How to Talk About God: An Interview with Ryan Hurd

Davenant Institute Teaching Fellow, Ryan Hurd, has devoted his life’s work to the doctrine of God. Later this month, Davenant will be releasing his new video lecture series, “God Is: Introduction to Theology Proper.” Available now for preorder at just $99, the course is a comprehensive introduction to the doctrine of God, and will introduce students to the depths and riches of Christian theology, with a special focus on Thomas Aquinas.

Ad Fontes Editor in Chief Rhys Laverty sat down with Ryan to talk about his calling to the doctrine of God, his upcoming course, and the difference that scholastic theology makes in the pews.

RL: So, Ryan Hurd, why have you devoted yourself, of all the things you could choose, to the doctrine of God?

RH: So I have two parts to this question and answer. First, one more on the abstract or theory side.

I devote myself and continue to devote myself to doctrine of God because when you consider the whole universe of truths, those truths about God are most important. And likewise, errors about him are most serious. And in much of contemporary Christianity, particularly the Protestant or evangelical circles that I grew up in, we’ve got profound problems as to the hierarchy of values, in my opinion, regarding what is most and less and least important in theology as a whole.

There are many things that are important for life. But when you specifically look at theology, which deals with truth in judgment and understanding thereof, God is most important, Christ is most important, and for me nothing else really matters. So that’s more the abstract theory level–when I consider things as a brain in a vat, so to speak.

But more concretely, I devote myself to doctrine of God because in the circles wherein I grew up and still to some extent occupy, doctrine of God is probably the most gutted and disemboweled area of theology. In my opinion, we really needed and still need people to specialize in the hyper-technicals so that a few decades from now maybe our grandchildren can know God better in their native thought life, because they simply grew up with better doctrine and had it inherently instilled. So that’s kind of always been my thought process.

With that said though, I don’t want to sound too optimistic. You read the tradition and the types of problems about doctrine of God that we have today have always been around and they’re never going away. And that’s okay, right? We don’t do theology out of crisis or something like that. So folks’ confusions about God are what have always been the case. And so in a certain mode, focusing on doctrine of God is just doing what a few people every generation have always done. And I just happen to feel that it’s one of the areas that God has called me to. And that’s why I do what I do.

RL: And is that just because we are creatures? Will we always and forever fall into the same problems when it comes to how we think about God?

RH: I mean, yeah, there are some universal factors that are just always going to incline us to certain errors. So we take up our knowledge of God from creatures, and we ourselves are creatures. And so you might say the perpetual error–in fact, Augustine says something like this–the first error in theology is thinking that God is a creature (it’s not an exact quotation, but he basically says that). And that’s just endemic to the fact that we’re viewing God through the lens of creatures. So that’s true.

But particularly to our time, one of the more significant causes of error has been problems in the doctrine of Holy Scripture, which is another reason why I focus on the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the interplay between scholastic doctrine of God and the letter or the text of Holy Scripture, where there’s a lot of, for lack of better terms, “discontinuity” which arises from the page.

The God that arises from the page is not the God of the scholastics, and is not the God of Thomas. In fact, they’re radically different gods. And because of the way Holy Scripture–particularly the letters of Holy Scripture–is treated today, especially in Protestantism, the type of God that arises in people’s minds from Holy Scripture’s letters and its surface appearance is not the true God, and is a radically idolatrous God along a large number of problematic lines.

And so, from my perspective, that is a peculiarly besetting problem for folks today who rightly have a posture towards Holy Scripture that is deeply reverent, to say the least, who know that holy Scripture always returns true judgments, and who recognize that it is a unique instrument of supernatural revelation that God uses to bring us to knowledge of Himself. They have all the right bearings in lots of ways towards Holy Scripture, and we would never want to undermine them. However, they read the letters, and they are really suffering with what the Fathers would call being “slain by the letter.” [They end up] concluding things about God that were said, for example, purely metaphorically as though those were proper.

So for me, the doctrine of God is also a battle for the Bible. I think that the more Biblicist and fundamentalist inclined (which is my background) suspicions of scholastic theology are well founded and are right. It is a fundamentally different way of handling the text of Holy Scripture. And there are fundamentally different gods going on that we’re concluding to, and it’s a real, real problem.

RL: So, usually when people study the doctrine of God, we do it through the framework of the “communicable” and the “incommunicable” attributes. I’ve sat in your classes and heard you suggest a different way of doing it, and you’ve built this class around instead “negative,” “positive,” and “relative” names of God. Why take that approach?

RH: One thing to say would be that the distinction that people are familiar with, communicable and incommunicable, just like any tool, is good so far as it’s good and useful so far as it’s useful. So this is a heuristic, pedagogical way of dividing up material in a way that’s comprehensible and teachable and gets people going. And that’s great. No problem with that.

The problem that comes in is when you take an illustration or a heuristic tool and you think of it as tracking with reality or maybe vice versa. You think of reality as tracking along those lines, going in that kind of way. So the distinction is good as a teaching tool, but can occasion false impressions if you take reality to be that way. So it’s a distinction that doesn’t have place in reality and therefore can be problematic.

What you’ve called here the “approach” of the negative, positive, and relative names, I would actually not call an “approach” because it reflects reality. And it’s not like a method or a neutral way of dividing up material in a manner that’s pedagogically apt or something like that. No, this actually cuts reality at the joints, and therefore is a realized distinction rather than a nominal kind of distinction, which we’re always concerned in theology to avoid.

So the distinction runs on the fact that in reality there are two kinds of intellectual acts of judgment that you can make. You can either affirm or negate something. And that reality is reiterated as the distinction between “negative” versus “positive” names. And then we’ve got divisions underneath negative names, things that we affirm of God. We also have other distinctions like absolute vs. relative positive names. And those likewise correspond to reality and the fact that among creatures, which are where we take up our predicates, there are either absolute items, so to speak, or relative items. This roughly corresponds to Aristotle (well, actually identically corresponds to Aristotle’s distinction between the absolute accidents in the Categories versus the one lonely relative accident). So there’s a lot more to say here, but it’s not an approach that is negotiable. It is a set of distinctions that tracks with reality.

Of course, that’s debatable. We can debate that, but it’s not an ad hoc method decision like communicable vs. incommunicable might be. [And] it has a number of advantages in addition to being a real distinction, if you like. Some of them have to do with the fact that oftentimes, we evaluate our names radically differently as far as what they insinuate or portray of God based upon what those kinds of names are. So if I’m making a negation, well, I’m making positive progress, we might say, but I’m not at all knowing something that God is positively. So “God is not body” is great and is positive progress. This is a truth that is very important, and also has positive function in theology as well, but it doesn’t betoken to me what God is at all. Whereas positive or affirmative names do. And therefore, the way I treat negative names and my evaluation of negative names versus positive names is going to be radically different, as to what they are, what they amount to, and their importance.

Also how I evaluate folks who don’t hold to certain kinds of negative names because they’re not convinced of them, like [in] divine simplicity debates or something like that. Like your whole system of evaluation is different because they’re different things, so to speak.

Likewise, it’s really fascinating that there’s a tendency when you run the incommunicable vs. communicable heuristic distinction, not only to think that because the vast majority of so-called “incommunicable” names are actually negative names and the vast majority of “communicable” names are actually positive names, to garner from that that the set of negations that we make are all of the good and great things about God that are most important. And then the communicable are kind of like secondary or less important. Whereas it’s precisely the reverse. Negative theology is in a certain very technical mode “better” than positive theology ([it’s] difficult to say that in “common talk” because it miscommunicates). But at the end of the day, all of our negations are either distinguishing God from creatures or they are destroying errors. Those are the two final causes or purposes of negative theology: distinguishing God from creatures (or rather creatures from God) and destroying errors. And those are values, those are goods. But: God is good, God is wise, God is love, are just of a different and much higher set of values, particularly for “normal” people. And therefore the impression that people have working on the communicable/incommunicable schema is precisely reversed. It’s not exactly like that because it doesn’t track one-to-one onto the negative and positive names, but it is something like that.

So a lot of the reactions in nineteenth or twentieth century theology against a more metaphysical portrayal of God, or [a] God that’s Aristotelianized and therefore [an] ice cube in the sky, occur because people are reifying and positivizing negative names, and then super-sizing them as though that were what God was. And then you have guys like Barth come along who are like, “well, let’s just speak of the perfections of God and start there.” No–we want to present a biblical God, which focuses on the positive names, primarily, we might say.

RL: So you hold up Thomas Aquinas as the great guide for the doctrine of God in this course. What is it that makes Thomas the guide than which none greater can be conceived?

RH: So Thomas, really without argument, is among the best theologians who ever lived. And doctrine of God is his specialty. He’s also arguably maybe [among the] top three theologians who ever lived. And I would say he’s the top top, but I understand people might disagree!

Studying under the great master is what you always want to do. You don’t want to go panning for gold, you want to go work in the gold mine. That is a living vein. And a lot of people today are really emphatic that truth is found in lots of ways and diverse perspectives are great. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. Some of it’s true, and yeah, you can find truth in lots of places, and that’s great, but I’m just not interested in panning for gold in some random river. I want to work in the gold mine and study under the Master.

But more than that, I would say there’s three particular things that really stand out for me with respect to Thomas Aquinas and doctrine of God specifically: Thomas is clear, comprehensive and correct.

Thomas is laser clear. For that reason, he’s somewhat difficult to read because he’s saying in extremely short fashion–in a purely propositional fashion, in an extremely carefully distinguished fashion–what is. But that has the advantage of just cutting out all of the verbal fluff and stuff, all of the occasion for not understanding exactly what is being said. This is a great advantage if you want to be that person doing that kind of thing. And in doctrine of God, that is what it takes. We don’t play around with metaphor, we are not unclear; we determine our predicate, we either say “is” or “is not,” we put it to God or take it away, and we give the formal cause of our judgment. That’s it. And if you’re into that kind of game and its values are goods that you appreciate, Thomas is your guy. He is as clear as they get, as dry as possible. There are no niceties in Thomas, no rhetorical flourishes in Thomas. And for that reason, he’s good for what he’s good for.

The second would be that he’s comprehensive. Thomas lays claim to terminating theology proper, to finishing everything that can be said of God. Theology has a finite horizon. That horizon is the entire universe of creatures predicated to God through either an affirmative or negative judgment, depending on which is true. And when you’re working at that type of level, as long as you adequately divide up the created order, and as long as you’ve truly predicated either through affirmation, negation, and you’ve given the formal causes of all those affirmations or negations, you’ve done all of theology. That’s all that can be said of God in this life. And when you get through all that, then you just have to wait to see God face to face. Thomas lays claim to having done that, and arguably he did. I certainly hold that he did, but again, I recognize that there is scholarly argument about this. But he cuts creaturely reality up in a highly adequate fashion. This is a very Aristotelian way of doing theology in the sense that adequacy is a prime good. If you’re not adequate, get out of the game. If you’re not cutting up the entire pie at the joints of the pie, you shouldn’t be cutting pie. Go get a different job. From Thomas’s perspective, this is what theology is. And he devises, primarily by way of Aristotle, a mechanism to adequately cover the entire created universe and say it of God. And for that reason, he’s comprehensive.

He does something similar with the data of Holy Scripture. Thomas, in concert with other scholastic theologians, devises a way to adequately say everything that Holy Scripture says of God with respect to the Holy Trinity in five words: paternity, filiation, active and passive spiration, and innascibility. If you say those five things, you’ve said everything of the Holy Trinity and everything else is just details. And they conclude, “yep, that’s it. That’s the entirety of supernatural revelation.” So, comprehensive.

And then third and finally, and perhaps this should be the first, Thomas is correct. He is. All of his judgments are true. I’ve yet to find a single judgment with respect to doctrine of God that’s false. All of them are the true parts of the relevant contradictions. Also by the way, all of them are commonly held by scholastics and great theologians to be the true parts. And Thomas gives formal explanations for why, gives you scientific certainty about those truths, and then gives you a high amount of understanding, which was something of a secondary project for him. He really was into science, giving the demonstrative reason for the true part of whatever contradiction we’re talking about. That’s a high virtue in Thomas.

RL: So what difference does taking in this right thinking about the doctrine of God, what difference does it make about in the wild for Christian congregations? You’d like to have pastors maybe take this course, as well as smart lay people who are going to have teaching opportunities in their the life of their local church and their families. What difference does all this make when this trickles down?

RH: I think that realistically, it gives people the fundamental categories for thinking about God. A lot of my students report that as extremely helpful. So “negative vs. positive/affirmative names,” that type of fundamental kind of distinction is really, really helpful.

The other thing that’s really helpful is different kinds of positive names–namely absolute names and the distinction between proper vs. metaphorical affirmations. So everyone already knows this, but there’s a difference between saying “God is love” and “God is a tree.” One of them is a proper affirmation and the other is metaphorical. Both are true, but they’re not equally meaningful because their reasons for saying are proper vs. metaphorical, respectively. “God is love” in normal person talk, means God is love, period, and love is something real in God. “God is a tree,” if you should choose to say that, indeed is a true judgment, but it means something metaphorical. For example, just as a tree gives sap to its leaves, likewise, God gives being to creatures, something like that. [This is] also true to say of God, but not equally meaningful. Everyone knows that at the programmatic level and can identify some metaphorical sayings in Holy scripture, like “God is a rock,” “God has a hand” and things of this sort. But they often struggle with a lot of the less clear metaphors, which are metaphors, but we might say less clearly so–the vast majority of things in Holy Scripture, in fact being metaphorical, not proper locution, particularly in the Old Testament. And the ability for people to both categorize what is and is not metaphorical versus proper, and then to recognize that there’s lots of different kinds or subspecies of metaphor that likewise have different weights or values is really important to folks and has strong payoff that is very immediate to the ground.

So we’re not fooling ourselves. It takes a lot of work. But being able to say exactly or perhaps know exactly the difference between proper metaphorical speech [is incredibly useful]. And then also underneath the banner of metaphor, [being able] to recognize there are different levels of metaphor, different kinds of metaphor and how that all works out–there’s a lot of cash value in that.

And the pride of this course, the main long middle section, works through six different kinds of affirmations or absolute names that we say of God. Everything from “God is wise” at the top to saying at the very, very bottom, the least positive way of affirming something of God–actually periphrastic where it’s secretly a negation. We don’t use this very often, but it’s found in Holy Scripture a lot. It’s found in the Fathers a lot. So everything from “God is wise” to a periphrastic affirmation at the bottom–the course really capitalizes on those and gives people the fundamental categories to recognize the radical “unevenness” of the text of Holy Scripture, which says according to letter “is,” but underneath those letters are miles of negations, tons of metaphors. And you will be better able to differentiate and dive down into that radically uneven landscape underneath the flat land of the letter of Holy Scripture. And that’s really what this course focuses on especially.

Preorder “God Is: Introduction to Theology Proper” now for just $99. The series will be released February 26, 2024.

Ryan Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medieval and early modern scholastics as well as the 20th century ressourcement movement. He has written a number of articles and regularly does translations of early modern theology sources; but his primary project is writing a systematics of the Trinity.