Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Problematic God of Western Theology

Before reading this post, I suggest you read the previous post entitled "The Subordination of the Doctrine of the Trinity."

The following post brings together much of the material that has been presented in previous posts by articulating the problems associated with the Augustinian-Thomist-Western doctrine of God. The post is long but I believe it is vitally important to our understanding of the problems in the Western doctrine of God.

Split Between Faith and Reason

There are a number of serious problems with the Western doctrine of God. The first problem with the Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God is a "false disjunction" between faith and reason. While Jesus and the Spirit are known by faith in the apostolic witness revealed in Scripture, the One God, that is, the supreme substance, is known by speculative reason rooted in pagan Greek philosophy (Rahner, 1997:ix).

The Augustinian-Thomist doctrine of God implies that the One God of substantialist metaphysics is the "real" God and is known differently from the Triune God revealed historically in the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit (oikonomia). As a result, the Augustinian-Thomist tradition has created a split between faith and reason and left the Western Church with two competing sources of knowledge of God, each tending to discredit the other (Gunton, 1990:35). These two versions of God are incompatible, for each posits a distinct but dissimilar view of the nature of God and God's relationship to the world. The One God of the philosophers, that is, the God of reason and natural theology, is the immutable, impassible God of all determining power who is unaffected by the troubles here below. The Triune God revealed in Scripture and known by faith is the God who stoops to interact with creation (cf. Hos 11:4) and whose power is subordinated to his essential nature of love (Pinnock, et al, 1994:18ff).

This split view of God leaves the Church with profound questions: Is the Christian God like the God of the philosophers ‒ remote, aloof, and disengaged? Or is the Christian God the Triune God of grace and mercy revealed in salvation history who freely and lovingly engages creation? In opening an epistemological chasm between the One God and the Triune God, thereby creating a split between faith and reason, the Augustinian-Thomist tradition has left the Western Church with the same question posed to T. F. Torrance (1992:59) by a dying young soldier on the battlefield: "Is God really like Jesus?"

Epistemology and Methodology

As evidenced above, many of the problems in the Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God are epistemological and methodological, as can be seen by a comparison to Eastern Patristic theology. The pre-Augustinian Fathers of the Eastern Greek tradition begin their thinking about God with revelation; they do not attempt to describe God ad intra. Rather than offer a "philosophy of being," their primary concern is to explain how we may speak of the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ (Metzger, 2005:52). Whereas the Augustinian-Thomist approach to the doctrine of God begins with an emphasis on the unitary substance of God, only thereafter to consider the Triune Persons, the Eastern theologians of the early Greek-speaking Church begin their doctrine of God by considering first the Triune Persons as revealed in salvation history and only thereafter reflecting on the intradivine substance (ousia) (cf. Gonzales, 1987:335; Grenz, 2004:8, 9). While the Western approach emphasizes nature over person, the Eastern approach emphasizes person over nature (LaCugna, 1991:11).

Moreover, in the Eastern approach to the doctrine of God, the divine persons in relationship among themselves constitute the being (ousia) of God. The being of God is simply what the persons are, one to another; that is, for God to "be" is simply to be the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their intradivine relations to one another (Gunton, 2007:86). On the other hand, Western theologians, who typically begin their articulation of the doctrine of God based on the substantialist metaphysics of natural theology, tend to talk of three "subsistencies" in the divine being, as though the divine persons exist within the being of God rather than constituting that being. To say, however, that the divine Persons are merely subsistencies in the being of God seems to imply that the being of God is different from the persons. In other words, the Western tradition implies that the being of God is something that underlies the divine persons rather than being constituted by them. Thus, in Western theology, following Augustine, the being (ousia) of God appears to be a substratum, a fourth "something," that underlies the Father, Son and Spirit (Gunton, 2007:87). This presents the Church with an epistemological problem: If the essence of God is different from the Triune Persons, that is, if God is different from God's historical self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit, then Christians are faced with the question, "Who (or what) is God and how do we know?"

Another major problem with the Augustinian-Thomist approach is methodological. Because the identity of God is not rooted primarily in the biblical witness to the incarnate Son and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but is found in rational speculation on the substance (ousia) of God based on Greek philosophy, the Western practice of describing the unitary substance as "God" is liable to making God's redemptive self-disclosure as Father, Son and Spirit subordinate to the essence (ousia) of God. Because this approach begins with substantialist metaphysics, derived from human ideas of what is appropriate for a perfect being to be (dignum deo) (Sanders, 2007:295, n29), the Western tradition suggests that Jesus and the Spirit are to be interpreted in terms of the pre-understanding of the attributes of the divine essence (e.g., immutability and impassibility) rather than in terms of God's self-emptying love for the world revealed at the cross.

The Significant Influence of Pagan Philosophy

Another problem with the Augustinian-Thomist-Western doctrine of God is the ever-present influence of pagan philosophy. According to Bloesch (1995:205, 206), the history of Western Christian thought is marked by a "biblical-classical synthesis," particularly conspicuous in Augustine and Aquinas, wherein the "ontological categories of Greco-Roman philosophy" have been united with the "personal-dramatic categories of biblical faith." LaCugna (1991:3, 4) accurately asserts that, in many respects, the "Christian" doctrine of God is secular, because it is derived more from philosophy than from God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. She describes the root of this non-soteriological doctrine of God as the "metaphysics of substance": the pursuit of God in his internal, intradivine relations largely considered apart from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son and the gift of the Spirit. Colin Gunton (2007:39), a rather outspoken critic of Augustine, argues that "Augustine either did not understand the Trinitarian theology of his predecessors, both East and West, or looked at their work with spectacles so strongly tinted with Neoplatonic assumptions that they have distorted his work." Similarly, Moltmann (1993:10-12; 16, 17) is rightly critical of the Thomist emphasis on divine substance derived from Greek philosophy and articulated in the classic "five ways" to knowledge of God (cf. Aquinas, 1989:12ff), wherein the unity of God is given primary consideration with the result that the Trinity is finally explicated only within the framework of the one, divine substance. Moltmann argues that such a rational philosophical approach to the nature of God based on natural theology becomes a "prison" for biblical statements about the nature of God; that is, the scriptural witness to God as revealed in the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit is constrained by an alien view of God developed from natural philosophy. Moltmann (1993:149) succinctly but accurately summarizes the all-important distinction between the methodological approaches to the doctrine of God: "If the biblical testimony is chosen as point of departure, then we shall have to start from the three persons of the history of Christ. If philosophical logic is made the starting point, then the enquirer proceeds from the One God."

The Compromise of Sola Scriptura

In the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, an alien framework of Greek metaphysics has been given equal place with Scripture in the development of the Western doctrine of God. This syncretic mixture of pagan and biblical thought compromises one of the hallmark principles of the Reformation: sola scriptura. When the doctrine of the One God is separated from the self-revelation of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, then reflection on the nature and character of God becomes merely a matter of philosophical speculation. When theologia is divorced from oikonomia, the biblical witness to God's involvement in the world in the history of Israel and the incarnation of Christ is rendered irrelevant for understanding the transcendent eternal nature of God. This means that rationalist speculative theology on the intradivine nature of God can operate on its own, unsupported by a thorough investigation of Scripture (exegesis). Therefore, while the Reformation principle sola scriptura might still be applied to the divine economy (oikonomia), there is apparently one area where the principal does not apply: "the immanent Trinitarian constitution of the divine being" (Schwöbel, 1995:7).

In the Augustinian-Thomist doctrine of God, natural theology, based on the rational speculation of Greek metaphysics, is the starting point for the doctrine of the One God, while revealed theology, as embraced by the community of faith, is the basis for the doctrine of the Triune God (Torrance, 1980:147, 148). Latin theology has promulgated a union in Western Christian thought between pagan Greek philosophy and biblical revelation that has been taken for granted for centuries, while only recently coming into question. In the Augustinian-Thomist tradition, the biblical revelation of the Father, Son and Spirit is subordinated to a view of God derived from natural philosophy. Consequently, as my friend theologian Robert Lucas notes, the Western Church, while intending to faithfully adhere to the Reformation principle, sola scriptura, at least in its Protestant manifestations, is unconsciously reading Scripture through an alien grid that emphasizes the oneness and unity of God with comparatively little consideration given to the distinctiveness of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit or to the communion of fellowship shared among the Triune Persons of the Godhead. The Trinity is removed from the practical concerns of Christian life and worship and is relegated to the status of a puzzling conundrum whose incomprehensibility is taken as axiomatic. Finally, and most importantly, As my friend theologian Baxter Kruger notes, abstract philosophical reflection on the inner nature of God considered apart from the scriptural witness to salvation history means that Jesus Christ ‒ the One by, in, for, and through whom all things exist (Col 1:16, 17) ‒ is left out of the formulation of the doctrine of God.

In summary, the Western doctrine of God arises from a confluence of two very different streams of thought: 1) natural theology largely derived from the substantialist metaphysics of pagan Greek philosophy and 2) revealed theology based on Holy Scripture. According to theologian Robert Lucas, because the scriptural witness of God as Father, incarnate Son and Spirit has been thoroughly polluted by an alien stream of thought, the Western Church for centuries has unconsciously allowed the presuppositions of pagan philosophy to drive its "biblical" understanding of God.

Loss of Relationality in the Doctrine of God

Because the Latin emphasis on the unitary substance seems to portray God as an "isolated, passionless monad," thus obscuring both the inner relationality of the Trinity and God's loving relationship with creation, contemporary Trinitarian theologians largely eschew the Western emphasis on the metaphysics of substance wherein the divine essence is said to "stand under" (L. substantia) the divine Persons (Cunningham, 1998:25).

The emphasis on the unitary substance of God and the concomitant loss of relationality in the Western doctrine of God can be traced to Augustine. Because of his intense sensitivity to the suffering involved in human relationships, Augustine developed a permanent dislike for interpersonal models of the Godhead. Given the Neoplatonic presupposition that God is utterly simple with no shadow of plurality, Augustine has great trouble positing real relationships, that is, diversity, in the Godhead. For Augustine, the Father is God in respect to substance, yet he cannot say that God is Father in respect to substance because that would make relations an aspect of the being of God, an assertion that is in conflict with divine simplicity (Sanders, 2007:83, 84).

Moreover, Augustine fails to properly define "person," understanding the term to mean simply "relation." Constrained by the Aristotelian "substance-accident" dualism, Augustine gives relations in the Godhead secondary place to the divine unity (ousia) so that relations are understood logically but not ontologically, that is, as something that constitutes the being of God (cf. Thompson, 1994:129). Because Augustine is unable to make claims about the being of the particular persons of the Godhead, the Father, Son and Spirit tend to disappear into the all-encompassing oneness of God (Gunton, 1990:44, 45). In short, while Augustine understands the unity of the persons, he fails to sufficiently grasp the diversity, thus bequeathing to the Western Church a doctrine of God that barely masks an underlying modalism (cf. Gunton, 2007:86, 87).

Following in the tradition of Augustine, the Fourth Lateran Council and Thomas Aquinas formalized the Western habit of privileging unitary substance over the diversity of the Triune Persons. In relegating the concepts of person and relationship to secondary status in the doctrine of God, the Western tradition has further contributed to the separation of theologia and oikonomia by subordinating God's tripersonal self-revelation to a substantialist doctrine of God derived from rational presuppositions.

Practical Unitarianism

Closely related to the loss of a relational concept of God is the issue of practical Unitarianism. LaCugna (1991:6) rightly argues that an ontological distinction between God in se and God pro nobis, that is, God in his eternal intradivine nature (theologia) and God for us as revealed in salvation history (oikonomia), is inconsistent not only with the biblical witness to God's redemptive acts in history but also with early Christian Creeds and doxology. This separation of God in his eternal intradivine nature (theologia) from God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia), most particularly obvious in Aquinas' separation of the two treatises, De Deo Uno and De Deo Trino, can only result, she argues, "in a unitarian Christianity, not a Trinitarian monotheism."

In a similar vein, Moltmann (1993:17) sees in the Thomist approach not only an undue emphasis on the unity of God but also a reduction of the triunity of God to the One God. As he rightly asserts, "The representation of the Trinitarian Persons in a homogenous divine substance, presupposed and recognizable from the cosmos, leads unintentionally but inescapably to the disintegration of the doctrine of the Trinity in abstract monotheism." Moltmann seems to suggest that, given the Western emphasis on the ontological priority of unitary substance, the distinct persons of the Triune Godhead disappear into an undifferentiated ontological "soup," leaving the ordinary believer with a Unitarian view of God.

Following LaCugna and Moltmann, we may assert that the Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God, wherein God in his inner being (theologia) is considered apart from God as revealed in Christ and the Spirit (oikonomia), is not commensurate with God's self-revelation in Scripture nor with the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds, both of which are set in an unmistakable Trinitarian framework, nor with Christian prayer and worship, wherein Father, Son and Spirit have been historically worshipped as God. In addition, the Augustinian-Thomist emphasis on the unitary substance of God makes the Trinity appear to be a mere addition to the doctrine of God, thus reducing Christian belief and piety to practical Unitarianism, as evidenced by Rahner's (1997:10, 11) lament that the doctrine of the Trinity is irrelevant in the lives of most Christians, who are, in fact, "almost mere 'monotheists.'"

Pastoral Concerns

The Augustinian-Thomist doctrine of the One God has only minimal connection to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the Western Latin tradition, Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity have been virtually divorced, so that the life and work of Jesus is disconnected from the Trinity. Accordingly, there is only an "accidental relation" between the economy of salvation (oikonomia) as revealed in Scripture and the eternal triune being of God (theologia) (Thompson, 1994:22). There are clear pastoral concerns attached to the separation of theologia and oikonomia when the "bond of being" between the incarnate Son and the Father is torn asunder in our doctrine of God. Any disjunction between the being of Jesus and the being of God disrupts the message of grace contained in the Gospel, introducing anxiety into the hearts of many Christians who fear there may be a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary deity hidden behind the back of Jesus "before whom in our guilty conscience as sinners we cannot but quake and shiver in our souls" (Torrance, et al, 1999:16).

A truly Christian doctrine of God (theologia) must be rooted in the economy (oikonomia) of salvation, particularly the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The vital importance of a Christological approach to the doctrine of God is ably demonstrated by a series of questions posed by T. F. Torrance (1995:134):

What kind of God would we have, then, if Jesus Christ were not the self-revelation or self-communication of God, if God were not inherently and eternally in his own being what the Gospel tells us he is in Jesus Christ? Would "God" then not be someone who does not care to reveal himself to us? Would it not mean that God has not condescended to impart himself to us in Jesus Christ, and that his love has stopped short of becoming one with us? It would surely mean that there is no ontological, and therefore no epistemological connection between the love of Jesus and the love of God ‒ in fact there would be no revelation of the love of God but, on the contrary, something that rather mocks us, for while God is said to manifest his love to us in Jesus, he is not actually that love in himself.

Torrance's questions illustrate the important truth that thinking about God that does not begin with Jesus Christ leaves us uncertain about God's care, concern and love for the world. The Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God implies that God in his eternal, inner being may be different from God as revealed in his acts in salvation history. Hence, Christians cannot be certain that God as revealed in the incarnate Son and Holy Spirit is the same as God "really" is in his inner-most being. This immediately raises a soteriological concern for the Church: "Is Jesus' death on the cross really the act of God on our behalf?"


Contemporary Trinitarian theologians, led by Barth and Rahner, have been highly critical of the Augustinian-Thomist bifurcation of the doctrine of God, wherein the doctrine of the Trinity is separate from and subsequent to the doctrine of the One God. The Western bifurcation of the doctrine of God into a major treatise on the unitary substance (ousia) of God, followed by a relatively minor appendix on the Trinity, makes it appear that everything important to say about God is said in the first treatise, while God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history is subordinated to a position of little importance in the development of the Western doctrine of God. This schizoid split in the doctrine of God has created a false disjunction between faith and reason in the mind of the Western Church, burdening the Church with two competing, incompatible and often confusing versions of God: the immutable, impassible God of substantialist metaphysics and the world-engaging, compassionate God revealed in Jesus. Moreover, the Western emphasis on the unitary substance of God, presupposed by natural theology, has led to the disintegration of the doctrine of the Trinity and created a practical unitarianism or mere monotheism in the worship and practice of many Christians. Finally, the Western emphasis on the unitary substance of God raises the issue of knowability by appearing to make the divine essence the "real" God, while subordinating the Triune Persons to the unitary substance of God. Because the Father, Son and Spirit are interpreted in terms of the pre-understanding of substantialist metaphysics, many Christians are burdened with concerns for their salvation, uncertain that God is really like Jesus.

(Next post circa August 15, 2009.)


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  1. Thank you Mr. Davis for these latest two posts. I have learned a great deal from you by the grace of our King Jesus! Coming out of a Calvinist, religious, legalist mindset, by the grace of God I am able to see more clearly now and understand what you are saying instead of just shutting off when I heard what I thought would be an attack on Augustine or the Western Church mindset. Thank you for putting into words the thoughts that the Lord has been putting in my head and my heart for a while! Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for allowing our Triune King to work through you in Jesus Christ for our benefit!

  2. Thank you, Michael. Your response is exactly what a writer-theologian needs to encourage him to keep up what is admittedly hard, but fulfilling, work.

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