A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Daniel T. (Danny) Slavich
God in Himself is a volume in the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, edited by Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer. This series aims to provide evangelical, constructive, biblical, and catholic (small-c) volumes of faithfully creative and creatively faithful Christian theology. The author, Steven J. Duby, is an associate professor of theology at Grand Canyon University. Along with numerous journal articles, he has written Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark, 2016).
In this volume, Duby embarks on a contested theological path. He intends to lead the reader on a rigorous but rewarding walkway toward divine theologia. Theologia is the study of God in himself aside from his work in the world (p.6). Theologians have called God’s work in the world the “economy” (from the Greek oikonomia) or, in Latin, the work of God ad extra—that is, outside of his own, eternal triune life. Despite the long-standing and influential protest against theologia from those such as Martin Luther and Karl Barth, Duby dives deeply into the fray of this discussion for the sake of building up the church in her worship and witness (pp. 9-10).
Duby displays a remarkable grasp of medieval, Reformed Protestant, and modern theological conversations. In fact, he practically summarizes the method of his project when he says at one point, “I would suggest it will be helpful to take into account the way Thomas and some of the Reformed Orthodox handle this matter” (p.36). This he does over and again with great success, laying out his argument neatly, both from chapter to chapter and within each chapter itself. Chapter one examines the possibility and purpose of knowledge of God (theologia). Chapter two enters into the debate about whether we can do “natural theology,” or learn about God from the created order. Chapter three explains the role of the doctrine of the incarnation (Christology) in theology proper, the theological study of God himself. Chapter four aims to recapture a proper role for metaphysics (the philosophical study of being) in theology. Chapter five, finally, explores which ways of speaking are or are not possible for speaking about God. Below I will summarize each chapter in a bit more detail, then offer a brief review.
Chapter one, “Theologia Within the Divine Economy” (pp. 11-58) like each chapter, outlines very clearly. In this case, Duby presents a four-part case for knowing God as is he and not merely knowing God in what he does. First, God intends for our knowledge of him to lead to communion with him. God reveals his self-sufficient nature, that he doesn’t need us. This is the doctrine of God’s aseity, and we can know this truth because God has revealed it to us. Second, “infused theology […] is a knowledge of God built into the reception of the gospel” (p.21), while “acquired theology” (p.22) is the intentional effort to understand that theology more fully and precisely. Duby’s work explains the nature of acquired theology. He argues that if God intends for us to commune with him, we can only do so if we know him. This knowledge of God in himself is the purpose of theological investigation, and we can pursue this knowledge only by faith. Third, all theological knowledge is “ectypal,” a human “limited copy of God’s self-knowledge,” whereas that divine self-knowledge itself is “archetypal” (p.33). Before the eschatological vision of God in glory, we pursue theological knowledge by way of God’s revelation, “a theology of pilgrims’ (theologia viatorum)” (p.40). Fourth, Duby argues that in contrast to the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus) of Luther and Barth, we can know God in himself, as he truly is.
Chapter two, “‘Preparation for the School of Grace:’ The Role of Natural Theology” (pp.59-131), argues that “natural theology” or knowledge we learn of God from “natural revelation” can help prepare us for fuller knowledge of God in Scripture and the gospel (p.59). Duby prefers the term “natural revelation” over “general revelation” because it “focuses more on the manner” of this revelation rather than “the extent of its availability” (p.59, n.1). His case lays out, here again, in four parts. First, in disagreement with Barth, Duby demonstrates that Scripture itself testifies that God reveals his divine nature in creation (for example Ps. 8, Ps. 19, Acts 17, Rom. 1). Second, Duby surveys Augustine, Thomas, Scotus, Ockham, and the Protestant Reformed/scholastics on the question. Third, Duby engages and responds to various forms of pushback against natural knowledge of God from Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Barth, Herman Bavinck, and Alvin Plantinga. His discussion here is detailed and technical, but he concludes with a fourth section with four theses: (1) Natural revelation is God’s revelation (p.126). (2) Natural revelation reveals characteristics of God as Creator “like wisdom, power, righteousness, and goodness” (p.128). (3) God purposes through natural revelation to make people aware of their need for him (p.129). (4) This knowledge only reveals a limited perceptive of God’s character and is further obscured by human sinfulness (p.130).
Chapter three, “Incarnation in Context: Christology’s Place in Theology Proper” (pp.132-187), reckons first with recent theological proposals that take the incarnation of Jesus Christ as the only proper source for our knowledge of God. This move was made most notably by Barth, who influenced T.F. Torrance, Paul Molnar, Eberhard Jüngel, Robert Jenson, and Bruce McCormick. The latter of these have gone so far as to take Barth’s proposal to mean that God’s own being is connected ontologically with the incarnation. In contrast, Duby argues, we must make the Bible our “external cognitive principle” for “supernatural theology” (p.140), because the Bible is God’s appointed way of revealing himself and the incarnation itself to us. Nevertheless, second, Duby argues that incarnation does reveal God’s nature. The sending of the Son in time reveals the eternal generation of the Son from the Father in God’s self-giving, triune life. The doctrine of the incarnation preserves the unbridgeable distinction between Creator and creation. It shows “that God is a se and self-referentially complete” (p. 154). The incarnation is a free “gift” (p.157) that God did not need to complete his eternal sufficient being. Third, before the incarnation, the Son or Logos (the “Word” from John 1) himself communicates and reveals God in creation and the Old Testament. Fourth, Duby argues against Barth’s influential position on the Logos asarkos (“Word without flesh,” or pre-incarnate Son/Logos) and the extra Calvinisticum (that the Son’s divine nature is not limited to the incarnate Christ). Barth argued that seeking to posit a Logos asarkos could divide the person of the Son into “one sort of Logos prior to the act of election and another after it,” while the “the extra Calvinisticum may compromise the unity of the person of Christ” (p.178). Duby argues that the problem can be resolved by the historical view that the union of the divine nature and human nature takes place at the level of the “hypostasis” or person of the Son (p.184).
Chapter four, “Theology and Metaphysics Revisited” (pp.188-231), outlines the critiques of using metaphysical concepts in theology. Such critiques assert that using metaphysics in theology compromises the gap between God and creation along with God’s freedom. Duby, instead, argues that “metaphysics, historically understood,” (see, notably, Aristotle) “is actually just the study of created being as such and that it does not God within its field of inquiry” (p.231). The theologians of the church did not place God under “being” (ens) as a category (p.208). Rather, concepts from metaphysics (used in the Bible itself at times) can help the church analogically describe the truth of the biblical witness as a way of describing “what God is as God” in what “is common to the three divine persons and” what “distinguishes him from false gods” (p.217). In this way, the practice of theologia can preserve the critical teaching of the freedom of God in his work of creation and redemption. Neither creation nor redemption adds anything to God, and he does not need anything from anyone outside of his own perfect triune life.
Chapter five, “‘To Whom Will You Compare Me?’ Retrieving the (Right) Doctrine of Analogy” (pp.232-291), concludes Duby’s volume with an important analysis of the way we can speak about God. We can speak about God by way of “analogy—a similarity that leaves room for significant dissimilarity” (p.232). First, Duby explains that God both transcends our understanding, yet he still communicates to us. This means that we may say things about God that are true (“God is wise”) yet incapable of capturing the fullness of God’s simple nature. Second, Duby explains the technicalities of philosophical and theological conceptions of analogical language. Stemming from Aristotle’s distinctions, we may predicate “an ‘analogy of attribution,’” which posits a “likeness” of something to another “principal thing” or “an ‘analogy of proportionality” which compares “features of two things,” that is, “a is to b as c is to d” (p. 243). In contrast to “univocal” (direct correspondence) and “equivocal” (no correspondence) ways of speaking of God, Christian theologia depends upon analogical language to maintain its integrity. We can speak about God in ways that we understand, while always keeping in mind that God is far beyond our understanding. Likewise, in contrast to Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg, Duby argues for a use of the analogy of attribution in the form of unum ad alterum (“one to the other”) (p.276).
Duby concludes with his hopes that his volume will prepare the way for increased study of “God’s prevenient fullness from which he generously acts toward creatures” (p.294) and the pursuit of theology and Christology that can appreciate but is not captive to Barth’s ideas, done with reverence but not “paralyzed by a fear of ‘speculation,’” with joy in simply knowing God himself (p.295).
- This is a rigorous book. Duby’s engagement with many dense theologians and their ideas and terms (along with a fair amount of Latin and some Greek) might intimidate readers, especially those without formal theological training. In this case, some best reading practices might be particularly helpful. For example, I would recommend reading the introduction and the conclusion to the book before reading into the main body. Likewise, I would recommend carefully reading the introduction and conclusion of each chapter before reading its main contents. Duby very consistently provides the reader with a roadmap for the way ahead. Each introduction and conclusion outlines and summarizes the argument of the chapter. This will help you keep your bearings on the journey. Although the reading hurdle is fairly high and technical for God in Himself, you will find a lot of help by letting Duby himself guide you along the way. Also, it could be easy to get lost in Duby’s numerous and robust footnotes. Duby’s breadth of research and depth of ancillary arguments here are almost breath-taking. The trained theologian will want to engage these notes deeply. But if you’re reading with a less technical background, you might want to skip them the first time through the book. You will have plenty to keep you busy in either case.
- This is a rewarding book Don’t let the rigor of this volume scare you away from it, because it will repay investing into its treasures. If you’re less attuned theologically, you might need to take a bit more time (and look up some words), but you will find your heart and mind expanded in your knowledge of and delight in God. If you’re a trained and adept theologian, you will also find your heart and mind thrilling to the vision of God that Duby rightly draws out from Scripture and the Thomist and Reformed theological tradition. Nothing can be more freeing than faith seeking understanding of the God who is free. A God who does not need us is a God worth contemplating and a God who can truly love us. You can think of this book as practice for heaven, where the full-time job of everyone redeemed of the Lord will be to bask in the glory of God’s presence. Reading this book will be like training for a marathon by running at altitude. Breath it in, deeply, and let other loves “be relativized by the joy of knowing the triune God” (p.295).
- This should be a required I would encourage professors and students pursuing graduate or post-graduate education to put God in Himself high on your reading and assigning list. It represents a model attempt at constructive theological retrieval. Duby ably surveys and synthesizes a deep well of data from Thomas and the Reformed scholastics, deploying them in a convincing way against some of the less helpful moves of more recent theological discussion. Classical doctrines like aseity and simplicity had fallen on difficult times but are newly resurgent. Duby adds importantly to this salutary impulse. His argument for theologia can counterbalance emphasizing historical-grammatical exegesis or the biblical-theological storyline or in a way that ignores the nature of God as he has revealed himself. Against models of historicist trinitarianism or Christology, we learn here (as we do in Scripture) that God is abundantly life in himself and that he does not need our life to complete his. Against an overly strong apophaticism, Duby tells us not to theologize in fear, but in reverent, speakable faith. Against overly elevating or making all theology a function of Christology, we find here the priorities set straight yet again. God—independent of and before his wonderful works.
Daniel T. (Danny) Slavich
Buy the books
GOD IN HIMSELF: SCRIPTURE, METAPHYSICS, AND THE TASK OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, by Steven J. Duby