Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

Metaphysics is that science which studies all that is beyond the natural world, yet still relates to the natural world. Metaphysics studies the nature of being (ontology) and causation and transcendentals (the Beautiful, the Good, the True). Metaphysics (meta ta phusika) itself simply means “beyond the physics” and was the word assigned to the sequel of Aristotle’s book the Physics which examined the natural world. Everything that our senses can perceive is subject to contingency and change and it is these things that are the object of the study of physics. Metaphysics studies those things which are beyond apprehension of our senses. We can perceive a rock or a tree or a piece of cake with our senses, and so these can be the subject of physical inquiry. But we cannot perceive God or the immortal soul or spiritual beings like angels with our senses; these, then, are the subject of metaphysical inquiry.

Aristotle himself did not use this word but called the subject of his book the “First Science,” “Wisdom,” or “Theology.” The subject of his inquiry was specifically the first cause of things or non-material things which do not change. This is sometimes described as “being qua being,” or “being as it is in itself.” Because this was the most fundamental subject, Aquinas thought the study of metaphysics as “wisdom” (sophia), the highest type of knowledge.

Metaphysics has always had a reputation of being about matters which are notoriously difficult. Andronicus of Rhodes probably assigned the title ‘metaphysics’ to Aristotle’s text indicating that the subject matter of the Physics must be fully grasped before one could understand the subject of the sequel. Metaphysicians use phrases like “essence precedes existence” or “substances, while not universals, are subjects of predication that cannot themselves be predicated of things.” Such language is especially prohibitive according to our modern sensibilities which seek to explain all phenomena in positivistic or empirical language. Kant rejected metaphysics because he claimed that the immaterial world was beyond intellectual inquiry. Hume claimed that all we could know was what we could experience, thus precluding metaphysics as a viable mode of inquiry since it was specifically about things which could not be experienced. Modern materialists reject metaphysics because they claim there is no immaterial world–all that exists is what we can apprehend with our senses.

In Christian theology, metaphysical language has been used to talk about and explain various things about God. In the creed, for example, when you say, “begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” you are expressing a metaphysical conclusion which was once a hot debate in the early church. Metaphysics has been especially employed throughout history to discuss the nature of the Incarnation (word becoming flesh) and the Trinity (one being or ousia of three persons or hypostases). Aquinas relied heavily on metaphysical language to explain these mysteries. Aquinas used metaphysical language to talk about God’s simplicity (that he lacks composition), his perfection, his eternity, his immutability, and his power. But he also employs heavily metaphysical language to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, given that God is one and simple, how can we also say that God is three persons?

Much of Protestant theology has assumed an irreconcilable division between Scripture and metaphysics. For many Protestants, the best way to talk about God is not in the metaphysical language of being, but rather in the language that God gives us in Scripture. That is, if we want to understand God, we turn to Scripture which tells us who YHWH is, who Jesus Christ is, and who the Holy Spirit is.

There is good reason for this turn to Scripture, rather than philosophy, in order to understand God. Luther, for example, quite famously said that metaphysics was prohibitive for understanding God, and was a way of getting around the fact that the living God has revealed himself historically in Scripture. Moreover, it is hard to deny that it is much easier to be inspired and captivated by the scriptural tales of the various acts of the God of Israel, and the stories of Jesus, and the Pauline arguments about Jesus’ significance than it is to be inspired and captivated by a discussion like the following from Aquinas’ treatment of the Trinity:

the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person. But a difficulty seems to arise from the fact that while the divine persons are multiplied, the essence nevertheless retains its unity. And because, as Boethius says (De Trin. i), “relation multiplies the Trinity of persons,” some have thought that in God essence and person differ, forasmuch as they held the relations to be “adjacent”; considering only in the relations the idea of “reference to another,” and not the relations as realities. But as it was shown above (Question 28, Article 2) in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. (Ia, Q. 39, art. 1).

However, the assumed antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is in many ways a straw man. First of all, Scripture uses metaphysical language to talk about God. When God tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Prologue of John is heavily metaphysical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Second of all, many of those who use metaphysics, like Aquinas, do not do so in order to replace Scripture, but rather to shed light on the mysteries narrated by Scripture.

Overcoming the antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is the subject of Matthew Levering’s excellent new book, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, which I will be discussing in subsequent blog posts. Levering argues that metaphysical speculation about God, rather than rendering God distant and meaningless, is necessary to ensure that our worship is oriented towards Israel’s God, rather than culturally relevant idols. Aquinas, he argues, is an invaluable guide for learning how metaphysics enhances our understanding of Scripture and deepens our knowledge and union with God. He writes in the introduction,

We learn from Aquinas how the language of ‘being’ [metaphysical language] preserves Israel’s radical insistence upon the intimate presence in the world of her transcendent god, a presence that is ultimately Messianic, given the evil of the world. Aquinas exposes how the doctrine of divine Personhood attains real knowledge of, without over-narrating, the inner life of God as revealed in Scripture. He finds in the proper names of the Trinity—father, Son, Word, Image, Holy Spirit, Love, Gift—the biblical distinctions of the divine communion-in-unity into which our lives have been salvifically drawn. Against supersessionism, including the unconscious supersessionism that is Trinitarian ontology, he teaches Christians that we must always speak of our triune God under two aspects (4).

Metaphysics, for Aquinas and for Levering who wants to defend Aquinas, belongs to the personal encounter in which human beings use human words and human concepts to truly express divine revelation. Aquinas uses metaphysics to illumine the meaning of Scriptural revelation, to talk in a meaningful way about the God who has made himself known, and ultimately, to help Christians contemplate and enter into greater union with this living God. A Jean Pierre Torrell writes:

When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative; the two words are practically synonymous in Thomas. This is why—we shall not be slow to see this operative in Thomas’ life—research, study, reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add some further clarifications to that, but he would not reject the intention: the joy of the Friend who is contemplated is completed in song (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 157).

On a final note, I hope this post and the subsequent posts I write on this book and the topic of scripture and metaphysics will foster ecumenical dialogue. As a Roman Catholic married to a member of the Church of Christ, and as a regular mass attendant and active worshipper in a local church of Christ, I am very interested in finding points of similarity and unity between a tradition that is heavily speculative and metaphysical, and a tradition that is historically rationalistic, positivistic, and solely reliant on Scripture to know God and how to worship him. I think that Aquinas is an invaluable resource for this dialogue, and for future ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions, and I hope that these posts can help to foster an ongoing conversation between different Christians who seek to climb the steep mountain of the knowledge of God.

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5 comments so far

  1. Katie on

    Is the split in modern Protestant thinking on the Trinity between Scripture and metaphysics? I am sure this plays a role, but I think far more central is the split between what we think we can say about God in God’s self. In other words, I think the central split in modern Protestant theology of the Trinity all comes down to what one thinks constitutes a dogmatic statement about God. For Thomas this is a little easier to say but the split between Schleiermacher and Barth on this issue is deep and long and less about Scripture vs. metaphysics (though overly simplistic Barthians might argue differently) and more about how the two reacted to the way they read Kant…

    • everydaythomist on

      Katie,
      You bring up a really excellent point and a problem that I have when writing blog posts about such a complicated subject with such a deep theological history. The split in modern Protestant thinking on the Trinity depends on what type of Protestant you are talking about. Protestants with a higher ecclesiology and sacramentality (like high-church Reformed, Anglicans, etc.) that have a longer, deeper theological tradition, tend to fit more with your description. The Protestants I have in mind for my audience, however, are Protestants who do not really have a theological tradition. So it would be distracting to discuss the nuances between Barth and Schleirmacher’s reading of Kant (which is fascinating in itself and I would love your thoughts on) because these Protestants (low-church Protestants) are actually not influenced by either. Low church Protestants, at least in my experience, are non-creedal, non-sacramental, and non-doctrinal. They tend to take Scripture as the only theological authority, and they tend to read Scripture not in order to say things about God necessarily, but in order to see what God has commanded us to do. So there really is an impasse between Scripture and metaphysics for this particular Protestant group which I primarily want to dialogue with in this series of posts. I want to show (1) how anything we say about God, even if it is drawn from Scripture, is already a metaphysical statement and (2) metaphysical statements can be more or less profound, convincing, and fruitful when backed by a metaphysical system of thought and method derived not from Scripture but from the light of natural reason.

      Correct me if I am wrong, but Barth rejects metaphysical reasoning as able to conclude anything dogmatic about God’s self, because (1) he has a high view of human reason as clouded by sin, and (2) knowledge of God’s self comes only in the form of a call and response that happens in the moment of engaging with the living Word (which means for Barth than just Scripture because Scripture must first be enlivened by the Word). So for Barth, the big issue is that God is a living God who reveals God’s very self, rather than the abstract God of the philosophers, which Barth considers an idol. Is that a simple but accurate reading of Barth? How would you then fit Schleiermacher into the picture? As I understand him, his rejection of metaphysics (which Levering compares to William James in the American scene) is more concerned with what produces authentic religious sentiments or feelings. The god of the metaphysicians for Schleiermacher is not a God that stirs the religious sentiments and produces that firm attachment to the unknown but Ultimate Reality. So talking about God’s asceity or simplicity or any other metaphysical topic on God’s self distracts rather than contributes to authentic religious sentiments. Is this a fair understanding of Schleirmacher?

      For the record, Levering has such neo-Schleirmachians in mind, if I have read him right, because he is going to argue that the problem (what he calls the Jamesian impasse in modern theology) is that we tend to think that metaphysical reasoning does not awaken such religious feelings but distracts from authentic religiosity and love of God. The solution, for Levering, is a recovery of the contemplative ends of Thomistic theological reasoning, which includes metaphysical speculation, and is aimed knowledge of God for the sake of having knowledge of God, which is a taste of what is to come in eternal life. At one point, Levering says that in heaven, all knowledge of God on earth won’t disappear, but rather that we will spend eternity contemplating the issues we considered on earth as mere technicalities, but in heaven, we will do it face-to-face with God. Metaphysical speculation, then, connaturalizes us to God’s wisdom.

      Thanks for responding and I hope you, as a Trinitarian expert, keep reading and commenting on this series of posts.

  2. Katie on

    Bethany,

    You bring up excellent points. I also think that I might not have accurately understood the audience that you were writing for. For the record, I completely agree that the right way to go is to try to look for points where Christians agree and build from there. The fact of separation among Christians is a scandal that we should all be working to overcome, so I applaud this work.

    In my very humble opinion, I still think that no matter what kind of Protestant you are talking about you still have to have the concept of a “dogmatic statement” (or whatever you want to call accurate speech about God determined by a body of Christians) determined before you move forward to talking about what you can and cannot say about the Trinity because this will determine the parameters of the conversation. And it is really from this perspective that I think one should begin to look at the differences between groups before one looks at the content of those statements. This might mean that I am being overly systematic and that’s a valid criticism.

    As far as Barth is concerned I was thinking about the first part of Church Dogmatics in which he lays out his system indicating the nature of a “dogmatic statement” though he doesn’t call it that. As I read Barth I think his primary place of engagement isn’t necessarily metaphysical reasoning in itself but metaphysical reasoning as adopted by Schleiermacher from Kant. This is really his big fish to fry in the whole of his work. His concern with the Trinity is to reject Schleiermacher’s definition of a dogmatic statement which claims that to speak of God in Godself is speculative work outside of the realm of the work of the redeemer and therefore cannot be done. This definition of a dogmatic statement precludes Schleiermacher from making any kind of real statement about the immanent Trinity though he does make some minor statements toward the end of the Glaubenslehre. Hence, Barth’s rejecting Kant’s worldview that we cannot know the thing in itself by rejecting Schleiermacher’s careful exclusion of a discussion of the immanent Trinity. Barth believes that God reveals self as self for us in the Word of God in it’s threefold form one of which is Scripture as read by the community.

    …on another topic…is there such a thing as a protestant without a theological tradition or a “non-creedal” Christian? Though the terms of the tradition and creed might be far more loose, I am hard pressed to believe that any group of Christians can exist without some form of cohesion regarding tradition and creed, though these terms might be used very loosely…

    …another thought on Schleiermacher…his use of the German geful (sp) which is translated into English as feeling or sentiment is a mistranslation. It’s better translated as experience meaning the reality in which we find ourselves, not any particular moment or emotion. Also, he though Plato was as equally a valid source of revelation as the Hebrew Scriptures.

    …and yet another topic…though someone might consider Scripture the only authority…is there any person living in the western world who is not influenced by Kant? Even if the person doesn’t know it…it’s like the air we breathe. I would also be hard pressed to believe this…

    • everydaythomist on

      Katie,
      You are absolutely right about determining parameters, which I admit I have not done very well. I am going to post another blog very soon on a simpler rendition of what I mean by “metaphysics” and why low-church Protestants like the Churches of Christ need to admit that such a tool is a necessary and valuable tool for Scriptural exegesis. This first post is a bit schizophrenic in identifying an audience.

      Here is what I mean by non-dogmatic. Churches of Christ were a sort of American pioneer counter-Reformation movement founded by two individuals, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Campbell was trained in Calvinistic pietism and Scottish common sense philosophy and actually had some sympathy for the importance of creedal statements grounded in philosophical (i.e. metaphysical) language), but was criticized heavily by Barton Stone and a couple of other individuals who pushed him to cease expressing truths about the faith philosophically and speculatively, and to use only Biblical facts and Biblical language as the basis of faith. Biblical hermeneutics consequently became the only acceptable theological enterprise in the development of the Churches of Christ. Because the word “dogma” or “doctrine” or “creed” is not in the Bible, the Churches of Christ do not use it.

      That being said, there are a number of “dogmas.” Adult, believer, immersion baptism is one. Taking the Lord’s Supper weekly is another. Acapella music is another, and a very important one among more sectarian Churches of Christ as a distinctive marker among other counter-Reformation Protestants.

      Because Biblical hermeneutics, as you can probably tell, is used primarily to determine what should be done, i.e. how to do “church” properly, Churches of Christ have not had much use over the last century and a half for any philosophical language because they are not primarily concerned with saying anything about God so much as determining what God is commanding. That God is good is less of a concern than that God has commanded baptism, that God has commanded to receive the Lord’s supper, that God has forbidden certain acts like adultery.

      This is changing. Churches of Christ are beginning to realize that at least on a scholarly level, philosophical and theological “speculation” about God is necessary to keep the faith alive. For example, Churches of Christ are clear that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, but as for theologically how that works, and how Jesus fits in with salvation history, needs to be fleshed out a little. Christology is becoming more important. Pneumatology, especially as Churches of Christ have to compete more with Pentecostals, is becoming more important. Basically, Churches of Christ are realizing that they need philosophical theology in order to stay viable in the modern world amidst other Christian denominations. For a good article on this see this article from Restoration Quarterly.

      Part of this is recognizing historical and theological influences that Churches of Christ have typically ignored, in their effort to be purely Biblical (rather than historical, theological, or philosophical) in their religious reflections. One of these influences, a major one, is of course Kant. I cannot but help thinking that you are right about Kant’s influence. Our modern world is so thoroughly Kantian that to ignore him is naive beyond belief (on a related note, I just read Carol Gilligan In a Different Voice where she challenges Kohlberg’s Kantian moral reasoning with her study of how females are socially conditioned to not think morally in the detached, autonomous reason of the Kantian mindset. As both a female and a Thomist, I think that the biggest challenges to the Kantian influence will come with the rising prominence of the female voice, especially in moral circles, and the greater prominence of a Thomistic moral psychology grounded in the empirical evidence from the biological and psychosocial sciences. More on that later).

      I think as Church of Christ scholarship delves more into theological debates, they will lean more towards a Barthian rather than a Schleiermachian position, which you do a great job distinguishing. That is, philosophically, we can say more about God that Schleirmacher allows in his interpretation of Kant. And the Schleirmachian “Gefühl” is probably a bit too subject and antithetical to Scripture for Churches of Christ to ever swallow, as is the idea that Plato could ever be any real authority in light of the dominance of the Scriptural witness. The concept though of the “immanent Trinity” or God in Godself (apart from God in salvation history) is probably still beyond most Church of Christ folks at this point. Churches of Christ do not even use the word “Trinity” since it is not scriptural, though they do recognize that Jesus is divine, that the Holy Spirit is from God, etc. So they make Trinitarian statements, but they do not use the word “Trinity.” Part of my mission in this series of posts (I might be completely over my head here, as Scott lead me to believe yesterday) is to convince Church of Christ folks and other low church Protestants that such speculative language is valuable for the project of developing a sound Scriptural hermeneutic. Like interpreting Matthew 28:19, for example, or 2 Corinthians 13:14, or 1 Peter 1:1-2. Such passages are metaphysical passages that a Trinitarian metaphysical theology, be it Thomistic or Barthian or Schleiermachian, can help us interpret and understand.

      So my mission in this series of blogs, which I am so grateful to you for helping me sort out, is really two-fold. On one hand, I want to do a series of reviews on Levering’s book for my own sake, as a Thomist interested in the Trinity and interested in Scripture. On the other hand, I want to try and communicate to a certain audience why the subject of this book (using metaphysical reasoning, and especially the Thomistic variety, to ground and direct Scriptural exegesis) is an important and worthy task. That is, I am trying to show low-Church Protestants (and Catholics with a poor understanding of Scriptural exegesis) how Aquinas used metaphysical speculation to better understand the Word of God.

      • everydaythomist on

        David Bentley Hart, in his typical pedantic and homiletic fashion, has published a massive article tangentially related to this post, and the subject of Christian metaphysical speculation in general. Here are the relevant passages:

        Naturally, also, with the death of the old mythos, metaphysics too was transformed. For one thing, while every ancient system of philosophy had to presume an economy of necessity binding the world of becoming to its inmost or highest principles, Christian theology taught from the first that the world was God’s creature in the most radically ontological sense: that it is called from nothingness, not out of any need on God’s part, but by grace. The world adds nothing to the being of God, and so nothing need be sacrificed for His glory or sustenance. In a sense, God and world alike were liberated from the fetters of necessity; God could be accorded His true transcendence and the world its true character as divine gift. The full implications of this probably became visible to Christian philosophers only with the resolution of the fourth-century trinitarian controversies, when the subordinationist schemes of Alexandrian trinitarianism were abandoned, and with them the last residue within theology of late Platonism’s vision of a descending scale of divinity mediating between God and world–the both of them comprised in a single totality.

        In any event, developed Christian theology rejected nothing good in the metaphysics, ethics, or method of ancient philosophy, but–with a kind of omnivorous glee–assimilated such elements as served its ends, and always improved them in the process. Stoic morality, Plato’s language of the Good, Aristotle’s metaphysics of act and potency–all became richer and more coherent when emancipated from the morbid myths of sacrificial economy and tragic necessity. In truth, Christian theology nowhere more wantonly celebrated its triumph over the old gods than in the use it made of the so-called spolia Aegyptorum; and, by despoiling pagan philosophy of its most splendid achievements and integrating them into a vision of reality more complete than philosophy could attain on its own, theology took to itself irrevocably all the intellectual glories of antiquity. The temples were stripped of their gold and precious ornaments, the sacred vessels were carried away into the precincts of the Church and turned to better uses, and nothing was left behind but a few grim, gaunt ruins to lure back the occasional disenchanted Christian and shelter a few atavistic ghosts. . .

        . . .But what is the consequence, then, when Christianity, as a living historical force, recedes? We have no need to speculate, as it happens; modernity speaks for itself: with the withdrawal of Christian culture, all the glories of the ancient world that it baptized and redeemed have perished with it in the general cataclysm. Christianity is the midwife of nihilism, not because it is itself nihilistic, but because it is too powerful in its embrace of the world and all of the world’s mystery and beauty; and so to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity. As Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor tells Christ, the freedom that the gospel brings is too terrible to be borne indefinitely. Our sin makes us feeble and craven, and we long to flee from the liberty of the sons of God; but where now can we go? Everything is Christ’s.

        This is illustrated with striking clarity by the history of modern philosophy, at least in its continental (and, so to speak, proper) form. It is fashionable at present, among some theologians, to attempt precise genealogies of modernity, which in general I would rather avoid doing; but it does seem clear to me that the special preoccupations and perversities of modern philosophy were incubated in the age of late Scholasticism, with the rise of nominalism and voluntarism. Whereas earlier theology spoke of God as Goodness as such, whose every act (by virtue of divine simplicity) expresses His nature, the spectre that haunts late Scholastic thought is a God whose will precedes His nature, and whose acts then are feats of pure spontaneity. It is a logically incoherent way of conceiving of God, as it happens (though I cannot argue that here), but it is a powerful idea, elevating as it does will over all else and redefining freedom–for God and, by extension, for us–not as the unhindered realization of a nature (the liberty to “become what you are”), but as the absolute liberty of the will in determining even what its nature is.


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