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.