Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: A Review

Controversy has been brewing within Reformed evangelicalism about whether faithfulness to Scripture is compatible with the “great tradition” of classical theism. These fault lines appeared quite suddenly in the course of the “Trinity debate” that transpired mostly online in the summer of 2016. The next year, James Dolezal published a forceful critique of evangelicals for adopting what he called “theistic mutualism” in an attempted compromise between classical theism and open theism. Craig Carter has published equally forceful arguments, warning against evangelical compromise with modern hermeneutics and theology proper. In the other direction, James White, Doug Wilson, and others have recently warned about the dangers of a growing interest in the theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Both sides have sincere concerns. One side perceives the danger in relying over-much on traditional formulations of doctrine, especially those of Thomas, who made much use of Aristotle and other extra-biblical philosophical resources. They warn that a resurgent Thomism will lead evangelicals and Reformed Christians away from Scripture and toward Roman Catholicism.

The other side are concerned that contemporary exegesis and theological formulation are dangerously superficial, especially among those who deliberately limit the role of attending to the theological tradition and extra-biblical philosophy. They warn that a simplistic “biblicism” will lead evangelicals and Reformed Christians to unwittingly conform themselves to modern thought, even in their study of Scripture.

The central issues of this debate are addressed in Steven J. Duby’s recent book Jesus and the God of Classical Theism. As may be gathered from the title, Duby defends the “Thomist” side by giving a detailed account and defense of classical theism as it bears on the doctrine of the person of Christ. The real value of Duby’s work, however, is not in his defense of one “side,” but in showing the way towards a truly adequate way to account for the valid concerns and aspirations of all—whether “Thomists” or “biblicists”—who aim to know, worship, and proclaim “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent” (John 17:3).

Christology is a fitting doctrinal locus for adjudicating these issues. Modern theology has programmatically criticized classical theism for diverting attention away from the historical particulars of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Among Protestant liberals, including many modern biblical scholars, this has resulted in a stark disjunction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” Evangelical responses to this disjunction have focused on affirming the authority of Scripture, while granting that certain points of the traditional doctrine of God may require revision in light of the concerns of modern theology and biblical scholarship. Duby points to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel as an exemplar of this approach.

Duby notes three concerns motivating the modern Christological critique of classical theism, and accepts them as valid desiderata for an adequate account of the person of Christ. These are: 1) a “concern to provide adequate description of Christ’s relationship to the Father and Spirit,” 2) a “concern to uphold the unity of the person of Christ” and 3) a “concern to uphold the immediacy and authenticity of the Son’s human experience and suffering” (1).

Much modern theology supposes that classical theism prevents Christology from furnishing these three desiderata, and forces it artificially interpret Scripture according to doctrinal formulae. Duby argues to the contrary, that classical theism enhances our exegesis of Scripture and extends our doctrinal insight into the revealed mystery of the God-man and his incarnation.

After describing classical theism and its contemporary rivals in the first chapter, Duby goes on to address these issues as they pertain to six major aspects of the doctrine of Christ’s person. Chapter 2, on the Son’s eternal relation to the Father, is a masterful treatment of the doctrine of eternal generation. Duby does not give much direct attention to the question of “eternal functional subordination,” but he does address the underlying issues, thus offering evangelicals a way out of recent missteps in the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 3, Duby addresses the Son’s election to the office of mediator. A notable feature of this chapter is Duby’s careful and technical description of the pactum salutis or “covenant of redemption.” This doctrine has been precious to Reformed believers for centuries, but it has also been the occasion for some missteps toward social trinitarianism. Duby shows clearly how the pactum salutis coheres with the essential unity of God’s will, possessed fully and equally by each of the divine persons.

In chapters 4-7, Duby describes various aspects of the Son’s incarnate life. These chapters traverse some of the most difficult questions in theology, which are also some of the most precious themes to Christians. Duby explores in satisfying detail the exegetical and theological issues involved in the Son’s assumption of humanity, his human dependence on the Spirit, his human obedience to the Father, and his human suffering.

This book deals with weighty themes, and it is not always an easy read, despite Duby’s clear writing. The hard work is repaid handsomely, though, with fresh insight into Christ’s human life of obedience, faith, and suffering. The climax of the book is a look into the central mystery of the atonement, that God is impassible (incapable of suffering), and yet the one who suffered on the cross is truly the impassible God.

Duby’s offers a way beyond seemingly intractable debates between “Thomists” and “biblicists,” and this in several ways. First, he constantly shows his exegetical work, even as he follows traditional lines of thought.

Second, his historical vision goes far beyond the figure of Thomas Aquinas. He gives careful attention to the Church Fathers, including the crucial but much-neglected figure of Cyril of Alexandria. He also frequently appeals to Reformed Scholastics, including both familiar figures like John Owen and less-famous ones like Amandus Polanus, whose Latin works remain untranslated.

Third, Duby patiently expounds contemporary challenges to classical theism, rather than relying on caricatures of his opponents’ arguments. His understanding of Karl Barth and Colin Gunton is just as good as his grasp of Aquinas and Petrus van Mastricht. He shows that classical theism need not accommodate the premises of modern theology to adequately describe Christ’s relationship to the Father and spirit, to uphold the unity of Christ’s person, or to affirm the authenticity of his human suffering (the three desiderata mentioned at the outset).

Fourth, Duby’s conceptual clarity and depth yields a real harvest in Christian devotion. Too often, theological controversy reveals not only our dim mental grasp of biblical doctrine, but also our poor spiritual attunement to God and his revelation. By eschewing petty polemics and devoting sustained attention to the realities involved in the person of Christ, Duby charts a sound doctrinal course that is also spiritually satisfactory. His work fulfills the famous remark of C.S. Lewis, that “many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC Sunnyvale in Sunnyvale, California.


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