A Theology of Proportion

A Review of God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, by Steven J. Duby (InterVarsity Press Academic, 2019)

by James Clark

When considering how to engage in theology, two inclinations tend to be opposed. The first prioritizes “a speculative doctrine of God driven by natural theology or ‘metaphysics’” which inordinately colors our reading of Scripture. The second relies exclusively upon a “Christ-centered doctrine of God driven by the economy of salvation” which rules out natural theology and metaphysics altogether (3).

In God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology, Steven J. Duby seeks to overcome the tendency to pit metaphysics and natural theology against Christocentric theology by “integrating natural theology, Christology, and the proper use of metaphysics in the doctrine of God” (7). He contends that natural theology and Christocentric theology are not “conflicting agendas for a Christian account of God.” Rather, they “should be brought together and rightly ordered in a constructive account of the Christian practice of theologia taken in the strict sense of the word (discourse about the triune God in himself without primary reference to the economy)” (5–6).

In chapter one, Duby examines the biblical account of the “knowledge of God himself (not just his outward relationship to creatures),” as well as “the object, nature, and limitations of that knowledge” (8). With this foundation established, he devotes the next three chapters to explicating natural theology (chapter two), Christocentric theology (chapter three), and metaphysics (chapter four), all while maintaining that these should be undertaken in proper proportion to each other rather than focusing on one to the exclusion of the others. In the final chapter, Duby defends the analogia entis (analogy of being) as the proper basis for all theology. According to this doctrine, there is some correspondence between God and created being because God “has chosen to bring about a world of created beings that, on the one hand, are inadequate to express the fullness of his perfection and yet, on the other hand, as his effects, cannot help but derive all their perfection and goodness from him” (233). Consequently, our language about God should be considered analogical, which is to say it is “neither exactly the same as [i.e., univocal] nor entirely different [i.e., equivocal] from the way in which it applies to creatures” (242).

In addition to Scripture, which he engages throughout the book, Duby primarily relies on Thomistic sources (not least Aquinas himself) and various figures among the Reformed orthodox, those Protestant theologians who lived and wrote in the centuries following the Reformation. Along the way, he also considers and responds to objections leveled by Karl Barth and his followers, among others, who share a marked “reservation about knowledge of God predicated on the God-world relation or the Creator-creature distinction and outside the ambit of the doctrine of the person and work of Christ” (4).

While the range and depth of topics Duby covers are not conducive to a brief summary or evaluation, I will venture a few comments concerning the book’s significance. First, in arguing for the legitimacy of natural theology—understood as “the knowledge of God the Creator given by the Creator himself in the marks of his wisdom and power in the grandeur and order of creation” (71)—Duby joins a growing chorus of Protestants eager to emerge from the long shadow Barth has cast over the subject.[1] Indeed, on Duby’s account, Barth dismisses natural theology as “a matter of seeking in vain a source of theological knowledge or a ‘knowability of God’ apart from the only true knowability of God in Jesus Christ” (110). But as Duby rightly observes,

Though he has become a remarkably influential figure in Protestant discussion of natural theology, Barth is but one voice in the discussion, one who knew he had taken up a minority position. Indeed, he called the church’s pre- and post-Reformation doctrine of a natural knowledge of God a “hydra” that kept returning. Barth should have allowed the church’s consensus (a word he himself uses) with its biblical moorings to chasten his rejection of the natural knowledge of God. (123)

Yet while many contemporary Protestants have written in defense of natural theology as classically defined above, relatively few have constructively taken up the analogia entis (analogy of being), the very doctrine that makes natural theology possible. A handful of scholars have written specialized articles, and even books, which touch on the subject, but extended general discussion of the topic has been scarce.[2]

This brings me to my second comment. While the entirety of Duby’s book is richly substantive and commendable, his treatment of the analogia entis in particular is much to be welcomed and appreciated in light of the Protestant lacuna on the subject. Barth recognizes that natural theology and the analogia entis stand or fall together. Therefore, as with natural theology, he rejects any notion of an analogia entis “because of his insistence on a fundamental discontinuity between God and the world and his attendant commitment to theology as a discipline informed and governed…by God’s free revelatory activity in the person of Jesus Christ” (265). Against this, Duby argues for the legitimacy of the analogia entis (and the analogy of attribution in particular) as part of the catholic tradition.

Finally, while a book devoted to topics such as metaphysics, natural theology, and the analogia entis may seem abstract and distant from the lives of ordinary Christians, these matters are anything but irrelevant. In a time when our society is increasingly hostile toward traditional Christianity, it is helpful to be able to appeal to the universally attainable and natural knowledge of God in order to facilitate our witness and evangelism, rather than hampering our witness by denying the existence of such knowledge. Duby recognizes this, writing, “If we can expect to encounter genuine traces of the knowledge of God among those who do not know Christ or the Bible, if we can expect, even from within a thoroughly Christian view of God, some cognitive commensurability in the work of Christian witness, this can help to inform and encourage evangelism and missions” (10). In sum, Duby has presented an excellent biblical and classically-theological counterpoint to Barth’s idiosyncratic theological method. Duby’s vision of theology, far from being a merely scholastic exercise, bears heavily on our Christian lives, both as disciples and as witnesses.

James Clark is a student at Yale Divinity School. His writing, most of which can be found at https://jamesdkclark.wordpress.com/, has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Themelios, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.

[1] See the numerous works in the past two decades seeking to rehabilitate natural law within the Protestant tradition from authors such as J. Daryl Charles, Stephen J. Grabill, David VanDrunen, and David Haines and Andrew A. Fulford, as well as some contributions on natural theology in the Davenant Institute’s own Philosophy and the Christian.

[2] See, e.g., Richard A. Muller, “Not Scotist: understandings of being, univocity, and analogy in early-modern Reformed thought,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 14, no. 2 (2012), 127–150, https://doi.org/10.1179/1462245913Z.00000000011, and Jack Kilcrease, “Johann Gerhard’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas’s Analogia Entis,” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, eds. (Hoboken, NJ; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), 109–128.