Brad Gregory on where the doctrine of God went off the rails

John Duns Scotus

The first chapter of Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, ‘Excluding God’, is in many ways a restatement, albeit a more historically documented and richly textured one, of the arguments made by the nouvelle theologie and Radical Orthodoxy, that much of the confusion about God and creation in modernity can be traced back to the idea of the ‘univocity of being’ proposed first by Duns Scotus and radicalized by William of Occam. Univocity of being means that when we speak about the being of some creature and the being of God, we are talking about the same kind of property, despite the tremendous differences in scale and type of being. In the later philosophy of Occam, ‘insofar as God existed, “God” had to denote some thing, some discrete, real entity, an ens–however much that entity differs from everything else’ (p. 38). God’s agency in creation, although invisible, omnipotent, etc., is thus the same kind of agency as creaturely agency on a supremely vast, humanly incomprehensible scale.  Thus, as the natural order came to look sufficient in itself in light of increasing scientific knowledge, God’s agency became a hypothesis that could be discarded as unnecessary. God’s agency came to be invoked as a kind of competing explanation (in other words, God became ‘God of the gaps’) for what happens in ‘nature’, and in the light of the explanatory success of the natural sciences, it was no longer a compelling or necessary explanation.

But there’s only one problem: the God who can be rationally domesticated through the invocation of univocity of being and then discarded as an obsolete hypothesis by shaving him off with Occam’s razor has virtually nothing in common with the God of the Christian tradition. Alasdair MacIntyre has quipped that ‘the God in whom the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came to disbelieve had been invented only in the seventeenth century’ (MacIntyre and Riceour, The Religious Significance of Atheism, p. 14), and this is nearly correct, as Gregory says: ‘Ironically, and in fact, despite undermining Aristotelian cosmology, science left untouched the biblical conception of God within a sacramental worldview–despite the widespread rejection of the latter, and despite the lack of recognition by early modern Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, about just how science and the traditional view were compatible’ (p. 53). Gregory goes on to make the startling claim that nothing conceptually has been added to the conversation about God and the natural order, despite increasing refinement of intellectual treatments of the natural order within the framework of metaphysical univocity in the past few centuries: ‘its intellectual bases remain what they were in the seventeenth century, and even more deeply, what they were in the late Middle Ages: a univocal conception of being and the use of Occam’s razor in the relationship between natural causality and alleged divine presence, whether in the United States, Britain, or Europe. Nothing conceptually original, including Darwinian evolution, has been added for many centuries’ (p. 64). Gregory’s point is not that there has not been conceptual advance, but that the advance has been entirely within the deeply rutted channel dug in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. I think this account is substantially correct.

In Patristic Christianity, and more articulately and sophisticatedly in the high medieval systems of Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, God is not a being among beings, albeit the highest among beings in the created order, God is Being itself, who out of love creates all that is in a lesser sense ex nihilo, and upon which all created being depends. This does not necessarily mean, as the Fathers recognized, that God creates at a certain ‘moment’ in time.  As a Augustine puts it in Confessions, when God created all that is, he created time with it. God’s eternity is of a different temporal order than created time and contains all moments contemporaneously within God himself, just as all created being is equally present to God himself. Precisely because God is not a being like the beings in the created order, God is immanently present within, without being identified with, the created order. Nothing simply ‘is’, but rather everything has being insofar as it depends upon God for its being. In other words, creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing and why that something is meaningful. Gregory writes that

The difference between Christian and other ancient views of God (or gods) is more fundamental than is often recognized, and goes far beyond a distinction between monotheism and polytheism. According to this Christian view, God is not a highest, noblest, or most powerful entity within the universe, ‘divine’ by virtue of being comparatively greatest. Rather, God is radically distinct from the universe as a whole, which he did not fashion by ordering anything already existent but rather created entirely ex nihilo. God’s creative action proceeded neither by necessity nor by chance but from his deliberate love, and as love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:8) God constantly sustains the world through his intimate, providential care. Although God is radically transcendent and altogether other than his creation, he is sovereignly present to and acts in and through it. There is no ‘outside’ to creation, spatially or temporally, nor is any part of creation independent of God or capable of existing independently of God. (pp. 29-30).

So far, Gregory’s book is providing a much needed, clearly written antidote to many of the current culture wars swirling around the incommensurability of science and religion. But is Gregory right about the provenance of metaphysical univocity? And is the Reformation to blame for the turn toward univocity? I’ll take a brief look at why Gregory places the onus on the Reformation in the next post.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for this, Jonathan. I think you’ve convinced me this is worth reading. I know you’ve already read Hart’s Atheist Delusions; if you’re looking for other worthy antidotes to the culture wars, as you put it, you might also look at Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation and Conor Cunningham’s Darwin’s Pious Idea.

    One thing I’ve found helpful in this argument from the RO crowd is the point that univocity of being does not only degrade God to a being among beings; it’s just as devastating to nature. In seeking to invest creation with an autonomous existence it denies it its essence as a fully dependent reality. Both mistakes, regarding creator and creature, are obviously critical, but I find ministers and theologians more likely to forget the pastoral implications of our failure to remember the supernatural end to which all nature is ordered – simply put, we expect creation to be complete in and of itself, and thus fully able to satisfy and to be amenable to the orderings we would impose on it.

    Looking forward to future posts,


    • Hey Nathan, thanks for commenting. The book recommendations are great. I want everyone in the church to read at least Heavenly Participation. It’s probably too much to ask everyone to read Darwin’s Pious Idea, but I would love to see that happen as well. I really like the middle section of Boersma’s book on how the western church declined from ‘sacramental ontology’ to ‘juridical papal power’. I also really enjoyed his book on nouvelle theologie – I don’t know if you noticed, but I have a link to it in an earlier post. And Cunningham’s book, which of course covers such a vast terrain that one can’t address it all succinctly, surely makes Gregory’s case that the results of contemporary evolutionary biology do not threaten the Christian God, only the God of seventeenth through nineteenth century ‘physico-theology’. Your point about univocity vesting the creation with far too much significance is also a really good one. Gregory points out that it’s important to ask the cui bono question when one considers why it is that God has been banished from the natural order. Historically, it’s been so that the creation can be subjected to and exploited for unaccountable human purposes. Great comments.

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