One might continue forever the soundings of the previous chapter, showing over and over again how Christian thinking is still unsuspectingly entangled in speculation and estranged from its proper theme. But it is time to widen our lens. unless we bring the sweep of history into view, even an “eternal” vigilance against the pitfalls of language will never take us beyond local corrections of the distortions we attribute to metaphysics, and these will be taken as random interferences, uninterpretable static, for only history fully reveals their systematic – Heidegger would say destinal – character. Unless they emerge from a thorough involvement with the whole story of the fusion between the worlds of biblical faith and Greek philosophy, even our positive proposals for the renewal of religious language will remain piecemeal and uncoordinated and their underlying laws cannot be clearly defined. Only when the critique of current language is enlarged to become a full-scale historical hermeneutic can we grasp the extent of the sway of metaphysics within this language and at the same time discern its counter-metaphysical potential, insofar as it continues the movement of resistance to Greek reason which has always been stirring in the texture of Christian discourse. This can be retrieved, or rejoined, when the great texts of the past are so read that their explicit metaphysical meaning is overthrown in light of their deeper, partly repressed, character as confessions of faith. Without this deconstructive confrontation with its past, faith must continue to be haunted by metaphysical ways of talking and thinking which it is unable to contest and must remain cut off from the genuinely quickening resources of its tradition, springs of eloquence too well reined in by the canons of classical reason.
[2008: Faith, of course, is not a monolith, and its varying forms throughout history will embody themselves in a variety of rational accounts engaging with the questions and path of thought of the cultural contexts. It is perhaps excessive to speak of “overthrowing” the Greek and Latin patristic account; rather its limits and vulnerabilities must be interrogated and it must be recontextualized in the broader history. A reaction against Greek reason can be something already programmed by the reason itself. Many of the debates within patristic studies since Harnack fail to win a horizon beyond the old set-ups found within the Patristic world itself; an example if Mark Edwards’s book Origen against Plato, Aldershot, 2002. A critical perspective on classical Greek reason can be found only through study of the later history of philosophy, especially post-Kantian critical thought, and through acquaintance with non-Greek traditions of thought such as those of India and China, or those of Judaism insofar as it resisted hellenization.]
Even the surest instincts of faith cannot fill in for the informed suspicion which history teaches. To use any piece of Christian terminology without knowledge of the historical conditions of its production is to be a blind participant in the semantic play of tradition, powerless to operate strategic innovations. Nor can poetic intuition in handling the language of faith do the work of a historical critique of its elements; even Hopkins, Claudel and Eliot become baroque and cumbersome when they use such words as “Incarnation.” The critique and renewal of religious language is inevitably short-circuited unless it takes the form of an historical hermeneutic. A reconstruction of the origins of dogma in the usual style would not meet this requirement. It is not the battles of Cyril and Nestorius which produced the Chalcedonian formula, but forces lying beneath what appears on the surface of ecclesiastical history. Chalcedon is historically understood only when grasped as the result of the convergence and conflict between the gospel kerygma and the Greek ontotheological project. [2008: Against those, such as J.-L. Marion or O. Boulnois, who claim that onto-theology refers only to post-Scotist or post-Cartesian systematic ontology, I note that Heidegger finds the onto-theological structure in Aristotle. Middle Platonism – the main philosophical milieu of the Fathers – is an onto-theology is that is seeks to discern the universal qualities of being as such and to ground beings as a whole in a supreme principle, archê. Origen’s systematic work, On First Principles, is the first majestic entry into Christian theology of the whole breadth of onto-theology in that he seeks an account of beings as such, in terms of spirit and freedom, and of beings as a whole, in terms of a cosmos grounded in the first principles which are the divine hypostases of Father, Son and Spirit.]
If the Christian tradition is read in depth it becomes possible to subject the language of faith to an historical differentiation carrying real critical force. Replaced in its historical context the current language is lit up as a battlefield on which faith and metaphysics are engaged in the most recent and perhaps the decisive phase of their bimillennial skirmishings. Speaking the language of faith and reflecting theologically on it then become activities fraught with historical significance in which one’s every move signals either an advance towards that freedom in communicating the biblical revelation after which theology has always secretly aspired, or a retreat into the tried and trusted categories on which faith has often been forced to fall back, exhausted. [2008 The battle metaphor can lead to crass simplification. More irenically, one appreciates the classic articulation of faith in classical metaphysical categories, and the more recent metaphysical re-articulations, discerning the limits and flaws of each, and then, with Heidegger, noting the general limits of any articulation of faith that is conceived in too close in dependence on metaphysical rationality whether classical or modern.]
There are many other historical threats besetting the language of faith, and of these too it could be said that their systematic character and the resources for resisting them which the tradition secretes can only be discovered by a historical critique. A socio-political, or a feminist, or a psychoanalytic critique or the tradition might well seem more urgent than the abstract and delicate theme we have chosen. Our theme, however, engages us with what is most directly at issue in the classical texts, the metaphysical articulation of the faith, whereas the other critiques come at these texts from unexpected quarters. [2008: That is, when the Fathers do theology scientifically, their model is metaphysics, whereas today theology is just as likely to be shaped in interaction with one of the modern human sciences.] Their questions are equally applicable to the Bible or to other religious traditions, whereas the question of metaphysics focuses a problem specific to Western theology. Thus it is not surprising that within Western theology the topic of metaphysics has long since become explicitly problematical and that a whole tradition of denouncing the hellenizing of the Gospel and seeking out the lost “essence” of Christianity provides our contemporary questioning with a rich, complex background. In comparison with the other critical approaches just mentioned the critique of metaphysics could be described as a critique from inside, and as such perhaps enjoys a central and indispensable position, guiding the other critiques to their proper targets and correcting the short-circuits to which they might be prone if left to their own devices.
But is it really necessary, it may be objected, to organize the theological overcoming of metaphysics as a historical hermeneutic? Did not Wittgenstein carry out his linguistic therapy of philosophical language by choosing his examples from contemporary discourse? Even if some of his examples came from historical sources, he made no effort to reinsert them in their historical context or to provide their genealogy. Nor did he situate his own critical project in relation to a tradition of criticism of philosophical language. He was as content with a few samples of “language on a holiday” as Cézanne was with his bowl of shrivelled apples. But whatever the methodological virtues of Wittgenstein’s bracketing of history, it is not a helpful model for the critic of the language of faith. Even the simplest element in this language is the product of a complex history from which it cannot be abstracted. When philosophers of religion sketch what they take to be an elementary, universally acceptable concept or representation of “God,” for example, their discourse carries many historical overtones of which they are unaware. To say that God is “all-powerful” or “infinite” is to commemorate some distinct and datable breakthrough in humanity’s understanding of God, and to summon up the shade of Second Isaiah or Gregory of Nyssa or whoever first articulated the attribute in question. Nor can these attributes be dehistoricized as the redness or fragrance of a rose may be. Their meaning depends on the history of their usage and cannot be independently established, either by reduction to empirical perception or by an a priori conceptual analysis. A purely conceptual construction of the notions of “omnipotence” or “infinity” would carry none of the resonance these terms have acquired in the course of their usage by believing communities [2008: none of the destinal weight that has attached to them as namings of the divine; of course some terms lose this weight, and then the abstract philosophical discussions keep them artificially alive – the cadavers of such ideas as ‘foreknowledge’ and ‘predestination’ are much dissected by analytical philosophers of religion].
Furthermore, the basic referents of Christian language are not communicated to us in perception or conception, but in the more puzzling form of historical traditions. We latch on to these, ruminate on them, and wrestle with them in a search for some secure understanding of the gracious mystery they attest. Sometimes the traditions communicate clearly and powerfully, but then a cloud passes and they become blurred, opaque, and inaccessible again. We receive, for example, the message that “God is a loving Father,” and this for a while is illuminating and liberating, and may found a general entente about the upshot of the entire tradition. But then doubts set in. Is this language sexist, anthropomorphic, psychoanalytically unsound? Is it an image from another time for a reality which can no longer be thus expressed? Because tradition never becomes totally transparent, we can maintain contact with the gracious revelation it communicates only across a constant activity of questioning and rethinking its messages. [2008: The ‘unthought’ of Scripture and tradition, the underlying events and living forces, continue to emit quanta of spiritual and intellectual radiation calling on our imaginative understanding and critical retrieval. The cult of a frozen, dead tradition, in biblical and magisterial fundamentalism, is the deepest form of heresy, or idolatry, for it blocks the process of the communication of truth and life which is the heart of tradition.]
Tradition imprisons and blinds if we take at face value its surface clarities and dogmatic certitudes, and liberates its charge of light only when we question back to the challenge of mystery which these clarities and certitudes neither explicate nor dispel. The momentous decisions of the past which have determined the sense of the terminology we use, the religious thinkers who have left their imprint on the texture of our speech, are the ghosts with which one must wrestle in undergoing a therapy of the current language of faith. Thus no discipline, other than historiography, is as necessarily and as thoroughly historical in its concerns and procedures as theology must be. The exorcism of the ghosts which haunt our language is impossible unless we track them down in their historical lair. Conversely, appreciation of the vital elements this language still manages to mediate is impossible without awareness of the historical depth of the words we use. The word “faith” itself, for example, would be very depleted if one forgot that contemporary faith is received from a long line of historical witnesses stretching back to Abraham, so that the word unavoidably names not a purely inward, but a historical achievement.
The Tradition of the Question
Even the project of overcoming metaphysics in theology has a historical depth peculiarly its own, for it is implicated in the tradition of protest [2008: shades of a false etymology here], originating with Luther, which consciously and explicitly opposed faith to metaphysics, the original Gospel to its hellenization in dogma and patristic Platonism, the God of Abraham to the God of the philosophers. It is fuelled by the pathos of these oppositions, though aware of their hermeneutical limitations as they have become apparent over the centuries. It retrieves and enriches this critical tradition by deploying the passion of faith which sustained it in a more sophisticated way, engaging the texture of metaphysical theology from within, lodging subversively in its text, instead of wasting time on external strictures. It is true that many theologians have tended to view the contrasts between Hebraism and Hellenism, revelation and reason, the “essence of Christianity” and its dogmatic overlay, as tendentious simplifications and see the quest for a dehellenization of Christianity as a romantic tilting at windmills. Nevertheless the problematic explored by the dehellenizing tradition has not gone away. On the contrary, it has continued to ferment and thicken, bursting the simple frameworks in which it was first apprehended, and in more subtle guise it can continue to serve as the chief topic of a hermeneutics of Christian tradition. The old slogans of opposition have lost validity only as fixed theses, but they may still serve as signposts for directions of critical thinking, for lines of inquiry which can be kept sufficiently flexible, inventive and open-ended to match the complexity of the bimillennial interplay between faith and metaphysics. No simple thesis, pro- or anti-metaphysical, can be adequate to the endless questions this history suggests. Instead a method of historical reflection is required which can articulate and develop each of the hunches, misgivings, or queries that come to the surface as we live through the crisis the tradition and prompt us to reassess and reinterpret it. If a hermeneutical method of adequate complexity is developed, the crisis of metaphysical theology will no longer be experienced as a situation of disarray or an occasion for pseudo-prophetic polemic, but as the matrix of a constantly increasing lucidity.
Psychoanalysts compare the psyche to a black box emitting fragmentary messages from one corner. What goes on inside that box remains impenetrably obscure. History too can never be reconstructed; its opacity far outweighs the partial insights it suggests. Yet each major turning of the road opens up intriguing new vistas in the landscape behind us. The turning which the closure of metaphysics brings about in the history of faith implies an overturning of rigid models of what that history has been, a discovery of the questionability of the past. The first two millennia of Christianity come to appear as a great experiment whose failures are as significant and as instructive as its successes. At a religious level this has been translated as a realization of the “sinfulness” of the Church, but at the level of concrete historical self-understanding it is better to use the Heideggerian term “errance” to describe the fateful and unavoidable limitations which the consignment of the Gospel to the cultural milieu of Western metaphysics imposed.
The Christian tradition is coming to terms with its mistakes, insofar as time has made them visible, and this unprecedented reflexive process, though experienced as painful and rather devastating, also returns to us our past as a richer source of instruction than it was ever allowed to be previously. The past is no longer an impediment to new thinking, but a practice ground for the endless task of discerning what is authentically Christian from what turns out to be a deviation or a dead end. Methods of probing analysis must be developed to discover deeper levels of the sense of the messages the black box of history emits. Surface chronicles are rightly regarded as of little theological interest, since only rare fragments of the past discourse of Christianity can engage directly the questions of contemporary faith. The marketing of past luminaries as “relevant” is generally an inept enterprise, and the idea that one can read the answer to present problems in the pages of Gregory of Nyssa or Maximus the Confessor is a willful mystification. But a depth-reading of these authors, as exemplifying both the promise and the failure of metaphysical Christianity, can indeed help contemporary faith find a more adequate articulation of its identity.
I say that the explicitly counter-metaphysical tradition within Christianity originates with Luther, because, despite his precedents in the anti-Aristotelean Augustinian theologians of the preceding centuries and in the German mystics, Luther’s opposition of the Bible and Aristotle has an implicit historical depth that makes it a qualitative leap beyond medieval critiques of metaphysics. His sense of the radical alterity of the Word of God pitted him implicitly against the whole Western tradition in a sharp collision which has no precedent and which does not seem to have been experienced at the same depth by any theologian since. In this century the influence of dialectical theology has caused Lutheran theologians to rediscover the theologia crucis of the Reformer, but very often their interpretation of it has run contrary to his intentions, and they have presented him as proposing a subtler “metaphysics of the cross” to replace faded Aristotelean notions. Moltmann, for instance, attempts to sublate Luther’s utterances into his own speculative kenoticism. This metaphysical complacency is scarcely the key to a deeper understanding of the greatest theological opponent of metaphysics. Instead we should, it seems to me, be ready to substitute the words “Western reason” wherever Luther writes “Aristotle.” Thus we might translate Thesis 29 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) – “Qui sine periculo volet in Aristotele Philosophari, necesse est ut ante bene stultificetur in Christo” (WA 1.355) – as saying, “If one wishes to think in terms of Western reason without danger, it is necessary that one first become fully foolish in Christ.” The radical implications of Luther’s thought are even clearer if we translate in these terms Thesis 44 of the Disputation against Scholastic Theology of 1516. “Theologus non fit nisi id fit sine Aristotele” (WA 1.226) then signifies: “One does not become a theologian unless one does so without Western reason,” unless one steps outside the historical limitations of metaphysics.
Luther had a fine ear for the incompatibility of philosophical and biblical diction. In order to bring out the originality and specificity of the Word of God he sometimes toys with a biblical text, telling us first what a scholastic philosophizing theologian would make of it, and then allowing the biblical word to show up this interpretation as “folly.” In discussing Psalm 1:1, “Happy the man..,” Luther presents not only hedonism, but, still more, the philosophical views which root happiness in virtue, as miserable and futile in contrast to the power of the biblical word (Operationes in Psalmos 1518-1521, ad loc., in Archiv zur Weimarer Ausgabe, I). His best argument against metaphysical theology was to replace it with a deeply felt biblical dialectic, a sapientia crucis derived from the prophets and St. Paul. Insofar as he addresses metaphysics directly it is rarely in order to argue with it. Instead he practices a prophetic discernment of the relative unreality and frivolity of metaphysical language when measured against the elemental concerns of the struggle of faith. Metaphysics, for Luther, is not confined to scholasticism. In 1521 he could write “If my soul hates the homoousion and refuses to make use of it, this does not make me a heretic”; “Quod si odit anima mea vocem homousion, et nolim ea uti, non ero haereticus” (WA 8.117). His distaste for metaphysics might have carried him very far in the direction of radicalism. But as in many other areas it was tempered by a retreat to more conservative positions as the years advanced.
Luther’s vast biblical culture provided him with a rich and secure basis for developing a language of faith independent of metaphysics. After him theologians either fell back into scholastic methods of ordering Christian truth, or protested against metaphysics in the name of other forms of metaphysics rather than on the strength of a comparable encounter with the Word of God. Thus one may suspect that Pascal’s focus on the God of Abraham is a narrow one, shaped by a metaphysics of subjectivity, and his opposition to Descartes implies only a change of texture, from the rational lucidity of the cogito to the existential lucidity of the heart. Both thinkers order the cosmos around the subject. The biblical material which Pascal marshals is rather thin, and is arranged more often than not within the structures of a rationalistic apologetics. Similarly, the pietism and “enthusiasm” of the eighteenth century produced critiques of metaphysical theology which lack a primarily biblical basis. Here the opposition is between an enlightenment of the reason and an illuminism of the emotions. This, too, is an intra-metaphysical opposition. Whatever independent biblical or pneumatic inspiration lies behind it is so shaped by the metaphysical topos of emotion versus reason, intuition versus concept, that its original character is effaced. Thus it appears that Luther was able to recover the authentic language of faith and to free it from metaphysics far more effectively than was possible within the narrow horizons of the following centuries, when the struggle between faith and metaphysics was whittled down to the narrow dimensions of the debate between fideism and rationalism. (The discussion of the rivalry between faith and “insight” in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind might be reworked, from a vantage point opposed to Hegel’s, in terms of a theological interpretation of the history of faith.)
Indeed it may be that the vision of Luther was too vast and too original to be fully received by those who came after him, and that even we today are too much prisoners of metaphysical criteria of rationalism and irrationalism to be able to make his language our own. The matter is complicated by the fact that Luther’s own polemical stances only imperfectly express the upheaval that is afoot in his texts, and which only a deconstructive reading can fully retrieve. A theology able to listen to Luther and catch these significant overtones in his writing would need to be just as free from metaphysics as Luther was, just as sensitively immersed in the texture of scriptural thinking, and just as honestly and eloquently in touch with those resources of language and life experience which can give the Gospel a contemporary tongue. Such a theology could claim to understand Luther better than he understood himself, clearing away the residual confusion noted by Kierkegaard when he opined that Luther “is an exceedingly important patient for Christendom, but he is not the physician” (Soren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, III, ed. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Indiana UP, 1975, p. 101). The Lutheran volcano is not extinct. Might we not hope that its next eruption will unite the Church, where it first divided it? This volcano is nothing other than the latent power of the biblical word within the texture of Christian discourse. The glib biblicism of our preaching and teaching nowadays is no proof that we have been shaken by the power of that word, may indeed be the most effective of defenses against such a happening. That is why Luther is so important, as the chief of the very few historical figures who were so shaken, who represent breaches in our culture through which the biblical word has been able to penetrate. Such figures are irreplaceable sources for the renovation of our language of faith, which takes place as a continuation of the history they inaugurate, building on their success, and learning from their failures. They facilitate that jolt from outside without which no deconstructive strategy can get underway.
The discipline of church history was born amid the controversies of the Counter-Reformation as the Centuriators of Magdeburg and Cardinal Baronius tried to colonize the past for their respective denominations. The widening of the historical debate to include a questioning of the basic value for faith of the dogmatic work of the early Church seems at first to have occurred only in a marginal and sporadic way. The researches of the Jesuit Denis Pétau inspired the Unitarian Souverain to denounce the Platonism of the Fathers as the source of all the errors enshrined in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but his evidence of subordinationism in the Ante-Nicene Fathers was stolidly “refuted” by the Anglican Bishop George Bull, and whatever discussions it helped to stimulate on the development of doctrine were on the whole, as Owen Chadwick’s entertaining chronicle reveals, rather timid and academic (From Bossuet to Newman, Cambridge UP, 1957).
Only in the nineteenth century did these critical questions about the dogmatic achievements of the early Church leap into life as major theological issues. On the one hand the Romantic cult of interiority and the return to immediate feeling lent a new depth of significance to the quest for the “essence of Christianity” (see H. Wagenhammer, Das Wesen des Christentums, Mainz, 1974). In the work of Schleiermacher in particular an effort is made to see the dogmatic language of the Church as the formalization of a basic religious experience (the feeling of utter dependence, the sense of being redeemed), and to formulate a critique of that language insofar as it objectifies and externalizes the meaning of that experience in an inappropriate way. “The ecclesiastical formulae concerning the Person of Christ need to be subjected to continual criticism. The ecclesiastical formulae are, on the one hand, products of controversy, in that, although the original consciousness was the same in all, yet the thought expressive of it took different forms” (The Christian Faith, New York, 1963, p. 389). “Dogmatic was overloaded with a multitude of definitions, which have absolutely no other relation to the immediate Christian self-consciousness than that indicated by the history of controversy” (p. 390). On the other hand the sense of historicity which emerged after the French Revolution and found consummate expression in Hegel conferred new speculative interest on the data of church history. F. C. Baur presented the early history of dogma as reflecting the dialectical interplay of the Petrine and Pauline (Hebraic and Hellenic) principles, and concepts of an organic development of Christian truth began to take shape on the Catholic side in the work of J.A. Möhler. Clearly what took place in this period was less an overcoming than a rejuvenation of metaphysics, the importation of the grandiose speculative perspectives of idealism into the presentation of the Christian faith and its history.
Yet in theology as in poetry, Romanticism cannot be reduced to its metaphysical dimensions. The Romantic movement was also one of return to phenomenality, however much that return was waylaid by the fascinating abstractions of Love, Life, Beauty, the Absolute, or Nature. In comparison with the eighteenth century theologians, those of the early nineteenth century can be seen as recapturing the mysterious and unique character of faith and revelation. If these thinkers tend to add Faith and Revelation to the list of capitalized abstractions mentioned above, if they do not yet have the more precise sense of their existentiality found in Kierkegaard and Newman, or the critical philosophical and historical grasp of their relationships with Greek metaphysics which Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack first attained, still it is from the new impulse Romanticism gave to theology that the quest for the basic message of Christianity has drawn much of its vitality ever since. Here is another promising terrain for a deconstructive reading, which would also be a salutary deconstruction of whatever Romantic instincts are still lodged in the bosom of theologians today.
If the quest for the essence of Christianity has a fatal attraction for the Romantic “beautiful soul,” one against which the present project must be on guard, nonetheless it may be possible to focus the residue of validity which the quest for the essence of Christianity still retains, despite the realization which became increasingly unavoidable in the subsequent history of the tradition we are examining, namely that there is no such thing as an essence of Christianity which is historically identifiable. Harnack’s attempt to locate it in Jesus’ teaching of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity ran aground on the rediscovery of the eschatological character of Jesus’ preaching by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, and this seemed much too foreign to modern ears to be presented as the essence of Christianity. Nor has Ernst Käsemann’s effort to establish a Pauline “canon within the canon” any better chances of success, for Paul cannot be ripped out of the historical context of the debate between him and his predecessors and successors (see R. L. Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings, GardenCity, NY, 1971). The claim that any historical individual can incarnate the essence of Christianity, or of anything else, is bound to be an arbitrary imposition. From the start Judaism and Christianity are caught up in a complex self-critique, which is why some see the Bible as “a handbook of religious pathology.” The authentic form of the faith has always been something to be constructed, though the work of construction often proceeded under the sign of recovery. Judaism and Christianity have constantly been reinventing themselves and every effort to establish an eternal essence of either has resulted in a form of idolatry – the idolatry of Law diagnosed by Paul, the idolatry of the “dogmatic system” from which Roman Catholicism is beginning to recover, the possible idolatry of an abstract and disembodied Word of God in dialectical theology. We never securely possess the essence of Christianity, not even as a regulative idea guiding efforts at renewal. Instead of an essence there is the historical sequence of Christian ways of life, bearing a “family resemblance” to one another.
When the vitality of Christian faith is low the Church continues to practice obsolete forms of religious life which are no longer a convincing embodiment of the Gospel. Perhaps idolatry is usually nothing more than a clutching at gods in which we no longer really believe, the worship of stale gods rather than false ones, a failure in imagination, a fidelity which has lost its original motive. If so it may perhaps have been as a perpetual antidote against it that we were given an unfinished Gospel, a sketch to be redrawn again and again rather than the complete and authoritative exposition dogmatic Christianity so long attempted to provide. In contesting metaphysical theology, then, we should not set up one essence against another, as Schleiermacher and Harnack tended to do. Instead we should rather see the metaphysical epoch of Christianity as taking its place in the series of historical inventions of Christianity, as the epoch in which it tried to have an essence, and eventually conducted crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, and religious wars in the effort to establish that essence. The Christianity which interpreted itself as essence we can retrospectively interpret as invention, and thus be freed for our own invention of Christianity. Liberation theology, for instance, is such an invention, though tempted to mistake itself for an essence. There is strong biblical warrant for this theology, but it is not necessary for it to claim to have tapped the essence of the biblical message. Instead it is the strongest interpretation of Scripture for this time, and like all such interpretations it does not hesitate implicitly or explicitly to correct many of the emphases in the biblical text. To correct the letter by the spirit is an essential task of any vital scriptural hermeneutic. In the epoch of metaphysical theology this process was cast in metaphysical form, as the provision of Scripture with its rational foundations, or the elicitation of hints of spiritual reality from its material indications. Now retrospectively we can see this metaphysical hermeneutics too as a form of the reinvention of the biblical message. The sensus plenior of Scripture is not a hidden Platonic essence, but the semantic play it generates when reinterpreted in the Spirit in light of successive historical conjunctures.
Harnack’s History of Dogma is the most mature and richly documented expression of nineteenth century misgivings about the dogmatic tradition, and it still provides the framework for discussion of the problem of hellenization today. We chronicle previous discussions of the topic towards Harnack as their term and trace present discussions back to him as their origin. Newman’s Essay on Development holds an analogous position in regard to the narrower topic of the development of doctrine. It is because they combine constant sobriety of judgment with an overall tendentiousness that both works have exerted a stimulating influence for so long. Newman might be counted as a counter-metaphysical thinker, since his principal concern was to sight certain basic elements of the world of faith, and he systematically avoided a speculative approach in favour of empirical observation and rhetorical argumentation. He had, however, no conception of the critical work to be done on the metaphysical fabric of patristic theology, and whenever he broaches central dogmas, such as that of the Incarnation, the metaphysical texture of his statements about them clashes with the usual suppleness of his prose and cannot be integrated with his usual themes.
Harnack, less conditioned by specifically ecclesiastical concerns, is extremely clearsighted in his grasp of the historical texture of dogma, and surely the most illuminating remark ever made on the subject is that “Dogma, in its conception and development, is a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel” (History of Dogma, London, 1905, I, p. 17). Unfortunately his proposals for the overcoming of dogma sound like counsels of defeat, tinged with the positivism and skepticism of the period. Similar sentiments, allied with a Schleiermacherian cult of religious experience and an evolutionist ideology, also vitiated the Modernists’ valiant struggle with dogma. A due sense of the rational force of metaphysics and the necessity of the decisions made by the early Church in articulating the Gospel within a metaphysical framework, and a sharper focusing of the texture of biblical faith, insofar as one can oppose it to its hellenization, would enrich and correct Harnack’s project more than any new increment of historical information can.
It may also be the case that the biblical roots of dogma are deeper than Harnack thought, and that dogma can largely be interpreted as the Church’s defense of the Gospel against its radical hellenization at the hands of Modalists, Subordinationists, Monophysites, and others who sought to impose a tighter systematic unity on the Christian message. Catholic apologists have seized on this idea in order to refute Harnack, but to my mind this is to miss deeper bearing of Harnack’s thesis, namely the realization that the categories used by the Church in its battle with heresy would be impossible and incomprehensible in any other than a Greek culture, and that these categories became fused with the gospel truths they were used to defend, with the result that Christianity henceforth presented a new visage to the world, acquiring the character of a dogmatic edifice.
Catholic theologians continue to claim, with Pope Leo I, that the great Councils used technical terms not in a philosophical way, but, like the Apostles, piscatorie – as fishermen – and some would claim that these terms are immediately transparent expressions of the faith, which cannot become obsolete or inaccessible. This view fails to account for the immense difference between the horizon of biblical faith, even that of the Fourth Gospel, so important for patristic and conciliar theology, and the horizon in which divine being is explicated with the aid of the categories of substance and hypostasis. The Bible never defines. Its apparent definitions, e.g., “God is light” (I John 1:5), have nothing to do with the Platonic or Aristotelean notions of logos or horismos, but articulate contemplative or prophetic breakthroughs to a new level of understanding. The Councils in contrast, which took place in an Empire for which definition was not only theoretically but practically important, attempt very earnestly to define the contours of Christian orthodoxy, at first as a practical measure (to exclude heresy and canonize sound teaching) but increasingly as a speculative one too, as the intrinsic dynamics of the language they used forced them on to further clarifications. Here is only one of the many ways in which Harnack’s hellenization-thesis continues to point towards the historical differentiations which must be elaborated if one is to make sense of Christian tradition.
Efforts to spell out the differences between the Greek and Hebrew mentalities may often have been jejune and over-schematic. But critics of these efforts should seek subtler differentiations, instead of dismissing the differences as illusory or unimportant. The direction in which Harnack’s analyses were moving is one which theologians do ill to neglect. Much of the stagnancy of patristic scholarship is due to a harmonious reading of the Fathers which glides over the tensions between their biblical and their Hellenic heritages, tensions which the questioning of contemporary faith enables us to perceive more clearly than ever before. Subsequent scholarship has not gone beyond Harnack in any essential way. It has refuted details, neglecting the main argument. A major contribution like Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition (London, 1975), for example, basks in the contemplation of the development of the patristic categories, never querying their philosophical provenance or formulating any fundamental critical questions about their adequacy to the biblical revelation, though admitting that “the demand for a complete reappraisal of the Church’s belief in Christ right up to the present day is an urgent one” (p. 557). Of course, the complexity of the historical material to be disentangled makes it difficult for a scholar to sustain at the same time a critical question to the tradition. The gap this leaves is filled by unscholarly generalizations on the part of the systematic theologians, both those who use Chalcedon as a launching pad for speculation and those who treat it as a disposable christological “model.” Thus the trail that Harnack blazed remains to this day untrodden.
Much of twentieth century theology has been a reaction against liberalism (Barth) or modernism (Neo-scholasticism) and this has implied a blindness to Harnackian insights in the field of history of dogma and a refusal to face up to the critical historical questions to which dogma is exposed. Theories of the development of dogma or of its function in attesting to the Word of God continued to envision dogma as part of the essential structure of the Church rather than as the product of a certain historical epoch, and one which, within that epoch, assumed a pluralistic variety of forms. Where Harnack came close to seeing the finite, human, historical contours of the dogmatic achievement of the Church, twentieth century theologians regressed to an ahistorical viewpoint, thinking away from Harnack’s disturbing questions in the direction of a speculative elaboration of the dogmatic données. That speculative quest was built on foundations of sand, and its failure forces us to think back to the historical questions posed by Harnack and to think deeper into them than he himself was able to do.
After the speculative trinitarian theologies of Barth, Rahner, Lonergan, Mühlen, Moltmann, Jüngel andBourassa, it is a relief and a refreshment to return to the basic questions none of them confront, to a sifting of the very elements of classical trinitarian language with a view to reducing those elements to their experiential foundation. Experiential? Yes, for insofar as the original language of Father, Son, and Spirit was an articulation of the community’s experience of the Risen Christ (and not a set of revealed propositions), it must be possible to recall the later dogmatic language to this foundation in experience, to a language in immediate interplay with experience, a language of naming rather than one of definition. It is at this level that the sense of the terms “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” is lodged and every effort at ulterior definitions will lose that sense unless constantly checked against the original biblical naming. Without the historical insights of Harnack there is no possibility of carrying out this checking. Dogma has established so powerfully its claim to be nothing more and nothing less than the rational foundation of the biblical data that it can be surmounted only by the most searching examination of its birth certificate, one which keeps in mind the Hellenic origin of the very idea of a “rational foundation.” It is only as the bankruptcy of the above-named theologians’ efforts to shore up the rational foundations of revelation becomes apparent that the views of Harnack begin to resume some of their former influence and resonance and the flight from the painful task of a genealogical critique of dogma is once again brought to a halt. Why should the return to elements be so painful and speculation so soothing? For the same reason, no doubt, that revolution is painful, or thinking, or prayer, a fear of vulnerability to the other or to the unknown, a fear of living.
The fear just mentioned has in our metaphysical Christian culture taken the form of a fear of Judaism and Jews. The step back out of metaphysical theology is a step towards the Jewish matrix of all our theology. Even a radically biblical theologian of the stature of Barth shows little openness to this repressed Jewish dimension of Christian theology. That is why his biblicism never escapes the mustiness of an ecclesiastical and academic stylization to recover the Hebraica veritas, and why from this stilted vantage point he can propound such theses as that it was the monotheism of Israel which crucified Jesus and that “like the monotheism of Islam (its later caricature), it is simply the supreme example, the culmination and completion of the disobedience which from the beginning constituted the human side of the dealings of the one and only God with his chosen people” (Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 453). Many such doctrinaire posturings would have been eliminated automatically had Barth kept his thought in subjection to a respectful dialogue with Judaism (and Islam). Ecclesiastical biblicism does not provide the jolt from outside needed to spark off a radical rereading of Christian tradition. The diction in which Luther and Calvin articulated their experience of being struck by the Word of God becomes a screen against any such experience when it is imitated by the ecclesiastical biblicist. The encounter with Judaism, on the other hand, exposes one to the biblical message as carried by a tradition which is independent of all the structures of ecclesiastical culture, and which, negated by them for so long, calls all these structures in question. It is thus perhaps in the renewal of Jewish-Christian dialogue that the counter-metaphysical protest of the last four or five centuries is carried forward most radically today. As long as the Word of God remains merely a text we are unlikely to allow it to unsettle our metaphysical identity in any basic way. But when we open to the call of the other in the give and take of dialogue the defensive character of our metaphysical self-definitions may become apparent and we may see, far more clearly than any text could make us see, what transformation of thinking is needed for us to shed our metaphysical identities and “discern the way” of biblical faith in a more elementary and authentic form (see P. M. Van Buren, Discerning the Way, New York, 1980).
Faith as Deconstructive Principle
What conclusions can we draw from these centuries of unease with the hellenistic metaphysical form Christianity has taken? It is evident, I think, that the questions raised by this tradition of protest cannot be dismissed, and that it would be a mistake for the Church to confuse the defense of faith with the defense of its metaphysical embodiment. But neither can the questions raised be easily resolved, either through some higher speculative conciliation of biblical and philosophical, or through some simple dismissal of metaphysics. Instead one must raise these questions to a new level of methodological clarity and complexity. This can be done, on the one hand, through drawing on the critical resources of such thinkers as Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger in order to focus more clearly the intrinsic limits and perils of metaphysical language and thus provide a firmer theoretical basis for one’s sense of its inadequation to faith. On the other hand, one can pursue the historical trail backward to the very first appearance of metaphysical Christianity, in order to discover there in a latent form the same discontent with metaphysics which becomes explicit in Luther. Of course that discontent remained at an incubatory stage for many centuries. Only when the full power of metaphysics to rob Christian discourse of its reality had become apparent in late scholasticism could Luther form his clear diagnosis of metaphysics as an alienation. Nonetheless there is from the start a certain conscious or unconscious tension between the language of faith and that of metaphysics; it is by working along the fault lines this tension leaves in the classical Christian texts that we can hope to split the tradition open, allowing its repressed counter-metaphysical potential to emerge. The protest against metaphysical theology comes to fruition in a new way when a subtler philosophical grasp of the functioning of metaphysical language permits this more intimate deconstruction of the tradition, in which faith seeks out its own authentic voice in the texts of the past, overcoming the language of metaphysical reason which forever threatens to stifle it.
In short, both the critique of metaphysical theology stemming from Luther and the crisis of metaphysical reason articulated by philosophers since Kant light up retrospectively an historic flaw running right through the theological tradition, a tug of war between the Greek Logos and the faith of Abraham. That Logos has not become inwardly questionable for the Fathers of the Church as it has for us, nor did they feel, as Luther did, its foreignness to the world of biblical faith. So confident were they in building up their metaphysical account of the faith that their first step was to identify Christ himself with the Logos of philosophy. Despite this optimism, however, the inner difficulties of the project of conquering the empire of metaphysics for the Gospel began to emerge in the form of threatening heresies, and in subtler forms, which our vantage point allows us to interpret more searchingly than was possible for the Fathers themselves.
The history of theology is not a series of contingent failures to articulate faith adequately. Criticism of tradition cannot be satisfied with a series of local corrections – of Justin’s subordinationist Christology, Augustine’s pessimism, Origen’s spiritual elitism, and so on – but must systematically confront the pattern underlying the inadequacy of the language of Christian theology to its theme. This pattern is the predominance of metaphysics in the mental world of the Fathers and their successors, a pattern reinforced by the breakdown of relations between Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries. A deconstructive view of the history of Christian theology need only take as its theme the constant, ever-varying, tension between faith and the metaphysical horizons of thought in which it was forced to find expression, in order to reveal the secret splendor of this history as the history of faith maintaining its identity in exile. If one attends to the thread of faith running through its tapestry one finds that the history of Christian theology witnesses against itself. Tensions and contradictions in the text between the explicit statements and its implicit attitude of faith are what the deconstructionist looks for failles or clefts which allow the apparently monolithic discourse of the classical theologian to be prised open so that two orientations may be differentiated in the text, one tending to construct a metaphysical edifice in which elements of faith lose their original contours under the mighty spell of the Greek Logos, the other representing a biblically inspired resistance to this development. Any Christian theologian who deserves to be called a classic may be expected to show this ancient tension between Athens and Jerusalem in some form, and to show it textually, allowing wider scope for deconstructionist detective work.
The deconstructionist theologian must beware of received interpretations of the classic Christian texts, which invariably mask the original tension of faith seeking expression in a treacherous medium, and petrify the troubled life of the text into a set of stable opinions. Just as the sense of a Platonic dialogue is lost when one reads it in relation to “the philosophy of Plato,” the set of opinions attributed to him, rather than as an enactment of philosophical questioning as a living process, so the sense of a theological work is lost when one focuses on the doctrines and theologoumena it contains (even neglecting the fact that these doctrines, later fixed, may have been in the process of formation at the time of composition) rather than on the movement of faith seeking expression which provides the motivating intention of the text. It is not that the theologian has access to any homogeneous entity called “the intention of faith,” for the component that might be so designated has a different form in each of the great texts, a form which has to be discerned anew in every case. It takes the flair of the philosopher to discern the basic movement of philosophical questioning in the texts of Plato and it takes the flair of a believer to uncover the movement of faith behind the complex procedures of a great theological text. The tension of a contemporary faith which wrestles with the received forms of tradition provides the necessary pre-understanding for grasping an analogous tension of faith in the ancient text and for building a deconstructive interpretation on that tension. The theologian’s ongoing interrogation of the language of his or her own faith is what enables insight into the latent questions in the ancient texts. It is disappointing when scholars undiscriminatingly repeat the questions of the texts they study instead of penetrating the texture of those texts to uncover in them more radical questions which the ancient authors themselves were not able to formulate.
Of course this ambition of understanding the ancient authors better than they understood themselves will encounter objections like that of Paul de Man, who claims that a critic who thinks he or she is demystifying a literary text is in reality being demystified by the text itself (see P. Bové, Destructive Poetics, Columbia UP, 1980). There is some truth in this view, although it underestimates the degree to which the explicitation of the unconscious meaning of the classical texts can be wrested from them only by a violent jolt such as the crises of metaphysics provide. When we cease to treat hallowed theological texts with the devotional or aesthetic complacency of the unquestioning scholar we find that the text itself contains elements of a self-critical awareness which goes half way to meet its critic. The deconstruction of tradition is thus a continuation in more radical style of the critical activity of faith already operative in the tradition itself. The texts of tradition collude with the contemporary believer who would overcome their metaphysical dimension, just as the texts of Scripture collude with the contemporary demythologizer. The theologian’s ally in each case is the specificityof faith insofar as it is beyond both myth and metaphysics. The wound that contemporary crises of understanding inflict on tradition, making it seem remote and useless, is thus convertible into a process of healing wherein tradition comes into its own in a new way, bearing witness in its newly recognized brokenness and finitude to the same spirit of faith which underlies our own more complicated questioning. As the monolith is shattered, the human history behind us emerges in its true contours and allows us to place ourselves as continuators of our quest. The critic of tradition is the true friend of tradition, freeing it from forgetfulness (whether its own or that imposed by its interpreters) of its true theme, revealing again, as its defensive embalmers cannot, that it is at heart a tradition of faith.
A quality of faith which both inspires and is made more clearly manifest by the deconstructive hermeneutics of tradition is its finitude. Faith is always the faith of a mortal human being at a particular time and place in a determinate relation to a concrete historical tradition. The metaphysical structuration of faith causes it to forget its finitude, giving it a discourse for all times and places, rendered autonomous in regard to the community and its praxis. The reduction of dogmatic metaphysical propositions about God to their true status as context-dependent confessions of faith, which have concrete meaning only in relation to the historical tradition which forms, and continually reinterprets them, is an important move in the overcoming of metaphysical theology, one which contradicts the apparent intention of dogmatic formulae to express truth in a purely objective manner. Of course, this metaphysical myth of pure objectivity is partly something retrospectively projected on the formulae of the early church by scholastic theology in the Middle Ages and still more so in the post-Cartesian period. The dogmas of Nicea and Chalcedon are far more “confessional” in texture and intention than ever appears from their use in manuals of theology, gestures of faith born of the tensions of a given historical situation, whose meaning is quite unabstractable from that concrete context. The sense of Nicea and Chalcedon today is the pertinence of the memory of that former finite context to our own finite context. There is no transfinite context in which we can abstract a sense in these Councils which history cannot touch. To realize this is to inject an incalculable element of irony into our dealings with these and other canonized expressions of faith. Massive exercises in an effort at direct communication about an infinite object, these expressions in reality communicate to the contemporary believer only indirectly, opaquely, eliciting a subterranean complicity of faith rather than a straightforward repetition. The formulae are tripped up by the finitude and historicity of their texture, and they can continue to remain effective vehicles of faith, and to refer to the object of faith, only when used by the contemporary community with an ironic awareness that what they intend to say cannot be said in the way they attempt. We have the same ironic relationship to all our inherited religious language, including that of the Psalms. Whether we say “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:9) or “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” we know that we are dealing with limited historical gestures from the past which serve only obscurely as icons of our present reaching out in faith. To cultivate such ironic awareness might seem subversive of faith and of the objectivity of the reference of the language of faith. But a realistic examination of the conditions of that language forces one to the opposite conclusion: suppress irony and you have suppressed the true referentiality of the language of faith; enforce the old-style directness of utterance and you have struck faith dumb.
How clearly Christians are able to see the human limits of the religious language of the Koran and the Talmud, or even, when the veil of an allegorical vision is lifted, that of the Hebrew Bible! How readily they will admit that the sense of this language can be fully grasped only from its social context, that the faith it expresses is mediated by a contingent historical system of representations which it would take the skills of an anthropologist to reconstruct! The irreducible pluralism and difference of religious cultures must bring with it an ineluctable deferral of the directness of reference each of these cultures has naively claimed for its language of faith. Christians too are caught in this maze of indirectness, though they are often as slow to see this in their own case as they are quick to see it inthe case of others. Without full realization of the severe historical limits imposed on every religious discourse and a constant humbling awareness of the finite, broken, imperfect, sinful, stumbling, and provisional texture of all religious expression past or present, theology is in danger of becoming bloated and unwholesome, forgetting that it rests on faith and that even the most sacrosanct dogmas and scriptures are no more in their concrete texture than groping, finite, human articulations of that faith. Claims to inspiration and infallibility ring quite false when they mask this.
When theologians think back into the finitude of the tradition of faith, instead of thinking away from it, there occurs a renewal similar to that which is achieved when philosophy reroots itself in its basic attitude of questioning. The true grandeur of tradition as a history of faith comes to light, the grandeur of the struggle of sinful and erring believers for the authenticity of their faith. This battle for fidelity takes a new form in every epoch and is never won by a passive retention of the deposit of faith. Orthodoxy, like art, exists only as a struggle to realize vision. The vision is always revision and lives only as born of struggle. When the struggle ceases the deadness of the museum descends on its products, until an equally energetic interpretative response brings them to a new kind of life in the context of a later struggle. Theological tradition lives only as stirred from within or from without by the essential concerns and questions of faith. If the Spirit moves in tradition, to inspire or to preserve from error, it is plausible to believe that his movement is mediated through these concerns and questions. An indiscriminate hallowing of all the elements of tradition blinds us to the pneumatic stirrings in its texture. These are detected only in the ironic and irreverent play of faith with the languages it has received.
Faith as a critical principle, then, subverts everything in the past that is no longer a viable embodiment of faith. In doing so it may liberate treasures of faith hidden in the past but which had become inaccessible to us because of the screening effect of the metaphysical systems in which these treasures were deposed. If we follow the critical hunches of our contemporary faith with confidence, despite the fact that these hunches often come in the negative form of doubts, we can link up with the hidden theme of the tradition, the secret history of faith, which gives vivid human contours to what otherwise seems a history of alienation. Of course, our faith must itself be sustained by the tradition, and our critique of tradition must always be translatable into the terms of the tradition’s own critique of itself. Otherwise the prophetic hermeneutic of faith degenerates into mere iconoclastic violence. But if faith is the critical agent we need not fear to “theologize with a hammer,” delicately sounding all the hollow spots in the walls of traditional edifices, and occasionally shattering sacred monuments which block the access of faith to its theme.
Conditions of a Hermeneutic’from Faith to Faith”
The method I have been recommending could be called a hermeneutic “from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:17). It presumes that the classical texts, despite the hold of ontotheology, can best be interpreted as witnesses of faith and that faith is never utterly alienated in its metaphysical form, so that there is always something for the believer to read when she approaches the texts of metaphysical theology with an eye to their meaning for faith. It presumes also that it is the reader’s own faith which lights up the contemporary sense of the ancient texts. All of this may well be regarded as an idealist simplification of the problems of hermeneutics today, so we shall attempt to test it here by reflecting on the conditions it must meet.
First of all, is it linguistically viable to speak of “faith” in the way we have? Are we appealing to some supernatural principle superior to and untouched by the range of historical languages in which the word “faith” occurs? Yet theology clearly has no access to any identification of faith not already couched in one of these languages, nor can it abstract a univocal definition of faith from the plurality of the historical senses of the word. It is a multi-storied word, in the sense that the many narratives to which it belongs (and even scholastic theology can be counted as a narrative in this context) are sedimented one on another to produce a semantic saturation. This makes the word so rich that it must seem to lack the clinical sharpness needed if it is to be used in the task of critical hermeneutics.
Much the same objection could be made against Heidegger’s hermeneutics of the metaphysical tradition in light of the question of being. Heidegger would answer the objection by claiming that the question of being is the central concern which unifies the history of metaphysics. In some sense it should be possible to claim that faith too is a central theme which unifies the history of theology. Why faith? Why not “love” or “Spirit” or “the Word of God” or “the Church”? Could not these have served equally well as leading themes for a deconstruction of theology? But it is Western theology itself which has conferred a special status on the notion of faith as defining its character, as in the best known definition of theology: “faith seeking understanding.” This is because the metaphysical culture in which theology developed emphasized so strongly the noetic aspect of things, that it was necessary for theology to insist on its own unique noetic principle of faith. The importance of orthodoxy and dogma is of a piece with this. Faith in the noetic sense, orthodoxy and dogma are of little importance in the Hebrew scriptures and even in the New Testament it is not the noetic aspect of faith which predominates. The theme of faith unifies the history of Christian theology because it is the badge of Christian identity over against the metaphysical structures which threatened to absorb it. Thus in taking faith as our theme we are espousing the critical, counter-metaphysical resources of classical theology itself insofar as it became increasingly committed to faith as the key to its essential concerns.
In the process, however, the notion of faith itself was grasped in narrowly noetic terms, showing once again how deeply Christianity was influenced by metaphysics even in the methods chosen to oppose it. Faith, orthodoxy and dogma, as traditionally understood, are the bulwarks of biblical revelation against its absorption by the Western Logos. Yet these very bulwarks are constantly mined from within by the degree to which they themselves are shaped by the demands of that Logos. Faith becomes an epistemological principle; orthodoxy tends to equate faith excessively with correctness of opinion; dogma formulates faith in sets of propositions resembling the sets of theses a philosopher might enunciate.
The theme of faith has organized a strategy of resistance to metaphysics within classical and modern theology, despite the plurality of senses in which faith was concretely understood and despite the changeable character of the metaphysical opponent as well. There is only a family resemblance between the “faith” for which Athanasius stands against Arianism or Gregory of Nyssa against Eunomiusin the fourth century and the “faith” which Kirkegaard defends against Hegel in the nineteenth, just as there is only a family resemblance between the metaphysical opponents in each case. Nonetheless the sequence of such situations forms a coherent history, the unfolding of the dilemma of Western theology, caught between Jewand Greek. Hence the schema of faith versus metaphysics, if broken down into the sequence of these concrete struggles, can still provide a deconstructive key to the history of theology.
But if the opposition of faith and metaphysics is itself a metaphysical one, as my remarks about the noetic emphasis in classical theology imply, then how can it serve to deconstruct metaphysical theology? Will a hermeneutic from faith to faith do any more than confirm the noetic emphasis and the oppositions it has classically generated? What strategic innovation can the theme of faith bring about at this late stage? None, it seems, without the aid of a Derridean turn of the screw, which perhaps might take the following form: Our inherited use of the idea of “faith” is shaped by the classical oppositions of faith and reason, orthodoxy and heresy, submission to dogma and speculative understanding. But there is beginning to prevail in our language another sense of the word “faith” which runs counter to this traditional noetic emphasis. “Faith” in this emergent sense resonates more strongly with the biblical models of trust in God and openness to God’s saving intervention than with any of the classical accounts of faith. The latter seem confining, while the biblical confessions of faith are now heard less as dogmatic claims than as events of recognition and trustful commitment, e. g., Peter’s “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). If the spearhead of resistance to metaphysics in classical theology is the emphasis on faith, then the sticking point for a deconstructive reading would seem to be the tension between the two directions in which the notion of faith is pulled, back to its biblical origins and forward into a noetic system of metaphysically shaped dogmas. If we espouse the theme of faith in classical theology, and so dwell in it that its opposition to metaphysics is radicalized through a shifting of emphasis from its noetic to its more fundarnental biblical character of trust and engagement, then we can rehandle the tensions between faith and metaphysics in the classical texts in a more differentiated way. We turn the classical opposition of faith and metaphysics against the classical notion of faith insofar as this is itself metaphysical. Thus the classical language is caught in a permanent contradiction with itself, as its every counter-metaphysical gesture is discovered to be inwardly in partial collusion with what it opposes. The thrust of that language is against the gravitational pull of metaphysical reason, yet it scarcely avoids surrendering to it entirely. Now with the weakening of the force of gravity of metaphysics as far as faith is concerned, we can perhaps carry the counter-metaphysical thrust of the classical languages of faith further in the direction they indicate, perhaps to the point of leaving the solar system of metaphysics altogether behind. Then it will no longer be the sun of the Western Logos which provides the primary illumination and control to theological discourse, but faith will become more autonomously sui ipsius interpres, its own interpreter, and its dialogue with other religious traditions and the human sciences will be governed by the dynamics of its own quest rather than by an overarching metaphysics.
However, in this hermeneutic from faith to faith, from faith imprisoned in metaphysics to faith at last free to find its own articulation, the from and the to are ideal points of departure and arrival. For faith is never totally alienated from itself in the language it uses, however encumbered with myth or metaphysics, nor is it ever totally present to itself in some at last perfectly essential language. Even the language of Scripture is not a perfect vehicle of faith. It had a relative adequacy in its day and continues to enjoy a relative adequacy as long as we struggle to find the spirit the letter conceals. The theological critique of metaphysical language seeks to move from relative oppression of faith to its relative liberation, in full awareness that its attainments can be only provisional. The overcoming of metaphysics is only the current move or set of moves in the perpetual game of renewing the language of faith.
The clarification of the specificity and autonomy of faith over against metaphysics is by no means the final answer to the question about faith’s true identity; it merely frees us to pose that question more radically than was hitherto possible. After the solar system come the vacant interstellar spaces, after the assurance of metaphysics the nakedness of faith left to itself, “as dark as night to the understanding” (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, tr. E. A Peers, Garden City, NY, 1958, p. 106). Faith is always embodied in a language, and we can never simply oppose it to its “expression.” But one can oppose to the apparent noetic wealth of past languages a new linguistic exercise which insists on articulating the most elemental realities of faith, cutting through all forms of language which do not contribute to this task and treating them as screens against real insight. This quest for the elements will send faith back to the simplest, apparently poorest words of its language and even these will no longer be the carriers of systematic metaphysical insight, for an effort will be made to confine their usage to what befits a pure vocabulary of faith. One can never, of course, establish a pure set of essential names, but this quest for the original poverty of the language of faith can set up a critical ferment which produces a language of faith which in all its utterances is distinctly and consciously counter-metaphysical, a style of speaking which gains its thrust and point from going against the grain of the established ways of articulating faith. There is no simple movement from a metaphysical to a post-metaphysical language of faith, but a change of direction can be brought about if we treat the metaphysical heritage as something of which we must despoil ourselves, rather than build it up further.
If we still use metaphysical terms it will be in such a way as to contradict their traditional function of accumulating systematic insight and to show up instead their poverty as words of faith. Any such usage will imply an artful wrench, displacing the word from its metaphysical context and opening it to the articulation of faith. For instance, the “very peripatetic” definition, “God: a noise in the street,” which occurs in Ulysses, wrenches the word “God” out of its habitual metaphysical contexts. Many lines in Blake achieve similar displacements: “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.” The language of Luther or Karl Barth also occasionally throws up such counter-metaphysical flashes, inspired by Scripture. But until such displacements infiltrate the entire texture of the theological usage of traditional jargon progress on the liberation of theology from metaphysical habit will be slight.
In setting deconstruction at the service of faith in this way are we not robbing deconstruction of its radical adventurousness, allowing it to be controlled by a single, fixed ideological orientation? But is this a correct account of “faith” as we have sighted it (in opposition to its domesticated presentation in classical theology)? In following this search for the originary language of faith perhaps we may discover that the reference and meaning of that language are every bit as enigmatic as the reference and meaning of the poems of Mallarmé, on which deconstruction thrives. Could the complexities latent in our language of faith be brought to light in any other way? Could any merely literary deconstruction of the language of faith, playing fast and loose with the rhetorical tropes which constitute it, match the much more interesting unstitching of that language which occurs when we contest the habitual rhetoric of faith in the name of faith itself? Could a deconstruction not guided by faith in this sense ever successfully engage with the riddlesome and almost self-contradictory enterprise of a language which can continue to communicate only by overthrowing all its previous forms? Poetic creation is subject to a similar law, of course, but its dynamics are adequately traceable by a literary deconstruction, since its verbal achievements are an end in themselves. The language of faith, however, always has as its context the struggle to maintain or achieve a practical, spiritual way of life, and it is this context which gives that language its peculiar force. The overcoming of former languages of faith could never be fruitful if it did not proceed from the practical effort to live the faith in a more radical way, or from a change in the way of living the faith forced on one by a changing cultural situation. A deconstruction of the language of faith not guided by faith itself would thus not deal with the language as one of faith, but only with the husk which remains when it is considered as a merely literary product. Conversely such a deconstruction might teach us much about the possibilities of language in general, but it could not indicate any concrete possibilities for a contemporary language of faith as such.
These remarks bring us to consider another major condition of the hermeneutic from faith to faith, an unavoidable law which is likely to be discomforting to many academic theologians, namely, that this hermeneutic cannot be carried out except by people who are rooted in a community and praxis of faith. A literary deconstructionist might analyze the texture of classical theological discourse and discover that faith was never quite at home in its metaphysical language, and that many elements in that classical discourse point to a more originary language of faith, which would break with the constraints of metaphysics. But without a practical engagement in the contemporary struggle of faith the deconstructionist would be unable to solicit those more originary elements in a strategic way, for want of a strong position of faith from which to approach the texts. Such a position cannot be found in a theory of faith but only in the fresh discourse born of engagement. Without these existential moorings a hermeneutic of tradition degenerates into a fastidious sifting of words, unable to articulate the “unthought” of the tradition which only a lively contemporary faith can recognize. The theologian who is connected by no channels of constant communication with the community whose faith is the sole material of theology has undoubtedly developed a perverse relation to the subject matter, one which makes it very difficult to focus the data of faith in the horizon of faith. In the horizon of the isolated individual these data tend to become objects of doubt and bewilderment and faith in them a paradoxical exercise. The academic tone is obviously a safer one for a theologian in this situation, for it need never betray the uneasy relation of the believer to the data of faith. The greatness of Kierkegaard is that he masked nothing of his isolation and unease and risked a stance of faith even in the unpropitious conditions that were bound to have, and did have, a distorting effect. A theologian can understand such contemporary forms of alienation from the communal language of faith, but they need not be allowed to define the horizon of the theological hermeneutic.
The sureness of touch that marks the theology of Irenaeus or Athanasius shows their thought to be firmly rooted in an ecclesial existence, and sureness of touch in interpreting them demands an analogous rootedness. When the little faith of the theologian is reinforced by and representative of the faith of the community, then its investment in an intellectual quest becomes part of the Church’s struggle to reform its own language. The weight of centuries of university theology can make it hard for theologians to find the ecclesial context of their work, so that the quest for that context must be resumed again, yet it is just this step from Athens to Jerusalem which has always given Western theology its peculiar tension and vitality. The following paragraph might be rewritten as the program of a church theologian engaged in overcoming the metaphysical elements in church discourse:
If it is not to disown the promise and in that way cease to be the Church, the Church is committed to a struggle against the acute chronic diseases from which its proclamation must constantly suffer. But this being the case, its only resource is to seize the weapon of continually listening. But it must listen in such a way that its whole life is put in question. It must listen in such a way that its whole life should be assailed, convulsed, revolutionized and reshaped… The word to which it listens must always be the Word of God. It actually has to go back to its starting-point. It has to show the self-denial and determination to start all over again from that point. Of course, it has to do this as the Church which is marked by all that has existed and occurred in the interval, not in unfaithfulness but in faithfulness, not in ingratitude but in gratitude, not with violence but with regard for the various forms of teaching which have so far been granted to it with more or less human clarity or obscurity, in which and with which it has lived up to the present-yet radically prepared for the fact that today, tomorrow and the day after the whole of its treasure will again have to been enlightened and illuminated, assessed and weighed by the Word of God…. . This is the necessity which dogmatics has to represent. Its task is to summon to an active consideration of this necessity. (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 804).
While theologians shun this demanding role they cannot discover the hermeneutic potential of faith.
Yet having said this, I feel it must be added that the overcoming of metaphysics from the horizon of faith, though it is the only approach that can lead back from the classical formations of Christianity to their hidden theme, is in practice usually preceded or sparked off by a disenchantment with metaphysics born of doubt. There are religious thinkers who cannot make securely their own the vast communal and traditional horizons of ecclesial faith, but are constantly balloted by the misgivings which assail their contemporaries in regard to the Church. Such thinkers practice a theology at degree zero, a “wintry” theology (Rahner), so resolute in its non-compliance with the usual complacencies of theological diction that it almost consigns itself to silence. Such thinkers may be hypersensitive to the “bad faith” palpable in certain too vocal manifestations of faith, in whatever speculative or fideistic style, and may feel that faith is better expressed in a patient confrontation with the problems of its language and in an ever-deeper sense of the provisionality and feebleness of all languages of faith. The wintry theologian’s faith thus takes the form of methodical doubt directed at any and every expression of faith and shows itself in a modesty and restraint in the use of such words as “God,” “grace,” “salvation” which come near to utter invisibility. As the conventional languages of faith die away, the wintry theologian becomes more and more oblique in his allusions to the themes of faith, preferring to communicate by a neti, neti (not this, not that) of doubtful mystical intent, so that even the language of prayer becomes a lamentation for vanished languages of prayer. This wintry figure is a type who surfaces throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity, and even has a minor, but honorable, place in Scripture itself in the person of Qohelet.
For all its indirectness, such a theology of suspicion may still be listening for the Word of God as the something that is communicated by the language of Scripture and tradition even after it has been tested in the crucible of a Beckettian desolation, or as that which is subtly incarnate in secular contexts, the indices of the kingdom to be gleaned in novels, films, or political happenings. This emaciated theology cannot provide the governing perspective for a critical hermeneutic of tradition, which would demand a warmer sympathy with the older languages of faith as well as a more comprehensive vision of what it is given to the Church to live, think, and speak today. But the negative sensitivity it develops should be integrated as a critical factor into all contemporary theology, so that the convincingness of any received language of faith for this age of doubt can be soberly assessed.
In the last analysis the deconstruction of tradition is the effect of a change in the consciousness of the Christian community, a change which it articulates and confirms. It is the reappropriation of the tradition in light of a change in the Church’s self-understanding. This theological enterprise is sustained by a movement afoot in the Church at large and thus has everything to gain from remaining in close contact and dialogue with that movement. The damaging marginality which was the lot of Pascal, Kierkegaard, and the Modernists need not be that of the contemporary theological deconstructionist, for the crisis of metaphysical theology has now become a public one and the Church as a whole is thrown back on the necessity of adopting a prophetic style of teaching and acting. Hence the need to reappropriate the tradition as what in a hidden way it is, a tradition of prophetic witness. Thus as theology busies itself with the emendation of its language – like that ship which must undertake repairs in mid-ocean, with no possibility of a return to dry dock – it is enacting the Church’s growth “from faith to faith” insofar as ecclesia semper reformanda includes the task of lingua semper reformanda. I shall now sketch an outline of how the early stages of the tradition might appear when thus viewed.
The dehellenization of Christianity is a task which can never be accomplished. The cultural symbiosis of the biblical and Hellenistic worlds from the fourth century BCE. to the fourth century CE (when the classical dogmatic shape of Christianity was securely established) brought about so complex a fusion of Greek and Hebrew elements, at the most fundamental levels of speech, thought, and imagination that, while we may embark on a counter-metaphysical effort to play off the original biblical elements against their later Greek transformation, this direction of thinking, strategi-cally chosen in view of the current needs of faith and opposed to the ascendancy of metaphysical thinking in the past, can never be followed through with complete consequence and transparency. A complete dehellenization of Christianity would have to unwrite the New Testament. Even if we confine our attention to the explicitly metaphysical dimension of hellenistic culture, it is doubtful that the point can ever be reached at which the pure demetaphysicized “essence” of Christianity could be distilled from its original hellenistic articulation.
One of the carriers of metaphysical thinking in the hellenistic world is the imagery of light, which is elaborated at an imaginative, preconceptual level and seems part of the “ordinary language” of religion in the Greek-speaking world. In the fourth century Christianity becomes more logical, conceptual, and dogmatic than before, and the imaginative dynamics of religious discourse are subordinated to this firm logical order. But in the incubatory period of metaphysical theology it is imagination that is dominant; Justin, Clement, and Origen sketch metaphysical systems, but do not treat them as intrinsically more serious than the narrative and symbolic dimensions of their discourse; there is free commerce between the conceptual and the imaginative. The insistence at Nicea on a word which defied imagination, the word homoousion, as the anchor of orthodoxy represents a new seriousness in assuming the rigor of metaphysical logic in Christian discourse. Thus, while the metaphysical shape of the thinking of the post-Nicene authors is relatively easy to identify, there is a greater fluidity and mobility in the dealings of the second and third century Fathers with metaphysics, and our diagnosis must take into account subtle virtualities of language and imagery as well as the bold speculative strokes.
Philo’s metaphysical imagination loved to contemplate “the Absolute, connected with phenomena by His Light-Stream, the Logos or Sophia,” “a Light which was discerned by the Light-Rays that he shot forth” (E. R. Goodenough, By Light, Light: The Mystic Gospel of Hellenistic Judaism, Yale UP, pp. 7, 8). In his case this imagery of light is clearly consubstantial with a metaphysical system, albeit one still encased in mythic representations and reaching only an inchoate conceptual or logical autonomy. But the writings of Gnosticism and the New Testament are also full of this light-imagery, which, while it is not explicitly metaphysical in their case, lends itself easily to the unifying and grounding habits of thought characteristic of metaphysics. In each case the contemporary deconstructionist will attempt to interpret this imagery in a counter-metaphysical direction, thinking back to the underlying phenomenological realities which the image of light threatens to mask by intellectualizing and idealizing them.
In the case of the Gospel of John one might begin by overcoming intellectualizing interpretations of the Gospel, which have held sway in Christian theology from the start, in order to recover the mystical, contemplative texture of the Evangelist’s thought. But a second step is also required. The Johannine notions of Logos or Light may not have been intended in a metaphysical sense by their author, but they lend themselves to metaphysical interpretation because of their place in the hellenistic language and imagination. The Johannine notions themselves must be overcome insofar as they lend themselves to this misinterpretation. The recovery of their counter-metaphysical bearing will be complete only when the stability of these notions themselves is called in question by the phenomenality of that to which they witness, through a deconstructive solicitation of the tensions in John between the system of symbolic themes which structure the vision of the work and the elements which cannot be perfectly integrated into that system. Such an extension of the overcoming of metaphysics in the deconstruction of pre-metaphysical biblical thinking builds a specifically Western road back into the world of biblical theology, one diametrically opposed to the Western metaphysical colonization of Scripture in the past.
In Justin, Clement, and Origen, too, there is a developed imagination of light and Logos (to name only two of many similar themes) which, while it is in collusion with explicitly philosophical methods of thinking, as the New Testament treatment of such themes is not, nevertheless also has a side which cannot be simply and directly classified as metaphysical. Could one, for example, treat Justin’s language about baptism as “illumination” as simply metaphysical? Yet even without speculative intent or conceptual content such religious images can cohere to form an imaginative system which already reveals the lineaments of what will later be precipitated as a full-fledged ontotheology. For instance, a supreme light may be envisioned as the source and foundation of lesser lights, as lighting up the whole cosmos in a universal, unifying way, so that all lives and moves and has its being in this light. A systematic enchainment between the inaccessible light of God, the revealing light of the Logos, the light of truth manifest in the words of Scripture, the light of grace illuminating the pneumatikoi, and the light of reason whereby pagans and heretics are overcome is thus first envisioned imaginatively, and only later hammered out in conceptual terms.
Surely the elements of this metaphysical imagination can be used by a Christian preacher with a certain suspension of their metaphysical dynamic; we cannot say that the tendency of such imagery in an early Christian writing is always metaphysical, for it may quite well be counter-metaphysical, retrieving perhaps some of the Hebrew overtones of the images of light and Logos, as in “He covers himself with light as with a garment” (cf. Ps. 104:2) or in the prophets’ accounts of the power of God’s creative word. In discerning the drift of the Christian imagination in the early centuries we cannot simply judge in advance that such and such a word or image is “hellenistic” and therefore proto-metaphysical, for faith can always insist unexpectedly on its own irreducible identity by breaking with the prevailing habits of thought of hellenistic culture. The points at which such resistance to the implications of hellenistic diction occurs within that diction itself are perhaps the most instructive feature of Ante-Nicene writing in regard to our problematic.
The period extending from the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible to Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius offers scholars and theologians countless occasions to pursue a controversy centered on such questions as the following: To what extent is the thought of Philo, Paul, Justin, Origen based on biblical faith, and to what extent is it a product of hellenistic thinking? Is the hellenistic element used apologetically or does it intrinsically determine the thinking of the author? Has authentic faith been swallowed up in quasi-philosophical speculations? Is the God of this author still the God of Abraham, or has Abraham’s God been replaced by a metaphysical archê?
Usually these controversial questions are never satisfactorily resolved. The reason is that the fusion of Greek and Hebrew in these authors is so deep that it often undercuts the authors’ own explicit declarations that they intend to adopt a purely biblical or a broadly metaphysical approach. To a large extent they are unconscious of the dimensions of the fusion of Greek and Hebrew that is afoot in their language. Furthermore, such authors as Justin and Origen express a complex ambivalence in their statements about the relations of faith and philosophy, and this is increased when we take into account the unconscious ambivalence to which the texture of their writing testifies. Most scholars aim at a positivist accuracy in determining the extent of the biblical and philosophical contributions to the resulting amalgam. But this does not yield insight into the dynamics of the interplay between the two strands in the texts, the complex coming and going between faith and philosophy which in a creative and resourceful writer always reserves surprises for the student. Positivist scholarship cannot enter into the play of the text, seeing it as a mobile interaction of forces, a fermentation set up by the ineluctable convergence of two traditions which could never be perfectly reconciled.
The “hellenistic” and “biblical/ecclesial” readings of Origen, those of H. Koch. E. von Ivanka and F. H. Kettler on the one side, and those of H. de Lubac and H. Crouzel on the other, do become involved in the play of the text, but when they succumb to one-sidedness, either seeing Origen as a philosopher insensitive to the specific concerns of biblical faith, or as a churchman who kept a pure distance from the world of hellenistic philosophical wisdom, they fall victim to the subtlety of Origen’s mind, in which faith and philosophy grow together in a mutual accommodation full of ambivalence. Like the Origenist controversies of the past, the present debate among scholars reenacts the tensions in Origen’s writing; a reading of Origen which would consciously assume these tensions has yet to be practiced. Each of the opposing tendencies in the present debate provides a refreshing corrective to the other and from the tug of war between them a creative deconstructive hermeneutics may be born.
Whether they proclaim the superiority of the Gospel to the folly of philosophy or whether they present Christianity as the true philosophy and the culmination of the partial wisdom of Greece (or whether with significant inconsistency they do both, as Justin seems to do), the Fathers of the Church are united in regarding the Word of Scripture (and the teaching of the Church) as possessing supreme authority, while the findings of philosophy can have a merely auxiliary status in comparison. This simple fact guarantees to patristic theology a powerful counter-metaphysical thrust. But it does not justify the apologetics of those who claim the issue of hellenization is a pseudo-problem. For despite their conviction of the superiority of the biblical revelation the Fathers unavoidably understood that revelation in a metaphysical way. When metaphysics encroached on the integrity of that revelation in a tangible way, they could repel it by a counter-metaphysical appeal to the authority of God’s Word. But many intangible encroachments they scarcely notice at all, and even when they do resist metaphysics it is with the aid of alternative metaphysical models (such as Justin’s personalized and transcendent “sowing Word” opposed to the pantheistic Logos of Stoicism; Origen’s substitution of the Trinity for the supreme principles of Platonism), the metaphysical horizon is the governing horizon of their thought, and the biblical content is fitted into it, with whatever local corrections of metaphysics are required. In this battle of languages metaphysics is a winner just as much as the biblical revelation, and it constantly threatens to colonize the latter, making renewed insistence on the specific character of the biblical revelation necessary.
How thoroughly Origen made his home in the world of Scripture, finding that as he preached from the sacred text, sharing his trouvailles with the community as soon as they were born, “discerning spiritual things for the spiritual,” a more life-size wisdom unfolded than could ever be reached in the technical disputations of the academy. Yet the very texture of the allegorizing mind Origen brought to Scripture is Platonic and philosophical through and through. It is true that his christological or ecclesiological exegesis of the Song of Songs brings the philosophical, spiritualizing method of Philo back to a rich salvation-historical concreteness, nearer to the typology practiced by Paul or the author of Hebrews. Yet that biblical typology itself is one of the elements in the New Testament which most lend themselves to metaphysical misinterpretation, and so need to be overcome in light of the concrete perception of the links between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christ-event to which they rather clumsily witness. Origen’s use of even such typology is inspired by the speculative desire to crack open the hard places of Scripture and make them transparent to spiritual vision. In his capacious and versatile way he is still a system builder as he woos the text this way and that in order to uncover its spiritual meaning. He accommodates his metaphysical aspirations to the great diversity of the biblical data, postponing the satisfaction of the ultimate integration of all these data into a system, but building assiduously towards that ultimate integration through all the relaxed and digressive commentaries he accumulates. This intention is foreign to Paul and to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Typology serves in their case to bring home with force a vision of the salvation wrought by Christ. It does not have the discreetly theoretical bearing Origen never tires of trying to confer on it. Typology in Origen is never merely a spiritual exercise, but always a speculative exercise of faith seeking understanding. This can lead him to indulge in typology for typology’s sake, on the principle that any increment of theoretical insight is to be valued, however feeble its moral or spiritual impact. Thus the metaphysical horizon of thought was too deeply implanted in Origen’s mind, too thoroughly inscribed in his language, for him to be able to overcome it even in constant and exclusive exposure to the biblical text.
If this is true in the case of the most ardently biblical of the Fathers, it is clear that there could be no effective defense against the pervasive presence of metaphysics in the early Church. It lodged in every corner of the Christian mind. Fidelity to the Gospel could not be achieved in independence from metaphysics, but only in a lucid struggle to maintain the essentials of Christian identity in and through an adroit handling of the terms and categories of metaphysics. In the Ante-Nicene period this struggle proceeds in a largely nonreflexive way, for the terms and categories of metaphysical theology had not yet acquired strong definition and tensions between the structure of metaphysical thinking and biblical faith were masked by the free communication of their softened idioms. The Nicene showdown changed all this, and raised the struggle between faith and metaphysics to new levels of lucidity in the discourse of precise dogmatic definition and in negative theology. Neither of these, of course, represents a simple triumph of faith over metaphysics, but they both show a sudden conscious alertness to the dangers of metaphysics among the fourth century theologians.
The Origin of Dogma
In identifying the biblical God with the God of metaphysics and Jesus Christ (the Johannine Logos) with the Logos of Greek philosophy, mutatis mutandis, the Greek Fathers assumed a homology between Christian and philosophical truth whereby the whole of Greek intellectuality could be taken captive to the truth revealed in Christ. But there is perhaps no such thing as a one-way conquest, and it can be said as well that the Gospel of Christ was taken captive by Greek intellectuality, though not necessarily in a sense implying a real falsification of the Christian faith in those centuries. The threat of such a falsification was, however, a real one, as heresy after heresy tried to push the homology between faith and philosophy too far. To counter this threat the orthodox Church had recourse to increasingly emphatic methods of stressing the specific elements of the message of faith over against efforts to reduce them to philosophical schemes of understanding; hence the emergence of that peculiar type of utterance we call dogmatic. The alliance of faith and philosophy triumphed gloriously over pagan myth and superstition and over the deviations of Gnosticism, and its advantages far outweighed whatever perils it might bring. As the basic principles of philosophy were increasingly redefined in Christian terms – so that cosmology was founded in the biblical doctrine of creation, theology, and theodicy in the doctrine of the Father and his Logos, ethics and psychology in the doctrines of sin and grace – a process of intellectual transfusion occurred whereby Christianity was enabled to replace metaphysics as the supreme intellectual system of the West.
Was this an entirely unambiguous realization of the biblical command: “Go, teach all nations”? or was it, like Constantinism, an experiment which can teach us as much by its failures as by its successes? The creeds and dogmas which were originally forged to defend Christian identity against absorption by Hellenistic currents of thought and religiosity, became after Nicea the instruments of the exclusive establishment of Christianity as the true philosophy abrogating all others. A deconstruction of this development could begin by recovering the defensive sense of dogma and overcoming its constructive aspirations to build a total systematic explication of the real in which the dogmas play the role of first principles. But even defensive dogma insofar as it lends itself to this constructive misuse must itself be overcome in light of the phenomenality of revelation to which it is answerable. Dogma may have been counter-metaphysical insofar as it preserved the identity of faith against metaphysical absorption; but by its emphasis on definition and certitude and its claim to be treated as a first principle dogma betrayed its own purpose and became the instrument of the strongest assumption of a metaphysical identity by the Christian faith.
The first really severe crisis of the alliance between faith and metaphysics is that signaled by the Arian heresy, which, building on the thought of the earlier Fathers, attempted to push the homology between the Christian doctrines of God, the Logos, and creation and the structures of Platonic theology and cosmology to the point of confounding the ontological status of the eternal Son with that of the demiurge who mediates between God and the world in Middle Platonic theory. As a systematic intensification of the subordinationism latent in previous theology, Arianism had both a progressivist and a traditionalist appeal. The metaphysical streamlining of the Christian message which it proposed must have seemed in harmony with the spirit of that Constantinian period in which a hitherto unprecedented harmony between Church and culture had been attained. Had Arianism prevailed the tensions between Christian faith and its metaphysical environment might have ceased forever; but faith itself would then also have ceased.
Much has been written in recent years on the Nicene homoousion as an instance of the Church’s resistance to hellenization in the early centuries. The Fathers of Nicea used this word, it is claimed, as simple pastors warding off a clear and present danger to the integrity of the faith and with a certain suspension of whatever subtle metaphysical overtones might attach to the word ousia (nature, substance, stuff, being) in this context. Though the word sounds philosophical its introduction into the Creed has nothing to do with philosophy but directly expresses a necessity of faith. Athanasius, the great defender of Nicea, is, indeed, one of the least speculative of the Fathers, excelling in the rebuttal of unsound argument and the marshalling of scriptural support for the basic elements of doctrine. He has the strength of an elemental thinker, and as such might serve as a model for anyone wishing to return to the biblical bedrock of the Christian tradition. His task was to lay the foundations of a new period in theology by clearing the ground of every philosophical futility and setting forth in strong relief the set of basic truths in which the Christian message consists.
But in thus limiting the authority and the activities of metaphysical reason, Nicea and Athanasius paradoxically launched the greatest period of metaphysical theology. The refutation of Arianism demanded a new vigilance and logical rigor of theologians. To enter into and dismantle the arguments of the Arians, and still more so of the logic-chopping Neo-Arians (Eunomians), was a task that demanded an unprecedented linguistic and conceptual precision. It also widened the gap between the increasingly rarefied arguments of theology and the scriptural texture of preaching. The extreme concentration of attention on the Son’s eternal procession “from the ousia of the Father,” though sustained by a constant supply of scriptural and soteriological argument, habituated theologians to discussions of the divine essence in abstraction from the horizon of revelation. But it is the more rigorously logical texture of their argumentation which most testifies to the triumph of metaphysics in the Nicene theologians. Athanasius frequently shows that Arian claims would rob the economy of salvation of its necessary grounds, and presents the orthodox teaching as a set of fundamental logical principles undergirding the language of Scripture and worship and far surpassing the alternative Arian hermeneutic in coherence and salvific impact. Chief among these principles is the sharpened differentiation between the being of God and the being of creatures, and the correlative precision in defining the divine and human natures of Christ and their different functions. The connections between cause and effect, ground and grounded, in the system of Christian truth are spelled out with a new insistence – especially the dependence of our salvation and “divinization” on the gracing of human nature through its assumption by one who is truly God. (Even in the conventional apologetic of the De Incarnatione Athanasius justifies the Christian message far more radically than Origen in the Contra Celsum by showing the causes underlying every aspect of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and conferring logical rationality on what at first seems a far-fetched tale.)
Athanasius can never be content with the verbal surface of the Christian revelation, for this surface has become treacherous, due to the Arian claim that such titles as “Lord” and “God” are only honorifically conferred on Christ. He defends the reference of these titles by tracing them back to their ground in the ontological structures they reflect. Thus despite the elemental nature of his concerns, his exclusive desire to uphold the integrity of the biblical message and to prevent its words from being robbed of their reality, Athanasius follows the methods of metaphysical reasoning more tenaciously than any previous Christian writer, constantly thinking towards the logical ground of the claims of faith. The fact that this thinking is defensive in its intent, and that its highest constructive aim is to provide a viable scriptural hermeneutic, and the fact that it repetitively insists on essentials to the exclusion of the least speculative digression, certainly indicate a wariness of any metaphysical thinking not regulated by the biblical Word. But Athanasius uses metaphysics to fight metaphysics, as he hammers out a set of axioms and reinforces a system of logical connections which will provide the ground plan for a new, more radical metaphysical structuration of the faith. Thus, the counter-metaphysical thrust of the Council of Nicea is rapidly integrated into a reorganized system of metaphysical theology, and what was intended to defend the integrity of biblical revelation in fact generates a systematic, logical presentation of biblical truth, whose capacity to lure the mind away from the horizons of biblical revelation eventually becomes far greater than anything that pre-ceded it.
The renewal of negative theology among the Nicene Fathers is asign of their nascent awareness of the dangers of the new style of theologizing. Hilary of Poitiers and Gregory of Nyssa in particular return again and again to the themes of the infinity and incomprehensibility of God, not only in polemic against Arian presumption, but also in a reflexive critique of the status of their own theological language. The themes of the divine incomprehensibility and uncontainability were largely devotional rather than methodological in earlier writers since Philo. [2008: The focus on the God “beyond being” and beyond the grasp of the mind, in dependence on Plato’s epekeina tês ousias, in Philo and Clement is not integrated with a systematic overview of doctrine such as we find in Origen, where the theme of divine transcendence is rather muted.] Now they are integrated fully into the texture of theological argumentation, though not yet developed systematically in the manner of Pseudo-Dionysius [2008: where they again tend to float independent of an integrated doctrinal vision]. This apophatic current is another of the counter-metaphysical thrusts in which Christian faith reveals its autonomous vitality at each point in its history at which it is threatened with absorption by metaphysics. But it too meets the fate of each of these movements of resistance, and is absorbed into a more capacious metaphysical theology, thus confirming the sway of metaphysical reason rather than overthrowing it.
Yet each of these movements testifies to the final irreducibility of faith to metaphysical comprehension. If we retrieve this dimension of their significance, through a critique of what allowed them to be overtaken by the metaphysics they opposed, recovering, for example, the biblical witness of the Nicene homoousion by subordinating it to the scriptural confession of Christ (“My Lord and my God”, John 20:28), to which it has nothing to add, and by dismantling the metaphysical vision the word has carried, then we can espouse faith’s historical resistance to metaphysics with a new; clarity and depth, doing full justice to those dogmatic, apophatic, or biblicist gestures which a speculative theology would emasculate by smoothly integrating them into its texture. The ruggedness and thorniness of the path of Christian thought is no accident, but shows that biblical faith intrinsically frustrates the ontotheological aspirations of those who subscribe to it. Faith can show its strength at times in great displays of logical and causal reasoning and in that soundness of intellect which Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas share despite the worlds that separate them. But a point comes in every case at which the pretentions of logic and causality are curbed, are seen to be “all straw,” and a return to the inexhaustibility of the biblical confession of faith is prescribed.
The tensions which produce negative theology and which continue to inhabit its texture can be most interestingly studied in Gregory of Nyssa, the first master of a theoretical negative theology in the Christian Church. It is still, indeed, a rather elementary theory (the most systematic articulation is found in the second book of the Contra Eunomium), yet by that very fact more illustrative of the motives and bearing of negative theology than the highflown developments of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Negative theology elevates the inherent tensions of metaphysical theology to a new level, without eliminating or overcoming them.
First there is the tension between the explicit, dogmatic formulation of Christian truths and the awareness that these formulations play those truths false – that the words fall short of what the mind can glimpse, and that the mind glimpses how much the incomprehensibility of God exceeds what it may comprehend. The very notion of substance (ousia) is inwardly split by this tension in Gregory: on the one hand it is used with all the logical rigor the Arian controversy had made needful; on the other, ousia becomes a name for the intrinsic incomprehensibility of God’s being, of which Gregory, like Philo, will say that we can know that it is, not what it is, or that we know its activities (in creation and salvation), its energeiai, but not the divine essence itself.
Next is the tension between devotional awareness of the Deus semper maior, rooted in scriptural meditation, and the coldly theoretical exercise of theological polemic. This tension produces on the one hand the devotion to divine infinity, which draws the mind to constant growth and purification, and whose resonances Gregory explored in the late works on the Life of Moses and the Song of Songs, works in which the contemplative methods of Philo and Origen are infused with new electricity as they are systematically referred to this more dynamic account of how the soul rests in God; and, on the other hand, the dry whittling away of Eunomian claims, through a realistic, almost skeptical, insistence on the impossibility of grasping his essence in any name, not even in a scriptural one much less a philosophical innovation like Eunomius’s ingenerate, all words being merely human stammerings.
Divine infinity might be a formula for a hypercritical attitude to religious language, a pure negation, on the one hand, or for a visionary creativeness, a freedom for contemplation, on the other. Excessive movement in either direction (and Gregory is pulled in both) is checked by the obligation of respecting the language of Scripture and dogma, the obligation of a kataphatic positivity. One may plausibly suspect that this restraining force is weakened in Pseudo-Dionysius, whose vaulting paths of negation plunge too readily into the mystical dark. When Pseudo-Dionysius writes:
There the simple, absolved and unchanged mysteries of theology
lie hidden in the darkness beyond light
of the hidden mystical silence,
there, in the greatest darkness,
that beyond all that is most evident
exceedingly illuminates the sightless intellects,
(Myst. Theol. I, 1; trans. J. D. Jones)
it is hard to avoid the impression that these “mysteries” have very little to do with the phenomenality of the God of biblical revelation. The delicate equilibrium of an ecclesial theology, like Basil’s or Gregory’s, has snapped, yielding to the ascendancy of a Neo-Platonic pathos.
Negative theology, though originating in a sense of the inadequacy of metaphysical categories, can itself assume a quite imperious ontotheological form, if the ineffability of the One is itself erected into a grounding principle in function of which the language of faith is systematized. Pseudo-Dionysian strategies of cancellation, unlike the modest hoion of Plotinus (Enn. VI, 8), order the various biblical and philosophical names of God towards their suspension in the simplicity of the absolute as mystically apprehended, overriding the elements in the texture of biblical and dogmatic language which resist this schematization. Not a modest sense of the inadequacy of naming, which would preserve all the more jealously the concrete texture of the hard won store of traditional names, but a fluent mastery over names in view of a privileged access to the nameless which grounds them appears to be the dominant instinct of Pseudo-Dionysian thought, an instinct which signifies the reappropriation of negative theology by the ontotheological habit of mind it was designed to resist. The charade of fictive authorship betrays Pseudo- Dionysius’s awareness that his theology could not be that of the real Church, since it practices a stylization of the language of faith which quite unmoors it from concrete ecclesial or biblical contexts. To a deconstructive ear at least, the Dionysian text, with its unbroken tone of enthusiasm, will constantly suggest the suspicion that the prefix “Pseudo” has resonances beyond nomenclature.
Gregory’s apophaticism is also liable to be governed by metaphysical structures of thought, insofar as he conceives of it as a way of going beyond the constituted system of kataphatic utterance to a higher intuition which brings the speculative quest of theology to its fulfillment, rather than as a means of preserving the poverty and modesty of biblical and liturgical language against speculative absorption, that is, as a step behind the constituted system to the data of revelation it attests in a broken and inadequate way. To acclaim negative theology as an “overcoming of metaphysics” is to overlook the fact that the imperative of “Beyond!” which dominates much negative theology is itself a continuation of the grounding movement of ontotheology, even when it takes the paradoxical form of grounding ground in the groundless. Speculation first reaches the lofty concept of the causa sui and then, without querying this concept phenomenologically or critically, pushes beyond, fuelled by the same desire for absolute ground,, to postulate a ground so absolute as to thwart the grasp of all our categories:
It is not dark nor light
not error, and not truth
There is universally
neither position nor denial of it. (I, 5)
Gregory’s thinking of divine infinity differs from this because it is constantly opposed to the speculative ambition of Eunomius, and functions thus as a counsel of sobriety, and also because it is rooted in a scriptural meditation. At times one fears that “infinity” is going to become another variant of the Neo-Platonic absolute, especially when Gregory proposes a division (diairêsis) of reality into sensible and intelligible rather than into created and uncreated. Even the latter, Nicene and biblical, distinction can become the framework for a Platonic anabasis, which grasps the infinity of God not as his otherness in the biblical sense, but as a “groundless ground” whose grounding force we discover ever more fully as we advance in contemplation, so that it provides unending satisfaction to the aspirations of ontotheology.
In Gregory or in Pseudo-Dionysius the language of “beyond being,” or not-being in a non-privative sense, could be seen as a deepening of this insistence on the primacy of being, not an overcoming of it. Being still serves here as the supreme principle of a metaphysical ordering of reality, although we can only say of this supreme being that it is, not what it is. That very simplification of thought and diction when the summit is attained satisfies metaphysical reason far more than it frustrates it. If negative theology were carried a little farther, if it reacted on its own language (rather than heightening it by further negations of the Pseudo-Dionysian sort), querying even the adequacy of the language of being to form a hedge around the mystery of God, admitting the suspicion that the mystery has already slipped away as soon as this language begins, then negative theology could fulfill its counter-metaphysical vocation. But negative theology could not accept this loss of its hierarchical and ontological bearings, and therefore it is more in the tensions and ambiguities of its project than in its systematic form, more in the unrest it symptomatizes and the critical sensibility it generates than in the stilted theses in which it sums up its claims, that we can find the points at which it opens onto the overcoming of metaphysics.
Negative theology remains metaphysical above all because it initiates a self-critique of theology beginning from above, from the postulate of divine incomprehensibility, a postulate which is constructed by the methods of metaphysical thinking, by an ever more complex play with the structuring oppositions of finite and infinite, created and uncreated, sensible and intelligible, composite and simple. In contrast, the current “dark night” of theology takes the form of a self-critique from below, which instead of waiting until inscrutable mystery emerges in the discourse of theology (in the paradoxes of grace and freedom, Trinity and unity, or in those generated by any of the simple oppositions mentioned above) and then declaring that God transcends our thought and speech, undertakes a more radical ascesis (drawing the lessons of classical negative theology to the fullest extent) by realizing from the start the human and historical limits of the words we find to talk about God.
This critique from below avoids the logical trap whereby negative theology is absorbed again and again into confident speculative systems, namely, the paradox that to know the limits of language or thinking one must already have access to a higher viewpoint beyond those limits. In contrast, to say that one calls God “Father” only as a human, culturally limited, way of denoting one’s sense God’s goodness and care for creatures is to refer one’s language back to the phenomenal level or rather to the infinite play of languages in which phenomenality is manifest. As the privileged status religious expressions always claim for themselves is thus put in question, it becomes less and less possible to accept them as stable premises for speculation. Here is a style of negative theology, then, of which the dynamic is not homologous with the grounding movement of ontotheology, but opposed to it at every moment, refusing to relinquish the least of the words of faith to its systematizing drive.
This rapid sketch of some of the main avenues of a deconstructive hermeneutic of the tradition of metaphysical theology is, of course, endlessly modifiable as applied in detail, a task quite beyond the resources of the present work. In the next chapter, however, I shall narrow the focus to a single text, not merely for illustrative purposes, but also to reveal some further twists in the tangled relationship of faith and metaphysics.