Thursday, February 21, 2008

The people of Israel only identify God in his acts and do not presuppose a being as it were behind the acts

Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Neil MacDonald replies from Faith and Theology by Ben Myers
Note: Last week I posted
a critical review of Neil MacDonald’s new book, and I invited him to respond. So he has kindly written this detailed reply.

I cannot accept Aquinas’s analysis of causation because it presupposes natural theology. So my analysis of divine self-determination without natural theology does not presuppose Aquinas’s analysis of causation!

In fact it really only presupposes that God is a person, not that he has a nature. That is, even if God has a nature, it is not relevant to the nature of the world. God does not require a nature to act. As to the question whether God has a nature, I will only point out that Claus Westermann makes it clear that, in creation, the people of Israel only identify God in his acts and do not presuppose a being as it were behind the acts.

But let me end, Ben, on your fascinating thematic point of departure from which you launched your review. You say that you have been “thinking a lot lately about the relation between nature and grace.” If I were asked to say where the historical precedent for my view of divine action lies, I would say it lies with Luther. Think of Luther’s claim on God as the promising divine identity who promises us forgiveness of sins and, by extension, the gift of eternal life. Without going into the details of Luther’s thought on this matter: suppose I believe myself to be precisely the one who has been promised eternal life in this way.

If this is true, then God has promised me the gift of eternal life – which means that my belief is true. But now suppose an identical world in which I exist but God does not. In this world, I also believe that I have been promised the gift of eternal life. But it is not true, I am wrong. But of course the two worlds are identical in this regard. There is no difference as regards my “ontic” status between one world and the other.

This is of course not true in Aquinas’s world as regards grace. For Aquinas, in the world which God created and in which I believe I have received grace, I receive an “ontic” infusion of grace. In the world which God didn’t create (and which doesn’t exist) and in which I believe I have received grace, I do not receive an “ontic” infusion of grace. So for Aquinas, the worlds are not identical.

Daphne Hampson’s book, Christian Contradictions, speaks of a distinction between Catholic (Thomist) and Protestant (Lutheran) approaches to grace in terms of an “ontic” model and a “status of relations” model. What I have to say corresponds to these two different kinds of models. I found her book very illuminating and, after I had finished the Metaphysics book, it made me think of writing a kind of sequel, placing the work in the historical context of the contrasts between the Thomistic and Lutheran visions.

So there are these two great – perhaps irreducible – theological traditions, and I belong to the tradition of Luther, Bultmann (think of his undemythologisable analogical understanding of divine action), and Barth.

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