I have enjoyed having a discussion with my colleague Jerry Shepherd. I think that the fact that we can have an irenic discussion of this type is very important and illustrates the need for more dialogue without enmity. As interesting as the convesation has been, even more interesting is discovering what the conversation is really about. On the surface you might have thought, at least initially, that the debate was over Calvinism and Arminianism. It turns out that this is a mistaken assumption. A closer inspection reveals that the real issue concerns the role of philosophical reflection in theological formulation, and in particular how philosophical reflection relates to the content of the Bible.
With that in mind I’m going to ask two questions: (1) What is philosophical theology? (2) How does philosophical theology help us to clarify our thinking? Addressing these questions will, I trust, place our debate within a more helpful context.
What is philosophial theology?
Jerry kindly says that “Randal is a brilliant (maximally?) philosophical (which I think is part of the problem) theologian….” Unfortunately this silky compliment carries with it a bristly edge with its suspicion about philosophical reflection. From where does this suspicion arise? Needless to say I’m not in a position to address that particular question. But I can address the assumption that philosophy is suspect. Indeed, I aim to show that such a concern is without warrant. To do so we must clarify what philosophy is.
So when is one doing philosophy? Alvin Plantinga famously claimed that philosophy “is not must different from just thinking hard.” He’s right. Philosophy is, at its core, nothing more than careful conceptual reflection, an analysis and evaluation of argument. (At least that’s what I mean when I refer to philosophy. This doesn’t mean that philosophers who are obtuse are not really doing philosophy. But it does mean, at least, that they are not doing good philosophy. Their philosophy may be equivalent to a dull razor blade that has the power to pinch but has lost the ability to shave effectively.)
Thinking hard? Seeking conceptual clarification? This is surely important and not something of which we should be suspicious.
But there’s more. Not only should we not be suspicious of it. Defined as such we recognize that philosophy is much more common than we once thought. Whenever people are engaged in careful conceptual reflection they are engaged in broadly philosophical argument. And that means that even Jerry may be engaging in philosophy more often than he realizes.
One basic dimension of philosophy is metaphysics, an articulation of our basic convictions about the structure and nature of the world. Just as everyone engages in philosophical reflection (more more less) so everyone has a metaphysic (or more less). Thus, a very basic part of philosophical reflection is turning our drive for conceptual clarification toward our basic metaphysical commitments. Failure to do so will not mean we don’t have a metaphysic, but rather that we have one which is held bereft of the benefit of careful conceptual reflection. As Fergus Kerr observed,
“If theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in the ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first year students.” (Theology After Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 3.)
All this amounts to a two-fold challenge to Jerry. I am not the one doing philosophy as if he is staying clear of the practice. On the contrary, we’re both aiming to think hard and seek to clarify our beliefs. We both also have beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality. The question is not whether we shall think philosophically about these issues. The question, rather, is whether our philosophical thinking shall be done well. And a key step in the evaluation of our philosophical thinking is coming to terms with the fact that we’re thinking philosophically in the first place.
Jerry described me as a “philosophical theologian”. Unfortunately when he said it the term seemed to carry a stigma tantamount to “wheel-chair bound construction worker”. But if philosophy is really nothing more than careful conceptual reflection, then it is no surprise that philosophical theology is nothing more than the application of that careful conceptual analysis to theological topics. As Alister McGrath simply observes, philosophical theology is concerned with “the clarification of ideas.” (Christian Theology, 5th ed., 106) (I strongly recommend the essays by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea in the book Analytic Theology, Oxford University Press, 2009, for further clarification.)
How does philosophical theology help us to clarify our thinking?
That’s what I want to do: clarify our ideas. And a great example is found in the exchange I had with Jerry on the temptations of Jesus. My position on this is simple: Jesus was God and perfect man. From this it follows not only that he could not have sinned (he was impeccable, a view with which Jerry agrees) but also that he could not have found sin desirable in any way. Consequently, Jesus’ temptations did not include a psychological struggle with sin as if he found it in any way desirable.
This is important because Christians often misread the temptations by reading into them their own personal struggles with sin. But Jesus was not “tempted” as a mere human being. Rather, he was tempted as perfect God and perfect man.
It is the careful conceptual clarification that is part and parcel of philosophical theology which aided me in my articulation of this important understanding of the temptation. I think Jerry could beneft from just this kind of clarification. To illustrate the problem, let’s recount some of the excerpts from our discussion on the topic.
James’s purpose in saying this is make short work of anyone who would try to argue that if they fall to temptation, it’s God’s fault because he was the one who tempted him. So James goes on to cover both sides of temptation with regard to God – he can’t be tempted and he doesn’t tempt. My objection here is to defining apeirastos so finely (or, perhaps, so “philosophically”), or to quantify it with words like “maximally” to the point where one can simply ignore or explain away the import of the temptation narratives in the Gospels, or Hebrews’s statement that Christ was “tempted in all points as we are.” With regard to that other clause, “nor does he tempt anyone,” that statement should not be used to negate passages where God hardens people’s hearts, directs the mind and heart of a king like a watercourse, goads Satan into making bets that result in Satan’s evilly bringing calamities on Job and his family, puts stumblingblocks in front of people to see whether or not they will follow him, or tests Abraham’s obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son, etc. Evidently, in some respect, God can be tempted, and he does tempt. Evidently, in some respect, he cannot be tempted and he does not tempt.
Yes, I can say with complete conviction that God is necessarily holy, righteous, pure, just. But I can also say with complete conviction that Christ was tempted to sin. That temptation, which Christ passed through in all points like me, is something Christ did to secure my salvation.
Note how Jerry speaks critically of defining apeirastos “philosophically”. It seems Jerry would rather be left with unclarity in the position that God cannot be tempted even as he affirms that “in some respect, God can be tempted….”
I replied with a challenge for Jerry to provide conceptual clarification (that is, philosophical analysis) to his position so that we could understand what he means by saying that God can and cannot be tempted:
Jerry, do you read the temptation narratives as depicting Jesus struggling with the desire to sin? And do you believe that Jesus qua divinity was peccable or do you confess that he was impeccable (a modal claim)?
Jerry responded with two questions:
Do you believe that God cannot be tempted?
Do you believe that Jesus was tempted?
As a response to a request for conceptual clarification, this was disappointing. But I complied with Jerry’s request by answering his questions:
It depends what we mean by “tempted”. I think a more accurate translation for what happened to Jesus is that he was tested since the English word “temptation” includes the connotation of finding something attractive or desirable and I don’t think Jesus found sin desirable at all. I think he found it disgusting.
I do not think Jesus could have sinned; he was impeccable. But I also think the temptations were real temptations, and that Jesus did in fact wrestle with them, and in less than paradisiacal conditions, hungry, emaciated, alone in the wilderness with only wild animals for company. Remember that we are told that when the tempting was finished, Satan left him “until a more opportune time.” That more opportune time (perhaps not the only one) was in Gethsemane. And I do not think that Jesus’ ultimate submission to the Father’s will was one that that was arrived at without intense wrestling.
I am glad that Jerry accepted the modal analysis that Jesus could not have sinned. However, his position here was still too vague. When he says that Jesus did “wrestle” with temptation does he mean Jesus found sin in any way desirable or, as we’d find it, tempting? That is a very important question which really transforms how we view the temptations and what we think they establish. So I asked Jerry:
I’d like to know whether you think Jesus had to struggle with and, through the painful process of sanctification, master sinful impulses within his own psyche.
Jerry hasn’t yet answered the question. I understand. We both have a pile of grading to do. (The only difference is that he’s more diligent in getting it done, while I’m too busy blogging.)
But the question remains an important one, and one which to my mind has a straightforward and simple answer borne of the tools of careful philosophical reflection.
We are now going to conclude this discussion by turning briefly to consider Hebrews 2:17-18:
For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Most Christians naturally read this temptation account in the light of our experience of temptation. Fred is tempted to cheat on his taxes but ultimately decides to declare all his income. Pauline is tempted to steal the lipstick but ultimately decides to leave it. Albert is tempted to cheat on his wife but ultimately he decides to remain faithful. In each of these cases there is a real desire to sin with which the individual struggles and which is a significant part of the temptation.
I have argued that this natural reading of Hebrews 2:17-18 cannot be correct. Jesus cannot have experienced temptation as Fred, Pauline and Albert experienced it. Note that I made this exegetical argument based on careful attention to conceptual clarification and the logical relationship between beliefs. Yes, my reading of the text was guided by philosophical reflection.
Does this mean that I have engaged in an illegitimate eisegetical reading of the text? I utterly reject those charges. On the contrary, I submit that this is a great case where philosophical theological reflection helps our reading of the text by eliminating possible ways to read the text while helping us avoid a morass of obfuscation and confusion.