trajectory continued during my doctoral studies under Anthony C. Thiselton, through no fault of his own, where my work focused on the postliberal theology of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck.Bob Yarbrough counseled me to embrace theology as a subject in its own right and to attend to classical theological loci, to establish myself as a theologian, and thus serve the church as well as the academy. Click To Tweet

The first flaws in the post-metaphysical arsenal were beginning to become clear to me during that time. Postliberals rejected a foundationalist epistemology and a neutral metaphysics as framing the interpretation of Scripture. Their mantra was that Scripture must absorb the world, not the other way around. This meant that presumptively neutral discourses such as science, history, philosophy should not be considered the primary language into which theological claims should be translated. Rather, the Bible supplied the language (and sometimes the culture) into which the “world” is to be absorbed. This was a form of “faith seeking understanding,” almost a kind of presuppositionalism (a la Cornelius van Til). It seemed to me clear that the meaning of Scripture cannot be so insulated from other truth that is accessible even outside of it, for example, through the sciences. Postliberals were pushing theology into a quasi-fideist bubble. This was deeply dissatisfying. At that time my reaction to this fideism was philosophically inspired. I turned to the work of Donald Davidson, the American neo-pragmatist philosopher, and to Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instructions about how to get out of the bubble.

Much of my approach to theology, at least up until 2006, was characterized by inter-disciplinarity, particularly attentive to the social sciences and philosophy. By that date I was already becoming suspicious of post-metaphysics, but my “turn” to classical theism had not yet taken place. I believe it was around 2005 when I received one of the most significant pieces of advice from one of my mentors, Bob Yarbrough who was at the time teaching New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He noted that most of my publications were inter-disciplinary and very philosophical, but I wasn’t demonstrating expertise in either theology or philosophy. He counseled me to embrace theology as a subject in its own right and to attend to classical theological loci, to establish myself as a theologian, and thus serve the church as well as the academy.

Discovering the Classics

That prompted a personal pivot to dogmatic theology, which started with a focused study of the doctrine of the atonement. This proved to be the small (sic.) doctrine that overturned the anti-metaphysical (band)wagon. Researching the history of the doctrine led me to “discover” the doctrine of divine simplicity. Now, of course, I had come across that doctrine, but in my mind it was easily dismissed as a relic of Hellenism, the devil’s smokescreen designed to prevent us from understanding the simple teaching of Scripture.

The second milestone happened when teaching on the Emerging Church in the early years of my teaching at Gordon-Conwell. I have always been critical of the Emerging Church, but I considered myself a post-foundationalist – along the same lines as Vanhoozer’s post-foundationalism, for example, or Alister McGrath’s critical realism. I wanted to do theology “after metaphysics” with the likes of Kevin Hector, for example, following in the wake of Wittgenstein. So I was rather nonplussed by the Emergent fretting about theological humility and their gloating in the undecidability of theological statements, their jouissance at having only small “t” truth, as opposed to capital “T” truth. My response to the Emergent at that time was: we do not have definitive knowledge about any empirical reality anyway, since we operate with conceptual constructs that are not pulled straight from reality (per Quine’s “myth of the given”). Theological language works, just as mundane everyday language, not because it represents, but because it provides us with tools that work (a very pragmatist position). We do not have to reconnect language and reality, the two form an inextricable matrix anyway. What I began to realize around that same turning point of 2012 is the theological insufficiency of this position. It was entirely uninformed by a theology of creation, but also by a theology of God and the divine attributes. I began to realize that when I attended more closely to the astonishingly penetrating theology of language of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Cappadocians. What started to bother me to the point of irritation was how the Emergents acted as if their diagnosis of the predicament of theological knowledge and language was a recent discovery. When in fact it was as old as theology. This irritation at their condescension very soon gave way to a basic nausea at their books. In the classroom this manifested as an outright remorse of wasting my students’ time with Emergent theological kitsch. It’s not as if the books were all rubbish, don’t get me wrong. But the sense I had was that my students really were craving for bread, for solid food, and I was feeding them stones and fast food. It was a frightfully embarrassing situation at the end of a semester-long class on the Emerging Church having to apologize to my students for wasting their time with McLaren, Jones, Pagitt, Rollins, Bell and others, and encouraging them to turn to the classics, particularly Augustine and Aquinas.As I dove into the classics, I became aware of a huge difference, not only in theological epistemology, but a basic stance with regard to what theology and the Christian religion is all about – namely realities of a supernatural… Click To Tweet

As I dove into these classics, I became aware of a huge difference, not only in theological epistemology, but a basic stance with regard to what theology and the Christian religion is all about – namely realities of a supernatural order. It was as if the world inhabited by the classics was magic, full of mystery, one that invited praise, adoration and fear. Theology was not something to be taken lightly, but to approach only through purification and prayer, and always under the guidance of the Great Tradition. How sharp the contrast was with a “pragmatic” theology, so often encountered here in the United States, but also in much of the theology I had encountered in my home context. It is not as if supernatural realities were not professed, but they were all too easily rendered in natural categories.

The “mystery” espoused by Postmoderns and Emergents was only the vacuum between the physical molecules, or the sum of all created parts, Schleiermacher’s “whole,” which can only be intuited, or postulated. There was indeed something mystical about this, something which exhausted the power of rational thought. But its mystery was only a function of what we already know, even though not something to be known directly – an abstract mysterium, not the scorching and crackling burning bush, the holy ground that kills – and gives life. In the Bible transcendence is concrete, intimate, and personal. It summons and demands, it commands and is commanding. It inspires fear, awe, trepidation. It is not a blank space we’re invited to fill, the invitation to our free human contribution and response! The emergent mystery is the emptiness of the house cleared of the demons of foundationalism, the darkness of unknowing, necessary and useful in its place, but still incomparable to the light of glory, the fragrance of holiness, the sound of Pentecostal rushing wind and the heat of the consuming fire.It was as if the world inhabited by the classics was magic, full of mystery, one that invited praise, adoration and fear. Click To Tweet

The conceptual arsenal of classical theism, far from being the pompous ceremonial attire of a proud natural reason striving to attain to metaphysical heights, struck me as being the sack and cloth of a humble, broken, and poor theologian, a confession of the wholly otherness of God, a salute to the clear demarcation line between Creator and creature. Simplicity, its governing concept, doesn’t represent anything. It gestures toward the source and origin of every perfection. In lumine tuo videbimus lumen – In Your light we see the light! By simplicity we see, in its light we are able to see the perfections as they are reflected on created surfaces. I wasn’t seeing any of this because of a stance, an attitude, a supercilious posture of, at best, intellectus quaerens fidem. That is, if ever it reaches the faith it presumes to seek.

The Empty Promises of Relational Theism

It was much the same with the question of the suffering of God. Moltmann had initially persuaded me of the virtues of divine passibility. He came highly recommended when I first encountered him. It wasn’t just that theologians whom I respected, like Dumitru Stăniloae, a Romanian Orthodox theologian, one of the greatest of the twentieth century, went to study with him and highly praised him – Moltmann had street-cred, he had experienced WWII, albeit in German uniform, and had been a prisoner of war in England, near Nottingham. He had seen the horrors and seemed to know how to speak convincingly and credibly to others who have experienced them. What message could be more persuasive than that God himself knew suffering? In the face of the manifest failure of all theodicy this alone can provide hope – a suffering God. I was immediately convinced. It was partly my Protestant sensibility and suspicion of reason and philosophy. It was also, it needs to be said, crass ignorance of patristic theology. I had no antibodies against viruses like the Hellenization thesis (Harnack and others). Philosophy, natural reason, Greek metaphysics – these were the Leviathan standing to consume the scriptural narratives, the Hebraic modes of thought and the paradoxes of Christian theology. How mistaken I was to think that classical theology and theism is all about reason and comprehension. How gullible in the face of the artificial antinomies (cataphatic/apophatic, natural reason/revelation, Greek/Hebrew).I had no antibodies against viruses like the Hellenization thesis. Philosophy, natural reason, Greek metaphysics – these were the Leviathan standing to consume the scriptural narratives. Click To Tweet

Eventually, I began to see Moltmann’s response as amounting to little more than sentimentalisms. The disenchantment had something to do with pursuing the logic of his position: God does not hold himself aloof, but risks himself, empties himself out in time, gives himself to the waters of history. So much emotional capital was invested in this position. But is this truly comforting? What if… God and I, we both drown together? In virtue of what does God ultimately undo the great horrors, if he too may fold under their weight? To put it in terms of the cross, who resurrects Jesus if God himself dies? The thought of a divine fellow-sufferer gives a short-lived comfort. Relational theism ultimately sacrifices God on the altar of history, ultimately resolving itself into a paganism that cannot truly confess the Shema of Israel.

It was Barth and Aquinas that provided the healing serum, that disenchanted me from relational theism. Barth had always been at the periphery of my vision, to be sure. But it was mostly his Christocentrism that commanded my attention – typically in contra-balance with Pannenberg’s historicism. I hadn’t truly attended to Barth’s doctrine of the wholly otherness of God, his doctrine of divine attributes, aseity, simplicity, and impassibility. A family friend from the UK gifted me the entire set of Barth’s Dogmatics – against counsel that it might turn me neo-Orthodox! And yet Barth was still too critical of classical theism, too suspicious of its Hellenism.  It was Aquinas that gave the final blow to my relational theism. I understood immutability, impassibility, aseity, and simplicity as being different facets of the same thought, or rather the beginning of all thought: self-subsisting being itself. How badly I had misunderstood the whole project of classical theism – to think of it as an entitled metaphysic, aiming to reduce the mystery to concept. How far removed from that was Aquinas! What a caricature of the man so deeply influenced by Pseudo-Dyonisius, and so imbibed with the scriptures!

Conviction’s Proper Stance

The theological conviction so distrusted by Emergents and Postmoderns is the energy of knowledge. Conviction arises not from a mastery of the object, but out of being seized by the Logos dwelling deep within the nature of things. Its logic is not that of mastery, but of submission. Click To TweetIt is the desire to grasp reality, the natural movement of the intellect towards its perfection in God. It is not mere curiosity – itself a force of the will still in search of an object. Conviction arises not from a mastery of the object, but out of being seized by the Logos dwelling deep within the nature of things. Its logic is not that of mastery, but of submission. Its proof is readiness for martyrdom: sufficient to die for, deflating all desire to control. Its stance is gratefulness. How sweet the conviction that feels no compulsion to convince others, although it surely desires others to “suffer” it. Theological assurance is best expressed in the life of the martyr. Epistemic arrogance is unnatural to it. It does not naturally resolve into epistemic imperialism – it is best exemplified by the martyr, not by the king.

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