In his new book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, Craig A. Carter recounts a significantly different experience with Biblical education than my own. In his account, he was taught to look down on the Father’s Trinitarian theology as inadequate and, perhaps, a capitulation to the philosophical trends of their day. However, when he began to read the Fathers for himself, he encountered something radically different. Thus, he came to appreciate not only the Fathers’ method and theology but also the philosophical framework which they worked out in critical interaction with the best philosophy of their day. In my experience, I was taught what Craig calls “Trinitarian Classical Theism” (TCT) with its attendant view of the Trinity and came to embrace “Christian Platonism” as I studied Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine in my undergraduate and graduate education. However, as I began to grapple with the questions driving Plato and Aristotle, I began to seriously question their conclusions; ironically, I found in Augustine a subtle but dramatic departure from Platonism. These seeds of philosophical inquiry were nurtured through the works of John Frame and Cornelius Van Til, among others. Once I followed Frame and Van Til in abandoning the Platonic epistemology, I soon realized that this entailed an abandonment of the Platonic metaphysic. I did not, however, default to “pantheistic materialism” that Carter decries throughout Contemplating God. Instead, I found myself embracing an equally—if not more—supernaturalistic metaphysic than Platonism. I was pleased to receive a copy of Contemplating God with the Great Tradition from Baker books for an opportunity to wrestle further with Patristic theology and its contemporary significance.
There were many good and commendable things in Contemplating God. I wholeheartedly agree with Carter’s sustained attack on methodological naturalism, especially in Biblical studies, and with his argument that much contemporary theology is uncritically indebted to naturalist and materialist metaphysics. There are also many of his twenty-five theses of “Trinitarian Classical Theism” that I would wholeheartedly accept, or with only minor clarification. Carter also rightly identifies the stakes involved: we cannot reject the metaphysics of the Fathers without rethinking the way they expressed their theology or even specific theological claims they make. However, the good things that Contemplating God argues are outweighed by its substantial problems. In this review, I will summarize the argument of Contemplating God and identify several broad, methodological problems in the book. Then, I will evaluate the argument to a greater depth in terms of its definition of the “Church’s consensus” and the resulting picture of theology, his treatment of the fathers, and his lack of engagement with opposing viewpoints. I apologize for the length of the following review, but I felt it necessary given the importance of the issues with which Craig Carter is wrestling. For my shorter review, go over to Goodreads.
Carter writes to show the “congruence between the classical Nicene doctrine of God and the teaching of the Holy Scripture” (loc 1008). He intends to argue that the Fathers were “not reading Greek metaphysics into the Bible but rather were correcting Greek metaphysics using biblical theology” (loc 1029). When he says Trinitarian Classical Theism is Biblical, he means that it is either explicitly stated in Scripture or logically deduced therefrom, as the Westminster Confession has it (loc 1179). Something that is only compatible with Scripture may be believed but cannot be held up as a standard of orthodoxy. To argue this, he builds on his earlier volume Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. His method works with two levels of exegesis, following the “classical method of doing theology by contemplating the results of exegesis and seeking to formulate doctrines that can guide us in a deeper ‘second exegesis,’ in which we try to listen to God’s voice speaking to us through the text” (loc 5867). However, from the start, Contemplating God suffers from audience confusion. On the one hand, he seems to be writing for “conservative” Evangelicals who have supposedly abandoned “Trinitarian Classical Theism” (TCT). He urges them to return to the “Great Tradition.” However, his only dialogue partners (excepting a brief and shallow criticism of Rob Lister) are modernist theologians who have sought to radically reshape the Christian doctrine of God (such as Bultmann, Pannenberg, social Trinitarians, process theologians and open theists). He thus never deals with the issues which contemporary, Bible-believing Evangelical theologians find problematic with TCT. Instead, he repeatedly suggests that anyone who disagrees with his position is a naïve, ignorant idiot. For example, “ignorance that might be excusable in a layperson is often found among pastors and theologians, who just do not know how the classical tradition sees the relationship between the simple, perfect, eternal, immutable God and the God of the Bible, who speaks and acts in history” (loc. 1094). Or, “the decline in the study of Greek philosophy by theologians also renders them unable to comprehend what the fourth-century debates were all about” (loc 668). Finally, “Many contemporary evangelical theologians are trying to play the game called the liberal project without understanding what game they are playing or what its rules actually are” (loc 6410). According to Carter, there are only two options: one is either a modernist, adopting polytheistic and pantheistic materialism, or a TCT proponent. For example, “Biblical exegetes must be theologians, not secular historians, and they must begin with the classical orthodoxy of the church, because the only alternative is to begin from a set of presuppositions that is hostile to the Bible itself” (loc 1000). The only options, apparently, are either Classical Theism or the Hellenization thesis, namely, that the Fathers’ uncritically accommodated the Bible to Greek philosophy (e.g. loc 240, 1066-1089, 5919). Not once in Contemplating God does Carter entertain the idea that some of us who disagree at points with the Fathers have read them, understood them, appreciated them, and have disagreed with them on Biblical and philosophical grounds, arriving a position that is not “half-baked” (loc 905) but well-reasoned.
To argue his position, Carter engages in a three-part argument. In Part 1, he addressed the definitional issue, first describing the contrast between “Classical Orthodoxy” and “Relational Theism” (Chapter 1) and then describing TCT (Chapter 2), focusing on 25 theses (read them here). Then, in Part 2, Carter argues that TCT has “biblical roots.” After defending theological interpretation in Chapter 3, Carter then argues Isaiah 40-48 presents God as “the Transcendent Creator” (Chapter 4), the “Lord of History” (Chapter 5), and Monotheism or God’s uniqueness (Chapter 6). Finally, in Part 3, Carter seeks to demonstrate that TCT is found in history and is Biblically based. In Chapter 7, he unpacks the thinking of various fathers. His argument comes across as hagiographical at times, asserting, for example, that the Fathers “were taking concepts and breaking them apart by hammering them on the anvil of Scripture and then reforging them I the flame of truth until they were bent into a usable shape for proclaiming the gospel” (loc 4624). In Chapter 8, he argues at length that creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) is found earlier in the Tradition and rightly deduced from the Bible. Finally, in Chapter 9, he concludes that the God of TCT is the God of the Bible. The epilogue concludes, “Why the Church Does Not Change Its Mind.” This unearths a key presupposition in Contemplating God, what is meant by the “Church” and its “tradition”?
How one defines “orthodoxy” and “tradition” says a lot about their ecclesiology, as does their use of the term “church.” For Carter, “tradition” and “church” apparently refer to the Christian intellectual giants and “orthodoxy” to the intellectual concepts or doctrines they formulated from Scripture. This is revealed, for one, by defining “classical orthodoxy” as a set of beliefs that can only be properly known by those with a “basic competence in all of the following areas: the history of philosophy and theology, biblical languages, biblical hermeneutics, biblical introduction, the history of biblical interpretation, biblical theology, and dogmatic theology.” Indeed, “To ask that it be made easier is to ask the impossible; it cannot be less complicated than it is” (loc 6417). That is, to talk about God, which is theology, one needs competence in all this. Lamentably, most of our theologians and pastors are not thus competent (cf. loc 1000, 1094). Thus, pastors and theologians not only need to be exemplary in faith and competent to teach, as Paul has it (1 Tim 3:1-7), but must be extremely well studied scholars. Moreover, if this is what is necessary to do theology and make statements about God, the prospect of lay people being orthodox let alone theologians is astonishingly thin, especially when the likes of J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson and Bruce Ware got TCT wrong (loc 6467). Given this understanding of “orthodoxy” and the necessary competency for understanding TCT, which is the unanimous teaching of the “Great Tradition,” “tradition” is thus restricted to those in history with such competency. This would have been an even smaller number of pastors, lay people, and theologians than today (given the scarcity and cost of education throughout the ancient world). If the “average modern person” finds it “very difficult” “to grasp the meaning and significance of concepts such as impassibility and simplicity” (loc 1080), how much more so the uneducated Christians of the ancient world?
How, then, does Carter speak of the “Church”? Given that TCT is the unanimous teaching of the “church,” the church is obviously constituted by the extremely intelligent and well-off believers throughout history; how else could one claim that one must “begin with the classical orthodoxy of the church” (loc 1000) meaning TCT or that “the burden of proof is on the would-be reformer to show that the church has been wrong for most of its history about the nature and identity of the God we worship” (loc 1125). Clearly, he means what the Christian intelligentsia believed, for the “average person” cannot come close to understanding such things. I am willing to take the burden of proof in those areas where I disagree with the Fathers, whom I respect greatly. However, if the church is the body of Christ and teachers are given so that the people might grow into the full maturity of “manhood” (Ephesians 4), then the burden of proof actually flips: show us how it is Biblical to claim that the knowledge of God, by which we all grow in Christ (Eph 1:15-22), and orthodoxy, the pattern of sound teaching pastors are supposed to teach the average Christian (1 Tim 1:13-14, cf. loc 4314), are completely inaccessible to the average person and missed by the brightest of Evangelical theologians. The fact that such a claim does not sound preposterous to us demonstrates the exact Platonic epistemology which many Evangelicals reject. On this point, I cannot help but sympathize with Liberal theologian Martin Kähler, who rejected orthodoxy because it portrayed a Christ and a God inaccessible to the average Christian.
Problems in the Patristics
Turning to the fathers, Carter highlights some of their genuinely great insights without addressing the more troubling themes that emerge from their Platonism or the disagreements among them—disagreement which would eventually affect TCT. For one, he describes the terms “hypostasis” and “ousia” as terms that refer to God’s three and oneness without attempting to explain it (loc 1776). However, the fathers did put significant effort into explaining these things. The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) rightly cites a letter from Basil of Caesarea for an explanation of “hypostasis.” Basil himself argued that “hypostasis” was an analogy with the particular (on a creaturely level, a specific tree, a specific human) and “ousia” with the universal. This latter idea is articulated earlier by Athanasius and Apollinaris (before he was declared a heretic) in their defence of the homoousion (“of the same substance”). After dismissing various Neoplatonic accounts of the relationship between the particular and the universal, Apollinaris identifies the relationship between the Son and the Father as that which is seen among humans, where a son is of the same substance of the Father because he descends from him. This would presumably extend all the way back to the first humans so that all humanity is one substance because of their origins in Adam. Gregory of Nyssa offers an alternative but equally realist account. In his To Ablabius: That There Are Not Three Gods, Nyssa argues that it is a significant error to enumerate humans so as to say that John, Peter, and James are each a “human.” Instead, there is only one “human,” the universal; it is only in colloquial (and erroneous) speech that we speak of multiple humans. Thus, to speak of “Three Gods” is likewise a problem, for there is only one “God” properly speaking, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit only being particularizations of the One. Nyssa presents this as the true way of speaking, but this is hardly defensible.
However, some such solution must be maintained to explain how God can be “one substance” while being “three,” but not “three Gods,” which the Fathers were eager to deny. This problem is compounded when Augustine enters the picture, for Augustine undermines this sort of Platonic realism. According to William Ockham, Augustine was the first to propose the sort of “conceptualism” which Ockham would expound. Conceptualism is the belief that universals exist (such as “humanity” or “treeness”), yet they only exist in a mind. For Augustine, the universals exist in God’s mind (cf. loc 4373). Neoplatonists such as Plotinus believed something similar, in that the universals existed in the Nous (“Mind”), or the first and highest emanation from the “One.” However, because they were part of Nous, they were not thoughts; they had the highest level of being under the One. Nous was more real than emanations farther down, such as tangible reality. However, if the universals are in God’s mind, they cannot have reality in this same sense, for this would violate the creator-creature distinction that Augustine sought to uphold. That is, if the universal is what something really is (as most if not all the Fathers believed), then the true reality of any thing would be “God’s thoughts.” Thus, there would be no distinction between God and his creature; they would be blurred together, the latter being a part of God himself. Augustine did not believe this, so his thought entails that there is no metaphysical connection between the universal and the particular, such as Athanasius, Apollinaris, and Nyssa’s solutions to the homoousion would require. This raises a deeper issue; as much as homoousion expresses a fundamental Biblical truth, that Jesus and the Father are one, it is broadly acknowledged that the Fathers had no concrete definition for what it meant when they used it at Nicaea (AD 325): they only used it because the Arians refused to. The Arians refused to use the term because the term was broadly used for various heretical views of God, one being attributed to Paul of Samosata, who was condemned at the end of the 3rd century. Therefore, however right or wrong the Fathers were in using this term, it seems disingenuous to say, “they made one of the most daring moves in all of human intellectual history as part of thinking through how best to express the doctrine of the Trinity without violating monotheism” (loc 4570). These are the sorts of issues that led to the eventual rejection of Platonism by Christians and non-Christians alike, but Carter does not interact critically with the problems raised by “Christian Platonism,” let alone the significant criticism raised against it in the following centuries.
A Failure to Address Opposing Arguments
This is where Contemplating God is most weak; Carter does not address any of the issues that have historically been raised with Platonism nor the various reasons that contemporary Evangelical’s struggle with TCT. He seems to assume that there cannot be and has never been a reasonable objection from the Bible nor from philosophy (to which he gives great credence, cf. Thesis #20); this is patently false. I believe the Bible is most important here, but we will start with some general philosophical observations to put his assertions about Platonism into perspective. In the early 20th century, a philosopher named Michael Foster argued that the Modern world witnessed a phenomenal shift from the Greek focus on the universal or abstract unity behind experience to the particular things we encounter every day; it was this shift that enabled physical science to prosper. Furthermore, Foster argued that it was the Reformation’s emphasis on the Bible that brought about this transformation, particularly the doctrine of God’s free creation (that He did not necessarily have to make the world in the way that He did). More recently, Johannes Zachhuber has argued that this shift happened much earlier, this time because of Christology. He argues that Christology required a claim that was impossible within traditional Platonic metaphysics, the belief that Jesus Christ could be one particular, a person or hypostasis, with two natures. Confessing this to be true, as Chalcedon did, forced later Christians to radically revise their metaphysics, moving from the traditional Greek focus on the universal to the modern interest in the particular. Thus, an argument could be made that Christianity itself was the cause of Platonism’s downfall.
Carter also endorses the narrative painted by several recent thinkers that “nominalism,” and William of Ockham in particular, led to the downfall of Platonism. This is said to be a terrible thing. On the one hand, Carter does not actually show why this was a bad thing; he asserts that “nominalism” undermined the transcendence of God and natural law, but he does not show why these are unbiblical developments. It is possible, for example, that natural law is not a Biblical concept (I am not convinced it is), and it is possible that “nominalism” undermined a false conception of transcendence. Or perhaps “nominalism” historically undermined transcendence in the Biblical sense but does not necessarily do so. On the other hand, “nominalism” is a misunderstood category and probably not applicable to William of Ockham. That is, Ockham is a “conceptualist”: he believes that there are such things as universals, but he thinks that they only exist in the mind. He did not develop this claim to justify his moral theory, as Carter suggests, but as a critique of various forms of Platonic realism. Ockham argued that we could make better sense of our experience, reason, and knowledge of God if we suppose that the universals are mental concepts that refer to individual objects of our experience and, by God’s enablement, may also say something about Him. It may be fair to say that Ockham violated a Biblical ideal of transcendence, but it is not clear that his thought necessarily does so. To say that God has enabled us to use concepts and terminology of both Him and His creation does not necessarily reduce Him to the level of his creation; it only says that He has so crafted the world so that right knowledge of Him is possible through the combination of experience and revelation. Ockham makes serious criticisms of Platonism that cannot be dismissed. Carter further asserts that numbers are “universals,” and so doing away with universals undermines mathematics (loc 6202). This is not strictly correct: in traditional Platonism, universals and numbers are both abstract objects. However, from Plato onward, numbers have been understood to provide a different though related problem to that of universals. One could dismiss the traditional belief in universals without rejecting the belief in numbers as abstract objects. Lastly, even if one could cogently argue that Ockham was a voluntarist in all the terrible ways that Carter describes, this does not undermine his criticism of Platonism. Moreover, the criticism of Platonism did not end with Ockham.
In the following centuries, the Anglican bishop George Berkeley developed many arguments against traditional metaphysics in a theocentric direction (though he was possibly liable of transgressing the creator-creature distinction, as was Jonathan Edward, who developed similar thoughts). Many of David Hume’s devastating metaphysical criticism emerged from Berkeley’s arguments stripped of their Theocentric anchor. Yet even here, Carter dismisses Hume’s arguments with nothing more than a footnote to a book that does not do justice to Hume’s criticism. In contemporary thought, the Christian theologians Cornelius Van Til and John Frame have developed various themes in post-Kantian philosophy in a direction that provides a more cogent and Biblio-centric epistemology than Platonism. Philosopher Esther Meeks has merged Frame’s work with the Catholic philosopher Michael Polanyi towards a further understanding of the way we come to know the external world, despite the mind’s activity in shaping the world we perceive. None of these thinkers is perfect, but it is ridiculous to lump them all into the category of “polytheistic, pantheistic materialists” and so dismiss their criticisms of Platonism. This is all the more the case when their epistemologies and the metaphysical implications therefrom arguably make better sense of the world as described in the Bible than Platonism.
In what sense is this true? I am writing a book on these matters (The Gift of Seeing, part of my series, “God’s Gifts for the Christian Life“), but consider several issues briefly. First, Platonism denigrates experience and knowledge of individual things; what truly matters is the abstract, e.g. “treeness,” “humanity,” “dogness,” etc. Despite Carter’s claim that the Bible vindicates belief in the universals (loc 6342), the Bible is profoundly disinterested in such things. The Bible is continually interested in the particulars, in particular people, particular events, particular people, particular groups, etc. God elects individuals, becomes a human individual, and covenants with individuals. In the Bible, the explanation of the incarnation and crucifixion is not an abstract, rational necessity. Why did God have to become a man? Because in Genesis 15 he promised to take Abraham’s curse upon himself when the other failed. There are profoundly wise reasons that God made this promise, but the explanation of the incarnation is this (among other) particular, contingent event(s), the very sort of thing that Platonism says is unimportant. Moreover, the Bible affirms the importance of the human senses and the created world for God’s purposes and true knowledge, something for which Platonism has no time. In 1 John, the apostle John speaks of his experience of Jesus: his experience is essential to the letters teaching. When God created, his task was for humanity to multiply and rule the world, both tasks that are highly sensual, involving the use of the senses. The Proverbs, the ultimate guide to right living in God’s covenant, concerns how to live in the particular, sensible world God created. This is not to say there is no place for concepts (universal or otherwise) and reason, only that these are not the Bible’s priority and cannot be maintained at the expense of the particular and contingent. Moreover, the philosophers assumed that change was a bad thing; the Bible does not share this assumption. The philosophers assumed that knowledge of the particular was deficient; the Bible doesn’t share this assumption. Indeed, the philosophers assumed that language had essentially one meaning and that this corresponded to reality, yet there are good reasons to believe this is false, the way the Bible uses language being a clear example of the matter. The Bible uses terms in a way that is incompatible with the rigid language-reality correspondence that undergirded Platonic philosophy. If change is not negative, the knowledge of the particular is important, and linguistic correspondence is rejected, many of the arguments for Platonic philosophy fall apart. Thus, it is arguable that the Bible undermines Platonism in what it says and what can be deduced from it. If you’re not yet convinced, lets end with an example brought up several times in Contemplating God.
Example: The Unactualized Actualizer
In Carter’s 25 theses, he asserts many of the key features of Hellenistic philosophy as part of TCT. I have suggested above that these features are not above scrutiny. On several occasions, he asserts without argument that God is demonstrably the first cause of everything and immutable (presumably also impassible, though he does not argue for this one) because he is the “unactualized actualizer.” The argument for this claim? He argues that all change involves the movement from potentiality to actuality, and all such movement requires a cause that is itself “pure actuality,” with no potentiality. This is an argument straight from Aristotle’s playbook, yet Carter does not take the time to show us why we must believe these claims. This is important, for Aristotle shared this physic of change and its metaphysical implications with Plato, and it undergirds many of the theses of TCT. Carter cites Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God for further argument. Let’s explore this a little.
The problems begin with Feser’s first comments. He assumes several ontological beliefs that are by no means self-evident. For example, he follows Aristotle in claiming that “potentiality” is a metaphysical reality. For example, “the coldness of [a cup of coffee] is not exactly nothing, since it is there potentially in the coffee in a way other qualities are not” (19). Is this true? What does it mean to say that “coldness” is “there,” even if “there” is qualified with “potentially”? Is this the only logical explanation of the change from heat to cold? It is not, but the assumption that “coldness” is a potential property inherent in the coffee is a significant part of the following argument, an assumption that is far from self-evident. He also assumes that sensory experience reflects the “world outside our minds.” This is not necessarily true. I do not think it transgresses any Biblical teaching to follow William of Ockham, George Berkeley, David Hume, Michael Polanyi, Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, Esther Meeks, etc. in claiming that experience is to some extent—perhaps a significant extent—a combination of extra-mental (or in Berkeley’s case, non-created) reality and mental interpretation. Carter argues from these claims that all change is from potentiality to actuality and that all change requires a cause that is itself “pure actuality,” meaning God. But the claim that behind all change stands a purely actual cause is not clearly true. I am not rejecting the argument itself, which I think has merit, but the claim that God cannot have any potential (broadly defined in the Aristotelian sense). I have yet to be convinced that this is demonstrable. Part of the problem was raised by David Hume several centuries ago: the account of causation in this argument is completely grounded in our experience, but we have no experience of a transcendent cause such as God. How can we thus be sure that our inferences concerning the causes we do know holds true for the supposed cause we do not know? Furthermore, on a surface level, the deduction that God is pure actuality stands in tension with the Biblical claim that God has acted and continues to act, meaning that in some sense, God changes (clearly a different sense than physical change, but according to Aristotle, still change). Yet this claim that God must be pure actuality stands behind immutability, impassibility, simplicity, eternality, etc. I am willing to accept simplicity and immutability (defined carefully) as expressions of the Biblical teaching that God is the Creator distinct from the creation, but it is not clear that impassibility is taught in the Bible, nor that it is logically deducible from the Biblical data. To move from the Biblical claims about God’s transcendence, as clearly expounded in Isaiah 40-48, to impassibility, one must assume a set of metaphysical assumptions that are themselves debatable.
Rob Lister is one contemporary theologian who has seriously grappled with the issues of transcendence and passions, yet Carter dismisses him as another Evangelical who has not done his history homework. However, Carter misrepresents Lister’s argument. Lister argues from De Trinitate Book 5.16-17 that “Augustine’s doctrine of divine eternity appears to hinder his case for God’s emotional expression” (pg. 106). In this section, Augustine argues that what is said of God, such as emotions or actions, are said “relatively,” not “accidentally.” That is, having already dismissed substantial change in God (e.g. that He could go from good to not-good), all that remains is accidental change, which includes predicates such as actions or emotions (God did such and such or felt such and such at a certain time). However, Augustine argues that “nothing happens accidentally to God in time, because he is incapable of change.” In the place of accidents, Augustine suggests that actions, emotions, and other predicates (such as “Lord” or “our refuge”) are relative predicates, indicating our perception of God as He eternally is. Carter oddly argues that Lister misses the mark because “Augustine never said that God’s expressing emotion was a change in his being” (loc 6502), which misses Lister’s point.
In these ways, Carter fails the make the case where it needs to be made. He does not ask why Christians throughout history have rejected Platonism or various parts of it; he simple asserts that those who do have drank deeply from unbiblical wells. I have read broadly in the Fathers and have a great appreciation for them. However, I think that their acceptance of certain aspects of Platonism—despite their conscious, critical engagement with other unbiblical aspects of it—was deeply damaging in several ways. The most serious concern I have is that which is manifest throughout Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. Is knowledge of God really restricted to the academic elite? Can only the special few understand God and speak rightly of Him without heresy? Is the church really defined by its intellectuals? In response to such things, the Bible is clear that God delights to call the powerless and unable and to use them mightily for His purposes, including teaching others right knowledge of Him. All Christians can know God as He is because He has clearly revealed himself in word and deed, the former interpreting the latter. The problem with Platonism is at this point: by making the god of the philosophers an essential feature of what it means to worship the God of the Bible, the bar for orthodoxy and right knowledge of God is set above—in Carter’s own accounts—the average pastor and theologian, let alone the average layperson. By calling us back to TCT, Carter is subtly undermining the Bible’s own claim to be clear and sufficient so that the “man of God might be equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). This surely includes knowing, loving, and delighting in God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), despite the inability for most of us to follow the arguments that are necessary to deduce TCT from the Biblical testimony or to understand it when it is taught to us.