Craig Carter on the Church Fathers, Premodern Exegesis, and Platonism

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Craig Carter of Tyndale University College and Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:35), coming to a new understanding of classical Christian theism (7:00), theological growth throughout the years (12:30), interpreting Scripture with the church fathers (15:55), Trinitarian theology from the Bible to the early church (29:27), Christian Platonism (38:15), and more. Buy Craig’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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.”

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.