Discussion on Classical Theism with Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart

Over the last few days in Monroe, Louisiana, I’ve enjoyed a discussion on the subject of classical theism with Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers, hosted by Church of the Redeemer. We’ve had some great and challenging debate. You can see the whole series over on YouTube. Here are my talks and the group discussions:

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christology, Controversies, Doctrine of God, Hermeneutics, The Triune God, Theological, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Discussion on Classical Theism with Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart

  1. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    You were in Monroe! (Sometimes folks call it Fun-roe.) So funny you were nearby. I live in south Louisiana, but I had another conference I had to be at. It would have been fun to have been able to be there. Also, it’s cool you spoke at length about a topic I’ve been thinking about and had been wondering what your thoughts were about it–classical theism and the Scriptures.

    Godspeed,

    Stephen+

  2. cal says:

    Pretty disappointed with your Q&A engagement. You really struggled to answer the questions Leithart put to you, and danced around in circles, repeating phrases over and over that became self-referential (esp. horizon of x experience). Honestly, if you understood the EO essence-energies distinction, and were more forthright (and concise) in the fracture points between classical theism and biblical diction, you’d have better understanding and give better answers. As it stands, classical theism still looks like a set of shibboleths, jargon, and mystifying fluff.

    • Or, just perhaps, you were the one who didn’t understand…

      • cal says:

        That could be true, but it seems like he asked you the same question 3-4 times and both Meyers and Leithart were gently trying to re-ask the same questions or get down to brass tacks.

      • Yes, they repeated the same sort of questions and didn’t seem to grasp my answers. Which was a bit frustrating on both sides. The problem is that the classical theist position can’t really be presented adequately within a biblical idiom, in large measure because it is describing the limits of such an idiom. Consequently, those who insist upon a biblical idiom will find it incredibly difficult to grasp and pointlessly obscure and esoteric. However, to a great many other people, what I said was extremely clear. It isn’t easy to overcome so fundamental a disconnect.

      • cal says:

        Precisely, and that’s the crux of their questions where do these limits, imposed on the biblical idiom, come from? Where exactly are we standing to be able to look from the outside in? That’s what they were pushing you to answer, because it **seems** to be saying that the biblical logic is merely an idiom, a parochial and contingent structure, whereas classical theology’s grammar is universal and necessary. For Leithart especially, it seems as though it’s the hellenization/metaphysicization of the Evangel, rather than the evangelization of Hellenism/Metaphysics. How can you tell which one is in the driver seat?

        I’m not opposed to abstracted non-biblical Greek philosophical language to frame certain conversations. But it seemed you got stuck on repeat, and I think the way that Maximus, and later Palamas, engaged this project would have found a way out. If you accept the essence-energies distinction, you don’t make the distinction between multiple acts of creation, and a single act of creation, a mere subjective horizon of x-y-or-z experience. The distinctions are real, not merely nominal viz. our perception, and we can take the Bible at face value in that what it’s describing is more than merely what we think God would think a Human mind is capable of in perceiving or experiencing.

      • From this comment, I think you might be misunderstanding my position. I’ve read both Maximus and Palamas.

      • cal says:

        P.S. I don’t expect an adequate or fully-formed response, this is comments section, and I’ll most likely leave off my commenting on this point. However, so I don’t completely sound like a troll, I figure I’d leave recommendations for you (and anyone else reading) that are worth following up on if you haven’t: I’d recommend reading Gregory Palamas’ “Triads” and “A Debate between a Orthodox and a Barlaamite”, as well as David Bradshaw’s “Aristotle East and West”, or one of his articles summing up the issue.

  3. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    Three cheers for Alastair! The champion of Classical Theism. I love it. This is what I gather the disagreement was about: sometimes if you don’t say more, what’s not said figures as much in the overall communication. The rests in music aren’t just dead space but are themselves part of the whole musical presentation. Sometimes–often in poetry–something is left artfully unsaid and yet that itself communicates something. Were you concerned that if more isn’t said about the relationship between Creator and creature, then that itself gives a certain impression about what God is like that you want to guard against? Namely, it gives the impression that the Lord is like a human subjectivity who can only act in discrete moment and makes chooses from a range of possibilities that are in some sense ‘out there.’ Is that what was happening in the disagreement? If so, I think you’re right to guard against that very common misunderstanding of the Lord.

  4. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    … in discrete moments … makes choices …

  5. hygelac says:

    This was simply an outstanding conference. Thank you very much, Alastair.

    After reading Dr. Leithart’s response to Duby’s critical assessment of his position on philosophy, it seems he is not an unqualified foe of classical theism. The impasse revealed during the Q&A sessions may have been a valiant struggle on his part to come to grips with a different idiom, rather than a complete rejection of analogical language tempered by apophatic modesty.

    In any case, a lecture I’ve listened to by Dr. Yoram Hazony put a big question mark after the presuppositions of classical theism, especially as appropriated by Jewish exegetes during the Middle ages. I haven’t read his book on the philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, but Dr. Harzony’s hermeneutic sounds like a rejection of analogical language. I’ll need to listen to this lecture a second and third time, but I believe he said that the presumption of self-sufficiency, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. in God is foreign to the text. Am I misunderstanding him?

  6. hygelac says:

    Thanks for the link.

    Let me say that I came away from your interview of Dr. Harzony thinking that here is a man of formidable intellectual gifts and insights. This spurred me on to listen to a number of his online lectures, and his opinions took me by surprise. For example, as he sees it, the reason God made covenants with the patriarchs was not because he wanted to accomplish his will through the agency of created beings, but that he simply couldn’t do it without their aide. Covenant, as a biblical concept, hints at the inherent limitations in God. Ditto those accounts in which Abraham and Moses change God’s mind through confrontation and argument.

    This struck me as taking the sense of the biblical narrative sans qualification, or any apophatic modesty (This may be a mistaken impression, and I’d be happy to be corrected, if it is.) I don’t believe that Peter Leithart would agree with Dr. Harzony’s opinion, but, in any case, I was reminded of it during the Q&A when he asked you if the sequence of events in Gen. 1 actually describe God in the act of creation in an unqualified sense.

  7. Chris Wooldridge says:

    It seems to me that the key issue at stake is this: is the scripture a *sufficient* revelation of who God is, or do we need some other standard borrowed from elsewhere? It seems to me that there are two main routes a classical theist might go down in this respect.
    1) They might claim that classical theism does not seek to impose a particular understanding on the text, but can be derived from the scriptures itself. Under this view, passages about God’s immutability, unity and so on should be taken at face value and used to frame other passages which appear to set forth a different understanding (such as God changing his mind). The problem with this claim is that such a distinction is not drawn in the text itself, as Matt Colvin demonstrates fairly aptly here: https://colvinism.wordpress.com/2017/11/29/james-dolezal-and-the-exegesis-of-immutability/
    2) Alternatively, a classical theist might claim that although the categories and claims of CT (about anthropological language, divine nature etc) cannot be derived directly from the text of scripture, they are required for a functional monotheism and therefore should be believed anyway. The problem with this approach is that Biblical claims about God’s oneness, sovereignty and so on are also analogical statements within their contexts, intended to demonstrate God’s faithfulness towards his people. That’s not to say that they tell us nothing about the metaphysical nature of God, merely to point out that there is no reason to jump straight into metaphysical abstraction with such passages.
    Perhaps there is some other route one could take? Or perhaps one could simply deny the relevancy of the scriptural witness with respect to questions of God’s immutability, simplicity etc. But in this case, it would be difficult to defend the claim that classical theism mattered in any meaningful way.

    • cal says:

      Classical theism (which I think is better put as the grammar of Hellenism) can have a use because it is answering different questions than Scripture does about the world around us. It can serve that purpose, though such knowledge is not salvific. However I do think that the grammar/logic of CT is stunted in the West, tethered as it generally is to Thomas/Thomism. My points above about Palamas is that his use of Maximus and pseudo-Denys refined the language of CT sufficiently where it does not get in the way of the Biblical Scripture. Using the distinctions of Logos/logoi and essence/energies, one does not have to choke to say the different acts of creation in Genesis are actually distinct, though we should not be reading Gen 1-2 to tell us about actus purus or simplicity etc.

      If we’re stuck in the 4/5th century anthropomorphite/Origenist debate, it’s because the grammar of CT isn’t doing its job properly.

      cal (long time no see Chris!)

      • Who in this conversation is choking to say that the different acts of creation in Genesis are actually distinct? The sticking point is whether we project such differences in time into God’s own eternal being.

      • cal says:

        You did in your Q&A: you continually had to hedge that the differences revealed in creation reflect a created/creational horizon of experience that has an infinitely distanced analogy in something God does. But somehow (and this was Leithart’s point) you are able to know that, in fact, the distinct acts of creation are, from a God’s eyes perspective, undivided and singular. How do you know this? In contrast the Palamite position reconceptualized “difference” as distinction without opposition. And “eternal being” is a question of God’s energies, not essence. The cash-out is that Hellenism is refined to a degree that actually serves the Biblical text. To talk about real distinctions among God’s eternal works (energies) does not threaten the idea that God does not change, and these eternal energies correspond directly to created works.

        There might be a degree where we’ve been talking past each other, but if that’s the case, it’s because you got lost in your own set of concerns and CT grammar in the Q&A. But you’ve been standing by what you said, so I don’t think it’s just a case of misunderstanding.

        Leithart’s main point was epistemic: how do you know that this language is, itself, correct? Apophatic grammar is indirectly, but still is, kataphatic. You have to know something to say what it’s not. And yet when philosophical interpretations of Scripture (such as the infamous use of Exodus 3:14), masters of textual analysis find these interpretations foreign and eisegetically imposed. Even Palamas says quite frankly that to say that ‘Ego Eimi’ means “I am Being” is perverse. So we’re back in the errors of Origenism, seeking to amend and correct texts according to standards we’ve inherited, and are equally contingent and cultural (thus CT really means Hellenism), that we take to be universal and natural standards.

        So yes, in reply to Leithart about justifying the use of Hellenism, I think there are eternal distinctions (meaning difference without dialectical opposition) in God’s creative acts and that the surface reading of Genesis is perfectly correct and consistent, born out in how other parts of Scripture speak of both single and differentiated act of creation.

        I hope you’re enjoying this back and forth as much as I am,
        cal

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        I don’t think you’re right to identify Classical Theism with “Hellenism.” I would just point to David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God, where he identifies a family of views related by overlapping conceptual contours, but manifested in a variety of traditions and expressed in a variety of idioms. And I think that distinguishing “Classical Theism” (a big umbrella covering a range of traditions of reflection) from Greek philosophy helpfully frees us to be alert to the ways that the insights of Classical Theism are themselves intimated by Scripture–just not in the jargon of Greek philosophy.

      • cal says:

        To use a Palamite metaphor, philosophy is snake venom which, with care, can be used as an antidote to poisons of the mind. CT, undomesticated, is Hellenism. I understand DB Hart’s CT is broader than the Greeks, it’s a little misleading. His appeal outside is to Sufism, which is misleading because the Arabs and Islam were also purveyors of Greek knowledge, and Vedanta, which post-dates Greek learning significantly (viz. Hart’s favored Hindu theologian Ramanuja). But Hart is a terrible historian of philosophy and I’ve learned, from his handling of the NT to 20th century continental philosophy, to distrust his accounts. Sufism was, like all of Islam, in contact with Hellenic schools of thought, and it’s hard to say whether he is an able interpreter of Ramunja’s thought, but I’m really not sure of that.

        If the insights of CT (whatever that exactly means) are intimated by Scripture, I’d ask you to prove it. Many exegetes and historical biblical scholars have disproved many flagship verses (from Exodus 3 to James 1) as historically and grammatically untenable. If you appeal to allegory, I’d signal Proven’s point in his book on Scripture: why does no one read Plato allegorically in light of Moses, and only vice versa? There are no controls at this point, only assertions about what is credible.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Cal,

        That’s a fair point about how far the influence of Greek thought reaches. I should also say, I missed something in your earlier comments. I meant, crudely put, to push back against a simple of identification of CT with Thomism. Looking back, I see you’re not particularly guilty of that, and that you’re actually advocating for a different formulation of CT. (Though I’m not sure how to take your words about “mystifying fluff.”) That’s just the kind of breadth that I wanted to call attention to within the long and wide tradition of Classical Theism.

        I point to this breadth within CT, preferring to view this tradition as a particular way of understanding the Lord’s transcendence (and so also his immanence). I think that’s what Alastair’s doing in his lecture. What does it mean that the Lord is in no way dependent on his creatures in order to be who he is? Or that all creatures depend on him completely for their existence? When I contend that the Scriptures intimate the same insights as we find in Classical Theism, I’m basically saying that the Scriptures deliberately portray the Lord as transcendent, and that the picture of the Lord’s transcendence that comes through in the Scriptures resonates deeply with the picture that CT brings to light.

        More on the Scriptures themselves: I’m a bit suspicious about “masters of textual analysis” and their rejection of philosophically informed readings of, say, Exodus 3 as foreign intrusions into the text. Similar conclusions became the consensus for a while about something like divine Christologies in the New Testament, but that consensus–I believe–was patently false. (Very strong refutations of that once-held consensus have now emerged from within the New Testament guild itself.) Just so, I wonder if the very common association of CT with a particular philosophical vocabulary has made it difficult for exegetes to recognize that the logic of CT is actually deeply resonate with the very concerns that are driving the Biblical narrative. In that sense, the reflections of Classical Theism (even when couched in a philosophical idiom) can enrich our reading Scripture, but maybe only because they are themselves underwritten by Scripture. More would need to be said in defense of that, but I do think it’s defensible.

        Can I also ask (and maybe it’s not wise to bury this question at the bottom of this comment) for an explanation of the distinction between “essence and energies”? I’m not familiar, and I’d be glad to hear what that distinction is supposed to mean–whether from Cal or Alastair or anyone else in the discussion.

      • cal says:

        My point about CT is that it is overwhelming effected by Thomism and neo-Platonism (what was, somewhat unfairly but accurately, condemned as “Plato”, “Hellenism” and “Origen/Origenism” at Constantinople II) that set us off on a bad trajectory. I am arguing against this synethetic idea and call it a tradition. I’m saying that where people like Leithart have had a suspicious disposition, ranging from hostility to very careful use, they were right to do so. I’m saying there are fundamental rupture points between Palamism and Thomism that cannot be rolled up into *the* Tradition (as DB Hart tries to do).

        I took a hard edge (thus, “mystifying fluff”) because I think CT, as it stands among many proponents, can’t actually answer questions about the Biblical language without clarity. As one historic example, it seemed highly improbable that the World ever had a beginning for over a millennium. Purveyors of CT, ranging from Origen to Thomas, both tried to account for the awkward language in the Bible about a beginning. From this philosophical knowing about the ontology of creation, they both engaged in projects to reconcile how we can talk about God creating the world and Aristotle’s, and others’, argument for an eternal creation/matter/world. Of course, there were at the same time hard-nosed biblicists of ranging intellects (from the well-bred/learned like Basil to fundamentalists like Epiphanius) who stood on the biblical grammar and took an axe to consensus among the scholars.

        All of this raises the question of who is in the drivers’ seat? Is the Bible driving our use of Hellenic metaphysics, or vice versa? And how would we know? Origen was one of the most voluminous biblical commentators and professed, again and again, to be loyal to Scripture. To us now that seems incredibly tendentious, considering Origen most likely held to pre-existence of souls so as to explain predestination. He was probably totally oblivious to his own dependence on Middle Platonism (or Anaxagoras).

        The shift to seeing High Christology in the NT did come from within the NT guild, but that has come from a deepening awareness of the sources. The idea of Judaic and Greek bubbles has been popped, which has gone to one extreme of saying all 2TJ as Hellenic. But, as I’ve pointed out, that doesn’t help because these scholars don’t appreciate the question about who’s driving the car. Not all Jews used Greek forms in the same way; not every Jew thought like Philo. But if we move too quick, in a desire of self-defense of our dogma, we’ll just on and say Philo is a precursor of Christology, when that’s precisely the opposite of what scholars like Bauckham have said. Given the tools from *the* tradition, as it has been primarily articulated in the Latin West, I think we’re up bound to get caught in the same webs.

        What helps avoid, as I’ve said again, is Palamas drawing together of various strands of eastern thought (Nazianzus, Nyssa, ps.Denys, Maximus, Damascene) into a philosophical doctrine that allows the Bible to speak more clearly than trying to speak on behalf of the Bible. That’s a contentious point, but to summarize quickly: the idea of essence-energies distinction is that we can never know ‘what’ God is but we can know Him through His actions/works (energeia is the Greek term). These energies are eternal and are things like Justice, Mercy, Goodness, Being (!), Providence, etc. Palamas makes an analogy that we only really see fire through its activity (i.e. its warmth, its light). One major difference is that for Palamas, quoting ps.Denys, God’s essence is super-essential, He is beyond both being and non-being. Thus, the point is that God’s essence is not the Fount of Being, though the Fount of Being is one of the eternal energies through which man gets to know God. A lot of this is best explored in the work “The Triads”, though there’s good stuff in Damascene’s work “The Fount of Wisdom”.

        The cash out for these terms is that we can take the pluriform ways God describes Himself as not merely as imprecise, merely contextually driven metaphors that we can (many times with a snobbish air; c.f. JH Newman’s disdain for the OT Israelites) purify and reform into a more clear and concise grammar. That’s not to say historical context doesn’t matter, or hasn’t had a role to play, but it’s not just a mere accident of divine revelation. Thus, as an example, I’m comfortable that the differentiation of days of work in Genesis reflect something eternally true about God. A major point is this: distinction or difference does not mean opposition. We can see how light and life are distinct, and not only because from our creaturely horizon we cannot see them as a singularity. Instead, we are given a true revelation of their utter unity, even in their eternal distinction.

        Hope that helps a bit,
        cal

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Oops. I meant to reply to your comment, but replied to that one that your comment branches from. See below.

    • Classical theists generally believe that there is an exegetical case for their position, but typically hold that the exegetical case requires a more philosophical harmonization of scriptural teaching, rather than being something that can be read off the surface of the text. I think this is right.

      And this is not the claim that we need to jump into metaphysical abstraction most of the time.

    • Stephen Crawford+ says:

      Cal,

      Thank you for that lengthy reply. I appreciate you taking the time to say more, not least because–as I said above–these are things I’ve been interested in, so I’m glad to have the chance to learn more about it.

      One quick note, though I’m not sure exactly how it affects your comment: Thomas taught that the world had a beginning in time, and he said we know this because Scripture tells us. He said that we can’t know this by reason alone (at least, that they couldn’t know it at the time by reason alone), but revelation has let us in on that little secret of the world’s origins. Related to that, Thomas is careful to state Creatio ex nihilo doesn’t mean creation AFTER nothing, that the metaphysical insight of the complete dependence of all things on the Lord for their being doesn’t entail a particular cosmology.

      I appreciate your explanation of Palamas’ distinction between essence and works. Out the gate, I’ll say it doesn’t grab me. I’ll have to think more about it, and I’ll certainly keep it in mind during any future perusal through the Greek fathers you mention. My intuition (little that it’s worth) is that there are problems with it, where the Lord comes across as a bit too coy, a little too held back. It suggests to me that rather than championing Scripture as the revelation of the Lord, it undermines it, not giving us a true theophany of who the Lord is and what he is really like in himself. If you’ve seen the Son, you’ve seen the Father. Not just his “energies” or works. Him. If the Lord is being and non-being, than how does “fount of being” in any sense reveal, teach us about who he is, etc.? That’s the question that comes to my mind at least–in addition to whether or not those distinctions can be upheld (at least, in the way you’re suggesting them) without rendering a concept of God who is in some sense contingent. But I suppose I’d have to dig deeper to find out whether those suspicions are right or not.

      • cal says:

        I admit my explanation of Palamas and the es-en distinction is very superficial and quick. When I first heard about it, I thought it seemed wholly unnecessary, a fabrication that emerged from a fetid spiritual/intellectual environment. I had some concerns similar to the ones you’ve expressed. But the more I learned, the more I appreciated it. You just have to read Palamas for yourself; I also recommend David Bradshaw’s summary in ‘The Concept of the Divine Energies’ in “Divine Essence and Divine Energies: Ecumenical Reflections on the Presence of God in Eastern Orthodoxy” (you can read most, if not all, of it on google books).

  8. 24 comments at a high level of technical discussion and with meaningful (mostly :P) engagement! Who says the golden days of blogging are over?

    Thank you Alastair for posting the talks and engaging thoroughly with the comments, and to the commenters for such rigorous questioning.

  9. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    One more thing to add, and I’m curious what you would say to this, Alastair. Part of what I appreciate about Classical Theism is that, for me, it actually invigorates the Biblical idiom, far from undermining it. There is no univocal language that we can use about the Lord. Even claims about his being are analogical. Therefore, the effort to find some language for the Lord that is in no way metaphorical is completely misguided. Blessed Thomas says as much in the Summa (I think approvingly quoting an earlier authority from the Church’s tradition). Classical Theism frees us to relish in metaphor and imagery.

    Maybe that’s one of the shortcomings of the comparison to astronomy versus stargazing. In this case, the “astronomy” of Classical Theism doesn’t just add wonder to the very different experience of looking up at the night sky from your backyard; it rather puts an exclamation point on the fact that the moment of wonder beneath the heavens engages with the reality of the stars in a way that astronomy never can.

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