Theology’s Handmaid, Again

Theology’s Handmaid, Again January 11, 2019

Steve Duby objects to my brief set of warnings about the uses of philosophy in theology. I suppose I’ve said ill-considered things about philosophy or some philosopher in some of my writing. But this post was, in my judgment, generous in spirit, moderate in its claims, and modest in its aims. Duby says nothing to modify this assessment, because in the main his response attacks views I didn’t defend, or even mention, in my post.

To summarize what I said: My post offered a set of cautions about the risks that philosophy can pose to theologians. In honoring philosophy as a “handmaid” of theology – the premise of my post, the Thomistic image I describe as “apt” – I wasn’t dismissing philosophy. I didn’t claim that every use of philosophy seduces and bewitches, only that we should beware of the potential for bewitchment. Duby seems to have taken my whimsical personifications of the handmaid Philosophy as universal statements about all uses of philosophy by all theologians. Of course not. Handmaids are useful to queens, but they can get uppity; my post explored some of the ways the handmaids try to take over the mistress’ position.

Duby concludes that I am “wrong (either naïve or misleading) in suggesting that he manages to draw upon Scripture alone in articulating Christian doctrine.” Several times he attacks my supposed dismissal of all “extra-biblical” concepts in theology. The quotation marks make it appear that the term is from my post. It’s not. He claims that I attempt to take the high ground “by asserting that he or she is simply drawing from Scripture.” Where does he find this assertion? Not in my post.

My convictions (and my theological track record, which includes biblical engagement with Shakespeare, Austen, cultural anthropology, the life of Constantine, postmodern theory, among other things) are quite otherwise. I do believe that the Bible contains an explicit and implicit metaphysics, but that’s different from claiming that a biblical metaphysics won’t make use of material from outside the Bible. As John Frame says, the Bible itself demands that we look outside the Bible to understand the Bible. Everything is fodder for theological reflection, because the Triune god is Creator of all, because Christ is the one in whom all holds together. But everything that we bring into theology needs to be tested and, if necessary, corrected by Scripture. This, I take it, is precisely what Thomas was up to, though I may find fault at points with how well he achieved his aim.

A few notes on specifics. Duby is right that it’s a mistake to retroject a contemporary concept of “accident” into Augustine, and that theologians who use “accident” in a non-traditional way have an obligation to explain themselves. I agree that not all philosophies function as rigid systems; but some do, and that’s why I issued the caution. I quite disagree with his claim that “unity is superior to diversity” is “simply one of those basic insights into the nature of reality that it is difficult for us to avoid.” Would Triunity be better without the Tri-?

For several years, I have followed the lead of Robert Jenson in calling for a revisionary, “evangelized” metaphysics. Evangelization isn’t dismissal.

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  • I would just LOVE to see the Scripture references that tells us (or even hints) that the asinine claim, “…the Bible itself demands that we look outside the Bible to understand the Bible…” Chapter and verse please. Really, PLEASE! And I do NOT mean to be asking for some theologian’s “interpretation” of any portion of Scripture. I discount and ignore ANY theology that is NOT based upon what the Scriptures actually say … NOT how they are “interpreted.”

  • Rod Bristol

    Acts 17:28; Romans 1:20; (c.f. Psalm 19:1); Jude 14; 1 Corinthians 10:4. Of course, if you read these in English, they will be somebody’s interpretations. If you read them in Greek, you’ll get your interpretation.

  • Rod Bristol … Since you don’t seem to know the difference between interpretation and translation, and adding to the fact that I read both English and the Koine Greek, I’m pretty safe in telling you that you (like most academic theologians) are full of crap. So why don’t you tell me (chapter and verse please) where the Bible says, or even hints, that we must look outside the Bible to understand the Bible.

  • tovlogos

    I don’t hear much of this controversy — yet, for example, Acts 17:11 — “Now these [Jews] were better disposed and more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they were entirely ready and accepted and welcomed the message concerning the attainment through Christ of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God] with inclination of mind and eagerness, searching and examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Or, 2 Timothy 3:16: Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof and conviction of sin, for correction of error and discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action),
    He who studies the Scripture diligently must prosper spiritually; not necessarily otherwise. Understanding theological concepts such as Trinity, Logos, Dispensationalism, Cessationism, etc, can be garnered from Scripture alone, nothing wrong with theology, but it’s no more than exegetical renderings
    with analytical depth. Even with the eloquence that is produced, if it goes off the exegetical path to something looking more existential, it’s become spiritually useless. So, I believe it’s about staying true to the Scripture as the bottom line. I love the “inspiration” that comes along with faith and study of the word — what about the Holy Spirit’s input as a helper? John 16:7-15…a significant boost in discernment available nowhere else. Scripture is multi-dimensional — neither Aquinas, nor Augustine nor many great theologians have the resources and technology that modern man has. Thus I agree with you, basically, Peter, with a few minor differences.

  • Michael R Shotwell

    he did