February 3, 2009

Who Are Those Guys?

Filed under: — William Witt @ 3:54 am

Every theologian needs historical mentors, figures from the past of sufficient theological stature to provide examples and guidance as to how the theological task should properly be done. There are, of course, many who have played such roles in Christian tradition. One thinks of Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin. At the same time, it is not enough that one’s mentors be of high caliber, but also figures to whom one has devoted enough time studying to claim truthfully that they have played the role of mentors in one’s theology.
Three theologians have played the role of mentor for me in the way in which I am talking about. They are Thomas Aquinas, Jacobus Arminius, and Karl Barth. They are the three conversation partners in whose theology I have most immersed myself, and about whom I can say I have read enough of their theology to say that they have been mentors.

All three have in common that movements are called by their names, “Thomism,” “Arminianism,” “Barthianism.” All three have been subjects of controversy and generate rabid antipathies, as well as great loyalty. All three also have in common, I think, that their views are not adequately represented by the movements called by their names. Thomas was not a “Thomist.” Arminius was not an “Arminian.” Barth was not a “Barthian.”

What all three have in common, I think, is a common vision of how theology should be done. All three understood the role of the theologian to be that of penetrating to the intelligible subject matter of revelation as witnessed to in Scripture. All three understood theology as an act of following the lead of revelation. Theology is, as St. Anselm, said, “faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Thus, all three used an a posteriori as opposed to an a priori approach in their work. All three also believed that God’s transcendence meant that the task of the theologian was one of both respecting and penetrating the mystery of the subject matter of revelation. Because theology is a penetration into that which inherently transcends the limitations of human reason, it is at heart an impossible task. Yet, given God’s revelation as attested to in Holy Scripture, the theologian is given both permission and responsibility to attempt to grasp with fear and trembling this inherent intelligibility, certainly not exhaustively, but truthfully, in all its mystery. Though God remains mystery, God has indeed spoken, and what he has said can be understood.

Because all three made the attempt to tackle the central subject matter of revelation, all three wrestled with the “big” issues: the doctrines of the Trinity, the relation between God and creation, Christology and atonement, the nature of human redemption.

Finally, all three were what I would call ontological theologians. By “ontological” I mean that they made the move from common sense realism (consideration of known realities in relation to the knower as knowing subject) to critical realism (consideration of the relations of realities in themselves independent of their relation to the knower as knowing subject, even if one can only know of those inherent inner intelligibilities because one has first come to know them in relation to oneself). Thus, Philip Melanchthon’s assertion that we know Christ only in his benefits must be qualified by the Medieval scholastic distinction between the ordo essendi (order of being) and the ordo cognoscendi (order of knowledge). At the level of knowledge, God is known first as he acts propter nos (for us). But at the level of being, the in se (in itself) precedes the propter nos. The great insight of Barth’s exposition of the Trinity in Church Dogmatics 1/1 is that if revelation is to give a true account of God’s acts and speech on behalf of sinful humanity, then God must be in himself who he has revealed himself to be in his revelation. God can be for us only because he first exists in himself as Triune. There is no economic Trinity without the immanent Trinity.

In identifying Aquinas, Arminius, and Barth in this way I am distinguishing them first from what we might call theologians of proclamation—like Luther—who dealt with the great realities,but nonetheless dealt with them almost exclusively from the perspective of “common sense” realism. When Luther did engage in ontological speculation (as in his doctrine of “ubiquity” or his determinist account of predestination), he got himself into trouble. Luther would no doubt have considered “ontological” theologians to be practitioners of the theology of glory, for which he had no use. Yet such a task is necessary if theology is not to remain obscurantist. Without those who were willing to tackle the task of ontological theology, we might all be modalists or subordinationists or monophysites, or, worse yet, Arians or Nestorians or Episcopal bishops.

At the same time it is important to distinguish Aquinas, Arminius, and Barth from the common caricature of the “metaphysician,” or the “philosopher of religion,” or the “natural theologian.” Certainly Barth would not fall into this category. His rejection of natural theology is well known. But so would Aquinas, who is wrongly considered primarily a “philosopher.” Arminius is thought to be the theologian of “free will” (again, wrongly, in my opinion), certainly a philosophical issue, but I think rather he was trying to correct an inadequately thought-out determinist and voluntarist philosophical schema that had been imposed on the subject matter of revelation, in light of a more carefully nuanced and biblically-oriented understanding of Scripture’s subject matter.

Briefly, what have I learned from each of the three? I admit that I first read each one for the wrong reasons, but slowly and gradually they taught me the right reasons.

When I first started reading Aquinas, I was interested in apologetics (as were many Evangelicals a generation ago), and I thought I could take the arguments for the existence of God, the “analogy of being,” and Thomist epistemology, and spit out the Catholic theology like so many bones. I was reading Jacques Maritain and Eric Mascall, and I thought that I could be something like a Maritainian Evangelical.

It was Methodist pacifist Stanley Hauerwas who introduced me to Aquinas’s ethics, and helped me see that Aquinas was a theologian of grace. The starting point for Aquinas’s ethics is the orientation of all human beings toward union with God in the beatific vision. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the key to what he understands it means to live a moral life. The fall and justification by grace alone are central chapters in his story of who we are and how we get to where we are going. And Aquinas’s distinction between the “Old Law” and the “New Law” is really about the necessity of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ for the re-creation of humanity so that we might achieve our teleological goal of union with God in the beatific vision. Needless to say, this has little to do with the so-called “natural law” ethics that so many have believed is really what Aquinas’s moral teaching is all about.

Roman Catholic theologian David Burrell helped me to understand that the relation between God and the world in Aquinas was not a matter of “natural theology,” but of using the right tools to articulate the Christian doctrine of creation from nothing, something certainly not found in Aristotle.

As I began to read Aquinas as well as his interpreters, e.g., Étienne Gilson, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Sokolowski, Josef Pieper, Norris Clarke, I went through a process that paralleled the revision of interpretation of Thomas in the twentieth century, from seeing Thomas (1) as an Aristotelian philosopher in Catholic dress, a “natural theologian” or “metaphysician,” who showed that natural reason led to philosophical conclusions that just happened to agree with Christian faith (Aquinas as tool for apologetics); (2) to understanding Aquinas as a “Christian philosopher,” someone whose philosophy was still “natural theology,” but whose faith provided a kind of guidance or corrective to Aristotle’s limitations;(3) to understanding Aquinas as a Christian theologian who used whatever tools he could find, whether from Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, or Damascene, to penetrate the inherent intelligibility of the subject matter of Christian revelation as witnessed to in the Scriptures and the Creeds, but who radically baptized and corrected his sources in the light of revelation.

Similarly, I first read Arminius when I was interested in the questions of grace, free will, and predestination that were avidly discussed among those of us who were undergraduates at an Evangelical liberal arts college. What I found in Arminius was an entire theological vision that had trinitarian and christocentric emphases. Not so unusual as one might think, Arminius was also a Protestant Scholastic who read Aquinas, through whom he seems to have rediscovered the importance of a proper understanding of creation to have a correct understanding of grace. (The supralapsarians were also Scholastics, but echoed themes found in Duns Scotus.) Arminius disagreed with supralapsarian predestinationism not because he imposed a notion of autonomous human freedom on the text of Scripture, but because supralapsarianism itself imposed a philosophical construction of determinist voluntarism it had inherited from late Medieval theology on Scripture in a way that distorted the inherent intelligibility of the subject matter of revelation. Arminius did not believe in “free will,” but in a will that had been set free from bondage to sin through the redeeming and transforming work of Christ. He rejected supralapsarian Calvinism because he believed it distorted the heart of the Christian message so that grace was no longer good news.

Accordingly, when I wrote my dissertation on Arminius, I focused on his entire theological vision of creation, redemption, and grace, saving his discussion of grace, free will, and predestination to the last couple of chapters, where it belonged. An Evangelical scholar who was somewhat sympathetic to the “Openness of God” movement responded with disappointment after he asked for and read only the last two chapters of my dissertation—the ones on grace and free will. He complained that Arminius was not an Arminian at all, but really some kind of “soft Calvinist.” Well, no. Arminius was a Reformed Catholic, a child of the Reformation who had read not only Calvin and Luther (and probably Melanchthon), but also Thomas. Richard Hooker provides a close parallel among Anglicans. Interestingly, the one real Calvinist on my dissertation committee was just as dissatisfied with Arminius. He just could not believe that Arminius was anything more than a kind of Protestant Erasmian, and certainly not that he was some kind of Evangelical Thomist. But, of course, the one real Thomist scholar on my committee agreed with my reading.

Finally, Barth. I first started reading Barth when I was also reading the other great figures of what was then called Neo-orthodoxy and the “biblical theology” movement of the mid-twentieth century, but whom I prefer to designate as “critical orthodoxy”—not only Barth, but Emil Brunner, the Niebuhr brothers, Oscar Cullmann, Walther Eichrodt, Joachim Jeremias. Wolfhart Pannenberg was my real inspiration at that time, and I bought into the usual criticism of Barth that he was an irrational fideist. Pannenberg resonated with the emphases of Evangelical apologetics of the time. He believed that the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ were rationally demonstrable. His starting point was the resurrection of Christ (“Christology from below”), not Barth’s emphasis on the Word (“Christology from above”). Pannenberg complained that Barth tried to do theology from God’s “point-of-view.” Pannenberg’s focus on “revelation as history” and the resurrection as the “proleptic anticipation of the eschaton” provided correctives to the limitations of Evangelical emphases on the “inerrancy of Scripture” and dispensationalist eschatology.

There is much that is valuable in Pannenberg’s project. Barth’s later writings, for example, his Evangelical Theology, echo the themes of the “biblical theology” movement that Pannenberg shares, e.g., the emphasis on revelation or salvation in history and the centrality of the resurrection as the starting point for theology. However, what Pannenberg, Maritain, Mascall, and the Evangelical apologetics of my youth all have in common is a commitment to a central presupposition of the Enlightenment project. They are all “Foundationalists.” They believe that it is possible to start from general principles established by a neutral reason (shared in common by atheists and believers alike) and then to build step by step on those principles to lead to inevitably Christian conclusions. A more recent example is that of the biblical scholar John Meier, who begins his series of books on the historical Jesus by trying to imagine a group of scholars,atheists and believers alike, trapped in Harvard University’s library, and then, through dialogue and the sharing of scholarly resources, coming to some kind of mutual agreement about the historical Jesus.

Subsequent developments in the late twentieth century show that this is all very problematic. Alasdair MacIntyre has argued in his trilogy After Virtue; Whose Justice, Which Rationality?; and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry that the appeal to a neutral universal reason in which all share is an imperialistic assumption of the Enlightenment. Rather, reason is always situated within particular concrete traditions, and it is impossible to judge between one tradition and another without having first found oneself immersed in a given tradition.

Given this realization, Barth’s insistence on doing theology confessionally—within the particular tradition of Reformed theology—becomes a refreshingly honest alternative to the question-begging assumptions of the modern post-Enlightenment apologetics that really owe more to John Locke and Immanuel Kant than to historic Patristic or Medieval or Reformation-era Christianity.

If there is a weakness in MacIntyre’s own project, it is in his lack of a transcendent standpoint to provide judgment over against and between various traditions. His exposition of Thomas’s virtue-ethics, for instance, is oddly lacking in reference to the centrality that the beatific vision and the theological virtues play in Thomas’s thought. Here, again, Barth corrects the modernist project by his starting point in revelation and the transcendence of God, the God who is known not by general principles shared by all, but because he has revealed himself in Christ.

The centrality of revelation in Barth’s project reflects a central theme—that theology must take its lead from its object. Barth builds on this objective methodology to provide a masterful critique of the modernist theology that traces its origins to the Enlightenment “turn to the self” that began with Descartes, found its definitive representative in Schleiermacher, and has reached its over-ripened conclusion in the “experientialism” of the post-modern theology that pervades seminary education today. Barth demonstrates masterfully that in Liberal Protestant theology there is no Word from God. Rather, the liberal theologian is one who speaks a word to himself. But, in this case, why say anything at all about God? Why not simply remain silent? It may not be impossible to be a Liberal Protestant after the time of Karl Barth, but it should at least be an embarrassment.

Another of Barth’s helpful contributions is what I call “Christological subversion.” Although Barth treats of the great doctrines, he never begins with the abstract doctrine itself. Rather, Barth’s starting point is always the narrative texts of Scripture. His exposition of dogma follows the narrative reading, and in this reading he not only expands, but also corrects and critiques abstract formulas. This is, of course, the corrective to Pannenberg’s critique that Barth does theology from “God’s point of view.” Rather, Barth’s starting point is not the divine self-knowledge, but the narrative texts of Scripture. Barth’s exposition of the Trinity as the starting point of theology revitalized Trinitarian theology in the twentieth century by starting from the economic rather than the immanent Trinity. His doctrine of election corrected the abstractness of Reformed supralapsarian and infralapsarian schemes by showing that election is centered in God’s Yes to sinful humanity in Christ. It is Christ who is primarily the chosen one, and the elect are chosen in him. Barth’s doctrine of the atonement breathed new life into Anselmic forensicism by telling the story of Christ as the Judge Judged in Our Place. His exposition of justification caught the attention not only of Protestant but of Catholic theologians.

Finally, Barth’s theology is beautiful. He admired Mozart and his Church Dogmatics have something like the beauty of a Mozart symphony. He develops themes like so many movements. There are recapitulations and sub themes and counter themes. It really is a pleasure to read Karl Barth.

It might be noticed that while I claim to be an Anglican, none of my three mentors are. Part of this has to do with my own personal history. I discovered Aquinas, Arminius, and Barth before I became an Anglican.

But it is also true that I am a Systematic theologian, and, as Stephen Sykes has pointed out in his book The Integrity of Anglicanism, Anglicanism is not known for the high caliber of its Systematic theologians.

There have been theological thinkers of importance in Anglicanism and the pre-Reformation English Catholic tradition. One thinks of Bede the Venerable, the not so Venerable John Scotus Eriugena during the Carolingian period, Anselm of Canterbury and John Duns Scotus, as well as the Medieval spiritual writers Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. At the time of the Reformation, one can point to Thomas Cranmer, John Jewel, and Richard Hooker. Then there were the Caroline divines, George Herbert, John Donne, Thomas Traherne. Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion provided the definitive answer to Enlightenment Deistic rationalism. The Oxford Movement produced John Henry Newman and the other authors of Tracts for the Times as well as Newman’s critics, Frederick Dennison Maurice, James B. Mozley. In the twentieth century, there were Arthur Michael Ramsey, Oliver Quick, Eric L. Mascall, Austin Farrer. More recently we have had Stephen Sykes, Anthony Thiselton, Oliver O’Donovan, Alister McGrath, and Ephraim Radner.

I have read most of these people, and they have influenced my thinking, but frankly, not even the best of them can measure up to the theological stature of an Aquinas or a Barth.

There are some who would make Anglicanism’s shortage of outstanding Systematicians a virtue. Anglicanism’s comprehensiveness means not making clear-cut distinctions, Anglicans embrace “both/and” rather than “either/or” and refuse to believe that theological questions have “yes/no” answers. Their theology is found in the worship of the Prayer Book rather than dense theological tomes or rigid confessional statements. Stephen Sykes has pointed out that such claims are nonsense, and are really an excuse for laziness and fuzzy theological thinking.

There is no inherent theological reason why Anglicanism should not produce competent Systematic theologians. We share the same Scriptures and come out of the same theological tradition that produced figures like Athanasius, Aquinas, the Reformers, Barth, and von Balthasar. Until that time comes, if Anglicanism really does claim to be a Reforming movement in the Western Catholic Church, then an Anglican could do much worse than choosing as his theological mentors Thomas Aquinas, Jacobus Arminius, and Karl Barth.


  1. I wonder what you make of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. I’m asking because she said that she loved Aquinas. As you probably know, she was a Roman Catholic living in the American South and I was wondering, if you’re familiar with her fiction, how you think she read Aquinas. Lovely article by the way. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Fr. Richard Bates — November 27, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  2. Sorry, Richard. I haven’t read Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh or Robertson Davies, all Christian authors whom I know I should read and someday hope to. I am reading Anthony Trollope for the first time right now, and find he paints a delightful picture of Victorian Anglican clergy life–complete with all its foibles, but also its glories.

    Comment by William Witt — December 1, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  3. I discovered your blog recently and find it of interest, both for how it challenges me and also how it stirs questions. I must admit you challenge me to re-think my understanding of the men you speak of above, particularly Aquinas with his understanding of knowledge, who I still cannot help but think opened Pandora’s Box, as would be the charge of Luther and other Reformers.I find it intriguing that you esteem Aquinas and Barth, when Barth seemed to not be particularly fond of Aquinas, particularly in Dogmatics 1/1, where he criticizes Aquinas for being the chief proponent of the analogia entis which has plagued theology due to the implications he perceived it gave to promotion of “natural theology.” I am not saying Barth read him correctly, but I just find this intriguing.

    Also, I am an Anglican, and one who believes that we need to be more systematic in our thinking at times, but I can’t say I equate theology with systematic thinking or academic theology (not saying that you do). What do you think about, say the way the East thinks about theology as a spiritual exercise of becoming wise and holy through prayer, meditation, and contemplation. It seems that this is more the vision of the prayer book, a theology deeply tied into its spiritual life and the life of the church. I do not believe however this excludes systematic thought, but it certainly would distinguish Anglicans from other Protestants who do not have the Book of Common Prayer and I think it would speak to the lack of a Book of Confessions or a Major Catechism. I for one believe the place of preaching is where Anglicanism can grow and bring the fruits of systematic theology to the people within the context of the liturgy which is already directing their thoughts.

    Comment by Isaac — April 28, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

  4. I laughed out loud when I read, “It may not be impossible to be a Liberal Protestant after the time of Karl Barth, but it should at least be an embarrassment.” Love it! I appreciate what you’ve written, and your journey seems similar to mine, from a Baptist to an Anglican.

    I wonder if it might be possible to take Aquinas’ use of Aristotelian epistemology but begin with Barth’s narrative/ Trinitarian approach to God as opposed to Aquinas’ understanding of him as Lawgiver, and combine them so that Barth and Aquinas complementary?

    Comment by Chris — December 1, 2011 @ 2:38 am

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