by scott r. swain?
ivp academic, 258 pages, $24
How can we know if God exists? Is the existence of God philosophically demonstrable, and if not, is the act of faith a fundamentally subjective decision? After the rise of the modern sciences and the decline of classical metaphysics, modern philosophers influenced by Immanuel Kant’s counsel against speculative pretension have often proposed theoretical agnosticism as a basic intellectual norm. Religious faith can then be characterized as something nonrational.
In the darkness of modern skepticism, Karl Barth saw the opportunity to assert a classical theological truth: We are saved not by the strength of our reason but only by the initiative of God’s grace. The question is not “How can we come to know God by our own powers?” but rather “How has God made it possible for us to know him uniquely through divine revelation, in the history of Jesus Christ?”
Then he took things a step further. In a postmodern era, the agnostic mind reels before the challenge of interpreting reality. Ultimately, this is a sign that we depend fundamentally upon knowledge of who Christ is, not only to understand who God is, but also to understand ourselves and our world. Concentrated on Christ, theology becomes the modern discourse that unifies all human learning.
In his clear and illuminating book, Scott Swain, a professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, takes seriously the Barthian project and seeks to evaluate it on a precise but profound point: Who, according to Barth, is God? To seek an answer, Swain examines one of Barth’s most distinguished interpreters, Robert Jenson.
Swain deftly tells the story of how this contemporary theology of God developed, its roots in Barth’s own writing and Jenson’s distinctive interpretation of Barth’s views. The tone of the book is serene and magnanimous. The analysis is lucid. The author loves theology and wants to communicate an appreciation of the subject to his readers.
As it turns out, Robert Jenson has some pretty innovative ideas about God. First, he believes that in the modern era, the Church Fathers’ ideas about divine attributes, traditionally dear to Catholics and Protestants alikesuch as divine perfection, simplicity, eternity, and immutabilityhave to be evaluated anew in light of a narrative reading of the Gospel. In the Middle Ages and early modernity, these notions were not scrutinized sufficiently. They are metaphysical concepts left over from premodern, non-biblical philosophies, something Jenson called the “unbaptized god” of the Greeks.
Second, if our knowledge of God is based exclusively on the history of Jesus Christ and not on pre-Christian philosophies, then the human attributes of Christ in time also tell us what God is in his very nature and being as God. This is what Barthians call the genus tapeinoticum, the genus of humility: If Christ lives a historical life as man, obeys, suffers, and dies, God is in some way subject to temporality, obedience, suffering, and death in his very nature as God.
Traditional dogma affirms that Christ is one divine person but that there is a clear distinction of natures in Christ, human and divine. The eternal Son of God has truly suffered and died, but he has done so by virtue of his human nature (suffering in both body and soul). In his deity, the Son of God remains unchanging in splendor, goodness, and power.
Jenson does not deny the distinction of natures in Christ, but he does make the human nature in some way a pure cipher of the divine nature. If Christ lives a historical life and suffers as man, then God is also temporal and suffers in his very essence as God. If as man Christ obeys the Father, then as God he also obeys the Father, and there is obedience eternally present in the Holy Trinity. If Christ as man is subject to death on Good Friday, then death is an event that occurs in the very being of the godhead.
Critics wonder if this theology distinguishes adequately the divine and human natures of Christ. Does it inadvertently depict God anthropomorphically, so as to refashion a god in the image of man?
Swain makes three points of special importance in evaluating Jenson’s project. First, Jenson is right to claim that the problem of speaking about God in our “post-metaphysical” era is a fundamental challenge, but we should evaluate differently than he the historical importance of the classical divine attributes.
In Second Temple Judaism hundreds of years before Christ, a “philosophical Judaism” made use of Greek philosophical terms to speak in a disciplined way about the God of the Bible. The language of the New Testament also drew on this philosophical vocabulary, a fact the Church Fathers recognized as they continued a careful discernment of places of contact between classical philosophy and divine revelation.
Jesus says in the gospel of John, “I and the Father are one,” and “before Abraham was, I am,” appealing to notions of being and unity in order to articulate his own identity as God. It is Christ himself who provides warrant for the use of Greek philosophical language to speak about who God is.
Second, Jenson rightly insists that God has revealed who he truly is in and through the Incarnation of the Son. The historical life of Jesus gives us true knowledge of the inward life of God the Holy Trinity. It is understandable, then, that we question the usefulness of the traditional language of the divine attributes. The notion of divine perfection, for instance, insists on God’s infinity and eternity. This can make God seem remote from the world, precisely when what we want to affirm is that God has lived a finite, temporal life among us.
Nevertheless, as Swain points out, this traditional language is essential. It is only because God utterly transcends history that his free decision to become a human being in time is also a decision of grace: “Far from implying a distance between the Word and the world, the Word’s distinct manner of transcending the world implies a distinct manner of intimacy with the world.”
Jenson’s project of historicizing the divine nature risks making the economy of salvation seem essential to God’s own identity. If we take this idea to the extreme, God does not choose to become incarnate from before the foundation of the world. Rather, God is just the history of Christ in time. Consequently, salvation is no longer offered to us through a free divine decision (sola gratia!) but is something necessary to who God is.
Third, Swain acknowledges that Christ should be at the center of evangelical preaching, as Barth and Jenson affirm, but argues that for this we need classical traditions of premodern thought that they reject. “To find words and concepts adequate for stammering about this glorious reality, we must pursue the path of ressourcement, mining the resources available in the storehouse of the church’s exegetical and theological tradition.”
Toward this end, Swain counsels against Barth’s rejection of the “analogy of being,” the idea that we can know truths about God beginning from the philosophical consideration of creation. How is God the Creator both like and unlike created reality? Thomas Aquinas pursues this kind of reflection in his metaphysical arguments concerning the one God. Such reasoning leads to a strong sense of the divine transcendence and of the Creator’s real distinctness from his creation.
Likewise, Swain advocates for the use of the traditional distinction between “divine processions” and “divine missions.” It is one thing for the Logos and the Spirit to proceed from the Father from all eternity: The Trinity is this eternal procession of persons. It is another thing for the Son and the Spirit to be sent into the world in time. The Incarnation pertains to the mission of the Son, sent into the world.
If we confuse the two orders, we end up saying that what God does in time (the Incarnation) is constitutive of God’s essence (the eternal procession of the persons). We then historicize the life of God as such, identifying the Holy Trinity with the history of salvation.
The conclusions of Swain’s book are tactfully stated, but quite stark. Protestant theology even after Barth has failed to find an idiom in which to describe God in a fully modern way. To do so, the Church needs to grapple anew with its scholastic heritage, which includes strong metaphysical claims about God. We cannot go back to a premodern era, but to go forward we need to do a much better job of recovering the essential wisdom of the past.
Jenson presupposes that much that we find in patristic and scholastic metaphysics is inadequateeven antitheticalto the interpretation of the Gospel. This is a formidable challenge, one that many forms of modern Catholic theology fail to face in earnest. To answer it, we must be willing to advocate even today for the perennial importance of the classical metaphysical tradition. To speak about God the Holy Trinity in the midst of the modern world, we have to speak also, in part at least, about human philosophical knowledge of God, about God’s simplicity, eternity, immutability, infinity, and so on. How many Catholic theologians are willing to do this today?
If Jenson and Barth are not right in all things, then perhaps figures like Bonaventure and Thomas are more important than is commonly perceived. The medieval masters attained to a careful balance of faith and reason, one that gave due emphasis to the mystery of God as both three and one, and to the mystery of Christ as both divine and human.
How do Christians reappropriate their thought today, in idioms our contemporaries can come to understand? The initial answer is: by studying the medieval masters in earnest. The good news is, if we want to find out who the God of the Gospel is, we don’t have far to search. We find a true portrait of him in the Tradition of the Church.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.