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Theology & Metaphysics: Against Grand Narratives

In the realm of Christian theology, the issue of metaphysics (or ontology) remains a perennial problem. There abide numerous “grand narratives” of how Christian theology either got it right or got it wrong in conversation with philosophy, both ancient and contemporary. There’s the common narrative by theologians like Colin Gunton and Catherine LaCugna of how the Cappadocian theologians established an ontological revolution through their doctrine of the Trinity, only to see the church, and particularly Augustine suffuse Christian ontology with the damnable leaven of Neoplatonism. Then of course, John Milbank and Catherine Picktstock will tell us that this narrative is quite wrong indeed, and in fact Christian ontology anticipated Neoplatonism, and indeed Trinitarianism properly understood only makes sense within such a Neoplatonic framework. No, indeed the true problem was when the analogical metaphysics of Augustine and Aquinas were called into question by Scotus, whose damnable idea of the univocity of being led to the horrors of ontotheology. And then there are the more recent narratives of how modern German trinitarian theologians such as Moltmann, Jungel, and Pannenberg lamentably lose sight of the Christian vision of transcendence and, under the twisted influence of that great villain in modern philosophy, Hegel!

My point in raising all this examples of grand narratives of the history of philosophy is simply to point out their basic unhelpfulness. I think most can agree that there is some elements of truth in each of these narratives, but a great deal that gets brushed over in making the narratives fit. Certainly Augustine’s Neoplatonism colors his theology in some key negative ways. But to ignore the diversity and development of his thought, in terms of metaphysics, trinitarianism, and ecclesiology, is to sadly curtail a proper intellectual journey toward explicating an adequate Christian ontology. Likewise, Soctus’s vision of univocity has significant problems, but the question also stands as to how those problems are avoided under Thomas’s vision of the analogia entis which seems to analogize God and creatures under the category of being in much the same way. Both Aquinas and Scotus deserve more rigorous engagement, and the formation of how they fit into any kind of philosophical grand narrative is always contrived. As for Hegel, I don’t think it can be denied that simply the invocation of “Hegalianism” as descriptive of a particular thinker’s theology has become the common way of eliminating engagement in much of theological debate. Call Pannenberg a Hegalian and you have incontrovertible proof that his whole project is fundamentally wrongheaded. To be sure, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Juengel, and Jenson all see a profound connection between God and history, as did Hegel. But the assumption always seems to be that if any theologian sees a strong connection between God and history, the Triune God gets absorbed into the machinations of history. The fact of the extreme differences between how all of these theologians construe the relationship between God and history is rarely taken into account, let alone the question of whether or not the biblical narrative and the church’s trinitarian and christological dogmas might implicate God in human history in a particular way.

My point with all of these examples is simply this: Grand narratives of where Christianity went philosophically wrong are generally unhelpful and forced. Christian metaphysics has and will always need to return again to the biblical narrative, and the trinitarian and christological rule of faith to shape its engagement of philosophical discourses, both ancient and contemporary. That task involved the hard work of actually engaging philosophers and theologians in deep and rigorous ways that allows all historical thinkers and philosophies to be ambiguous. Because that is what everything and every person in the history of Christian theology is, ambiguous. Augstine is a highly ambiguous figure theologically. To brand him as the fountainhead of all that’s wrong with trinitarian thinking in the western church as Gunton does or the elevate him to an almost canonical theological status as Milbank does, is to avoid the real work of engaging Augustine and allowing him to inform us and for us to challenge him in the right places.

For Christians to construct a viable metaphysic that takes its cue from the tradition, Scripture, and the history of philosophy in an orthodox and properly theological manner, our allegiance to such grand narratives of the history of philosophy must go. They must be replaced by rigorous engagement with ancient and contemporary sources, all the while being guided by the Scriptures and the Rule of Faith in the context of the Christian community. This makes the task quite a bit harder, but also, I think more faithful and ultimately, I hope more fruitful.

10 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    I agree, Halden. I think we need to engage all avenues in order to articulate scripture. Of course I also think that methodologically we need to allow the scriptures to set the frame for our theological dialogue: i.e. vs. philosophy.

    Sunday, February 25, 2007 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I think what you’re saying is something akin to Lindbeck’s claim that it is the text (of Scripture) that should absorb the world, rather than the world absorbing the text. Linbeck’s point is the universe of discourse set forth in Scripture should be the framework of the church’s discourse rather than one given to it from the dominant culture.

    I’d agree with that as far as it goes, with one caveat. The problem is that our “frame” is always constructed for us before we start actually thinking about what it is. Culture, philosophy, social formation, everything we encounter has alread counfounded our “frame” with a cacophany of perspectives. There is no simple way for us to simply inhabit the universe of discourse that is the Scriptures. We already inhabit numerous other “frames” and have been formed in modes of thought that must be constantly reveiwed and reformed, or even un-learned.

    So, letting Scripture guide our engagment of philosophy, or in Lindbeck’s parlance, letting the text absorb the world, is not something that we can just ‘do’. Objectively, it is the gift of the Spirit, and subjectively it is our ongoing task of discipleship.

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 6:55 pm | Permalink
  3. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    . . . There is no simple way for us to simply inhabit the universe of discourse that is the Scriptures. We already inhabit numerous other “frames” and have been formed in modes of thought that must be constantly reveiwed and reformed, or even un-learned.

    I agree with this. Thus my motivation, time permitting, to become aware of the history of interpretation, history of ideas, philosophy, etc. that serve as the informing/shaping grids through which I approach God’s Word. This in my view, is indeed “one” of the inadequacies within Prot. Evangelicalism–i.e. anti-intellectualism (or simply anti-studyism). The more we become aware the more “objective” we can approach the text.

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 8:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I don’t know if “objectivity” is really the goal, I’d say the goal is rather for us to approach the text “Christianly”.

    Objectivity would imply (with the Enlightment) that we can somehow reach a point of divesting ourselves of our formation through culture, tradition, relationships, ect. The important thing is for us to have ourselves shaped by the community called church, wherein we learn to narrate the truth about the world through the story of Jesus (i.e. ‘Christianly’).

    Just a caveat.

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  5. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    I left my comment before I wanted to, something came up, while I was typing it.

    I agree, “objectivity” isn’t necessarily the goal–knowing Jesus is–maybe a better word, would have been “critically” engage the text (not higher critically either ;).

    Although I must say, your view sounds a bit PoMo or Kantian to me–it almost seems that your implying that “truth” is defined by one’s personal community–is that what you’re saying?

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    No, I’m not saying that truth is “created” by the church or anything like that. Only that the only way we come to know anything is through communal and social relationships.

    Here, a doctrine of the Spirit is crucial. The church is “a pillar and bulwark of truth” as 1 Timothy tells us because, through the Spirit it is the body of Jesus. So, I have no problem saying that we learn the truth through being in the church (i.e. through being united to Christ through his body).

    The community does not construct the truth, it receives it, or suffers it as Reinhard Hutter puts it in his excellent book Suffering Divine Things. And it receives it through the Spirit that subsists in the church and constitutes it.

    So truth is not defined by one’s personal community, it is defined by the Spirit of Christ who is the Truth. And Christ has a body, the church, and thus it is through the body that we have access to the Truth of his person.

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 11:24 pm | Permalink
  7. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    how do you distinguish your ecclesiology from an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic ecclesiology? It seems I’ve heard the same kind of language and referencing, i.e. the Timothy passage, from both of those traditions.

    Monday, February 26, 2007 at 11:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Well, I don’t believe in the sacrament of orders or the primacy of the bishop for starters. That pretty much puts me outside the fold for both Rome and Constantinople.

    You might want to check the post I did a couple days before this one on the “New Monasticism”. That discussion expanded to this specific topic.

    Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at 12:06 am | Permalink
  9. bobby grow wrote:

    Thanks Halden,

    I checked it. Your response to Ben was most informative to me. Let me think of a repsonse, and I’ll get back to you ;~).

    Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the conversation!

    Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at 12:29 am | Permalink

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