“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, are inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.


Hegel & Theology

What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? In a very real sense, the burning desire to answer this question for myself was one of my primary motivations for entering a PhD program in philosophy at a Catholic institution, studying under a renowned thinker who, sometimes I am tempted to think, is a theologian posing as a philosopher. To my mind such an academic posture is perfectly suited for our contemporary cultural moment in the West.

However before one can answer this question, one must first be as clear as possible on the meaning of the terms “philosophy” and “theology.” Here’s my stab at such requisite clarity. Theology is the rational interpretation and development of the content of revelation; philosophy is the ordered system of sciences, in both its Aristotelian and Hegelian incarnations, extending from the supreme principle of theos / Geist on the one hand, to the most propaeduetically incipient or elementary principle(s) of logic on the other. (Note: God / theos / Geist is a constitutent element for both ancient thought [Aristotle]  and (post)modern thought [Hegel].)

In the third part of his “system” entitled “The Philosophy of Geist,” Hegel writes:

In order to elucidate for ordinary thinking this unity of form and content present in the mind, the unity of manifestation and what is manifested, we can refer to the teaching of the Christian religion. Christianity says: God has revealed himself through Christ, his only begotten son. Ordinary thinking straightway interprets this statement to mean that Christ is only [ital. mine] the organ of this revelation, as if what is revealed in this manner were something other than the source of the revelation. But in truth this statement properly means that God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e., in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself, beholding and revealing himself in the Son, and that by this unity with the Son, by his being for himself in the other, he is absolute mind or spirit, so that the Son is not the mere organ of the revelation, but is himself the content of the revelation. (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, tr. Wallace & Miller, 1971, §383)

Preliminary construal of the relationship between philosophy and theology (as defined above and to be developed later): they are symbiotically or reflexively related, such that each is the condition of possibility for the other.

That is, there neither is nor can be philosophy without theology, nor theology without philosophy.

(Note: this view, it seems to me right now, requires that we regard Aristotle as a recipient of revelation. Kinda crazy.)



Medieval Roots of Biblical Typology

Nerd alert: this post is intended for theology geeks only!

In so many ways I’m grateful for the education I received in my MDiv program at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, one qualm I have: WTS’ consistent presumption of a-historicity. That is, it tends to deny that its primary doctrinal emphases (most of which I am totally “down with”) are rooted in a particular history.

Case in point. In the biblical departments there was much (extremely valuable) emphasis on biblical typology.

For decades I’ve wondered, “Does this idea have any historical precedence in medieval thought?” Now I know that it does:

All the mysteries of Scripture treat of Christ with his Body…. This is the meaning of Augustine in his book on the City of God.

So writes Bonaventure in Hexaemeron XV,[1] thus indicating that for him, Augustine’s primary mode of exegesis is an example of a figura sacramental, and not of the allegorical or spiritual sense of Scripture (that is, the “four-fold sense”).

Basically Augustine is doing typological exegesis, and not “spiritual” exegesis, according to Bonaventure. Hence, we can say that Westminster’s emphasis on biblical typology almost certainly has a historical dependence on Augustine. The fact that at least one medieval author (Bonaventure) explicitly acknowledges Augustine as exegeting in a non-“allegorical” way makes this clear.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, tr. Zachary Hayes, O.F.M. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), 10.