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One of the central projects of the Enlightenment, as Paul Hazard has put it, was to place the Christian God on trial. Having weighed Him in the balance and found Him wanting, those who remained theists replaced the Triune God of Christian belief with a rational “Supreme Being” stripped of medieval excrescences and worshiped without ceremony through inward piety and the performance of social duty. Here indeed was a god for the Age of Reason: an Apollonian deity exemplifying, in Nietzsche’s words, “that measured restraint, that freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god,” not a wild, Dionysian god of music; a god of Euclidian not fractal geometry; a god whose surpassing good taste and proper eighteenth-century self-restraint would prevent him from doing anything that might be considered wrathful; a god who, most importantly, would not dream of interfering with the absolute freedom of autonomous man.

This modern theology, and even the dynamics that brought it into being, find a parallel in ancient philosophy. Greek philosophers were so repelled by the scandalous behavior of the gods of mythology that even an unknowable “Supreme Being” was preferable. Aristotle argued for the logical necessity of positing an unmoved something behind the movement of the universe, and called that something “god.” It was incredible that such an exalted being should occupy itself with the messy realities of earth; the only activity worthy of such a god is “a thinking on thinking.” Given these assumptions, it is hardly an occasion of wonder that, despite some hesitations, when all was said and done Aristotle concluded that friendship between God and man is impossible.

What is shocking is that so many Christian theologians have attempted to construct Christian theology in an Apollonian mode. Aquinas concluded his argument from causation, itself derived from Aristotle, by stating that the first cause is that “which all men call God.” Frederick Copleston was right, however, to suggest that Aquinas’ identification of the first cause with a personal God appears to be “cavalier,” and to question whether Aquinas’ arguments “give us a personal Being at all.” Modern theologians, as Michael J. Buckley has shown in great detail, responded to Enlightenment atheism by seeking to prove the existence of a “providential numen or a great architect,” hoping that Christian theology might be “justified without Christ.” In short, “Christianity, in order to defend its God, transmuted itself into theism.” Apollonian theology has so infected Christian thinking that it seems almost blasphemous to read James Barr’s assertion that in important ways the God of Scripture has less in common with Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover than with Zeus.

Willingness to adapt Christianity to Greek and modern philosophical theism has been an enormous loss to Christian thought and life. Two aspects of this tragedy can be briefly noted. First, conceptualizing God in philosophical terms as “unmoved mover,” “first cause,” or “ground of being” involves a radical depersonalization of God that can be seen especially by examining the fate of the dogma of the Trinity. Enlightenment philosophes aimed some of their most destructive weapons at this allegedly irrational doctrine, and Christian theologians, accommodating as always, agreed not to bring it up. Yet it is difficult to see how any theology but a Trinitarian one seriously affirms the personal nature of God. Personality, despite many shades of definition, is almost universally defined in terms of a capacity to relate to others. If God is an eternal Person, He must be in some eternal relation. A strict monotheism-God is one and only one-leaves unanswered the question, with whom or what does He have an eternal relation?

Several answers suggest themselves. It might be said that God has a capacity for relation that remained unfulfilled until He created the world, but this suggestion makes the fulfillment of God’s capacity for personal relation dependent on the creation. Alternatively, one could answer that God has an eternal relation to the creation, but this means that the creation is eternal and not, in fact, a creation at all-which further implies that God is more Demiurge than Creator. A more promising alternative is to recognize a multiplicity of persons in God, whose eternal personality is expressed in loving relations with One Another. Only Trinitarian theology consistently maintains that ultimate reality is a matter of Persons-in-Relation, an affirmation fraught with enormous philosophical and political implications. Hesitancy to confess the reality of this God has caused an incalculable impoverishment of the church’s witness-quite a price to pay to secure a respectful hearing in the salon.

Second, the theology of ancient Greece and the modern West leads to serious distortions of the scriptural revelation of God’s character. Approached by a reader operating on Apollonian assumptions, the Bible- riddled as it is with descriptions of God’s wrath and jealousy, His joy and regret, His love and hate, His constant miraculous meddling with the creation-becomes hugely problematic. Faced with the data of revelation, an Apollonian, if he accepts the Bible at all, must characterize biblical descriptions of God as “accommodations” designed to make it possible for finite, temporal creatures to apprehend an infinite and eternal God.

Useful as the theory of accommodation is in an orthodox setting, questions and dangers lurk for the unwary. On the one hand, one could say that while biblical descriptions of God are anthropomorphic, they reveal something true about the nature of God. This answer does not help the Apollonian, since it merely moves the question back a step without answering it. One still has to deal with a God who expresses wrath, though not in a human way. On the other hand, biblical language could be understood as “sheer accommodation,” language that is not in any strong sense a real description of the unknowable nature of God. In this case, the Bible is at worst deceptive and at best hardly worthy to be considered “revelation.” The only way out of this cul-de-sac is to admit that the God revealed in Scripture is not the detached, disinterested, Apollonian deity of philosophy. It is interesting in this regard that a character in Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales concluded, from an imaginative survey of Jewish feasts and Sabbaths, their propensity for wine and avoidance of honey, that the God of the Jews was not Apollo, but Dionysus.

Of course, the God revealed in Scripture is neither Apollo nor Dionysus. He is Yahweh, the Creator and Lord of all things, who has revealed Himself in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Spirit. Still, the biblical revelation of God includes what Nietzsche might have called a marked Dionysian strain. A truly biblical theology will recognize and embrace what Walter Bruggemann has called the “wild, dangerous, unfettered, and free” character of the Living God. A truly biblical theology honors the God who is, in Jeremiah’s words, a “dread champion,” and a husband willing to lay down His life out of love for His bride. A truly biblical theology is concerned with the God whose heart, as the book of Judges tells us, is gladdened by wine.

Peter J. Leithart is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.

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