Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Book Review

God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics and the Task of Christian Theology

Steven Duby, Apollos, 2020, 334pp, £30 (ivpbooks.com)

This book might have been called “Knowing God”, had that title not already been taken. It is particularly concerned with how we know God in himself, that is to say “without primary reference to the economy” (6). How may we know him, and what is he like, in his ontology, or being? How much can we learn of his intrinsic being from natural revelation, from special revelation and from metaphysical theorising? When Scripture speaks of him, or when theologians do so, are the terms that are used immediately transferable from their creaturely origin and sense, such that they can speak accurately of God? Or are they only transferable in an analogical sense – or not at all? These are the main issues explored in this book.

Duby’s aim is not merely to set out his own systematic or biblical theology on these matters. His approach is to summarise the thinking of leading church fathers and mediæval scholastics, issue-by-issue; to draw upon some representatives from the era of Reformed orthodoxy; to consider some objections and revisions from a range of recent authors, such as Barth and Pannenberg; and lastly to offer his own assessment. His purpose is:

to offer, on the basis of the Bible’s account of human knowledge of God in the arc of redemptive history, a sketch of the rationale and practice of Christian reflection on God himself in his transcendence of the economy, which will enable us to reframe the roles of natural theology, metaphysics, and the incarnation in the doctrine of God (6).

By these means he hopes to make a case for bringing together the often-conflicting approaches of those who are suspicious of learning from natural theology, or from metaphysics, or from anything outside the bounds of Christology. He intends to work towards an integration of these approaches “chiefly by the actual practice of theological exegesis”, but interacting with historical and modern insights along the way (7).

The intended scope of the book is therefore very ambitious, and this is both a strength and a weakness. Its 300 pages could easily and usefully have been dedicated to the historical survey alone, or to a biblical exegetical survey. The decision to interact with Barth, Heidegger, Kant, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Plantinga, Schleiermacher and others adds considerably to its complexity, and changes the likely readership of the work. This is not the book from which to gain an overview of the thinking of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Owen or Turretin on the ontology and attributes of God, and their epistemological methodologies. Some of the thoughts of these theologians, on some of the issues, are selectively referred to. But such works as Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, or individual author’s works such as Owen’s Theologoumena Pantadapa or Turretin’s Institutes, would be more thorough and useful to that end. Nor, in fact, does the book offer a very detailed analysis of relevant Scripture passages, though it contains a certain amount of exegesis and a good many citations. It is far from being a systematic or complete survey of either historical or biblical material – and nor could it hope to be, given its broad ambit and relative brevity.

The main objective of the book, or so it seems to this reviewer, is to identify a range of important controversies and to interact with responses to them by the modern authors. The book is therefore particularly suited to readers who wish to consider the way that Duby deals with the “concerns” and “anxieties” (much repeated terms) of Barth and the other recent writers who have expressed opposition to historically accepted or debated positions. This Duby does well. In broad terms, he defends the Reformed orthodox – or earlier – understandings and explains where the “moderns” have worried unnecessarily or wandered unhelpfully.

We may consider whether this is a fair summary of the book with reference to just a couple of the chapters, for the sake of brevity. It has five altogether, addressing:

  1. the purpose of endeavouring to know God-in-himself;
  2. what can be learnt from general revelation or natural theology, and its limitations;
  3. what we can learn about God-in-himself from the incarnation;
  4. the usefulness and dangers of importing metaphysical thinking into divine ontological theology;
  5. and finally, the question of whether scriptural and theological language speaks univocally, equivocally or analogically.

In his third chapter, Duby considers the significance of the incarnation for our knowledge of God. He emphasises its enormous epistemological importance, but also the incompleteness of a theology that seeks to concern itself only with the incarnation. On the one hand, “supernatural revelation culminates in the coming of Jesus Christ” and his incarnation must “inform our doctrine of God” (132-133). On the other, neither Christology nor Christ’s incarnation should be seen as the totality of theology: “God’s being is not constituted by the incarnation” (132-133). Duby engages in this chapter predominantly with Barth, who contended that “we shall encounter [God’s essence] either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour, or not at all”; that it was pointless and even faithless to pursue knowledge of God’s essence or “an abstract Logos asarkos” apart from the incarnate Christ; and even that “there is no such thing as Godhead in itself.”[1] Duby says that Barth’s thinking on the matter has influenced others, such as T. F. Torrance, Robert Jenson and Bruce McCormack. The latter, he says, takes Barth’s ideas so far as to argue that God “gives himself being” by the act of election, denying that there is any “metaphysical gap” between who God is and what he does.[2]

In response to all of these authors, Duby makes a number of compelling arguments. Scripture, not Christ, is our immediate source of knowledge about God. All Scripture speaks of God; not all Scripture speaks specifically of the incarnation, nor of God’s economy. It also speaks of the eternal generation and procession of the Son and the Spirit, for example. The incarnation was the “midpoint of Scripture [not] its starting point”.[3] To understand the incarnation properly it is necessary to understand the Old Testament revelation of God and his attributes, and the creator-creature distinction therein revealed, and his covenantal dealings with man. Therefore, contrary to Barth, the incarnation is not the “exclusive foundation for the doctrine of God”, vital and central as it is (147). With that said, Duby goes on to map out what we do learn about God in himself from the incarnation: disclosing his many perfections, his plan, his will, his transcendence of the economy; and thence the gracious condescension that the incarnation represents. In seeking to rebalance Barth, Duby quotes persuasively from Aquinas and Owen, opining that Owen’s approach is “better suited to expressing the role of Christ in the divine counsel and its eschatological fulfilment” than that which Barth espoused (175).

In his fifth chapter, Duby seeks to “retrieve the (right) doctrine of analogy” (232). His main modern interlocutors in this chapter are Barth again, and Pannenberg. He sets the scene by explaining how Scripture speaks of man as imago Dei, and how that connection between God and man provides the basis for using creaturely terms to describe the divine. He surveys historic understandings of analogical language, from Aristotle to the Schoolmen, and from Suárez to Johann Alsted. From these he derives propositions for some proper controls on the use of analogy. For example, a term (such as “being” or “wisdom”) may be used of God and man, but never forgetting that there is no “proportion” between God and man; God is not a scaled-up or perfected version of man. His being is simple, infinite and immutable. He is his attributes. Man has a different kind of being, consisting of parts, of which wisdom might or might not be one. If one seeks to cross-apply terms univocally (that is, having an identical meaning whether applied to God or man), there is a danger that the creator-creature distinction becomes blurred, though that danger can be avoided (261-263). The analogical view guards against this. Barth denied that there was any analogy to be drawn between God and fallen man, except as man is restored in Christ. Analogia entis was an “invention of the anti-Christ”.[4]

Pannenberg taught that analogical language, borrowed from the realm of creation, could only be applied to the creator if the creator had created out of necessity. Only then could one be sure that the creator had “express[ed] its essence by imparting itself” to its creation.[5] But God had created freely. Therefore, he argued, one should not assume that the world will “bear a likeness to God” that is sufficient to warrant the cross-application of worldly terms to him (278). Duby responds to Barth’s “worries” by affirming that imago Dei was not wholly eradicated by the fall; therefore “one can affirm a similitude of human beings to God by virtue of creation, even one that endures after the fall” (275-77). This did not mean that theologians could freely look for “whatever potential creaturely analogues might seem helpful for description of God”. They must “learn… from Scripture the names and attributes that God would have us apply to himself”. As for Pannenberg’s concerns, Duby agrees that God did not create out of necessity, but with “liberty of indifference” (278). But God nonetheless displays some of his perfections in what he created, such that analogical language reflecting those perfections may rightly be used to describe them.

There is much that is good and useful in this book. Those who work through it carefully will be stimulated in their thinking about how we know God and what we can know of him – and probably expand their theological vocabulary considerably in the process as they engage with both Scripture and great theologians from the past. Whether or not they benefit from Duby’s engagement with his modern “dialogue partners” will depend on their interest in them and the extent to which they have been affected by the thinking that Duby helpfully seeks to qualify or correct. It does also need to be said that this is not an easy book to read. Duby assumes considerable prior knowledge. His writing is often less than clear, and sometimes convoluted. Many of his points could be rewritten more simply and clearly. The style is more academic than pastoral. But his method and purposes are commendable, and he deserves the last word, taken from his conclusion:

God himself has chosen to grant us knowledge of things that do not pertain immediately to the economy or to human responsibilities within it. And such knowledge is indirectly and ultimately practical anyway, inciting wonder and worship, [and] fostering humility… That theologia is not immediately practical [or] oriented to questions of technique and efficiency is in fact one of its salutary aspects. Contemporary preoccupation…with “mission statements”, “measurable outcomes” and the like needs to be relativized by the joy of knowing the triune God. (295)

Benedict Bird
PhD Student, Cambridge University, Member at ChristChurch, Harpenden.

 

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