[asa] an Archimedean point in theology? (was: natural theology, bad and good)

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Tue May 05 2009 - 02:30:01 EDT

Dear George:

Thanks again for your latest remarks. I think that I am starting to understand your position better now.

I'd like to focus on just one main idea here, and start it off by making some remarks on what you've said here and in earlier posts about the Exodus.

You've said that the account of the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea seems to you to be "hyperbolic". You've also said that the accounts of God boasting, and of God ordering the death of cities, etc., reflect an earlier notion of God that Israel later transcended. Now as a modern, (supposedly) enlightened person, I tend to agree with you. I tend not to want to believe in a God who orders the death of innocents, gloats over military victories, etc. And I also prefer to think of the more spectacular miracles as hyperbolic. But I wonder. Even though you are critical of Lessing in some respects, aren't you in agreement with him in other respects? Isn't there something of the "education of the human race" notion in your remarks that I've summarized above? Isn't it true that Lessing's reading of the Bible, with its "progressive" notion of God, starting with pagan savagery, then moving up to a higher conception in the Law, and to a still higher one in the Prophets, and to the highest peak in the Gospels, is quite different from the readings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc.? And doesn't that raise the question: has Lessing hit upon a truth about the Bible that traditional commentators mainly missed, or is Lessing imposing upon the texts an idea of "progress" that springs from modern thought, and is alien to the spirit of the texts? I'm not dogmatizing one way or the other; but isn't this a legitimate question?

And that raises a larger question: Where would be the Archimedean point upon which a Christian theologian could, as it were, sit "above" Lessing on the one hand, and above the traditional commentators on the other, set them upon the scales, and decide which is "closer to true Christianity"? Since you do not apparently acknowledge the pre-modern theological traditions -- say, up to about 1600 or 1650 or so, by which time-orthodox Lutheranism, Calvinism, Thomism, etc. had taken shape -- as *the* standard of true Christianity, then what is the standard? Would it be, for example, all decisions agreed upon by the Seven Ecumenical Councils? Or perhaps the Creeds? (but which ones? and aren't they too sketchy to be sufficient?) Or perhaps the writings of particular early Fathers? Or the Bible? Or the New Testament? Or the Gospels? Or Romans? When we say, position X is more truly Christian than position Y, what measuring stick are we using?

The advantage of the position of many ID people, and of YECs and OECs etc., is that they can point to at least one standard: the Bible. They argue that all later theologians must be judged by their conformity to, or lack of conformity to, the teaching of the Bible. Now there is of course variation among these people regarding what the teaching of the Bible is, how literally certain passages must be taken, etc. But the principle is that it is the Bible which judges Augustine, not Augustine the Bible; the Bible which judges Lessing, not Lessing the Bible; and so on. And from their point of view, it may well look as if you are allowing Lessing, in at least some cases, to judge the Bible, by declaring that certain of its teachings are less valid than certain others, and that certain of its teachings are so primitive that they are no longer in force for Christians (or for that matter, for Jews).

It seems to me that once you grant the varying quality of the different parts of the Bible, as Lessing does, you face all kinds of problems. For example, the Creeds are allegedly derived from Biblical statements, e.g., the Prologue to John. But if the status of the Bible itself is in doubt, given that it is known to be less than perfect, can the statements from which the Creeds are drawn be trusted? Maybe so; but doesn't this need an argument? So, for example, if the Exodus story is hyperbolic, as it may well be, isn't it possible that some of the Gospel stories are hyperbolic as well? And could this not have theological implications, even for the Creeds?

From the point of view of conservative Protestants, your views would seem to be de-stabilizing. They would seem to cast doubt upon the foundations, by rendering everything (Biblical interpretation, the relation between the Testaments, the relation between the tradition and text) problematic and open. How would you reply to this? It seems to me that you have two options:

1. Argue that not everything is up for grabs; insist on certain rock-solid truths that cannot be doubted.

2. Argue that the nature of Christianity as a religion is necessarily to create such instability, so that people will not seek their security in a book or in a set of doctrines, but in something radically more mobile and elusive, the risen Christ.

If you take position 1, I think you will find that, even if you assert rock-solid faith in the Creeds, your opponents are going to want more; they will want to hear more definite statements about the Bible, about miracles, about historicity, etc. Otherwise, they will say, the Creeds which you affirm are built on shifting sand.

If you take position 2, the more daring position, you are going to have to work very hard to convince your opponents that your position is not just a high-sounding cover-up for not having any clear stance on anything. And I say that not implying any insincerity on your part; it is just a charge which will naturally arise.

I am not attacking here, just thinking aloud. And my lack of interest in much of modern theology is connected with these thoughts, in a general way. I do not see how modern theology can be reliable, until it has declared itself on these larger questions which I'm addressing to you. What is the Archimedean point for John Haught, for example? How does he determine that X is Christian and Y is not? How does Hartshorne determine it? How does Harvey Cox determine it? How does Rauschenbusch determine it? How does Hans Kung determine it? And Gregory Baum? And John Shelby Spong? And J. A. T. Robinson? As I read many of these people, I find myself going around in circles, not knowing where the foundations are, not knowing what the rock-bottom theological assumptions are. I see a bit of quantum theory here, a bit of chaos theory there, a bit of process theology here, a bit of existentialist theology there, a bit of "Hebraic" emphasis here, a bit of condescension toward "Hebraic" thinking as pre-scientific there, an emphasis on the Logos here, an emphasis on the Holy Spirit there, an emphasis on the mighty acts of God here, an emphasis on kenosis there, an emphasis on feminism here, an emphasis on economic justice there, an endorsement of historical criticism here, an endorsement of "literary" readings there, an emphasis on providence and foresight here, an emphasis on "openness" there. Theology today seems to be a grab-bag of contemporary concerns and speculative ideas and uncoordinated scholarly methods, often loosely and questionably connected with the Bible and the classical theological traditions. It seems to be a free-for-all, with no clear rules.

I don't seem to have this problem when I read the older authors. I'm no Calvinist, but I do have a sense of what lines Calvin will not cross. The same for Aquinas, or Augustine, etc. And I have a sense that, while all of them paid some attention to the best scientific and scholarly thought of their days, their theology was not driven by such thought to the extent that modern theology is. They seem to be, as it were, more centered, less reactive, less bounced around by contemporary currents of thought, and therefore more focused, more in control of their theological task. As a result, older theology is much more easily defined. The question is why so many modern theologians find it so much harder than the traditional ones to establish solid ground. Your thoughts on this matter might be helpful.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; asa
  Sent: Monday, May 04, 2009 11:50 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Re: natural theology, bad and good

  Cameron -

  Below are some of my reflections on your most recent post in this thread as well as some material that I omitted from my Saturday post for want of time. I haven't replied to all the points you raise as you haven't to all of mine. Obviously we could both write a lot more - & in fact have.


  First I should note this statement of yours: “I am for the most part uninterested in any theology written after about 1600-1700 anyway, except to the extent that it helps to revive and explain for modern audiences the pre-modern tradition of theological thought.” I suspect that will ensure a large gap between your views & mine, in spite of whatever agreement we may reach on details. I have great respect for the Christian theological tradition & insist that it be taken seriously in current theological work. But we’ve learned a lot about the world & humanity in the past few centuries, including the knowledge gained by the natural sciences. As I’ll say below about philosophy, those things have a ministerial but not a magisterial role in theology. They can’t dictate our theology but need to be taken seriously if we believe that the world that science explores is indeed God’s creation. In any case I see nothing special about 1700 as an endpoint.


  Then let me reiterate what I said in a brief post yesterday. The problem with the natural theology as a prelude to proper Christian theology is shown by the examples I’ve noted through Christian history - & not just the 17th & 18th centuries – of the tendency for natural theology to take over. The late medieval theology against which Luther reacted is another example. These are not just isolated cases & I am not just presenting an abstract slippery slope example. I think this tendency shows a fundamental problem with that approach, & that the problem can be identified as the fundamental sin of idolatry that Paul speaks of in Rom.1. & since natural theology enters the system prior to the message of the cross, or indeed any indictment of sin, there is really little to check this tendency.


  The answer, it seems to me, is clear: Start with God’s self-revelation and then, when with the knowledge of who the true God is, look at the natural world to see where and how that God is at work.


  Again, you’re of course right that Aquinas, saw a quite limited role for a natural knowledge of God. So did the theologians of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Quenstedt, e.g., says “The natural knowledge of God is not adequate to secure everlasting life, nor has any mortal ever been redeemed, nor can anyone ever be redeemed, by it alone.” But they were still, IMO, starting people off on the wrong track. The supposed limitation of the role of natural religion is unstable, a paper barrier that is all too easy to breach.


  As far as theology is concerned (note the qualification) I think it’s misleading to speak about “coordinating” Athens and Jerusalem. Philosophy (as shorthand for all theology’s ancillary disciplines) is needed for theology but, as Lutherans say, is to have a ministerial and not a magisterial role. Human reason can’t pass judgments on the fundamental assumptions of theology that come from revelation, but comes into play in developing the consequences and implications of those assumptions. The belief that a specific Jewish carpenter dying on a cross is the embodiment of the creator of the universe seems crazy to normal ways of thinking, but that’s where we begin. Theology, like the sciences, is not to be judged by the a prori plausibility of its postulates but by their consequences. If heliocentric astronomy or special relativity had been judged by the apparent plausibility of their presuppositions, they would have died in infancy.


  Your point that both IDers & I are critical of Lessing is interesting but doesn’t mean we’re in agreement. One thing that may bring out the difference is Lessing’s claim that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason," a claim that challenges any foundation of theology on an historically contingent event like that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One response is to look for a basis for theology that isn’t contingent, in aspects of the world that are in principle available to everyone at all times & places, like the subject matter of the natural sciences, or in pure reason. This, of course, is to yield some kind of natural theology. A theologian of the cross, OTOH, will reply that searching for necessary truths of reason is the task of philosopher rather than theologians.


  Then on kenosis, divine action, ID & your comments on God “showing off.” A lot of people talk about kenotic views of divine action in what I consider questionable ways & some reviewers have misunderstood what I myself have said about it. Kenosis, as I said, is divine self-limitation, not divine absence, & it cannot be a complete theology of divine action because it emphasizes what God doesn’t do rather than what God does. As I’ve argued in several places (e.g., http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2001/PSCF3-01Murphy.html), an adequate view of divine action requires 3 components: God’s cooperation with creatures in their actions (what Barbour calls a Neo-Thomist view), God’s self-limitation to the capacities of creatures in that cooperation (kenosis) & faith (because we do not “observe” God acting but the “tools” God uses).


  You can come at that idea of divine self-limitation in a couple of ways. If “true theology and the recognition of God are in the crucified Christ” then the kenosis of Christ will be seen as revelatory of God’s character & MO generally. ( N.B. That is an “if-then” statement, like my earlier one that if one adopts a kenotic view then something like MN follows. If not then of course not.) OTOH if we start with belief that God is active in the world and take into account the empirical fact that the vast majority of phenomena in the world conform to the kind of regularities that science studies then it seems that God must somehow be limiting what he does with creatures instead of acting in completely capricious ways. One way of stating that uses the old terminology of God’s use of his ordinate rather than his absolute power.


  In discussing this at any length I have always tried to qualify the claim that God acts within the capacities of creatures with phrases like “in the vast majority of cases.” Because of course God may have reasons to act in other ways on occasion & scripture gives some warrant for thinking that he has. In addition, Godel’s theorem suggests that the universe must be logically open & that no set of consistent mathematical can describe all phenomena.


  & the laws or patterns to which God limits divine action are, as you say, God’s creation. I agree that we can’t know a priori that the particular patterns people call neo-Darwinism can account for the development of life. I have never, BTW, identified myself as a “Darwinist” (with or without neo) but have instead said things like “Darwin and Wallace’s concept of natural selection is at least a major component of how life has evolved.” It may well be that some fundamentally new idea is required, something like Planck’s idea of discontinuity in energy transfer that radically changed physics.


  But ID makes no contribution here. Even if one grants for the sake of argument that there are biochemical phenomena whose development current evolutionary theory can’t account for, ID suggests no alternative way, no “tools” God could have used, to bring about that development. So are these phenomena miraculous in the sense of being beyond the capacity of creatures? Here appeal to biblical miracles doesn’t help because those miracles have either a salvific or semeiotic character – or both. A sign like the feeding of the multitudes points to the presence of the creator who is working all the time in the world to provide food for creatures through non-miraculous means. (Lewis’ discussion is good here.) There is no theological reason at to think that God ongoing work of creation in the world is miraculous.


  What about God “showing off”? I had in mind, of course, statements like Johnson’s about believing in a God who “left his fingerprints all over the evidence.” (En passant, what would you think of someone who painted your house & left his fingerprints all over it? & how do you know whose fingerprints are at a crime scene unless you’ve got them in a data base to start with?)


  Is there biblical justification for that kind of language? Signs like Jesus walking on the sea are not so much “showing off” as identifying himself. Then, as you say, there are texts like those of the Exodus in which God is represented as boasting that he will “get glory” &c. 1st, I think that picture of God as a boastful warrior has to be seen as a stage in the development of Israel’s understanding that eventually gets transcended, rather in the way the picture of God demanding the extermination of whole populations gets transcended by the picture of a God who reaches out to all nations & commands love of enemies. In any case, the Exodus is a single salvific event, & provides no justification for the idea that God is continually showing off with things like the bacterial flagellum.


  Interesting that you mention Paul Santmire. Paul is a friend of mine – we served together on the task force that developed the ELCA’s environmental statement & he was pastor of a parish in Akron just a few miles from me for several years. He did his doctoral work on Barth’s doctrine of creation & is critical of some aspects of that (as you’ll know from the final chapter of The Travail of Nature) but for reasons rather different from yours I think. We don’t agree on everything but Paul’s never expressed any disapproval of my theological approach that he’s expressed has had to do with it perhaps being too anthropocentric rather than the kind of issues we’ve. Of course I can’t speak for him about that.




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Received on Tue, 5 May 2009 02:30:01 -0400

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