Intuitive Evangelical Theology versus Scholastic Evangelical Theology: “Classical Christian Theism” as Case Study
I have long been impressed by how foreign scholastic evangelical theology is to even the most devout, biblically literate evangelical lay people. What do I mean by “scholastic evangelical theology?” I don’t know a better term for the “official” theology taken for granted and promoted as “orthodoxy” by many conservative evangelical systematic theologians. When I was in seminary we were required to read Calvinist Baptist Augustus Hopkins Strong’s Systematic Theology and the book of the same title by Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (not to be confused with revisionist Reformed theologian Hendrikus Berkhof). They are stellar examples of what I mean by “scholastic evangelical theology,” but there are Arminian-Wesleyan examples as well (though not as many, I would dare to say).
While Strong and Berkhof are long dead, their influences live on. Many of the standard, best-selling evangelical systematic theologies are little more than updatings of Strong and Berkhof (or Hodge and Warfield who influenced Berkhof). Backing up in time…what I am calling “scholastic evangelical theology” derives from and is strongly influenced by Protestant Scholastic Orthodoxy—a technical term for theologians and theologies almost nobody but historical theologians ever read or even know about. Perhaps the best example is Francis Turretin (d. 1687). His Institutio Theologiae Elencticae was required reading for students at Princeton Theological Seminary until Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology replaced it in the late nineteenth century. Turretin’s Institutions was one of the most influential examples of Protestant (especially Reformed) scholasticism.
When I read Hodge, Strong, Berkhof and their contemporary successors among conservative evangelical theologians I am always impressed with how, in my opinion, nobody just reading the Bible would ever even guess at some of what they promote as “orthodoxy”—especially in the doctrine of God. Of course there are differences of nuance among them, but, for the most part, they all articulate, defend and promote as “biblical orthodoxy” what is, in my opinion, a barely Christianized version of Greek philosophical theology. The story of that begins, of course, with the second Christian Apologists Justin Martyr and Athenagoras and the Alexandrian church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Even Athanasius and the Cappadocians were steeped in it—although they struggled to Christianize Greek philosophical theology. I don’t think they were entirely successful.
Here’s what I mean—to be specific. What ordinary lay Christian, just reading his or her Bible, without the help of any of the standard conservative evangelical systematic theologies, would ever arrive at the doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, or impassibility as articulated by those systematic theologians (e.g., “without body, parts or passions” as the Westminster Confession has it)? Without body, okay. But without parts or passions? The average reader of Hosea, for example, gets the image of God as passionate. While “parts” isn’t exactly the best term for the persons of the Trinity, a biblical reader will probably think of God as complex and dynamic being rather than as “simple substance.”
Take the doctrine of God’s “aseity”—absolute self-sufficiency. According to Protestant (and Catholic) scholasticism, including much conservative evangelical theology, God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. He is “pure actuality without potentiality.” Who would guess that from just reading the Bible? I wouldn’t. And yet it is touted by many conservative evangelicals as orthodox doctrine not to be questioned. To question it is to dishonor God and detract from his glory!
I much prefer “biblical personalism”—a term I borrow from Emil Brunner. I don’t agree with Brunner about everything, but he was right to take the doctrine of God back to the Bible and strip it of philosophical theism—especially attributes derived from the Greek idea of perfection. The God of the Bible is intensely personal, relational, interactive, emotional, even reactive. Or shall we throw Hosea out of the Bible? Oh, I remember—from seminary: it’s all “anthropomorphism.” There is anthropomorphism in the Bible (God does not literally have hands or eyes as we do except in the incarnation), but to attempt to explain the passions of God in Hosea (and other parts of the Bible) as all anthropomorphism is to start down the road of de-personalizing God. The end point is Tillich’s Ground of Being or Being Itself. (Of course, conservative evangelicals never arrive there, but sometimes what they say about God’s attributes leaves one cold as ice with God seeming to be unfeeling and anything but relational.)
I’ve taught Christian doctrine and systematic theology for thirty-two years now and I have one recurring experience when introducing students who grew up in evangelical Christian homes and churches and are themselves biblically literate to standard conservative evangelical teaching about God’s attributes. They usually say something like “I’ve never heard anything like that.” And often “where’s that in the Bible?” I have to agree with them that much of it is foreign to the Bible, alien to Christian experience, and spiritually deadening. How does one relate to a God “without passions?”
No doubt many conservative evangelical theologians (and others) think they are honoring God by paying him metaphysical compliments derived from Greek-inspired philosophical theology, but what they are really doing is making God very much unlike Jesus who wept, was provoked to anger, rejoiced, etc. Scholastic theology tends to say those were only possible for the Son of God in and through his humanity—as if emotions are ungodly. Interestingly, virtually all theologians who portray God as unemotional are men and men are often inclined to view emotions as feminine and therefore unworthy of God. Could it be that traditional scholastic theology is infected with a tendency to justify male aversion to emotions, especially those associated with tenderness, by denying that the God of the Bible has such emotions?
This is where narrative theology (about which I have posted here before) can be helpful. Our doctrine of God should not be derived from philosophical presuppositions about what is appropriate for the divine but should be derived primarily from the biblical story of God—beginning with Jesus Christ as the fullest revelation of God’s person and character and spreading out from there to embrace the passionate God of the Bible who dared to open himself up to pain and peace, sorrow and joy in relation to the world and who could do that because feelings and emotions are part of being personal and God is eternally personal. Having appropriate emotional feelings is part of being in the image of God whereas scholastic theology tends to portray the image of God as reason ruling over emotion, being apathetic.