Doctrine of God Posts
May 20, 2013 by Matthew Mason
In his fascinating and wide-ranging The Face of God, the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues, against popular materialist conceptions of humans, that we must be considered in two distinct ways. We are animals, objects within the world of objects, susceptible to investigation by means of scientific inquiry. But we are also far more. A purely scientific account of what we are overlooks something vital about us. We are not simply objects; we are subjects. We are not only things within the world; we are persons with a perspective on the world. And, as persons, we are distinguished by, and constituted in, I-You relations: personhood is relational. The human world “is ordered by concepts that are rooted in dialogue, and therefore in the first person perspective.”
If we consider humans only from the perspective of science, this personal perspective disappears. We are not simply animals with brains, hard-wired to behave in certain ways. We are persons with minds, who make choices for which we are accountable to one another. In order fully to account for human persons, we cannot simply analyse our behaviour from the perspective of neuroscience. This may help us understand some of the causes for our behaviour. But it will never help us understand the reasons we behaved that way, because reasons are inherently personal. Without this (inter)personal perspective, our behaviour is reduced to something less complex than it is; and we are reduced from subjects to mere objects.
Therefore, if I look for myself solely within the world of objects, solely from a scientific perspective, I may discover many things about my biology. But I will disappear. I will be unable to see myself from a first person perspective. Similarly, I will no longer see you from a second person perspective, as a “you”. Rather we will be reduced simply to objects, known only from a third person perspective.
Now, if this is true of us, asks Scruton, what of God? If we investigate the question of God’s existence and presence in the world with the eyes of science, “it is impossible to find the place, the time, or the particular sequence of events that can be interpreted as showing God’s presence. God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the ‘why?’ of explanation, just as the human person disappears from the world when we look for the neurological explanation of his acts.” (45)
But, what if God is a person like us? What if the new atheists materialist worldview has rendered him invisible in the same way it has rendered us invisible, by asking the wrong questions? Perhaps God is present in our world in the same way we are, as a person. But, if that is the case, the way to know his existence is personal, via an I-You relationship. Says Scruton, “The God of the philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second.” (45). And, we might add, he never addressed us from his perspective in the first.0 Comments
 The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures 2010 (London; New York: Continuum, 2012).
December 20, 2011 by Matthew Mason
In September, Prof. Bruce McCormack delivered the third series of Kantzer lectures: “The God who graciously elects: seven lectures on the doctrine of God.” I was sorry to miss them, being in the wrong city and unable to watch the live streams. Happily, the audio and video are now available online. McCormack is undeniably brilliant but also, shall we say, provocative, both as an interpreter of Barth and in his own constructive dogmatic work. Judging from what I’ve read of his, and from the reports I’ve heard of the lectures, he’s also something of a theological pugilist. I suspect I’m going to enjoy the lectures, learn from them, and disagree in something like equal measure.0 Comments
May 16, 2011 by Matthew Mason
SAET’s second fellowship meets in a few weeks to discuss various response papers to Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine. Having enjoyed the book immensely, I’m looking forward to hearing what my compatriots make of it. In the meantime, my review of Vanhoozer’s recent, and wonderful, doctrine of God, Remythologizing Theology, is now online on the Ecclesia Reformanda website.1 Comment
March 8, 2011 by Matthew Mason
What, then, does God communicate to the world? The short answer: God communicates himself (revelation) and a share in himself (redemption).
Consider the Psalmist’s request: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord” (Ps. 25:4). Moses made a similar request – “please show me now your ways” (Ex. 33:13) – and in response God proclaims his name (Ex. 33:19). We learn from another Psalm that God has “made know his ways [derakim] to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel” (Ps. 103:7. Interestingly, the “name” the Lord proclaims to Moses is also what the Psalmist cites as the content of God’s “ways”: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6; cf. Ps. 103:8). The “ways” of God – God’s own being-in-action – are what God communicates. It only remains to connect these ways of God to what we have said about the circulation of God’s light, life, and love in his inner being.
The point of connection is Jesus Christ. For the one who identifies himself by saying “I am the way” (Jn. 14:6a) is also the one who is “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14), a phrase that many commentators rightly see as an allusion to the hesed and emeth of Exodus 34:6. The Son alone reveals and makes accessible the Father : “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6b). All God’s “ways” are thus summed up and clarified in him, the “way.” The Fourth Gospel also depicts Jesus as claiming to be the light and life of God. Remythologizing theology thus gives rise to a new metaphysics of the “I am” that is defined not by speculating on “the one who is” (the name “Yahweh”) but on “the one who does,” that is, the one who makes known his name and his ways. Jesus’ “I am” sayings thus become the basis of a properly christological metaphysic that focuses on the way in which the three persons communicate light and life to the world through the incarnate Son.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), 260.0 Comments
September 28, 2010 by Matthew Mason
Augustine’s On the Trinity (De Trinitate) is one of the masterpieces of church history, and a model for ecclesial theology. Few works are as demanding of their readers, as unrelenting in exegesis and analysis, and yet also as pastoral in intention.
On the Trinity requires a lot of intellectual heavy-lifting. Augustine warns at the start that, ‘nowhere…is the search more laborious’ than in consideration of the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit (I.5), and at the end he says he has ‘argued much and toiled much’ (15.51). The difficulty is increased by the complexity of the structure and the frequency, length, and density of Augustine’s often fascinating but not always relevant digressions.
However, this is no mere intellectual exercise. Error is ‘dangerous’; Augustine is concerned to refute the homoians, who argued that the Son is of like nature (homoiousios), but not of the same nature (homoousios) with the Father (e.g., Barnes 1991; Williams 1991).
Nevertheless, neither intellectual exercise nor ecclesiastical polemics is the ultimate goal of the treatise. Augustine is seeking a reward: ‘nowhere else is a mistake more dangerous, or the search more arduous, or discovery more advantageous.’ (I.6) That reward is the face of God.
In his translator’s introduction, Edmund Hill notes that at three key moments in the work, Augustine quotes Psalm 105:3f: ‘Let their hearts rejoice who seek the Lord; seek the Lord and be strengthened; seek his face always.’ (1.5, as he invites us on the journey with him; 9.1 as he turns from Scriptural exegesis to rational analysis of the image of God; 15.2, as he prepares to sum up his achievements (Augustine 1991: 21). He also alludes to this verse as he concludes in prayer (15.51)).
Augustine is inviting his readers to join him on a quest: ‘let us set out along Charity Street together, making for him of whom it is said, Seek his face always (Ps 105:4).’ (I.6) This is pilgrim theology and pastoral theology. Thus, although it was not written as a sequel to his Confessions, in some ways that is how it functions. Although Bishop Augustine’s heart has found its rest in God, he does not yet see him face to face, and so his restful heart remains restless, his faith always seeking deeper understanding.
This is an important, though not the only, function of the explorations of the possibility of Trinitarian analogies in the divine image in humans in books VIII-XIV, particularly in books 12-14 where Augustine expounds the image in creation, sin, and redemption. As Rowan Williams has observed (pace some of the critics of Augustine’s use of the triad of memory, understanding, and will), for Augustine, ‘we cannot look at a detached human self as an object in itself and say, “God is rather like that.”‘ (Williams 1999: 850). Indeed, as he concludes, Augustine says that we have been looking at God in a mirror, seeing darkly (in Bk 15, he repeated cites 1 Cor 13:12). There is an ‘enormous difference’ between human knowledge understanding and will and God’s (15.12), and so despite the likeness between God and his image, ‘who can adequately express how great the unlikeness is?’ (15.21) Thus, ‘this image, made by the trinity and altered for the worse by its own fault, is not so to be compared to that trinity that it is reckoned similar to it in every respect. Rather, he should note how great the dissimilarity is in whatever similarity there may be.’ (15.39).
In this lengthy exercise, Augustine has been taking the soul on a journey towards true knowledge of God. In what Williams calls ‘a crucial moment in the argument’, in Book 12.16, Augustine notes that, in Williams’ words, ‘the image of God itself cannot lie in the mind relating to the things of this world, or even to itself as a self-contained process (which in any case it never is). To image God is to reflect God relating to God. Thus, while there are vestiges and likenesses in the triadic structure of the mind, it is only when the mind is turned Godward that the image in the strict sense is discernible’ (1999: 849).
To read On the Trinity can be a baffling and frustrating experience, as one seeks to follow the often arcane twists and turns of Augustine’s arguments. But it is also always to be in the company of one of history’s greatest minds and most passionate lovers as he urges us to follow him, sometimes breathlessly, sometimes stumblingly, along Charity Street towards the face of the Triune God who in the gospel has sought us out and enabled us by faith to seek him.
Michel R. Barnes, ‘Exegesis and Polemic in Augustine’s De Trinitate I’, Augustinian Studies 30 (1999): 43-52.
Rowan Williams, ‘De Trinitate‘ in Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999): 845-51.
Augustine, On the Trinity, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991).2 Comments
September 23, 2010 by Matthew Mason
‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children’ (Luke 10:21). I have been struck recently by how Jesus’ words are, among other things, his Theological Methodology 101. What counts for a theologian is not so much great erudition, mastery of the languages, exegetical insight, philosophical range, analytical sophistication, familiarity with the tradition. We should not despise rigor and learning. Nevertheless, what is of central importance is to come to God as a little child, laying aside status and pedigree, and adopting a disposition of humble dependence.
John Frame’s monumental Doctrine of God provides a striking illustration of this principle, and a model for those of us committed to rigorous ecclesial theology. The dust jacket contains glowing commendations: ‘Frame stands in the great Refomed tradition of Calvin and Charnock, Hodge and Bavinck, yet in his treatment of the doctrine of God he surpasses them all with an amazing breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding’ (Wayne Grudem); ‘It is an intellectual treat, rigorous in analysis, exhaustive in exposition, and cogent in argument’ (Donald Macleod); ‘Masterfully expounds and defends the biblical doctrine of God’ (Vern Poythress.). No surprises there, for those familiar with Frame’s other works.
What surprised me was the way Frame chose to begin. Not a quotation from Augustine or Aquinas. Not a Latin phrase in sight. But rather, a children’s song:
Why can’t I see God; Is he watching me?
Is he somewhere out in space, or is he here with me?
I am just a child; teach me from his word;
Then I’ll go and tell to all the great things I have heard.
Teach me while my heart is tender;
Tell me all that I should know,
And even through the years I will remember,
No matter where I go.
The naivete of the song is revealing. Whether or not he surpasses Calvin and Bavinck, Frame’s Doctrine of God is masterful. But the reason that he writes so profoundly about God is because he has a deep knowledge of God. And the reason he knows God so well is because, for all his intellectual gifts, he has humbled himself and become like a child.0 Comments