Three Ways to Answer: What is Most Essential?

Doctrine and Division, I.3.2

What is Most Central Metaphysically?

The short answer that the biblical Christian gives to this question is simply ‘God.’ Paul gives a comprehensive picture of what God has made when he speaks of Christ:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross [Col. 1:15-20].

This summary statement of the relationship between God and the world makes an excellent template for our question. In answering the question of how the doctrine of God is the most metaphysically central doctrine, it will be important to see who God is and how exactly He relates to the things He has made. Remember we are not approaching this in the order of how we approach God as individuals. Our question is what is metaphysically prior whether we ever personally approached the question with sincerity or not. And we will either answer ‘God,’ or else we should see that we are not consciously monotheistic in our thinking.

We need to exposit Colossians 1:15-20 in the two parts, ‘God as God,’ and ‘God as Primary Cause.’ If God is reduced to primary cause only, then his essential nature belongs to the effect and the Creator-creation distinction will be lost. God as God precedes, metaphysically, all predicates of God relating to an effect. The two components of this positive theology—God in himself / God to the world—mirrors the same two components of negative theology, or, as it is sometimes called, atheology. The atheist attempts to show that the existence of God is illogical on two kinds of grounds. He will either say that certain attributes of God are incoherent with other divine attributes or that certain attributes of God are incoherent with the existence of things as they are in the world.

If we make the unity of God disable the divine from uniting to the human in any sense, then we have eliminated both the Son’s union with a human nature and the believer’s union with Christ. In this way Cyril of Alexandria set theism against theism and prepared the way for Eutyches to demand that the whole Incarnation be amalgamated into the divine. The opponents of Nestorius were right to insist upon the priority of the divine Person in accomplishing the unity of Christ. Yet they picked one metaphysical necessity over others and, ironically, set the unity of Christology over the unity of theology proper. The proper order would see the unity of the Godhead in general issuing forth into the unity of the Son in particular, since the Son is united to an effect in the humanity.

Another good example—both for its clarity and complexity—of what is most metaphysically essential is the question of divine impassibility. In the early church it became important to address the sense in which God cannot suffer since to suffer (passio) was to undergo change, to be affected by a prior act. This was not some offense to the system of Aristotle of whom the earliest church fathers were less aware than Plato anyway. The notion of suffering to the divine nature violated common sense on the assumption that to suffer meant to undergo change: it implied that God was acted upon independently of his eternal decree. They did not have in their minds, first and foremost, the subjective element of experiencing an emotion as we do today. In the modern world the notion of divine impassibility strikes us as grandiose and remote, even heartless. If God does not suffer when we suffer, as we suffer, well then He does not care. Hence in the Neo-Orthodox generation the solution was proposed that God suffers in Christ, in the Incarnation: that Jesus the Son of God is the suffering God. He comes down in order to experience all the depths of our pain. This was of course a better solution than explicit Process Theology that was saying at the same time that the whole of God is moved by our motions, good, bad and all.

But it must be insisted that though the Scriptures support the language of Christ suffering as God even as Man, yet this does not demand that the divine nature was affected from without in the sense of change. We are perfectly within our rights to say that everything that God feels concerning our pain He has ordained to feel from within his own heart of love and kindness and pity. That is to say, He is affected subjectively, wholly within what He has objectively decreed. This solution maintains the necessity of divine impassibility articulated by the early church while expressing from within the same orthodox context the legitimate concerns of the modern church about God’s relating to his people. Short of this solution we either have a transcendent deistic decree or an immanent personal feeling, but only one or the other. What we don’t have anymore is an infinite-personal God; and an infinite-personal God is the only God which the Bible communicates. Therefore such a solution is integral to the Christian faith. To the degree that the church moves away from this balanced, more complete picture of God it loses its sight of God and therefore of Christianity as a whole. We stress again that this idea being essential is not first and foremost about the personal faith of this or that individual believer. A believer may be a believer without understanding this or having ever thought of it. Indeed a believer may be a believer and a church may be a church even while tipping to one extreme or the other on this question for a season. The question is how the more theologically active leaders in a church handle this, because how they integrate or disintegrate the sub-doctrine begins to do the same to the doctrine of God as a whole, and then out through the rest of the “solar system” of the church’s teaching.

There is an atheizing tendency when we call “God” psychologically what may not be called “God” logically. Or do we not remember the end of the liberal theology that came to be known as the Death of God Movement or “Christian Atheism”? If the Christian finds that oxymoron curious, he or she must recognize that they are the same boat as German citizens who chase away the ghost of Nazism only by refusing to talk about it in public. No one woke up one day and, in order to be contrarian, decided to call themselves a “Christian Atheist.” It occurred by increments, so that the insidious sleight of hand at the DNA level, became the obvious, external contradiction in terms before anyone could see how they got there.

There are two basic ways to erode the centrality of the doctrine of God. Both ways ultimately lower the Creator in favor of exalting the creation: one is just more overt in this preference. The first way to do this is to pit one of God’s attributes against another, while the second is to pit one attribute of the world (or humanity) against one or more attributes of God. Anyone familiar with the philosophy of religion should take note here that these mirror the exact two avenues of logical a-theology: God-versus-God and God-versus-world. These form two ways of arguing that the existence of God is philosophically incoherent. The atheist attempts to show that either one of God’s attributes is nonsense in itself, inconsistent with another necessary theistic attribute, or else incompatible with something in the world, such as the problem of evil and suffering.

Now it should be a significant red flag to discover that the basic direction of modern theology within the church and seminary operates in the same basic way as the overt attempts of atheistic philosophers to demonstrate the non-existence of God. But such things are not widely read, or understood when they are read. Love is pit against wrath, justice against mercy, holiness against joy, immutability against personhood, simplicity against omniscience, transcendence against immanence, divine sovereignty against human responsibility. When we will only have one without the other, everything else in reality, which is rooted in these divine attributes, begins to unwind and the tension of theology becomes a crisis of personal faith.

What is Most Central Epistemologically?

When we look to epistemology we look to our looking. In other words, we are not talking about being per se anymore, but knowledge. What way of knowing must we know about in order to know best? It is like asking for the right lens. There are two answers to this question, but one is like a second, finer lens inside of the first lens. The biblical answers are the word of God (Scripture) and the Word of God (Jesus Christ). In the Bible is God’s only ultimate disclosure of himself and in Christ is the clearest image of this God. The one is comprised of God’s words, the other the Word himself. We can see at this point that there is much important truth in Barth’s deadly mistake. Christ is the North Star that marks “north” on our compass, the Bible, such that the Object is beyond the compass and yet forms a magnetic point to and therefore in the rest of the compass. Barth mistakenly devalued the rest of the points on the compass simply because they were not “true north,” but actually his doctrine of Scripture was nothing more than the product of the shame tempting him from his modern, critical times. In fact there was nothing wrong with the compass as it was manufactured as the folly of critical scholarship has revealed.

The Bible comes first because without it we are left to speculation and suppression. That is why systematic theology textbooks begin by treating the doctrine of Scripture. Even though God is more foundational in his being than his word, still, we would not know who God is with purity apart from this specific revelation.

The ultimate reason why the Scriptures form the basic epistemic starting point to an objective system of truth is two-fold: one having to do with the nature of God and the other having to do with the nature of salvation. Interestingly here we can see that even this epistemological order of integration is related to the metaphysical order. The condition of the sinful nature of man contrasted against the way that God is, in himself, forms a metaphysical cause to the epistemic center. One concise way to state this starting point is that God is veiled from us and that Christ is God for us. Stated in a different way, God is transcendent and immanent. He is hidden, yet He takes the initiative to unveil in his own way.

The real chasm that exists between God and man issues forth in our theological blindness so that an integral part of solving that problem will be the restoration of our sight. Calvin compared the special revelation in the word and the general revelation in the world to spectacles placed over dim eyes:

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that something is written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.[1]

How we understand the relationship between these two forms of revelation will have massive impact on how we understand everything else over time. If we feel that truth in specific (word) is telling us to shun or water down truth in general (world) then not even that specific truth will stand up over time. Such violence to these two circles of theological reflection can occur in any number of ways. One way is to poorly define kinds of theology, such as biblical and systematic, or to misconstrue their relationship to each other. Charles Hodge is a good test case here because he stood at a few crossroads. At the outset of his Systematic Theology he clearly wanted to uphold the meaning of theology in the same way as the thesis of this book, yet he uses language that is steeped in the empiricism and common sense realism of his time. The result is some good and bad news. Consider his defining opener:

If, therefore, theology be a science, it must include something more than a mere knowledge of facts. It must embrace an exhibition of the internal relation of those facts, one to another, and each to all. It must be able to show that if one be admitted, others cannot be denied…This constitutes the difference between biblical and systematic theology. The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency.[2]

The centrality of a written revelation of God is the same as the “centrality” of a perfect pair of glasses on a man who is very nearly blind. It should be obvious why alternative revelations, particularly ones that claim some esoteric perspective, endanger every other truth. It would be like the near-blind man putting on one of those virtual reality masks instead of the Scripture-spectacles.

The committed Christian who would rightly shun competing claims to ultimate revelation can fall for the more subtle trap of mistaking the optometrist’s lens correction for the sight itself. For instance, where we include the word preached as a third category of the word, we have to place it third from the center in the sense that the preacher and congregation are both equally derived from the word. It may be awkward to consider that there is also a sense in which the preacher is a “lens” for the word, since “how are they to hear without someone preaching?” [Rom. 10:14]. Yet this is a confusion of epistemology. That the hearer believes the word because of the preacher can mean one of two things. We may believe the message because we hold the particular preacher in high esteem. In this sense, the preacher forms a logical ground for belief in the word. On the other hand, we may recognize that this is not good grounds for belief and realize that we really believe because of the truth to which Scripture itself attests. Yet the preacher is still a cause, since our consideration of the truth of the message only occurred because someone preached, as Paul pointed out. The preaching event will be important, but not because it makes the word what it is.

Now what about the Word who is Christ? If there is an ultimate sense in which God comes first and a proximate sense in which man comes first, then it follows that there is a kind of centrality to the doctrine of the God-Man, or the doctrine of the Son of God. If God has been lowered by man, and man has been raised to the level of God, then what sort of questions might the God-Man be sent to answer? What sort of a problem might the God-Man be sent to resolve? Our doctrines of God and man wholly determine our doctrine of the God-Man, metaphysically, but here we are the ones consciously reaching out for the right prescription lens back to view God and man rightly. Here, in epistemology, Christ is our perfect lens for God and man. Is it not perfectly clear then how Jesus Christ must be both perfect God and perfect Man if He is to be, in any objective sense, our perfect view toward God and man?

And if Calvin was right that all of our knowledge, namely the scope of it, is a circle that is all about “the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” well then does it not follow that Christology, or the doctrine of Christ, immediately becomes primary to both theology and anthropology? Hence, when the worldview traffic is flowing from “top down,” that is, metaphysically, all things must be viewed theologically; and, now we can also see that, when the worldview traffic is flowing from “us on upward and outward,” that is, epistemologically, all things must be viewed Christologically. Which object is the most immediate lens—God as a whole or Christ as God—depends on our meaning of the question of centrality. Do we mean metaphysically or epistemologically. We should not be confused about our answer to the question. Rather we should recognize that the question may mean one of two different things at this point and then answer accordingly.

As we move out from the epistemological center to the whole, it may do us well to consider that, when it comes to systematic theology, it is just as important to understand the right relationship between multiple doctrines as it is to understand a singular doctrine the right way. Naturally, in an era that is dead set against systematic theology, the notion of putting multiple doctrines together in a “right way” will come across as intellectual imperialism. But imperialism is only as bad as our valuation of the one who is doing the conquering and colonizing. If Jesus Christ is the Lord of this intellectual conquest, well then, the resentment over systematic truth exposes that what we resent is precisely all of the parts of reality that we called “neutral,” that his system is annexing.

What is Most Central Existentially?

The short answer is “the gospel.” What we mean by ‘existential’ is the existent individual preceding the essence which he or she ascribed to things. This individual starting point is sadly what most modern and postmodern thinkers mean by ‘epistemological,’ which shows that a lot of philosophical waters have passed under the bridge of the last few centuries. But at any rate, the main thing in all of our theological reflection and practical life as whole individuals must be the good news of Jesus Christ. Here we are not after the foundational pieces in the sense of what must be true and real (A) before its effects are true and real (B), but rather what must be loved by the whole soul (A) before it can continue to be apprehended with purity (B). The starting point of the individual soul’s approach is in view here. If God is God and the world remains the world, it does not follow that I will be reconciled to Him; but if Christ Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am the foremost, then there is more than just a chance to finally see things as God does.

And yet the real person needs so much more than seeing. God is not a mere “it” to see rightly, but a living Person who grants to us our whole personhood and in whom all that we call “personal” is to be fulfilled. To the degree that we have been affected by pagan thought we will be unprepared for this “moving target” theology. And yet Christianity maintains that to know God is not at all the same thing as to know other things, or even ourselves. There is a barrier that is higher than the depths of the intellect. Our sin adds to this barrier every moment.

Here is the sense in which Luther’s theology of the cross must shape even our philosophy. The theology of the cross was not meant to be an alternative philosophy, but a theological center to the biblical narrative. It is a second-order epistemology, shaping the way we interpret everything as sinners. When we view the existence of God we see that we must view it as sinners in a state of war with him, but note that we cannot do that if there is no “Him” first. We can even see that these three ways of understanding the question really depend upon each other.

[1] Calvin, Institutes, I.6.1
[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology; I.1.1

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