Bruce Marshall on theology and philosophy

Bruce Marshall on theology’s use of philosophy

In his quaestiones on Boethius’s De Trinitate Aquinas asks, as he does on several occasions, whether “philosophical arguments and authorities” can be used in theology – “faith’s science about God.” One of the objectors observes that in scripture the wisdom of the world is often represented by water, and the wisdom of God by wine. But scripture also condemns those who mix water with wine. So we should scorn those teachers who dilute the rich wine of theology with the tepid water of philosophy.

Thomas begins his reply by seeming to refuse the objector’s gambit. A trope, even from scripture, is no basis for an argument. But never mind. Thomas finds just the right scriptural twist for his objector’s metaphor: the wedding at Cana. A mixture alters the nature of both the items mixed. But it does not count as a mixture when one of the items comes under the control of the other. “Hence those who use the works of philosophers in sacred doctrine so as to bring them into the obedience of faith do not mix water with wine, but transform water into wine.”

Thomas is a master, perhaps the master, at changing the water of worldly wisdom into the pure wine of Christian theology – bringing the best philosophy he knew into epistemic line with the Christian confession of the Trinity and the cross of Christ. But the best philosophy available to us in the year 2000 is far different, and in countless ways better, than the best philosophy available in the mid-thirteenth century. We cannot do theology in the spirit of Thomas if we use the philosophy he used. We couldn’t do so even if we though we had the wit, or the need, to make better theological wine of Aristotle and Neoplatonism than he did. We have to make our own wine out of our own water.

Of course most theologians long ago stopped thinking that Aristotle and Neoplatonism were their main philosophical challenges. Whether they have generally managed to do more with a long line of successor philosophies than produce an undrinkable mixture of water and wine is another matter. In any case the analytic tradition now dominates world philosophy. Yet against this water theologians have usually been quite reluctant to test their powers of alchemy. We prefer to perform tricks we know, on water we have brought with us to the wedding feast, whether left over from the thirteenth century or direct from the salons of Paris. The enormous stone jars the host provides we try to ignore.

One motive for the typical theological aversion to analytic philosophy no doubt lies in the suspicion that analytic philosophy is indifferent or hostile to the convictions which matter most to theologians. The philosophy we use in theology ought to have a sense of the transcendent, of ultimate meaning, of beauty, or at least ought to disdain naturalism, scientism, semanticism, or whatever. But the best philosophy is not the one which is most attractive to, or attracted by, a Christian view of the world. It’s the one with the best arguments on the matter at hand. So Thomas thinks, at any rate. He did not undertake the huge labor of turning Aristotle’s water into theological wine because he thought it the philosophy most susceptible of Christian use. On a number of crucial points – creation in time, the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will – it seemed opposed to central Christian convictions (witness the condemnation of 1277) and apparently more attractive to a rival religion (Islam). But it usually had the best arguments. The theologian’s job, he thought, was to come to grips with this philosophy, not to seek refuge in others more yielding to Christian transformation.

from “Theology after Cana,” Modern Theology, vol 16, no 4, (2000): 525-6.

On the peccability of the Church

On the peccability of the Church

A. Lesslie Newbigin

The Catholic is right in insisting that the continuity of the Church is God’s will. He is wrong when he suggests that the doing of that will is the condition of our standing in His grace. As for the individual, so also for the Church, there is only one way to be justified, and it is to say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’

from The Household of God, (SCM, 1957), 86.

B. Bruce Marshall

The unity of the church is a unity among sinners; the continuing reality of sin in the lives of all the church’s members has no bearing on the church’s unity. The currently much-debated question whether the church itself, like all the individuals in it, can be regarded as simul iustus et peccator should also, I think, be answered in the negative. That is, the church as a whole, as a community, cannot be conceived of as a sinful individual (or perhaps several such individuals) over against Christ. What makes the church to be, and so to be one (that is, to be an individual) is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church. Apart from the missions of Christ and the Spirit and the divine unity that is their gift to the church, the church is not an individual at all, and a fortiori not an individual “over against” Christ and the Spirit. Thus, it seems that while everyone in the church is an individual “over against” Christ, the church itself is not. Apart from or over against the missions of Christ and the Spirit, the church lacks that unity specific to it and constitutive of its reality as church; it is simply a collection of individuals and not the community for which Jesus prays in John 17. So if the church turns out, visibly and empirically, to be divided, this does not show (according to the stringent logic of John 17) that the church is a sinful individual over against Christ—it shows rather that the bond uniting Christ to the Father is broken, and thus that the triune God does not exist.

from “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today, vol. 50, (1993): 85-6.

C. Robert Jenson

Can simul iustus et peccator apply to the church? Luther called the church magna peccatrix, the “greatest sinner” and some Lutherans have taken this as a cue to apply the simul not only to the believers who make up the church, individually or all together, but to the church as she is a singular agent. The ecumenical protest this generates is surely justified. The church as the mother of all believers is not personally sinful nor has she ever been, however many sins may have been committed by her members in her name. Ecclesia iusta et peccatrix just does not fit the situation. The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my “old man,” my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again. There was a time, however brief, between my birth and my new birth at baptism, and this fact remains as the base of the old man’s excursions. But the church had no such time antecedent to her birth as the body of Christ. There never was an “old church” which might emerge and need to be killed again. What then of Luther’s magna peccatrix? Whatever Luther may have had in mind, the phrase can serve if taken as a christological slogan. The church is the great communal sinner in that she is the body of that Christ who “was made to be sin for us.” Christ is the magnus peccator, not because he was once a sinner but because precisely as one “without sin” he could take all history’s sin as his burden. Just so his church as his body, his available presence in the world, is the world’s great sinner not because she has any sins of her personal own but because Christ’s body of course is laden with his burden.

from Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, (ALPB, 2011): 73-4.

Bruce Marshall on theologians in a divided church

Bruce Marshall on the role of theologians in a divided church

Even in its self-inflicted suffering and want, the divided church remains Jesus Christ’s own body. He can and will give it new life from the dead, in his own good time. As we await this mysterious outworking of the Triune God’s judgment and grace, we theologians cannot save the church. But we can love it, and put our ancient craft to work in the service of Christ’s body as it is, and not as we would wish it to be. What God will make of our efforts we cannot say, and need not know. Here too, as [Ephraim] Radner reminds us (pp. 10, 354), Israel grants to the church its needed prophetic figure: “You will rise up and have compassion on Zion … For your servants love her very rubble, and are moved to pity even for her dust” (Ps. 102:13-14).

from “The Divided Church and its Theology,” Modern Theology, Vol. 16, No. 3, (2000), 395-6.