Beauty, The Law, and Meaning Without God

“The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces!”

Psalm 119

“the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19

Imagine walking down the street somewhere in America today and hearing the following, “wow, what a beautiful ordinance New York just passed!,” or perhaps “man, California really has the loveliest laws in the nation,” or maybe “boy, these new state guidelines are so delicious, I just can’t stop thinking about them!” Statements like these would sound quite bizarre to modern ears. Laws for modern man are not usually thought of in aesthetic or sensual terms like those found in the Psalms.

For the ancient Israelite, however, the law of God was more than just a series of practical guidelines or arbitrary, apodictic commands. Rather, “Torah” was something to behold, to gaze at, and to ponder. The Psalmist speaks of God’s law and His statues as having a quality about them which required the song writer to speak of them in aesthetic categories. Poetic metaphor was one way to talk of the Law. The Law was not just good, it was beautiful like a melody, tantalizing like honey, precious like the rarest metals. Today, however, while laws may be just or unjust, repressive or affirming, rarely are they likened as gold and silver to our eyes or honey to our lips. Why is this? What, if anything, has been lost to us in how we view law today compared with how the ancient Israelite viewed “Torah?”

Modern Man & The Loss of Aesthetic Ontology

In his magisterial work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the loss of the “ontic” in Western art, describing how in the modern era a universally accepted ontology, i.e., a shared metaphysical understanding of the cosmos, was no longer available to the contemporary artist. Rather than using common signs and shared imagery to point to the deeper realities of the created order and the “higher times”1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007), 54-59. of a divinely superintended history, artistic meaning no longer inhered in the metaphysical reference points these symbols represented. Meaning was instead relegated to the sensibilities of the artist himself:

We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility….[Alexander] Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelly [1792-1822] this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 353.

What had changed between Pope’s early 18th century world and Shelly’s early 19th century one to make it so that the artist himself had to not just render the publicly accessible signs, but also provide his own meaning for the signs rendered, is simple to articulate albeit daunting to grasp as a historical reality. The metaphysical view of the cosmos that had been taken for granted for millennia, an understanding of reality grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, classical Greek philosophy, and the biblical narrative, had gradually eroded and been lost. The given assumptions that the objects of artistic representation were real was no longer accepted. Whether those representations were scenes of biblical or classical history, e.g. stories of great heroes or saints, or of more abstract realities, e.g., the order and structure of the angelic realm, the artistic signs were no longer consider to point to actual ontological substances, transcendent realms, or even historical persons and events. From the time of the early enlightenment, therefore, the artist would no longer be able to specialize only in the technique of his artistic medium, the goal being to represent both immanent and transcendent features of cosmic truths, but instead to create his own cosmic truths to represent. This marks a fundamental intellectual shift in art from objective mimesis to subjective articulation—from artistic imitation to generation.

This loss of the ontological referent in artistic representation entailed the conceptual shift from understanding the work of art, e.g. the painting or concerto, as the subject’s expression about an object of affection (or contemplation), to seeing the work of art itself as the thing worthy of affection or contemplation. This process began first with the artist and then migrated into the art community, becoming a new “given” for how the culture understands the art it views. Once this philosophical transition had occurred in the mind of the common man, it was no longer to the deeper mystery of Christ’s atonement that say the Isenheim Altarpiece points its viewer, rather it is the Altarpiece itself which becomes the terminus ad quem. It, the work of art, points to nothing other than what it is. The piece of art is no longer an instrumental good aimed at some final cause, it itself is now seen as its own end.2 The impressionist phrase that captured this new philosophy of aesthetics was “l’art pour l’art.”

This, of course, does not mean that we still do not feel or sense something transcendent when we stand before Grünewald’s masterpiece, or when we hear a powerful rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major. But, it does mean that we are left grasping for that which would explain why we feel transcended. As Taylor says about this “absolute” art, “it trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” while at the same time “the ontic commitments are very unclear.”3 Taylor, A Secular Age, 356. In other words, we feel something metaphysically real, but we wonder if that reality is external to us, or is it in the power of the artist himself to create such “realities?” Is the artist discerning some greater mystery, or is he just being mysterious?

Taylor goes on:

The idea is: the mystery, the depth, the profoundly moving, can be, for all we know, entirely anthropological. Atheists, humanists cling on to this, as they go to concerts, operas, read great literature. So one can complement an ethic and a scientific anthropology which remain very reductive and flat.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 356.

If it is the case that man is just being mysterious, i.e., acting mysteriously through his art, then a kind of poetic atheism is possible: itself an amazing phenomena should man turn out to be nothing more than the sum of his molecules—raw matter all the way down. Nevertheless, this loss of a metaphysical component or ontological referent to the artistic expressions of modern man goes beyond just leaving us with a sense of confusion as to the source of our wonderment. It touches upon the nature of morality as well.

The Beautiful and The Good

The relation of the aesthetic to the moral has been recognized since ancient times. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry highlights how the recognition of that which is beautiful acts as the catalyst for generating that which is good:

“The generation is unceasing. Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce the person. But it also—as Diotima tells Socrates—prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Lycurgus. The poem and the law may then prompt descriptions of themselves—literary and legal commentaries—that seek to make the beauty of the prior thing more evident, to make, in other words, the poem’s or law’s “clear discernibility” even more “clearly discernible.”

Excerpt From: Elaine Scarry. “On Beauty and Being Just.” Apple Books.

Moral goodness then, in so many ways, is an expression of an aesthetic quality. The beholder of beauty longs to see it regenerated and further propagated in diverse forms. Most biologically, and concretely, in the reproduction of children. More abstractly and conceptually in the creation of just laws. The former act mirrors the divine act of creation itself, while the latter makes clear or discernible to the rational mind the harmony embedded in creation.

It is necessary at this point to note an important distinction, however, between articulations (e.g. laws or statutes) of “the Good” and aesthetic experiences of “the Beautiful.” This distinction lies in their varying modes of existence. Laws and statutes are propositional and must be formed and understood rationally through properly crafted linguistic structures. Aesthetic expressions are primarily non-propositional and usually engage the emotions. Poets try to split the difference between these two modes by using metaphorical and figurative language and concise verbal constructions to evoke emotions through “word pictures;” something that music and painting do through non-verbal means. Nevertheless, it has been shown that knowledge can be acquired both through the propositional and indirect as well as through the non-propositional and direct.4 see, for example, James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2001) for an extended philosophical treatise on how art conveys knowledge.

Further, beyond the aforementioned desire to propagate that which is beautiful through various means, some more concrete, others more abstract, Scarry goes on to say that there is also a posture of reverence one takes when in the presence of beauty,

“The moment of coming upon something or someone beautiful might sound…like this: ‘You are about to be in the presence of something life-giving, lifesaving, something that deserves from you a posture of reverence or petition. It is not clear whether you should throw yourself on your knees before it or keep your distance from it, but you had better figure out the right answer because this is not an occasion for carelessness or for leaving your own postures wholly to chance.”

Elaine Scarry, Part I: On Beauty and Being Just

Encounters with beauty force the subject to acknowledge something beyond themselves that requires some kind of appropriate response, some “right answer.” Real beauty imposes normativity upon us.

We now begin to see what the Psalmist was getting at when he, under divine inspiration, waxed poetically about the Law. In the New Testament, St. Paul commends the church at Philippi to consider that which is beautiful as a way to know what moral excellence is, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (Phil 4:8-9) However, for both the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul, unlike for the post-Enlightenment artist, that contemplation of beauty had a clear object of reference, namely the Divine Nature itself, the very Being of God.

Schiller and Nietzsche: Conflicting Visions

For the post-Enlightenment Romantics the question then had to be raised: could the experience of beautiful phenomena, apart from a religiously defined ontological referent of that experience, “save us” from our existential crisis and provide a basis for our ethics? Friedrich Schiller thought that if the biblical view of God was no longer a metaphysical option for filling in the meaning of that which is beautiful, then the encounter with beauty itself must be the thing that could relieve us from our existential condition, as well as provide a moral foundation. For Schiller and other Romantics, morality is a kind of emanation of the beautiful, but where the beautiful is left impersonal and ambiguous. To be good is to create beautiful things or respond properly to those things that are beautiful. Taylor explains:

Schiller thus gave a wonderfully clear, convincing and influential formulation to a central idea of the Romantic period, that the answer to the felt inadequacy of moralism, the important defining goal or fulfillment which it leaves out and represses, was to be found in the aesthetic realm. This went beyond the moral, but in Schiller’s case wasn’t seen in contradicting it. Rather it complements morality in completing human fulfillment.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 358-359.

In other words, the specified moralities found in traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, which trafficked in divine laws and moral commands handed down from a personal God, were stifling to the human subject; they were moralistic in that they warred against our more natural instincts and sensibilities. Eternal laws that were claimed to coincide with a divine will were too restrictive to the human creature, and, as such, the experience of beauty itself now became the grounds for ethical appeals. Christian and Jewish moral codes were seen as historically contingent, or so it was argued, and there was a higher law that those religions had perverted in their merely human attempts to articulate morality. Man had progressed and so too his moral sensibility.

However, this Romantic view presented a problem, one that lingers until today. For, as pointed out above, the thing that gives meaning to any beautiful phenomena, whether a feature of nature or artifact of man, was no longer to be found in something ontologically distinct from the subject, rather meaning was ascribed by the artist himself. As such, by collapsing moral goodness into aesthetics, Schiller, like his contemporary, Keats,5See “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where Keats famously says “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need know.” can now claim that “Beauty is what will save us, complete us.”6 Taylor, A Secular Age, 359. However, in doing this, he winds up conflating morality with the meaning-making will of the artist himself. Now, it is the artist who gives definition and content to what is moral by articulating the meaning of that which is beautiful, and not by recognizing something metaphysically distinct that gives its own meaning.

The historical consequences of this theory of morality was the aestheticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which gave rise to an artistic culture independent of any religious system of thought, but instead acted as a replacement for religion, “So created beauty, works of art, are not only important loci of that beauty which can transform us [into moral creatures] they are also essential ways of acceding to the beauty which we don’t create [i.e. Nature]. In the Romantic period, artistic creation comes to be the highest domain of human activity.7 Taylor, 359. Emphasis added. Later aesthetes like G.E. Moore would develop more philosophically rigorous systems to try and ground ethics in aesthetics.

Taylor goes on to say regarding Schiller’s theory, however, that while this conflation of the aesthetic with the moral is a far cry from the ancient and medieval notions of beauty and goodness (e.g. represented most vividly in the cosmological imagery of Dante), it still leaves some room for God as the ultimate author of beauty itself. A divine Creator of the world has not yet been entirely abandoned by the Romantics, even if particular religious dogmas about Him have been. Nevertheless, having arrived at Schiller, where the distinction between nature and nature’s creator has been significantly blurred, it is not long before we come to Nietzsche, whose rejection of the Creator will “set the aesthetic against the moral.”8 Taylor, 359.

For Schiller, the concept of beauty was still imbued with a residue of Christian morality and Christian virtue, in that “the Beautiful” is reflective of, or somehow still connected to, the notion of caritas, or charity. Love, light, harmony, order, and even selflessness are still the primary hallmarks of beauty. These moral and sensible notions are, even if now only vaguely defined by the artist himself, still thought of as the criteria for which something can be rightly called beautiful. Experiences of “play,”9Schiller’s term for the chief end of man on earth. and friendship, and what might be called the fullness of life are the chief ends of man on earth (and possibly the only chief ends, should earthly existence be the only one available to us). For Nietzsche, however, this kind of aesthetic humanism is still far too indebted to a Christian worldview. It neglects an entire range of human sensibilities, longings, desires and dispositions that are normatively no different than charity and altruism. These are the destructive, the chaotic, and otherwise dark powers of man.

Of course, for Nietzsche, these creative powers of man are not “dark,” in the sense of “wrong” or “immoral” or “deviant” from some standard that itself should be labeled “light” or “love.” No, rather these “dark” powers simply are— they are as human and as life-giving as any other impulse, if not more so. But, these creative energies have, through the rise of two particular worldviews: post-Socratic Greek philosophy and Christianity, become viewed as immoral, wrong, and worthy of marginalization and repression. For Nietzsche then, a return to the pre-moral aesthetics of Homeric culture in light of the decline of Christian metaphysics is the answer to what would otherwise be a plunge into nihilism. This longing for a purely aesthetic world, one unconstrained by Christian notions of morality (or enlightenment rationalism for that matter), can be seen in one of first major work, The Birth of Tragedy as well as in one of his last books, Ecce Homo. As Robert Wicks points out, Nietzsche “expresses his hope that Dionysus, the god of life’s exuberance, would replace Jesus, the god of the heavenly otherworld, as the premier cultural standard for future millennia.”10 Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

Unlike Schiller and the earlier Romantics who left open the door to a divine referent, albeit an ambiguous one, Nietzsche slams the door shut by making the creative will of man the sole locus of “goodness.” Where Christ subjects himself to the will of the Father, and Paul calls Christians to subject their will to Christ, Dionysus subjects his will to nothing and no one. The idea of divine moral laws, let alone divine moral laws that are experienced as beautiful and to which one should subject himself, is the sheer antithesis of the Dionysian spirit that Nietzsche proposes.

Conclusion: A Culture of Ambiguity in Art and Law

Fortunately, culture in the West has never embraced the fullness of Nietzsche’s vision, although some historians would see Nietzsche’s view of truth and the will to power (hint: they are the same thing) as intellectually funding, at least in part, the rise of National Socialism in Germany11Robert Wicks points out that Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, who took care of her brother in his invalid years was closely associated with both Hitler and Mussolini in their rise to power in the 1930’s. Herself, an avowed anti-semite, may have thought her brother’s works could intellectually fund the rising nationalism. Some fascists at least were able to interpret Nietzsche in a manner that lent philosophical support to Nazism and the idea of national self-glorification. It is not hard to see how that could be the case. and Fascism in Italy. Also, current trends in American culture do make Nietzsche’s views seem more alive than ever, especially in the realm of art and personal self-expression. Is the creative will of man beyond criticism or reproach? Perhaps recent Super Bowl half-time shows might give us a partial answer to that question.

Still, we are not where Nietzsche would have taken us, at least not yet. We may no longer see the moral law of the biblical God as beautiful to our eyes and sweet to our tongue, but neither do we really feel beyond morality as Nietzsche argued, ready to indulge in every desire and self-creative longing.12However, at this writing, a resolution (HR5) that would allow protections for biological men who simply through the act of self-identifying as women (and vice-versa) are treated legally as women has just passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate. In fact, it is hard to even think of what kinds of laws a Dionysian culture would require, if any at all?

It seems, therefore, that we still live, conceptually and existentially, somewhere between a cosmos where the moral law is beautiful because it proceeds from the nature and will of the biblical God, and Schiller’s vision of the moral law being an emanation from a beautiful but metaphysically ambiguous source. This Romantic vision is still a viable option for many, if not the cultural given against which we view morality and the laws we compose to try to articulate it. A vague sense of deity, the “therapeutic, moral and deistic”13The term “Moral, therapeutic deism” was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. god of America’s youth, seems to be about as metaphysical as our current culture can be. The art it produces is as ambiguous as its ontological commitments. We see this cultural ambiguity on display when we watch a classical depiction of moral beauty in films like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,”14 We also see in reviews of Malick’s film how both the Nietzschean and the Schillerian mindsets react to its overtly Christian theme: see here for an example of both. on the one hand, followed by a Nietzchean glorification of man’s unconstrained creative will in Danny Boyle’s biopic “Steve Jobs”15The film ends celebrating Jobs not for his moral character, although there is an ambiguous attempt to try to show some kind of moral transformation at the end of the movie, but for his sheer creative genius, a genius that allowed itself the freedom to run rampant over the feelings and lives of many for the sake of “creating.” on the other. Between these two presentations of beauty and morality (or lack thereof) is about every Walt Disney film made since 1990, each of which tries to maintain the Schillerian middle ground. These films, like “Mulan” or “Lion King,” suggest something beautiful and mysterious about life, but in its ambiguity, leave interpretation of the experience open, allowing for the construction of one’s own personalized morality. No public ontological referent is on offer here, just vague mystery and personal decision.

In sum, law in the West seems to mirror the ambiguity of our art. Some particular laws appear outright Nietzschean in their intent and content, e.g. the recent HR5 Equality Act, others exist in a more Schillerian vein, the Dream Act?, while others, albeit increasingly few, may faintly reflect, like in a mirror darkly, our once very real belief in a transcendent God and the Christ who came to set us free from the law. However, like our art, the idea that the law is beautiful is an increasingly rare, if not extinct, notion–the triumph of function over form is nearly complete. Today’s laws exist merely to help us manage our social lives, not to illuminate us to the divine nature from whence they flow and to which we are meant to go.

A Power Unto Salvation: Part IV – Can The Supernatural Save?

In this series on the human condition I have surveyed two approaches to that condition: Scientism and Semanticism. I argued that science fails to address the human condition at all, while Semanticism addresses it but cannot address it sufficiently. Semanticism cannot really save us from our deepest fears nor fulfill our deepest longings, just as the natural sciences can provide no answers to the “Why” questions of life. In this post I will look at one final approach, Supernaturalism.

Supernaturalism is decisively distinct from Scientism and Semanticism in one fundamental way: metaphysics. Unlike its materialistic antitheses, Supernaturalism assumes or even argues for the actual existence of non-physical beings, especially non-physical agentive beings like God, gods, angels, demons and human souls. There may be other kinds of non-physical beings, perhaps abstract objects like numbers or sets, but leaving those aside it is the supernaturalist who posits the existence of immaterial agents that have causal powers and even moral natures. Moreover, it is through these agencies that human beings can be saved from their finite and otherwise apparently purposeless existence, because these agencies really do interact with the physical and temporal, altering and shaping the course of human history and the lives of people– people who themselves are more than just their bodies. In other words, these agents, or God as the ultimate Agent, are in contact with the spacetime reality which most of us believe we inhabit.1 Philosophers since Descartes have posited thought experiments like the “evil demon” or the “brain in a vat” which although sounding absurd are nevertheless logically possible.

Supernaturalism and the Human Condition

In the previous post I outlined Heidegger’s way of looking at the human condition, which focused on the phenomena of existence. Existence as being “thrown into” the world– not knowing why we are here, not knowing from where we have come or where we are headed. This being in the world, Dasein, unfolds in time, Zeit, and we are left to struggle between the way we feel about the world and what science seems to tell us is true. For the semanticist, philosophy becomes the new apparatus through which we try to communicate our religious and theological impulses, and it is through such communicative acts, preferably in pluralistic societal contexts that we hope to attain some modicum of meaning and peace about our otherwise hopeless state. The usual end result of the semantic approach is a kind of therapeutic culture, where religious language acts as a sort of psychological safety net that can help us to manage through life until we die. In the words of one Christian scholar, it is a world where religion is reduced to “moral therapeutic deism.”2 This now very popular, and very useful term was coined by the Notre Dame philosopher Christian Smith. I would suggest that this is the dominant view today, at least in western and in particular English-speaking cultures.

Another way of looking at the existential crisis of the human condition was Bertrand Russell’s “firm foundation of unyielding despair” which he thought emerged inevitably from a thorough, scientific analysis of the natural world. All stories, according to the adherent of the Russellian worldview, are naturalistic ones and anything that cannot be reduced down to natural entities–subatomic particles and natural causes, e.g. the law of gravity– are at bottom fictions. They are projections of a physical brain onto a physical world. In the end we must fess up to this stark reality and learn to be the captains of our own “souls.” The genuine adherent of Scientism, unlike the semanticist, also sees any kind of religious language or practice as not only meaningless, but potentially harmful to society. The supernatural approach to religion as well as the semantic approach should both be excised from modern society since they muddy the waters of objective truth.

Both of these approaches seem to leave us wanting when it comes to answering the significant questions of life, however. For when it comes to questions of ultimate origins, meaning and purpose, morality and eschatology both Semanticism and Scienticism seem to say the same thing: we are left to ourselves to develop our own answers. There is no outside help, no aid from above. 3Of course, there may be an intermediary for both types of naturalists, one often portrayed in our films, namely the existence of highly evolved and supra-intelligent extra-terrestrials. Some, although a dwindling number, still hold out hope for a “close encounter” of this kind. On both views we must conjure our inner Sinatra and “do it our way.”

Alternatively, the supernaturalist approach presupposes a very different solution: there is outside help and we can know that that help is there based on revelation knowledge. And, in knowing there is a supernatural realm, we might actually attain real answers and real peace about our situation.

Supernaturalism and Traditional Religion

Supernaturalism then is the prerequisite for any traditional religious belief system: Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Mormonism on the one hand or Hinduism, Janism, and classical Buddhism on the other. While each of these systems will cash out the nature of that which is beyond the physically differently, especially between the two sets listed here, all will hold to some kind of non-physical reality. In doing so each system will have something on offer to answer the human existential condition that the other, non-supernaturalistic approaches will not have.

First, each of these traditional religions will have metaphysical commitments. Most of Christianity’s foundational metaphysical commitments, for example, are contained in its early creeds. Second, because of these commitments traditional religions will ground its answers to fundamental questions in the metaphysical realities that underlie their theological statements. For example, morality is grounded not in social conventions but both in the nature of the God who designed the universe and objectively in the design itself. Thus, moral truths can be discerned both by a careful examination of God’s creation and by a direct revelation of His will. To know the latter, however, requires some kind of communication between the supernatural agent and the human creature. Thus, third, each traditional religious system that holds to metaphysical commitments of a supernatural kind will also have a set of oracles, writings and traditions that are considered revelatory or inspired in some special way.

For the Christian worldview, both Protestant and Roman Catholic versions, the only domain of special revelation knowledge4 Meaning that which can be known about the supernatural realm apart from just our experiences of the world around us. is that of the words of the Bible, or Sacred Scripture.5 Some Roman Catholics hold that there are sacred traditions that are equally revelatory to the words of Scripture, but this is a minority view and one dismissed by the Church at Vatican II. The Bible is a special kind of propositional knowledge, a unique communique between God and man that must be evaluated at a higher level than any other communications about reality, even other communications between God and man, e.g. like personal revelations or rational reflection about nature. However, while the existence of a sacred text or set of inspired oral traditions may count as the standard by which other inferences about reality are to be gauged, this does not mean that sacred texts or traditions must be utilized in every instance of human evaluation about reality. One need not go to the book of Leviticus or to Judges to assess the merits of differential calculus or the taxonomies of marine biology.

Nevertheless, on the broad existential questions, traditional religions, their sacred texts, creeds, and practices will inevitably give answers that presume the reality of some supernatural agent that can or already has broken into the physical world. By doing so, this Agent has initiated some process that will saves us from having to construct our own “ultimate” meaning and purpose for life, that provides for us a human-independent standard of moral behavior, and that will actually rescue us from the finitude of bodily existence and potentially bring us into some new kind of existence. If there are such supernatural Beings with such plans and purposes, then it would seem Supernaturalism has quite a leg up on Scientism and Semanticism. However, Supernaturalism has one central weakness, a weakness that has been continually exposed and argued about since at least Descartes. That weakness is this: how do we know that there is such a thing as the supernatural?

Supernaturalism and Religious Epistemology

The apparent death-knell to a supernatural approach to the human condition did not come all at once, rather there was a long, slow atrophying of looking at the world through supernatural lenses. However, in the West many philosophers will trace the history of the rejection of metaphysical knowledge through at least three main figures: Descarte, Hume, and ultimately Kant. After Kant (1724-1804) the notion that we can know anything about the non-physical world becomes an increasingly minority view among the intellectual elite, a view that ultimately trickles down into popular culture, ending in what we label today as our secular society.6This is a very simplistic description of how we have come to be “a secular age.” For a robust treatment of the history of Western culture’s slide from supernaturalism into secularism, see Charles Taylor’s magisterial tome, A Secular Age.

Nevertheless, in spite of that long slide into a strongly secular cultural milieu, the way the culture operates currently is not conclusive evidence against the possibility of metaphysical or even religiously relevant metaphysical knowledge. The question of how we can know that the supernatural realm of the religious exists has been taken up anew since the mid-1960’s by both analytic philosophers of religion in Protestant circles and by Roman Catholic neo-Thomist scholars. Even non-theists have come to admit that serious metaphysics is back on the table in contemporary philosophy.

In the strain of Evangelical philosophy of religion there are at least two viable models to justifying religious, i.e. supernatural, beliefs: the more science-friendly model grounded in forensic evidence and probabilistic inferences to the best explanation and the Reformed epistemological model, which argues religious beliefs as properly basic and thereby warranted unless otherwise defeated. Representatives of each would be philosophers like Richard Swinburne on the one hand, and, of course, Alvin Plantinga on the other. Both have spawned schools of thought on religious epistemology.

Conclusion: Supernaturalism, If True, Is The Only Approach That Can Save Us

Since the supernaturalist approach to the human condition allows for not only individual and immanent purposes but also ultimate purposes, and since it also allows for not just subjective moral values and socially constructed moral obligations, but objectively grounded obligations and values, and because it provides a real solution to the finitude of physical existence, that is to death itself, Supernaturalism is in the end the only approach to the human condition that really could solve our existential crisis. Only Supernaturalism could literally save us from a world where our deepest longings go unfulfilled, our deepest pains go unredeemed, and all our human efforts, projects, and endeavors ultimately go into oblivion. Unlike Heidegger’s failed attempt to solve the crisis of existence by positing some sacralization of the immanent, Supernaturaism has the resources to actually do so because it maintains there is a God who actually can perfect the immanent through His very real power (and gracious willingness).

If Supernaturalism then has any epistemic justification,7 For a concise yet powerful argument that Christian epistemic practices have the same epistemic justification as our sensory perceptions, see William Alston “Religious Experience and Religious Belief” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by Geivett and Sweetman (New York: Oxford Press, 1992) 295-303. it should be clear that it is the best, existential option for anyone who has thought a minute about the human situation. That Supernaturalism has at least some warrant in virtue of both rational argumentation, e.g. theistic arguments from cosmology, design arguments, or arguments from morality or beauty, and personal experiences, e.g. encounters with the divine, the demonic, etc., should further provide a starting point for those skeptical of this traditional religious approach to the human dilemma.

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Romans 1:19-20

A Power Unto Salvation?: Part I – Science, Semantics, and the Supernatural, Defining the Views

“In all religion there is a recollection of the Divine Truth which has been lost; in all religion, there is a longing after the divine light and the divine love; but in all religion also there yawns an abyss of demonic distortion of the Truth, and of man’s effort to escape from God.”

Emil Brunner

In this series I examine three broad approaches to engaging the question of the human condition. Those approaches are Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturlism. After defining each, the question will be asked: “Which of these, if any, has the power to save people from their existential condition?” Each view offers some answer to the problem of human existence, but I will argue only one is sufficient to truly liberate us from our present condition of alienation and oppression.

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

Since the Enlightenment and the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis1 The Medieval Synthesis is best represented in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the inspired Special Revelation of the Bible and the authoritative teachings of the Church with the best philosophical reflections on general revelation, namely, Aristotle. there have been, at least in the European and especially in the Anglo-Germanic speaking cultures, essentially two posited views on the nature of the human condition: the scientistic materialist view and the semantic existentialist view. The former of these places authority and power in the domain of the natural sciences and the scientific method, the other in the domain of language and human culture.

For most Christians living in English-speaking contexts today, the major battle of ideologies has played out between a very logic-centered, scientistic empiricism and a reason-oriented, metaphysical, and historical Christianity. In the 19th and 20th century this battle was waged between rationalists on both sides: metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical supernaturalists, who used arguments and evidence to both justify and compel belief– either toward atheism or in Christian theism. These engagements developed into robust philosophical debates between the great minds of the previous generation, e.g. Copleston and Russell, and those of today, e.g. William Lane Craig and Graham Oppy. Since the emergence of Christian analytic philosophy in the 1960s with the likes of men like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, this domain of intellectual dispute has informed much of our theological dialogue in the United States, especially in Evangelical Christianity.

Less familiar perhaps to many Evangelical Christians in the United States, however, were the contemporaneous developments occurring in the German and French speaking worlds of existential philosophy. As such, for many Evangelical apologists, the works of men like Sartre and Camus (on the French side), or Heidegger and Jaspers (on the German side) went unnoticed for quite some time. In addition, the Christian, or theistic, interlocutors to these existentialist philosophers have also gone under the radar, or perhaps remain entirely undiscovered, with the exception perhaps of particularly giant names like Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedikt XVI), or the much beloved Francis A. Schaeffer.

In particular, the most impactful group of German existentialists were the founders of Critical Theory, the philosophical grandfather of today’s multitudinous critical theories. This group attempted to develop a third way of looking at the world, one that neither denied the metaphysical naturalism of the scientistic worldview, nor that rejected the symbolic value and meaning of the religious worldview. The main figures in this very German-Jewish secular movement of philosophy were Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Weber.

For critical theorists, the result of accepting metaphysical naturalism (i.e. rejecting philosophical metaphysics), while not rejecting the existential aid of Christian theology, invested this innately Marxist philosophy with a quasi-religious flavor or tone. A flavor or tone that makes it very difficult to discern for many Christians today whether or not its tenets, or the tenets associated with any of its successor theories, are compatible with an actual biblical worldview, a worldview replete with God, gods, angels and demons, and human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that endure after physical death. This is a quite different kind of naturalism in this sense, and one harder to identify than its overtly anti-religious counterpart.2 For a prime example of scientistic critiques of religion, see almost anything by Richard Dawkins, most especially, The God Delusion.

Before we look at each of these naturalisms individually, and how they attempt to address the human condition, let’s define them a bit more narrowly, and also introduce their metaphysical opponent, Supernaturalism.

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

Scienticism is best embodied by philosophers like A.J. Ayers who avowed logical positivism (at least early on),3 Ayer went on to say this of his former views “I suppose that most of the defects of it were that nearly all of it was false.” or W.V.O. Quine, who tried to naturalize the philosophical domain of epistemology,4 see Stanford entry on “Naturalism in Epistemology” especially Chapter 2, “Epistemology Naturlized” or scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss today. Since the days of Ayer’s positivists, who considered any claims that could not be verified through scientific means to be meaningless, modified versions of Scientism have been fairly robust and well-defended in the English speaking world. Scientism, in brief, holds that while there are true statements about the world (i.e. the way things really are), the only statements that we can know to be true are ones that can be known via the natural sciences. According to the eminent philosopher of Metaphysics, J.P. Moreland, “In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality….There are no truths that can be known apart from the appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences [e.g. physics, chemistry, biology].”5 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 29.

Thus, when it comes to metaphysical statements about non-physical entities or agents, Scientism says these are at best speculative (weak Scientism), or, more likely than not, they are just false or meaningless (strong Scientism)6 Moreland, 29-30.. When it comes to moral issues, those who hold to Scientism may try to ground moral values or obligations in scientific facts about material reality, even though this has been traditionally seen as an inherently quixotic task, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the fact-value distinction cannot be bridged apart from something other than, or outside of, the scientific statements. In short, you cannot get “an ought from an is.”7 This idea goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). As we will see in a later post on the question of meaning and purpose, those who avow Scientism cannot help but be noticeably quiet.

Semanticism, or what I am calling “Semanticism,” might be described as an ideology that rejects the hegemony of science to fully explain the world, but also the hegemony of any religion, most specifically of the Judeo-Christian religion, to do the same, yet that retains core components of both. On the one hand Semanticism holds on to the empirical analysis of the scientific method, while affirming the symbolic and “semantic” world of theology and religion on the other. Semanticism sees power primarily in how language is used and how concepts are employed in human societies. As such the main theories that assume Semanticism are social theories, most predominantly Critical Theory, and its successor theories (e.g. Critical Race Theory, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, etc.) that try to rationally analyze not the composition of physical objects, natural processes, or the nature of causal relations, as in chemistry or physics, but rather analyze the meaning and value of human artifacts, i.e. of human culture itself. In empirically analyzing forms of culture, Semanticism tries to understand how individuals interact in their own socially constructed environments of communication and meaning. As such, Semanticism puts far more emphasis on human experience and the subjective life of the human person than does Scientism, which tends to reduce the human subject and her experiences down to mere natural, and impersonal, facts (i.e. facts about particles, gravity, and neuro-biological functions).

This semantic approach to the human condition can be summed up in Jürgen Habermas’ comments on Karl Jasper’s theory of the role of modern philosophy:

Jaspers regards the transition to modernity and to postmetaphysical thinking as a profoundly ambivalent process. On the one hand, the Enlightenment frees us from the dogmatism of a faith based on inherited authority [i.e. the Bible and the Church’s teachings]….On the other hand, this philosophical translation of symbolic [religious] meanings courts the danger that the enciphered truth-contents of the great traditions [i.e. Judeo-Christianity] will be entirely forfeited, while the modern sciences reduce the lifeworld to the domain of the objectively knowable and technically controllable.

Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflicts in Belief” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.

What Scientism and Semanticism have in common is that they both share a common view of metaphysics, namely, that beyond the physical world nothing exists. Jaspers and other critical theorists can confidently claim along with Dawkins and Dennett that we all now live in a “postmetaphysical” world. However, as Habermas explains, the costs of accepting a full-blown Scientism is too great for the human creature, and, consequently, the existential content of religion must be salvaged to protect us from science reducing “the lifeworld” down to the merely objective and impersonal, even if we can be happy about being relieved from religious “dogmatism” at the same time.8 And here I think we could say that certain moral dogmas of traditional Christian churches, especially in the area of sexual morality and ethics, are in view for the critical theorists. For more on the deconstruction of religious sexual ethics see Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues for sexual “free play” and a “libidinal rationality.”

When it comes to morality, therefore, these two kinds of naturalism begin to differ in that those who invest their hope in the semantic power of language and symbols try to ground morality in some universally shared aspects of human culture, as opposed to merely natural facts about the human organism. As we will see, however, this is no less a quixotic, or herculean, task than that of its materialistic cousin.

Regardless, both Scientism and Semanticism are on one side of a philosophical line, while a third view, Supernaturalism, is clearly on the other side of that line.

Supernaturalism is the view that there is a real world of immaterial Being (either God or something like Abstract Objects or both), and real cause-and-effect agency beyond the mere physical world of natural processes or human biological machines. As such Supernaturalism is usually the overarching view of the traditional theist, the view of someone who really believes that the semantic content of their sacred texts actually refers to mind-independent entities: to a God or gods, angels or demons, etc. For the supernaturalist, these are real substances (albeit immaterial ones) that have causal powers, a moral dimension, and some kind or degree of free will. Those who hold to the existence of minds may also be rightly called super-naturalists, or at least metaphysical dualists of some sort.

For Christians of a classical persuasion, Supernaturalism is the correct understanding of and approach to reality. Although it may sound unfashionable or shocking to modern and post-modern ears, the true Christian really does believe that the cosmos is a lot “spookier” than the scientist or semanticist may be willing to grant. Christians who accept the full inspiration of Scripture, for example, really believe that the scriptures contain a special kind of knowledge, a revelation knowledge, part of which confirms our common sense notion of a realm that goes unseen in the normal day to day. As such, the beings the scriptures speak of, this “unseen realm”9 For more on the unseen realm of the Bible, see Michael S. Heiser’s book of the same name, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. referred to in its pages, are to be taken quite seriously, since they themselves are in some sense more real than the physical world itself (or, at least, equally as real).

When it comes to morality, the supernaturalist will have a far wider range of explanatory options than the adherent of scientism or semanticism, and that in virtue of their being an actual Divine Person, and various principles that issue forth from that Person, either directly in the form of commands, e.g. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, etc…” or indirectly through natural laws embedded in the creation itself. The same goes for meaning and purpose, as the supernaturalist, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim, will also claim some kind of true story, some universal hermeneutic that explains our position in reality, and that comes replete with an origins story and an eschatological future.

In the next post I will look at Scientism, and ask the question of whether or not it can offer us any sense of hope in light of our existential circumstances.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Church History

Continuing in this short series on what makes for a robust program of Christian discipleship and learning, I now turn to a second, fundamental domain of sacred knowledge: Church History.

A Brief Intro to Narrative and Retrieval Theology

Since the work of the German theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), there has been a movement in both Protestant and Catholic theology to see the Bible predominantly as a narrative, or story, a story that we are expected to “live into” as followers of Christ. Main proponents of this “narrative theology” are men like George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. While this narrative theology can have its pitfalls, it also has several advantages.

On the negative side, narrative theology can fail to take seriously the propositional claims made in Scripture, thus calling into question the necessity or relevance of foundational dogmas and moral truths. On the positive side, narrative theology embraces and illuminates for us the simple fact that most of the Bible is written as a story, a story through which we are meant to learn, and from which we are meant to model our behavior. The Christian life is, as 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasaar put it, like a “theological drama.” This theo-drama is a story like many others, albeit a real one in which we are meant to live, and move, and have our being. In the Hebrew manner of speaking, it is the “story of stories!”, for it is God’s story and we are His real-life characters.

In addition to this approach to the Bible as story, some 20th-century Catholic theologians, like von Balthasaar, also belonged to a movement called the “nouvelle theologie,” an academic project that slightly predated Vatican II (1962-65). This “new theology” was only new in that it sought to regain the theological framework of the early church fathers, and renew scholarly interest in the biblical text itself. This movement was also known as “ressourcement” theology, as it sought to creatively recapture the Church’s earliest teachings and recontextualize them for the purpose of evangelizing the modern and post-modern culture of the 20th century West.

In Evangelical theology however, especially in the last generation and especially through the works of men like John Webster, Oliver Crisp, and Kevin Vanhoozer, both narrative theology, and ressourcement theology have emerged in a particularly Protestant fashion. The ressourcing of Protestant theology in early church history often goes by the name “Retrieval theology” and it looks to counter much of the modernist and post-modernist influences that infiltrated Protestant thought in the post-Enlightenment and post 1950’s Western church. Thomas Oden’s masterpiece of systematic theology, Classic Christianity, is prime example of retrieval theology.

Retrieval theology thus serves as a bulwark against current trends in culture that would seek to undo the wisdom and knowledge of the church’s past, to include her stories of great men and women of the church. Retrieval theology in this sense can also defend against the cultural trend toward revisionist history, a trend that sees the past as either barbaric, naive, and unscientific; or as cruel, misogynistic, and exploitative. As such, as theological apologists and Bible-true Christians, we can embrace both the Catholic version of ressourcement theology, with some caveats of course, and also welcome the retrieval theology popular now in much Evangelical, academic theology. By in large these are healthy movements aimed at recapturing much of the Church’s social history and historical thought.

Church History as Retrieving the Past and Living Our Christian Story

These two disciplines of narrative theology and retrieval theology seem to highlight a very basic need in the life of the human person: first, we need to feel a part of a bigger story, and second, we need to feel anchored to our own past, the past of our ancestors. The second need is what we might call a feeling or sense of “legacy.” It is also a need the Bible makes very explicit, especially in the Old Testament, as it relays for us historically the promises of God coming to fulfillment through particular families, people groups, and lineages.

The Bible give us clear illustrations of both being a part of a bigger, theological picture, and also having a spiritual legacy. We see this most clearly in the history of the nation of Israel, and in the Church’s communion of saints. When one reads through 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example, it is clear how God considers and cares deeply about the literal history, the very lineage, of His people. The often overlooked genealogies in the Old Testament, and even Matthew and Luke’s in the New, while perhaps tedious to read, are central to the nature of God’s plan in the world, and to the identity of His people. Thus, we see not only in the Old Testament a list of literal names of those that went before the current generation of Israelites, we also see the reality of the present communion of the saints (Lk 22:32, 1 Thess 5:11, Jn 17:21, Js 5:16, Heb 11:39-40 ff.,). In these passages and others, the Bible tells of those who are “in Christ” as being knit together in Him (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:27), and this is not something that death can separate. We are still one body in Christ, even after our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ have gone on to be with Him. In this way church history mirrors the history of the nation of Israel. As the Old Testament continually refers back to the pre-Atonement history of God’s people, so does Church History refer back to the post-Resurrection history of God’s people.

Early Protestants therefore saw the church as existing in two metaphyical states: the Church Triumphant (those saints already in the presence of God), and the Church Militant (the saints still fighting the good fight of faith in the world). Although we, having direct access to the Father through Christ, do not pray to the saints, it is clear that they still pray for us and on our behalf (Rev 5:8, 8:3) since they are in Christ, and Christ is always interceding for us. After all, it is not as if St. Paul has forgotten about us, as if he no longer prays for us now as he once prayed for the church in Philippi during his own lifetime.

This theological and biblical exposition is only to highlight the fact that to remember and tell the stories of the faithful men and women who have gone before us, is to remember the lives and tell the stories of our own family, our real family in fact (Mk 3:31-35, Matt 10:32-39). Thus, to study Church History is not only to understand how theology has developed over time, and how different communities have understood the deposit of our faith, but it is also to engage in family storytelling, in recalling the legacy of God’s people that is also our legacy, and that helps us to know who we are in Christ and how we fit into His plan of redeeming all of creation.

As such, the study of Church History should facilitate for us a retrieval of theological thinking from the past, which allows us to avoid the chronological snobbery that C.S. Lewis warned us of, as well as reminding us of the great theological drama, the grand and very real play in which we are intimately involved. Being involved in this “greatest story ever told” reminds us too of the ontological connection we have to all those saints who have preceded us; the brothers and sisters in Christ who in effect act as our spiritual forefathers and mothers.

Some Practical Application of Church History

If knowing Church History allows us to not only think along with past generations, but imaginatively enter into a shared story, what are some advantages we might gain from thinking about and living into our Christian heritage?

History as Wisdom

First, knowing Church History provides us a kind of wisdom that we otherwise could not have. As mentioned above, to avoid chronological snobbery, or the idea that we know better now merely because we are more technologically advanced, we must engage with the thought life of those that thought before us. The great thinkers of the Great Tradition have already tilled much of the intellectual soil with regards to general and special Revelation. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, different generations struggle with different kinds of intellectual and spiritual battles. Sometimes thinkers of a previous generation, or even a much older generation, were able to solve certain problems that today we barely recognize, but that are still great cause for concern and crises.

For example, the nature of work is something we often don’t think about in our culture, but work, to include overwork, is a huge cause of spiritual and emotional problems in our 21st century lives. Secularism reduces work down to either “money making” or elevates it to “identity making.” In answer to this false dichotomy, reading something on a theology of work by one of the great Puritan theologians of the 17th century, especially the likes of Richard Baxter, for example, can give us incredible insight into how we should manage our life of work, to include our life of play and leisure. Examples could be easily multiplied.

Of course, one of the biggest areas of thought that Christians in the 21st century Western context must recapture is that of philosophy, and understanding the role philosophy, especially metaphysics (the study of what exists), has played in shaping our Christian worldview. For example, in contrast to Marxist philosophy, which saw all human thought as subject to, and entirely a product of, changes in socio-economic conditions, Christian thought, on the other hand, exists in a continuum with the past. It is a way of thinking that looks forward and backward, and is always aimed at synthesizing philosophical knowledge from the past for the present context. In this way, Christian philosophy is one way to think about God’s eternal truth, and articulate that Truth for the present day.

As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, and rightly so, the only true democracy is tradition, since it takes into account the opinions of the dead, as well as the living. It is in this sense that Christians are neither pure conservatives, nor pure progressives. We do not live in the past blindly, never bothering to advance our understanding of God, nor do we rush forward without carefully listening to the voices of our past. Rather, we take all the light of the past, and past tradition, and use it to illumine our path forward.

Historical People as Models of Virtue

Second, knowing Church History gives us concrete examples of great men and women of faith, many of whom are much closer to us in time and space than the biblical saints, and who by sharing in the sufferings of Christ and carrying out the Great Commission, act as true role models of virtue for us and our children. To not know the lives of men like: Boniface, William Tyndale, John Bunyan, David Livingstone, Jim Elliot, and Eric Liddell, or of women like: Perpetua, Catherine of Siena, Marie Durand, Mary Slessor, Corrie ten Boom, or Edith Stein, is to live an impoverished life of faith. These are the torchbearers who have carried the flame of faith on to our generation, as we must also carry the flame for the next. From them and from their example we can and should teach our children. Virtue building is a crucial aspect of our life in Christ, and as we subject our will to the Holy Spirit in order to becoming more like Christ, part of that submission can be emulating the lives of these great heroes of the faith.

Eric Liddell – “It’s complete surrender”


In sum, this second domain of Christian knowledge seems more critical to embrace now than in previous generations. Especially as we find our culture split into two secular camps, the modernist and the post-modernist, each of which would label much, if not all, that has come before us as either barbaric, unscientific, and naive (the modernist), or as evil, unjust, and oppressive (the post-modernist). While the Church must accept some of these critiques as legitimate, meaning we must accept our history in its fullness, warts and all; still we must not fall into the trap of these two camps, and make generalizations that are simply not true. We must also embrace the great legacy the Church has left for us. I think we need it, and I believe especially that many young people today need to know they have a past history that goes far beyond just their own personal story, that they have a past that extends all the way back to the day of Pentecost, if not further.

Church History in this sense can supplement greatly our identity in Christ, for not only are we “in Christ” but we are in His body, the Church. But it is not only our identity as members of the Church that matters, for Hebrews 11:39-40 makes an incredible statement about the current existence of those who have served Christ before us, saying that they, the martyrs who have gone before us, are waiting for us so that they can receive their promised perfection! That means that we also have a responsibility to uphold the legacy passed on to us, for as we thrive in Christ, and as we endeavor for Him, so our spiritual forefathers and foremothers benefit from our actions. How or what exactly we affect in the lives of those who are already with the Lord I cannot say, but that the saints and martyrs share in our own life, as we also share in theirs, is clear. We are, after all, one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I close with the words of St. Augustine on our future life with God and His people:

How beautiful and lovely are the dwellings of Thy house, Almighty God! I burn with longing to behold Thy beauty in Thy bridal-chamber…Oh Jerusalem, the holy city of God, dear bride of Christ, my heart loves thee, my soul has already sighed for thy beauty! … The King of kings is Himself in the midst of thee, and his children are within thy walls. There are they hymning choirs of angels, the fellowship of heavenly citizens. There is the wedding-feast of all who from this sad earthly pilgrimage have reached thy joys. There is the far-seeing choir of the prophets; there the company of the twelve apostles; there the triumphant army of innumerable martyrs and holy confessors. Full and perfect love reigns there, for God is all in all.

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Theology

There are many areas of knowledge one can study that are helpful to learning more about God, His creation, and the Christian faith in particular. Broadly speaking, however, there are four major domains of knowledge Christians must engage with should they desire a deeper knowledge of God and love of His truth. Attaining knowledge, both in its propositional and personal forms, increases our capacity to fulfill our sacred mission of spreading the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation, as well as bringing us closer to our final goal, ultimate union with our Creator. Without knowledge zeal alone is, as Paul points out, catastrophic to saving grace:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:1-4

Therefore, as we pursue becoming more well-rounded thinkers about God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s world, it is helpful to have some method of organizing this spiritual endeavor. The four primary knowledge domains we must entertain in order to achieve our goal of becoming disciplined followers of Christ are: Theology (Systematic and Biblical), Apologetics (Philosophical & Historical), Church History (pre-Reformation & post-Reformational), and Spiritual Formation (Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation).

Since these are very broad categories, it is right to point out that within each domain there are a number of disciplinary subsets one could study. This part of discipleship is related to the German idea of wissenschaft, particular knowledge that can become increasingly microcosmic and analytical. For example, today one is usually not just a “Bible scholar” but minimally a “New Testament” or “Old Testament” scholar, and even then usually an expert in a specialized subset of New Testament or Old Testament studies (e.g. textual criticism, Pauline studies, Septuagint studies, etc.). All of these sub-disciplines become extremely relevant to becoming an expert in the larger domain of Biblical Theology, and, as such, all of these subsets of knowledge lend to us knowing the Bible better. In turn, knowing the Bible better tends to help us know its Author better. Of course, this kind of analytical knowledge is good only insofar as we continually submit our studies to the bigger reality, namely, the person and program of Jesus Christ.

In this series, I will dive into the manifold sub-disciplines, but only consider these four broader domains in an effort to help beginners focus their studies, so as to train the mind and heart for the sake of the Gospel. In this first of four blog posts I will outline the primary discipline of Theology.

Augustine: The First Systematic Theologian

Systematic & Biblical Theology

Theology is our primary pursuit. The study of God is what we are essentially about as Christ followers. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has stated succinctly that theology is simply “speaking well of God.” As such, we must do theology well in order to serve God well.

However, the theological domain entails two kinds of theology, both with their own distinctive approaches to the ultimate goal of knowledge of God. These are Systematic and Biblical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology takes off in the early Middle Ages, with the publication of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, written sometime prior to 1160, and which dominated systematic theology until the Protestant Reformation. Before Lombard’s Sentences, St. Augustine was the most influential systematic theologian of the Western Church and was so for its first 900 years. Augustine’s theology still impacts us today and for good reason. After Augustine and Lombard, Thomas Aquinas was the greatest pre-Reformation systematic theologian in Church History, writing his Summa Theologica in mid-13th century. The earliest systematic theological writings that were particularly Lutheran/Reformational were composed by Philip Melanchton, Martin Luther’s close associate. So before the Reformation, the main systematic theologies that influenced the Church’s doctrine and practice were developed by Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. Melanchton was the first Lutheran systematic theologian after Martin Luther’s “break” with the Roman version of the church.

John Calvin, however, was the first real, complete reformational systematic theologian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559), setting the stage for some of the best theological writing in the church’s history by 17th century Puritan thinkers such as Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Stephen Charnock. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant tradition of systematic theology was carried forward in the Americas by men like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, W.T.G Shedd, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield.

Finally in the 20th century, there are three German thinkers whose work dominates academic theology, greatly shaping contemporary, western, Protestant religion (for better or worse). These are Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. Other very influential, systematic theologians of the 20th century include:

Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck, G.C. Berkouwer, Millard Erickson, Louis Berkhof, Abraham Kuyper

Lutheran Theology: Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck

Weslyean/Methodist Theology: Thomas Oden, William Abraham

Anglo-Theology (various denominations): T.F. Torrance, John Webster, Colin Gunton, Sarah Coakley

Roman Catholic: Hans Urs von Balthasaar, Henri du Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Bernard Lonergan.

Systematic Theology in principle tries to answer broad, categorical questions related to various and sundry aspects of God, creation, and revelation. These aspects are often called theological loci, and the traditional loci of a given theological system are usually as follows (and often found in this order):

1) Prolegomena

2) Doctrine of Revelation (General, i.e. Natural Theology, and Special Revelation, i.e. Bibliology)

3) Doctrine of God (Trinity, God’s Attributes, also called Theology Proper)

4) Doctrine of Creation (Nature & Anthropology, Angelology & Demonology)

5) Doctrine of Sin (Hamartiology)

6) Doctrine of Christ (Christology)

7) Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)

8) Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)

9) Doctrine of Angels & Demons (Angelology)

10) Doctrine of Last Things (Eschatology)

Obviously the order of these categories can shift according to the intention and logic of the theologian. Karl Barth, for example, famously began his 12-volume Church Dogmatics with the Doctrine of “The Word of God.” That itself should raise an important question in the reader’s mind, namely: “why would one theologian start with the Bible, while another starts with the doctrine of God?”

In sum, however, systematic theology is the attempt to give an orderly account about God and His creation using Scripture, Reason (philosophy and science) and human experience to answer the greatest number of fundamental questions about the Christian faith. This is a very different endeavor however from its theological counterpart: Biblical Theology.

Biblical Theology: What Does The Text Actually Say?

Biblical Theology

Unlike Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology focuses all its efforts on the study of the Bible, or what systematic theologians call Special Revelation. It looks at the Bible, how it was formed (e.g. the canon of Scripture and the composition of individual books or corpuses); how its parts work together (Old and New testaments); how individual books should be studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for their own sake. This means it is not necessarily the task of the Biblical Theologian to consider or argue for how a passage, part of a book, or book of the Bible fits into some broader theological system.

Biblical Theology tries to understand any given part of the Bible, especially particular books, passages of books, or even phrases and individual words, in their own immediate context. Thus, biblical theologians focus on very specific things like Paul’s theology of ministry in the pastoral epistles or even the authorship of the pastoral epistles. Typical biblical theological pursuits are:

  • Lexicography (the study of semantics, grammar, and syntax of the biblical languages)
  • Form criticism & Redaction criticism (controversial areas of Higher Biblical Criticism that are concerned with the origins of biblical books and passages)
  • Textual criticism (i.e. manuscript studies, also called “Lower Criticism”)
  • Critical and expository work of particular books or authors (e.g. commentaries, Pauline studies, Johannine theology, etc.)
  • Comparative historical/literary studies (e.g. Ancient Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman biography)
  • Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation, which is a foundational philosophical undertaking that relates to all other biblical studies)

Biblical Theology is often said to have begun with J.P Gabler’s 1787 inaugural address at the German university of Altdorf (see Andreas Köstenberger’s article), where biblical studies was delineated from systematic theology. This segregation of the two disciplines eventually included its evolution into Old Testament and New Testament studies.

As Biblical Theology grew into its own discipline, it tended to become increasingly separated from more abstract work of at least some systematic theologians. To the point that today there is a movement in Evangelical and Roman Catholic circles to reconnect the two disciplines. The proper balance of Systematic theology (also known as “Dogmatic” theology) and Biblical Theology safeguards against Christian thought that is too atomistic or fragmented (too biblical), or theology that is too broad and not grounded in the very words of the Bible (too systematic).

John Webster lays out this dilemma:

We may be led to say something like this: Scripture is not simply one of a set of immanently-conceived communicative practices, a “historical” or “natural” entity of which a sufficient description can be given by identifying the natural properties of texts and their agents (whether authorial or interpretative). Nor is Scripture a historical or natural entity upon which we superimpose “religious” evaluations that encourage “spiritual use” or “theological interpretation.” Rather, without in any way denying the natural properties of scriptural texts, we may say that Scripture’s place in the divine economy of redemption and revelation is determinative of its nature. This nature, in turn, directs its reception.

“Biblical Reasoning”, ATR/90:4, pp. 739-740

In spite of this dilemma of balancing these two modes of theologizing, both are necessary. And, because of advances in linguistic and historical studies (e.g. the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.), Biblical Theology has become incredibly specialized Thus, the reality that one individual will be both an expert biblical exegete and a top-notch systematician, with all the necessary philosophical training, is a very rare phenomenon today.

Historically, Biblical Theology has been dominated by German-language scholarship. Names like Bauer (F.C., Bruno, and Walter), Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Wellhausen, Bultmann, von Rad, Noth, and many, many more are synonymous with the biblical interpretive paradigms they helped to create. Paradigms that often go under the title “Higher Biblical Criticism” or HBC. However, many of these great bible scholars also brought unwarranted philosophical presuppositions to their discipline, presuppositions that, to some degree, downgraded the Bible from the divinely inspired revelation of a transcendent God, to a bible that is merely a production of human intellect and culture conditions (see Webster’s pithy response to this above).

The difference maker for theological apologists, especially as we relate to the issue of the reliability and authority of scripture, will often be in discerning which aspects of HBC we can accept into our systematic theology and which ones we must reject based on necessary metaphysical commitments to a historical, and proclamatory Gospel message.

To know the difference between useful HBC and corrosive HBC, and how one decides on one view or the other, can mean winding up in the scholarly camp of someone like a Bart Ehrman, as opposed to that of a Craig Keener. Thus, while we should always engage with liberal or skeptical scholarly views, there are also excellent contemporary, theologically conservative biblical scholars we should also access. For example:

Old Testament: John Walton, Daniel I. Block, Tremper Longmann III, Gordon Wenham, Bruce Waltke, Derrick Kindner, Edwin Yamauchi, Nahum Sarna (Jewish), Jacob Milgrom (Jewish), Jeffrey Tigay (Jewish), Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad (a bit liberal, but a huge name in 20th century OT studies), Umberto Cassuto, John Goldingay, and, more recently, Michael Heiser.

New Testament: N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, Karl Rahner (Catholic), Michael Kruger, Andreas Köstenberger, Michael Bird, Peter O’Brien, D.A. Carson, Michael Licona, I. Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington III, Jocahim Jeremias, E.P. Sander, James Dunn, Moises Silva, Robert Jewett, and Ramsey Michaels.

Because OT and NT studies are so specialized there are simply too many people in the field to give an adequate list. But the above names are all highly regarded 20-21st century Evangelical scholars (unless otherwise indicated in parentheses). For additional Biblical Theological resources these surveys edited by Tremper Longman III, and D.A. Carson are indispensable for anyone looking to go deeper into the Biblical texts: Old Testament Commentary Survey, and New Testament Commentary Survey. These surveys will also save pastors a great amount of time when looking for commentaries to prepare for their sermons.

Conclusion: Theology is both Systematic and Biblical

In sum, the goal of any born-again Christian will be to think theologically about the Bible, i.e., understanding it always as God’s Divine Word to man. At the same time it is crucial to think biblically about Theology, making sure that when we teach church doctrines they can be grounded in the text of Scripture. Without thinking theologically, we can get into an academic and purely analytic study of the Bible that leaves no room for its divine Author. Without thinking biblically, we can get a view of god that is very far removed from the God of the Bible, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.