Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Tag

YHWH: God’s Being as Simple Being

Continuing on with our examination of Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics, in this post I will give a concrete, hopefully simple, example of how metaphysical speculation can enhance our understanding of Scripture.

In examining Scripture, there are numerous passages that refer to God’s body. In Exodus 33, God speaks to Moses face to face, and allows Moses to gaze upon his back. Psalm 33 anthropomorphically depicts God sitting on his throne in heaven and looking down on the earth to judge the righteous and the wicked. Scripture frequently refers to God’s “right hand” (Psalm 48:10, Acts 7:56). However, Christianity holds that God is not a body, but that God is a spirit. In light of the scriptural passages that say otherwise, how can Christianity hold such a belief?

Aquinas, as Matthew Levering points out, provides one such way of interpreting these seeming conflicting passages, by using metaphysical reflection to illumine the relevant passages of Scripture. He begins with John 4:24: “God is a spirit” as providing the basis of his metaphysical reflection (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1). He then goes on to say, in light of the biblical quotations which describe God in bodily terms, that the Bible “puts before us spiritual and divine things under the comparison of corporeal things” (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1, ad. 1). Aquinas’ point is that human language must rely on sensible images to describe God, though God is immaterial.

But how do we know this is the case? In light of the numerous Scripture passages that say otherwise, would it not make more sense to conclude that God has a body (and a spirit, to take into proper account John 4:24)? Aquinas uses metaphysical arguments to the contrary. First, a body is composed of matter, and it would be impossible for matter to be attributed to God. This is because matter exists in a state of potentiality.

Aquinas takes his understanding of potentiality from Aristotle. Aristotle’s definition of potentiality in the Metaphysics, is the “power that a thing has to produce change” or “the source of change in something else or in itself qua other.” (1046a12). The exercise of potentiality is movement or process (kinesis) or actuality (energeia). So a thing has potentiality in so far as it is capable of changing, and especially in so far as it is capable of taking on a better or more complete state of being.

We can think of potentiality as “potential energy” in physics. A stone sitting at the top of the hill has potential energy, which will be translated to movement (kinesis or kinetic energy) as the stone rolls down the hill and comes to a rest. But metaphysically, potentiality has a wider meaning that refers to states of being. An infant, for example, has potentiality to grow into an adult, thus taking on a more perfect or more complete state of being, because as an adult, the infant will be able to do more things properly ascribed to humans (walking, talking, reasoning, making art) that an infant cannot do.

According to Aristotle, everything in the universe can be described as a combination of form and matter. Matter is the raw material of things, whereas form is the structure of a thing or the “essence of what a thing is.” A woman and a gazelle are both composed of matter, and some of the same types of matter (like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen) but the two substances are distinguished by their form—the woman has the form of a human and the gazelle the form of the gazelle. All matter is in a state of potentiality because it could take on any number of forms. So matter is the “waiting to happen” part of existence; form is the “happening” part of existence. An infant’s matter will change over time, but the form, the essence of what that infant is, will remain constant, which is why the three year-old, 20 year-old, and 90 year-old “former infant” can still be said to be the same person.

Things that have bodies, therefore, are in a state of potentiality. They are changing, they are always in the process of becoming. So if God had a body, God would be in a state of change. But Aquinas, based on both Scripture and metaphysics, does not accept that God changes. He cites James 1:17 that in God “there is no change nor shadow of alteration” and Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change” and Numbers 23:19: “God is not as a man, that He should lie, nor as the son of man that He should be changed” (see Ia, Q. 14, art. 10 and Q. 19, art. 7) Using these passages of Scripture, Aquinas can then return to his metaphysical speculation—things that have bodies composed of matter are in a state of potentiality, and therefore they change. But God does not change. Thus, God must not have a body composed of matter.

Metaphysically, this informs Aquinas of something important. He accepts the Aristotelian dictum that all things are composed of matter and form or potentiality and actuality. But if God does not have matter, then God must be only form, and if God is only form, then God must be only actuality without any potentiality. Another way of saying this is that God is “pure Act” or the perfect fullness of “to be.” Moreover, things that are composed of matter and form are composites, but God is not composed of matter and form and therefore cannot be a composite. Thus, Aquinas concludes, that God is simple.

These are the two metaphysical assumptions which Aquinas bases all subsequent metaphysical reflection when discussing God’s existence: (1) God is pure Being or pure Act and (2) God is simple. Although he uses metaphysical language to make these claims, Aquinas is not doing pure metaphysical speculation. In other words, he is not just recapitulating the “static Aristotelian conception of the deity” as a “mere philosophical problem” (Levering 86) but is rather using Aristotelian metaphysics to illuminate an understanding of the God of Israel and this God’s relation to human history.

For Aquinas, the language of God as “pure Being” is not separable theologically from the revelation of “YHWH”: “The two names complement each other, revealing God’s historical presence as infinite, sheer, eternal Presence. They express the same God, understood metaphysically and historically” (Levering 61).

So why use the metaphysical language at all? Because, as we saw at the beginning of this post, Scripture uses language to refer to God that describes God in human terms, and as such, the language of Scripture can possibly dispose readers to idolatry, to create God according to a human image. According to Aquinas, as Levering points out in his book, the metaphysical language God ascribes to Godself in Exodus 3:14 is intended to wean God’s people from idolatry by revealing God as pure being and nothing more, without any particular mode of being (i.e. as simple) and consequently, and here is the important part, as sheer presence.

Because God does not have any particular mode of being, God is eternally present. As YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is intimately active without being limited by temporality. There should be no doubt that Aquinas is not trying to create a philosopher’s God who is detached from creation, but is rather trying to use metaphysical language to illuminate the God who is intimately close to creation, who is personal, and eternally present. God as Aquinas describes him in the language of Greek metaphysics as Pure, Simple Being is also the living and creating God of Israel. On this point, Thomas Weinandy finds a unity of metaphysical and historical naming of God in Christian thought:

Within Greek though these attributes [e.g. imperishability, perfection, goodness, power] constitute God as one who is removed from, even if related to, all else that is. They constitute him as transcendent in the sense of not only making him other than the cosmic order, but also as often being incapable of actively relating to the cosmic order. Within the Judeo/Christian tradition these attributes do constitute God as wholly other than all else, but they equally constitute him as Creator and so immediately related to all else that is” (Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 72)

So here we have one example of how Aquinas uses both Scripture and metaphysical reasoning to illuminate God as revealed in Scripture, namely, as a God who is simple (not composite form and matter but rather pure form without a body) and a God who is Pure Being.

Questions:
1. Aquinas uses metaphysics to make sense of all those scriptural passages saying that God has a body. How do you make sense of those passages?
2. It is very important for Aquinas’ understanding of God that God does not have a body. In your mind, what difference does it make if God does or does not have a body?
3. Does describing God as “Pure Being” obscure or illuminate God as God is revealed in Scripture, especially in light of the fact that God gives the name YHWH “I am who I am” to Moses as the name by which God should be called.

More on Metaphysics

As I mentioned in my last post, I am doing a series of articles on Matthew Levering’s new book entitled Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, largely in hopes of starting an ecumenical conversation between traditions like the Church of Christ that tend to be sola Scriptura, and traditions like Roman Catholicism that tends to be heavily philosophical. The point of this blog is to probe deeper into the subject of metaphysics, in order to understand why Levering’s project is so important.

In the last post, I said that Protestant theology tends to reject metaphysics in favor of using Scripture to understand God. This claim, however, requires some clarification. There are several different ways of “rejecting metaphysics.” As I mentioned before, metaphysics is simply the study of that which is not physical like God, angels, demons, and the soul. One way which a person could reject metaphysics is by rejecting that any such metaphysical or immaterial realm exists. This is a move frequently made in the modern sciences, and is sometimes called materialism, meaning that only a material realm of reality which is subject to empirical inquiry exists.

One example of a materialist rejection of metaphysics is found in this recent op-ed from the New York Times evaluating the selection of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health. Collins is a geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project, and he is also a practicing Catholic and believer in God. Collins actually wrote a book called The Language of God which tries to show how faith and new developments in genetics are not at odds, but are rather mutually reinforcing (a good Thomist position). The author of the op-ed, Sam Harris, is not so much uncomfortable with Collin’s belief in a God but rather with his position that some things “including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.” are beyond scientific scrutiny. Harris writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Collins holds the position that he does because he believes in a metaphysical realm that cannot be the subject of scientific empirical inquiry which by definition can only study material phenomena. Harris, on the other hand, rejects such a metaphysical realm. If there is a reason, according to Harris, that we think that free will, morality, and suffering are mysteries, it is simply because we have not developed sufficiently sophisticated scientific methods to study these phenomena (For a good argument that probes materialist rejection of metaphysics on a deeper intellectual level, check out this from First Things).

Christians, however, who reject metaphysics, do not do so in the same way as Harris. Christians are not materialists, meaning that they do accept a metaphysical realm. Christians who reject metaphysics do so on different grounds, namely, by rejecting the validity of metaphysical speculation or philosophical arguments to talk about God. Christians who reject metaphysics tend to claim that everything we need to know about God has already been revealed to us in Scripture, and so rather than using philosophy to talk about God, we need only to open the Bible.

There are two big reasons why that position is a problem. First, say you have an atheist or agnostic scientist or believer in science like Sam Harris and you want to talk to him about Christianity. Opening up the Bible and reading about all that God has done is going to do little to persuade someone like Harris to accept the Christian claims of faith. But say instead you close the Bible and use a metaphysical argument to engage Sam, perhaps an argument from Aquinas. You might say something like, “Sam, our senses tell us that everything is in motion, and that things are set into motion when they are acted on by something else in motion. But things were not always in motion. For example, the theory of the Big Bang tells us that before time, there was no molecular motion at all, but something must have initially set things into motion. This first mover, we can reasonably say, is God.” (For the record, this is Aquinas’ first way of five for demonstrating reasonably God’s existence).

Now Harris may or may not be convinced by such an argument, but the point is, that such an argument, which is a metaphysical argument, has the benefit of being able to show how the God which Christians take on faith is not beyond reason. Certain things can be known about this God through ordinary human reasoning. Now, faith in the living God of Israel, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, cannot be attained through mere rational speculation, but is rather an effect of God’s grace. But Aquinas believed, and I think rightly, that we can make ourselves more or less amenable to faith. Sam Harris is not going to be made amenable to faith by reading the Bible, but he might be by rational, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. Get him convinced enough that faith and reason are not in conflict, and he may get to the point where he can actually open the Bible and read it with a certain degree of docility. So metaphysics can be a powerful tool for evangelization.

The second reason that rejecting metaphysical arguments in favor of a sola Scriptura position to understand God is a problem is that God as revealed in Scripture does not always seem to make a lot of sense. For example, a Christian may site Psalm 118, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! for His mercy endures forever” and make a claim along with the Psalmist that God is good. But then somebody could open the Bible and read 2 Samuel 6 where Uzzah, a seemingly good guy and servant of God, reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling, and God gets angry and strikes him dead. A person reading this passage could claim that such a God is not good. Or a Christian could say that God loves peace and mercy and cite the numerous Biblical passages which support this, like when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” or in the Old Testament:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22)

“Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14)

But then someone else could open the Bible and look at the following passages and draw a very different conclusion:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images. For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34: 11-14)

<blockquoteYou will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new (Leviticus 26: 7-9)

Reading these passages, someone could make a very valid claim (as lots of people do, and they frequently abandon their faith as a result) that God is actually not peaceful and merciful, but is rather capricious and wrathful, going so far as to command genocide, one of the greatest of atrocities.

Levering says that it is all too easy to read these passages and others from the Bible and create an idol out of God. Our idol may be a wrathful God who sends down punishments on the wicked and hates his enemies. Or our idol may be a revolutionary God involved in radical societal reform and social justice. Or our idol may be a God who loves and accepts all his creatures, no matter what they do. Or our God may be a strict authoritarian who has set down rules in Holy Writ and fully expects his creatures to follow them.

All of these understandings of God are present in Scripture and thus all of them have at least some element of truth. But Levering wants to argue that taking any one of these understandings of God on its own, despite its scriptural warrant, is still making an idol out of God.

Levering wants to make the claim in his book that a basic metaphysical assumption about God is that God is reasonable, and thus, we can use our reason to understand and explain these seeming conflicting passages about God. That is, if we put metaphysical speculation about God into dialogue with scriptural exegesis about God, we can come up with an understanding of God that is richer, truer, and less prone to idolatry. We will go into the details of how Levering thinks this should proceed in later posts, but he basically wants to argue that Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical assumptions allowed him to resolve apparent conflicts regarding God as God is revealed in Scripture. Metaphysical speculation allowed Aquinas to make sense of Scriptural accounts of the seeming capriciousness of God and scriptural accounts of God as unchanging. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the Christian claim that God is good, despite Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the fact that God is one, despite the fact that Christianity hold that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also God. And Levering thinks that these are exactly the tools that Christians need to today in order to understand God and enter into greater union with that God.

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.

Part Three of the Christian Response to Abortion: Christology

We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.

What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,

Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).

What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.

This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.

The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).

In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

Using Virtue Ethics to Read the Bible (Without Falling Into Anti-Nomianism)

There are lots off good reasons to read the Bible.  The reasons would vary depending who you polled–some “secular humanists” would say that the Bible should be read for cultural literacy or for its literary value as a great book.  Christians would say that the Bible is the Word of God and tells us how to get to heaven, or that the Bible tells us God’s will for our life.  Lots of people would say that the Bible has many good moral lessons like love of enemy, care for the poor and marginalized, and other norms dictating good behavior.

If Christians believe that the Bible is a good source of morals, they are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to move from the Scriptural witness to their own moral inquiries.  This is no easy task, and Christian history is full of different ways to answer the question of the relationship between the Bible and ethics.  My fiancé is part of the Church of Christ tradition that has a very handy little system called “Command, Example, Necessary Inference.”  What this means is if the New Testament commands something, you obey (like baptism and the Lord‘s Supper).  In the absence of a command, you follow any provided example (like taking the Lord‘s Supper every Sunday).  And if there is neither, you follow necessary inference (like the use of church buildings).  For issues specifically addressed in the New Testament, Churches of Christ have a pretty coherent way of forming their views, but for issues not found in the New Testament (like surrogate motherhood, for example), their approach can be pretty unsystematic and haphazard.

Other Christians have a “cafeteria approach” to Scripture, keeping what they like and rejecting what they don’t.  You see this in a lot of the more liberal-minded groups that like things like love of enemy, but don’t really think Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is all that relevant or that the Bible’s teaching about divorce should really be taken all that seriously.  This approach has the advantage off avoiding a dogmatic and unilateral approach to Scripture, but it is often quite arbitrary in what it takes seriously from Scripture and what it dismisses.

What both of these approaches have in common is that they look to Scripture for norms or rules about how to behave.  This might be called a deontological approach to Scripture which means that Scripture provides certain duties for those that follow it, and only these duties are relevant to Christian ethics.  As a virtue theorist influenced by Thomas Aquinas, I find such an approach deficient.  Ethics is not just about rules and duties, but also about character and leading a good life.  Virtue theory provides a way of using the Bible for ethics, not just for the derivation of rules, but also for a witness as to what sort of people we are called to be.  The Bible tells us what sort of character Christians should have.

Some people like the idea of using virtue theory to bridge ethics and Scripture because it makes their “cafeteria” approach more systematic.  Such people say something like “the rules in the Bible are not all that important, only the virtues like kindness and justice.”  This approach looks a lot like anti-nomianism, or the rejection of the relevance of rules (anti=against; nomos=laws).  These people tend to want to use Scripture without dealing with the parts dealing with tricky issues like homosexuality, divorce, and women.  They want to say that the overall trajectory of Scripture shows us the sort of people that we should be (kind, tolerant, just, etc.) but the details aren’t all that important.

I don’t fall into this camp.   I think the Bible shows us what sort of character we should have and what sort of virtues form that character, but it also tells us how these virtues are developed.  Aristotle tells us (and Aquinas agrees) that virtues are formed by acting well.  The virtue of justice, for example, is developed by acting justly over a period of time, such that you start doing just acts as a second nature.  But how do we know what just acts are, before we develop the virtue of justice?  One way is by following just people, but another way is by obeying just rules.

Think of a parent raising a child.  If that parent wants the child to be fair, he puts in place certain rules to encourage fairness, like sharing toys or taking turns with fun activities.  What the parent hopes is that eventually, the child will act fairly even when there  are no rules forcing them to, or no person to enforce the rules.  But the child will get to that state only if he obeys the rules about fair activity over and over and over again and by imitating the example of fair people.

Scripture can be thought of in a similar way.  God wants us to be certain people, and he has provided us with commands and examples of people to follow in order to become the people he calls us to be.  For example, he want us to be people who are wise.  Scripture tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  What does acting out of fear of the Lord look like?  It looks like following God’s commands.  For example, in Exodus 9, God commands that all the livestock be brought under shelter to protect them from the coming hailstorm He is sending.  The officials of Pharaoh who fear the Lord obey, and their livestock is saved, but those who do not fear the Lord ignore the command and suffer the consequences.  The rule God gives us is to “obey his commands” and he provides many examples like these servants for us to imitate.

Another examples of what God calls us to be is loving people.  We only become loving people, however, by performing acts of love like taking care of the widow, the resident alien, the orphan, and even our enemies.  We become loving people by not resisting evil, but by “overcoming  evil with good” as Paul tells us in Romans.  These rules are supplemented by examples of loving people, the paradigmatic one being Jesus himself, but also figures like Mary and Paul who are paradigms of love that we can imitate.

If the commands in the Bible must still be taken seriously, one might ask what the difference between a deontological approach to Scripture and a virtue-based approach.  The answer is that a deontological approach to Scripture sees obedience to the rules as an end in itself.  God commanded us to obey, and we do so accordingly.  A virtue-based approach sees the rules as a means to becoming the people that God calls us to be.  The rules are not arbitrary commands of God, but tools that God gives us to develop the sort of character we need to follow him.  If we are successful, we no longer follow the rules out of slavish obedience, but out of love of the Good that is behind the rules.  The goal of virtue theory, unlike a deontological theory, is not just be obedient, but to be good like God is good so that we may no longer be called servants, but friends of God.

At the same time, using a virtue-based approach to Scripture means that  when we come across a contemporary moral problem like in vitro fertilization or global warming, we don’t have to look at Scripture to see what is specifically commanded or what rule can be inferred.  We can also look to Scripture to see what kind of people God is calling us to be and how the dilemma at hand compares.  This will not protect us from diversity in our ethical views (some people may say that using in vitro fertilization is consistent with becoming the sort of person God wants us to be while others will disagree) but it will allow us to take seriously the Scriptural witness for the way we think about ethics without falling into unilateral dogmatism or arbitrary picking and choosing in the process.