This is the fourth of my short essays on Scholasticism. I keep promising that each will be my last. Perhaps if I do not make such a promise this time, I’ll be able to stop. So this time I do not promise to quit.
Each essay has been more elementary, more basic, more simple, than the last. The reason is that as I continue to meditate on these issues, it seems to me that certain points that I learned at the beginning of my theological studies (fifty years ago!), things that I took to be common wisdom back then, have become largely forgotten today, if not actively opposed.
So in this essay I will consider the basic Gospel. How does God save us from sin and all its effects?1
All the religions and philosophies of the world agree that something is wrong with us. We are beset by pain and suffering, weakness, poverty, moral weakness, and wickedness. But among those philosophies and religions, there are two opposite diagnoses of our problem, and two different and opposite remedies. As Cornelius Van Til put it, one diagnosis/remedy is metaphysical, the other ethical. Two different Gospels.
The metaphysical diagnosis blames our plight on our metaphysical nature. On this view, the evils of life exist because we are finite. And the only way to escape from the suffering is to gain a new metaphysical status. We must transcend our finitude to become infinite, according to the Gnostics and the Greeks. According to the Buddhists we must escape from being itself and enter Nirvana, which is a form of nonbeing. The Gnostics prescribed various exercises, including knowledge and good works, which eventually would lead us to a union with the ultimate. Various brands of mysticism presented meditation as a cure, a way of transcending this existence and becoming one with the infinite.
The ethical diagnosis is very different. In the ethical understanding, the sufferings of this world have their origin in our personal rebellion. The personal being who made the world and ourselves, commanded us to obey him, and we refused. The sadnesses of this life are in part punishment, in part motivation toward repentance, in part reminders that God rules the world and not ourselves. But that personal God sent his Son as a sacrifice, so that those who trust in him might walk with him in joy through this life, and live with him in a renewed heaven and earth through all eternity. The problem, then, is not finitude, but sin. And the remedy is not for us to climb by our own efforts to a higher metaphysical status. The remedy is for us to be reconciled to God and accept his restructuring of our personal relationship, through the sacrifice of his Son and the resurrected life of his Son dwelling in us by his Spirit.
Metaphysical salvation is impersonal; ethical salvation is utterly personal.
Greek philosophy advocated various forms of metaphysical salvation. Parmenides urged us to rethink everything, so that we could accept the sufferings of this world as illusion. Plato acknowledged that the world of suffering had a kind of shadowy being, but compared to the world of Forms it was unreal, and we need to enter that higher world somehow. Plotinus turned Plato’s dichotomy into a continuum, and he taught that salvation came through mystical union with the One, a being that cannot be described in human language.
The Bible rejects any such scheme. Its message is thoroughly personal: repent from sin and trust in Christ. But some of the early church theologians felt that they needed to combine this Gospel with the metaphysical form of salvation. They were emphatically committed to the personal Gospel of the Bible. But they thought it important to make common cause with the most respected of the ancient thinkers. So Justin Martyr, who loved Jesus to the point of dying for his faith, sometimes spoke of God as “Being,” in impersonal terms. Using a dubious interpretation of Ex. 3:14, many theologians started thinking of God as Aristotle did, as the “pure act of being,” without understanding how much they were conceding to an impersonalist world view. Aquinas worked out a very impressive intellectual system that sought to do justice both to biblical personalism and to Greek impersonalism.
But the Reformers wouldn’t have it. One way of understanding Luther and Calvin is by noticing how personalist their preaching was. There was little if anything in their theology that recalled the scholastic doctrine of God. Rather, they saw God as a personal—tri-personal—ruler of heaven and earth, the sovereign LORD of Scripture. While medieval Catholicism tended to see God’s grace as a kind of substance, dripping from God to the Pope and Bishops, through the sacraments, to the individual believer, the Reformers saw themselves personally standing before God’s throne, in his presence, coram deo. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, they prayed “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner;” and they were justified, forgiven, and sent into the world to bring others.2
In our current dispute within Evangelicalism over Thomism/scholasticism, this is the issue. Are we saved by transcending our finitude and accepting an existence within the divine essence? Or are we saved by maintaining our individuality and personality and coming before the living personal God begging for his mercy in Christ?
The Bible does teach that God is simple, immutable, eternal, and triune. But it ascribes these qualities to a personal God who interacts with human beings in a history of redemption. This is a metaphysic of what I have called “biblical personalism.” And our salvation comes not through changing our metaphysical status (as if our sin were part of our nature), but by entering a personal covenant with the Lord God in Jesus Christ.
- It’s appropriate that the week before I wrote this essay, R. C. Sproul passed into glory. R. C. was a bit more Thomistic than I would have preferred. But he was a strong advocate of the Reformation doctrine of salvation and an uncompromising opponent of Roman Catholicism. He insisted that the “Gospel” should always be central. I believe that he would have been less favorable to Aquinas if he understood how much Thomistic metaphysics undermined the Gospel. ↩
- Some of the successors of Luther and Calvin followed Aquinas somewhat, as they sought to transform the Reformation Gospel into a form fit for academic discussion. They are sometimes called “Protestant Scholastics,” though that title overestimates their agreement with Thomistic thought. Some today tell us that because concepts like divine simplicity and immutability are found in the Protestant confessions, people subscribing to those confessions are obligated to accept all the arguments made by the sixteenth and seventeenth century theologians. I reject that principle. Subscribing to the Westminster Confession’s statement that God is simple means only acknowledging that God is simple. It does not require subscribers to accept all the Thomistic argumentation used in the theological tradition. ↩