20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

About eighteen months ago, in the summer of 2016, Wayne Grudem and others were put on trial via blog about their views on the Trinity. Grudem holds to ERAS, or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, wherein God the Son eternally, functionally (not ontologically) submits to the Father. This submission in the Godhead, for him and other ERAS proponents, grounds a complementarian view of gender roles. One of the primary accusations leveled at Grudem et al. is that they did not clearly and unequivocally hold to (at least) one aspect of classical Christian theism, the eternal relations of origin – and specifically ,the eternal generation of the Son – opting instead for ERAS to explain the distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. (Grudem, as well as Bruce Ware, have since publicly affirmed the eternal relations of origin).

While I strongly disagree with  Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, what puzzled me at the time and still does is why Grudem and Bruce Ware particularly were singled out for questioning and/or revising Christian theism in some way. If you read twentieth century theology, much of it consists precisely of that kind of move, and via a similar theological method as e.g. Grudem’s. For instance, a year before the Trinity debate, Scot McKnight posted Roger Olson’s blogged critique of divine timelessness, presumably in support of the latter’s comments. The quoted portion of Olson’s post begin by questioning “classical theism” in general and its (according to him) over-speculative nature, but the key paragraph begins like this:

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”

A year later McKnight was a vocal opponent of ERAS on Twitter and his blog, on the grounds that it departed from the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Now, perhaps in that year plus, McKnight came to appreciate the tradition more; I don’t know, that’s certainly possible. In any case I find the Olson post and the ERAS comments interesting in relation to one another.) Another example, this time in classical Christology: Nick Batzig recently posted about William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that Christ did not possess a human soul but instead only a human body and a divine soul, even referring to his position as “Neo-Apollinarianism.” We could also mention Moltmann’s Trinitarian rupture at the cross, or Pinnock’s open theism, or, relatedly, process theology, or Balthasar’s view of the descent as it relates to (departs from?) inseparable operations, the extra Calvinisticum, and other important pieces of classical Christian theism more broadly and classical Trinitarianism and Christology more particularly.

The point is that Grudem and others are not and never have been the only twentieth century theologians to question or to attempt a revision of aspects of classical Christian theism. Much of twentieth century theology consists of just such questions and attempts. And they do so on the same kinds of methodological grounds. Notice again the Olson quote above. To paraphrase, “I personally cannot find a text in the biblical narrative that speaks of God’s timelessness.” This sounds like the same kind of biblicist argument used by e.g. Grudem, in an appendix of his Systematic Theology, where he says of eternal generation that he cannot find a text in support of the doctrine.

Again, we could multiply examples here of similar methodology in twentieth century theology, wherein a theologian’s own reading of the Bible, perhaps in conjunction with philosophical categories and methods (e.g. Craig on Christology), trumps the traditional understanding of an aspect of the doctrine of God or of Christology. James Dolelzal’s recent work, All That Is In God, does some of that work, but even he limits his analysis to what he calls “Reformed evangelicals,” which for him is mostly a euphemism for Bruce Ware. This doesn’t tell the whole story, just like the Trinity debate didn’t tell the whole story. Classical Christian theism was, to use Dolezal’s paradigm, rejected, revised, or ignored by much of twentieth century theology, not only in Reformed evangelicalism but in mainline Protestantism, other parts of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy….you name the tradition and I’ll name you a major theologian who went the same route albeit on a different vehicle. (That includes confessional Reformed traditions).

All this is to say that I think evangelicals in particular could do with a revision of their understanding of tradition in general and of classical Christian theism in particular. It is my belief that many rejections of CCT arise from misunderstanding both the role of tradition within the evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura and of the biblical-theological and historical warrrant for holding CCT. We need to go back to the drawing board in evangelicalism in the way we teach theological method and how we relate our right and good commitment to the Bible’s ultimate authority to the faith once delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian Tradition. To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection. Theological retrieval is not repristinizing the past or muting the Bible with theological jargon; instead, it’s a demonstration of the inherently biblical support for dogmatic terminology and categories. In other words, “going back to the drawing board” consists firstly of a shift in how we think about theological method, and particularly what makes a doctrine “biblical.”


2 thoughts on “20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

  1. “To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection”

    How do you determine that a philosophical reflection (or scheme) is not “supra-biblical” or that it arises from the Bible? Isn’t that precisely what Olson is saying of classical Christian theism, that “timelessness” is a philosophical reflection that does not arise from scripture?

    Great article.

  2. Good stuff. I’m reading a book for a Philosophy of Religion class by atheist philosopher William Rowe entitled, “Can God be Free?” Rowe, in his introduction, states that he is attempting to shift the conversation of philosophical conceptions of God to open up new avenues of thinking. If you don’t take seriously CCT, atheists will and will revise it accordingly (i.e., without care for the tradition we’ve received). Christians need to realize that Athens helps Jerusalem explain and articulate what was in Jerusalem all along. My faith has been enormously enriched by engaging with CCT as it is articulated by many Christians of the past (Augustine, Boethius, etc.).

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