The reason it is so hard to understand the Reformation confessions today – 200 years after Kant – is that the metaphysical framework in which the authors of those confessions worked has not only been lost; it is no longer even understood. What is needed is to recover the history of the development of classical Christian metaphysics.
In my last article I suggested that the infiltration of relational theism into Evangelical and confessional theology documented by James Dolezal in his book, All That is in God, is a matter of conservative theology taking on board ideas and assumptions that were widespread in 20th century liberal theology. The concept of God as being in time along with us as part of the cosmos and as being changed by the creation in a two-way relationship is a serious departure from the mainstream of classical orthodoxy as it endured from the early church fathers to the 19th century.
In the trinitarian classical theism of the Nicene Creed and the Reformation confessions God is the simple, eternal, immutable, self-existent, transcendent Creator who nonetheless speaks and acts in history in Israel and Jesus Christ. Today the doctrine of God is often historicized in such a way that God becomes part of the evolving cosmos and interacts with it in much that same way as the pagan gods of the ancient Near East did. Western theology is sinking back into the mythological conception of God that characterized Israel’s neighbours and against which the prophets polemicized.
“Immutable” and “Merciful”
This situation creates many problems. One is that many late modern theologians simply cannot make sense out of the tradition when it affirms both God’s immutability and God’s ability to act in history to judge and save. It seems contradictory to many people today to even contemplate saying such a thing. They find themselves advocating a novel concept of God in which the Divine being is composed partially of an unchanging essence and partially of a changing element. How this comports with the Westminster Confession’s statement that God is “without body, parts or passions” (WCF 2.1) is never satisfactorily addressed.
This is what I mean when I speak of the difficulty many have today in understanding the confessions of the Protestant Reformation. How can the Confession (like the 39 Articles and other Protestant confessions) speak of God as both “immutable” and also as “merciful”? How can he be “without passions” but yet “hating all sin”? It is difficult to reconcile these contradictory evaluations of the eternal being of God in himself if passions are simply attributed to God in the same way they are attributed to creatures. Sound theology contains many paradoxes, but it cannot be built on contradictions.
Classic Christian Metaphysics
Classical orthodoxy made judicious use of paradox and mystery, as well as a finely-tuned account of the creator-creature distinction, a doctrine of analogical language and careful distinctions between degrees of knowledge available to the creature both through general and special revelation. Over the centuries, particularly in the struggle to define the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation, the tradition developed certain metaphysical doctrines that enabled such distinctions and provided language in which the doctrine of God could be articulated. These metaphysical doctrines were developed primarily out of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. We could refer to a body of such metaphysical doctrines as the “metaphysics of Nicaea” or as “scholastic realism” or simply as “classical Christian metaphysics.”
The body of metaphysical doctrines to which I refer is not large, but it includes ideas that are essential to the exposition of creedal orthodoxy. For example, it includes an account of the participation of the natures of things in universals, which is what makes them the kinds of things they are. Universals are understood to be real and as ideas in the mind of God. Included in this body of metaphysical doctrine is also an understanding of existing things as created according to a rational principle by God through his Logos and therefore knowable, in principle, by the human mind because of its creation in the image of God.