Yahweh and the God of the Philosophers

Joseph Minich
Wednesday, March 24th 2021

Having clarified what we’re really asking when we ask if God exists, some may understandably be concerned that we risk replacing the God of Abraham with the God of the philosophers. That is to say, once the decision is made to wed biblical and philosophical descriptions of God, the inevitable result is that all the vital and living language of Scripture dies the death of a thousand qualifications. The God of history, and the God who is present in the story of each life – most especially, the God who meets us in the incarnation of Christ – this God is slowly revealed not to be the real show. It is, rather, the steppingstone through which we ascend to real knowledge of God who (on the backside) is profoundly non-historical, frozen in pure actuality, eternally static relative to the world of change – our world. Not only is this nauseating to the Christian heart, it appears to involve a defunct method of doing theology. Should we not rather attend to the spoken and incarnate word in order to understand God? And should not all qualifications rather be measured by the more divine mode of self-revelation and description, which is precisely the language of the Bible and, ultimately, the Man? Is this not the real show? Indeed, it is. Let us dwell in this concern and take it very seriously.

Perhaps one way through the morass is to interpret this problem – the relation of the God of covenant to the God of the philosophers – as a species of a more basic problem. To wit, does a human’s knowledge of God and relationship to God change over time? It would seem that we must, no matter other positions that we hold, answer this in the affirmative.

There is a long pedigree for a view that Adam possessed a prisca theologie that was later corrupted through his lineage. There is truth in this (that part of the history of man is a history of corrupted revelation), but it is non-obvious that we should imagine Adam as possessing a worked out system of doctrine. Physically a man, Adam existed at a very early stage of knowing and was expected to grow in the knowledge of God and of man. Humans are the sort of creatures who possess their end through a process, and this includes the end of knowing God and knowing how to “say” God well!

In this sense, then, we have reason to look at the history of revelation as a history of God’s “giving Himself” to men in certain circumstances. The revelation of the Old Testament is adequated to the cognitive environment of its receivers, an environment that has both continuity and discontinuity in the era of the New Testament and of today.

Before saying more, it is worth clarifying what I am not saying. Sometimes when people talk about divine accommodation to a cognitive environment, the idea is that our ancestors were primitive and lacked modern knowledge, and so God had to “lisp” to them in terms of their (from our perspective) errors. That is to say, God had to “play along” (in some ways) with their errors because He couldn’t reveal Himself otherwise.

I don’t think this is the right way to view divine accommodation, for two reasons. First of all, we need a better way of talking about what “playing along with an error” is. If a parent explains to their five-year-old that babies occur when mum and dad share a “special cuddle,” it is likely that the generated image in the child’s mind is not quite the right thing in a clinical way, but is actually closer to the truth in the (for lack of a better term) “realm of meaning” than if you had given them a clinical description. This is not quite captured in the notion of “playing along with an error.” But second, this is an incurious reading of the world of our ancestors. To put it plainly, what did it mean for them to imagine the world as a dome, the earth as flat, or inflected Medievally, to conceive of the earth as the center of all things? We frequently fancy ourselves to get what all of this means, but it is actually quite difficult to capture the lived world within which these descriptions had the phenomenological and immediate purchase that they did. There is reason to think, that is, that these ways of conceiving the world are not merely discardable scaffolding around spiritual truth, but precisely a vantage point that is not ultimately discardable in the progress of human knowledge or theology. If the old texts fail to speak to us, something in our imagination and attunement to reality has died.

So where does that leave us? Knowledge of God develops, but not necessarily from error to error, but rather from vantage point to vantage point. This is not dis-similar to the growth of knowledge in a human life. The descriptive world of the child is not in error, even when suffused with a porosity between facts and values. Rather, the young human’s knowledge is added to and continually re-integrated into larger and larger structures. But what is key, the mature man is deeply animated by what animates the child still. Indeed, it is a mark of maturity precisely to re-connect with and preserve the world of the child, albeit now from the vantage point of an elder. Christ said that only children can enter the kingdom. It is possibly true that this principle extends further, that only the child-like heart can fully grasp the deeper things of reality.

Viewed this way, it is also crucial to note that the very terms of classical theism developed inside the very same cognitive developments we see between the testaments. There is no question, as this point, that the New Testament reflects the influence of some of the mental habits of Greek discourse. This is continuous with much Judaism at the time, and is carried over (and very immediately expands) in the life of the apostolic fathers and on into the early church. Moreover, many are coming to see that the world of philosophical thought was never totally discontinuous from the world of so-called “myth.” What is the point here? The point is that the Bible itself, the revelation of God Himself, preserves and reflects growth in human knowing through massive intellectual change over centuries. There is, of course, substantive continuity between the testaments, as between the stages of a life. But there is also some change, and that discourse carries over (albeit without the same inspiration) into the life of the church.

And this is for the simple fact that human beings ask questions and answer them. The language of classical theism did not arise in the abstract, but in the concrete world of human questions. In one sense, all that classical theism is is a careful set of answers to very precise questions. All of the church’s creeds are this as well. This point bears repeating. Classical theism is entirely and only a discourse, a way of “saying God” relative to very precise inquiries. If these questions and their categories are not well understood, it is very likely that one will have an error in mind, even when accidentally or tribalistically saying the truth. In short, the legitimacy of the enterprise of classical theism as an intellectual project depends only and entirely on the legitimacy of those questions and the distinctions that generate/answer them.

“Maybe so,” someone might retort. But have we re-connected biblical and philosophical discourse about God? Or have we rather just created two ways of talking about God that can never be reconciled? And in such a case, given the greater discursive authority of Scripture over our own thoughts, shouldn’t we just discard all the fancy philosophical categories and just stick with the biblical ones, especially if they sound in tension? How might one answer this?

We should not take for granted that each of these speak in an incompatible language. Rather, they are speaking about different things, to a large extent. Or, said differently, to the extent that they are speaking about the same thing, they are doing so in a different way, and relative to different ends and questions. That said, arguably, even in Scripture, we find nascent “motions of the mind” that render a legitimacy to the sorts of questions that the philosopher has traditionally asked. I have argued elsewhere that we can see something of this in both Old and New Testaments – reflecting (therefore) in biblical revelation this development of human thought.

One possibly detects something like this in Paul’s attempt to discover cosmic “unity” in Christ. On the one hand, we live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). On the other hand, it is Christ in whom all things fit together (Col. 1:17). Moreover, Christ “brings unity” to all things in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1: 10). That’s an interesting connection. If you asked Thales what “the whole show” was about, he’d say “water.” If you asked Plato, he’d perhaps say “being.” If you asked Paul, I suspect he’d say “Christ.” But crucially, the point is not to say less than the Greeks, but to say more. The typical philosophical answer to the question of what unites all things points to a static structure. But reality is more than its scaffolding in the same way that a painting is more than its canvas and chemistry. One might say that, if reality were a work of art, metaphysics is a description of the canvas and chemistry, but these are all for a particular, for the world of human freedom and history. And for Paul, precisely in tying the meaning of that world together, Christ ties all things together – because the canvas is for the painting. If the Greeks point to the canvas, Paul points to a person who is both Logos (fulfilling the traditional role) for such unities, but who is also in history. Christ is the center both in being He “through whom” all creation is qua Logos, but also the center (the unity of all things) through being He “for whom” the whole show exists in the first place qua incarnation. The friendship of God with man through Christ, in the context of a redemptive story, is the cosmic tapestry through which all threads (historical and metaphysical) integrate.

Knowing this, it seems to me that we’re in a place to identify the relationship between the God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers. Rather than the biblical language being the scaffolding to get to the metaphysical description of God, the encounter with God in Christ is the thing itself relative to which all else is scaffolding. It is not that Christ is the God of the philosophers, but rather that (for reasons the philosophers fail to grasp!) the God of the philosophers is given a face in Christ. The Logos is flesh. This is unexpected, a total surprise, “foolishness” (in fact) to the Greeks. But because Christ transforms rather than destroys creation, the event of Christ does not discard, but rather advances the mind of man. We are still enduring the philosophical aftershock of the incarnation, and precisely in this has the classical tradition always sought not only to grasp the world of being (considered statically), but the world of persons and of relations, the world of history and change. Post-Christian philosophical discourse especially advanced the human understanding of the relation between being and history, of the philosophical understanding of the person, of the person as center to all things, and of the role that relation plays in reality. Why? Because after the incarnation, it is clear that the real show is not the world of ideas-qua-ideas, manifested in some embodied copy. Rather, the thing itself that manifests the beauty of God’s own life must be splayed across a philosophically knowable canvas which displays an art that can never be reducible to this mode of knowing.

And yet the final key is to see that the canvas is not accidental to the art. It is that which “holds the beauty just here.” And this is how the philosophical understanding of God ultimately relates to the knowledge of God through Christ. To know friendship with God through the living Christ is not the steppingstone to anything else. Nevertheless, centerpiece of reality that Christ is, to know and grow in anything is to grow in appreciation of the depth and the richness of Christ precisely because nothing ultimately fails to find its frame of reference, its final “place” in the tapestry that is grasped in the singularity of an incarnate divine Person. To embrace the body of Christ in glory will be to embrace a Person. One could also say that it will be to embrace the act of existence in which we are all suspended as limited participations in a body. To contemplate this is not trivial. To ask and answer questions about the most basic metaphysical architecture of reality is not to avoid the face of God in Christ. It is slowly to realize that, back of the gaze of Christ, is an infinite depth of Personhood, alive in a way that we do not fully comprehend. Moreover, to grow in the knowledge of Scripture (especially against its own backdrop) and of reality is to begin to see, with the whole Christian tradition, a progressive symmetry achieved through the dual starting points of philosophical discourse and Scriptural language. Once again, it is a symmetry begun in Scripture itself, and providentially handed over to the church in its theology to cultivate. And when we can discern different stages and environments of discourse throughout, it becomes clearer that the doctrine of the church on these matters has been driven very explicitly by motions initiated in the divine Word (and even echoed in other traditions through common grace) – but relative to our questions! If we can frame the tale that way, much of this tension would dissolve.

A final point is worth making. We do not know God as we will. We will eventually know as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). This involves both the embodied and intellectual senses of knowing, which are united in the knowing of a Person. Nevertheless, why should we not expect that there are some things that can be said about God, things we do not know now but will eventually know, that are hard to say? Why should it not be plausible that trying to understand God relative to some legitimate questions is exceedingly difficult and highly liable to error if you don’t know how to use the discursive tools? The more we penetrate into the mysteries of our universe in the sciences, the more we encounter realities that strain human understanding and description. How much more should this be true of the Author? Said plainly, the kind of tension that we perceive between biblical and philosophical language should not be surprising, a reality we should expect to encounter at some point on the path to understanding. The testimony of many who have taken this path, however, is that far from the livingness of Scripture receding, it rather is enlarged and always reveals itself to be ahead of us. Have we grasped the meaning of God’s name? That He is fire and light? That He is activity and life? That He is Personality and love? For the Christian philosopher, philosophy has no other ultimate end than the deeper appreciation of precisely these things – savored and enjoyed through Christ and His body.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

Read next: [ part 1 ] [ part 2 ] [ part 4 ] [ part 5 ] [ part 6 ]

Image: Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise, by Wenzel Peter (1745-1829). Photo by Rodney. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}. Cropped by MR.

Wednesday, March 24th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology