Brian G. Mattson on Classical Theism, Critical Race Theory, and N. T. Wright

Brian G. Mattson is a public theologian, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership as well as Adjunct Professor of Systematic and Public Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, has written several books, and lectures on theology and culture.

CCL: One of the hot theological topics the last few years among conservatives has been over the traditional attributes of God. All conservatives are classical theists in the broad sense, but some are convinced that a few attributes need “tweaked” to bring them more into like with the Bible’s picture of God. Example: “hard impassibility” (God’s creatures cannot affect him) or “soft impassibility” (man can affect God but not overthrew his will). What’s your general impression of this debate?

BGM: My impression is that this debate always exists; it may subside for a time, but then flares up with varying degrees of urgency. Talking about how an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it) interfaces and interacts with a finite, temporal, and changeable world is bound to be a mysterious subject matter, in the very nature of the case. How can God be and act in space, time, and change without this being at the expense of his very nature?

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the concerns of the “hard” classical theists, as you describe them. Many modern attempts at expressing the God/world relation have sacrificed God’s transcendent Lordship in the interests of a more “involved” and/or “relational” Deity. I have in mind the basically pantheistic (or panentheistic) approaches of process theology, Open Theism, the Emergent movement, etc., which essentially deny that God is a se, “of himself,” having “a life and existence of his own” (Bavinck). God needs his creation in order to be God!

But pantheism is not the only danger. We must be careful that, stepping back from the pit of pantheism, we don’t stumble backward into the ditch of Deism, in which God is so transcendent and removed from the finite and temporal world that he is entirely “above it all.” I worry that some recent advocates of the classical view are veering into this territory when, for example, they understand “anthropomorphism”—God’s appearing to act in “human” ways (e.g., angered, grieved, relented, repented, etc.)—to mean mere appearance. It only looks like God was angry one moment and merciful the next. In fact, what happens in history—say, a sinner repenting—doesn’t affect God in any way at all! This strikes me as losing altogether the relationship between God and the world, in an (over)reaction to blurring the distinction between them. This is the Epicurean answer to the Stoics, and I fear that if it is carried out consistently to its logical conclusion we will lose much else of greatest importance. Who, exactly, suffered and died on the cross? To attempt an answer to that question is to realize that this stuff really does matter.

The Christian answer must be to get our understanding of what “transcendence” means and what “immanence” means from the Bible, not principles of pagan philosophy. It is paganism that constantly vacillates between a pseudo-transcendence or a pseudo-immanence, Deism or pantheism, Parmenides or Heraclitus, Epicureans or the Stoics. We ought to submit to how the Bible describes God’s transcendent Lordship of space and time and how he can—precisely because of that sovereignty—engage fully in his own story without sacrificing that Lordship. That is, it seems to me, the very uniqueness of the Christian message, over against all other philosophies and religions that vacillate on these very questions. The Word who was in the beginning, and who was with God, and who was God, became flesh and dwelt among us. And it is real.

CCL: Another big topic is whether the church can incorporate helpful aspects of Critical Race Theory without buying into its atheistic presuppositions. Your thoughts?

BMG: My thoughts begin with despair that this topic can be addressed with any light instead of heat. I am only barely kidding. Tim Keller wrote 40+ thousand thoughtful, nuanced, and often brilliant words on the topic and was instantly shuffled into whatever preconceived box people had already prepared for him—even when he didn’t belong in any of the boxes. So I’m not exactly hopeful that I can say anything helpful.

From the earliest centuries the Christian church has recognized that even pagans have great and beneficial insights, and the contemporary challenge with CRT is just our latest opportunity to wrestle again with that fact. How can an atheistic philosophy like Marxism (which is, in fact, the seedbed of CRT) have anything useful to teach Christians? There are a limited number of answers to this question.

         1) Marxism, actually, is great (so let’s listen and learn!)

         2) Marxism is godless philosophy (so let’s not listen and learn!)

         3) Marxism is a unstable mixture of good and bad (so let’s discern!)

Number (1) essentially denies the antithesis between faith and unbelief and devolves into worldliness. Number (2) emphasizes the antithesis, but knows nothing of “common grace” and devolves into otherworldliness (no unbeliever can say anything true!). Number (3) is the consensus approach in Christendom, but that isn’t saying very much because we need to discern what constitutes “good” and “bad,” and we need to figure out what roots are producing what fruits and why. Moreover, whether the fruits really do come from the stated roots, or whether they’re “borrowed capital” from elsewhere—i.e., “borrowing” a Christian fruit (e.g., racism is wrong) and transplanting it into foreign intellectual soil. This is all going to take both deep biblical reflection as well as worldview thinking. Both of which are in extremely short supply.

I think CRT makes at least one reasonable and biblical point: sinners (including those whose sin is racism) can construct systems that benefit themselves at the expense of others. What was the Jim Crow south but systemic racism? It was codified in law! So far, so good. Where we’ve been complacent about such systemic sins, we ought to repent of it and rectify matters (as we did with Jim Crow, for example, at gunpoint from the 101st Airborne, in one instance) no matter who brings the charge, Marxists or otherwise.

However, along with that legitimate observation comes a whole worldview that goes way beyond anything Christians can affirm. As far as I can see, CRT as a school of thought is fatalist, unfalsifiable, divisive, ungrateful, uncharitable, unforgiving, unsatisfied, often slanderous, often empirically wrong, apocalyptic, utopian, and bears all the hallmarks of a new kind of Gnosticism. Read Galatians 5 and you won’t see these characteristics in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit.

My main long-term worry about churches in particular is that our massively sentimental age uniquely exposes us to manipulation. Because we (rightly) know our own sin and sinful propensities, because we want to be quick to repent and respond in humility, we tend to lean heavily toward niceness and empathy. We affirm, affirm, and affirm, and rarely, if ever, call the Marxist worldview to account for its destructive, conscience-searing, soul-crushing spiritual and intellectual totalitarianism. I’m all for compassionate hearts. But they’re useless without spines.

Oh, and read Tim Keller’s work. I think you’ll find it helpful.

CCL: You were deeply impressed by N. T. Wright’s History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Why?

Because I discovered that the subtitle is misleading.

Yes, really. When I picked up the book I expected a renewed defense of “natural theology,” the idea that if people just reflect on the created order they can somehow reason their way up to God—well, “god,” at least, and then later supplement with some Bible stuff to really get to “God.”

This book is the published version of Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures, a luminous endowed lecture series held at Scottish Universities. The last New Testament scholar before Wright to give the Giffords was Rudolf Bultmann, a half-century ago. The series was endowed by Lord Gifford in the 19th century to explore the topic of Natural Theology, and Wright rather boldly and winsomely took his opportunity to undermine the whole project down to the roots. Natural Theology, as it has been practiced since the Enlightenment, is, he argues, a revived form of Epicureanism, a sort of Deism where God is far off, way up there, unconcerned and inaccessible to the way down-here realm of history, science, and fact. Our job is to intellectually work ourselves up to him as best we can using our enlightened intellectual tools.

But what if our intellectual tools aren’t enlightened? What if Lessing, Schweitzer, et. al. just blithely and wrongly assumed Epicureanism to be true at the outset? What if the world isn’t like that at all? What if God really is involved in history (see your first question!)? What if God, in Jesus Christ, has radically intervened in human affairs, died and risen again, and inaugurated a new kingdom that gives us new eyes to see?

I am not the only one to recognize that Wright isn’t engaged in “Natural Theology” at all. That’s why the lectures and the book got very little academic attention. He’s actually drilling down and demolishing the entire edifice of what “Natural Theology” means. Instead of rigging the intellectual rules with Epicureanism, why not instead step inside a biblical worldview, take a look around in the Jewish world of Jesus, where heaven and earth were meant to interlock and meet (Temple) and eternity and time to co-inhere (Sabbath)? Why not look at Jesus again, as if for the first time, and see that he is the true Temple and that he brings the eschatological Sabbath by his resurrection from the dead?

The book is a workout. I’m not entirely without criticism, but it is a tour de force. If I were to pithily summarize: only by humbly presupposing the truth of the biblical record can we see it for what it really is, and not by subjecting it to the acid of Enlightenment skepticism. And only by immersing ourselves in that story can we see everything else rightly. It’s a presuppositional argument, start to finish, and it made my heart sing and my mind rejoice.

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