Geisler’s Systematic Theology vol. 1

Geisler, Norman.  Systematic Theology: Introduction, Bible. Bethany House.

This book would be perfect if it were divided into two separate books.  The first half would be a book on prolegomena, foundations, and apologetic method.  Had I read such a book before I went to seminary, I would have been spared 8 years of wrong thinking (most of which would have been my fault).  The second half is a survey of issues relating to inerrancy, bible survey and introduction, and the like.

There is quite a bit of repetition in this book.  Numerous quotes by Albright, J. A. T. Robinson, and others appear over and over.  Moreover, much of this book can be found in The Big Book of Apologetics/Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics.  It’s still good material, though.

Preconditions of theology:

  1. Mind capable of sending a message (encoder)
  2. Mind capable of receiving message (decoder)
  3. There is a common mode of communication shared by both persons.

God: The Metaphysical Precondition

Geisler defines metaphysics as the study of being.  

Theism posits an Infinite, Personal God that exists both beyond and in the universe. After surveying various forms of dualism and monism, Geisler posits a form of Thomism, noting that all finite beings are composed of act and potency in their very being.  Potentiality limits a finite being’s actuality, as opposed to God, who is Pure Act.

In a move somewhat rare among systematic theologies, Geisler actually defines being. It is that which is, either a mix of potency and act or a pure actuality. God is, other beings have.  From here Geisler moves to his arguments for the existence of this Pure Act.


Horizontal argument.

(1) Everything that had a beginning had a cause. 

(2) The universe had a beginning. 

(3) Therefore, the universe had a Cause. 

The second premise needs defending, which those from Bonaventure to William Lane Craig have done:

1) An infinite number of moments cannot be traversed. 

(2) If there were an infinite number of moments before today, then today would never have come, since an infinite number of moments cannot be traversed. 

3) But today has come. 

(4) Hence, there were only a finite number of moments before today (i.e., a beginning of time). And everything with a beginning had a Beginner. Therefore, the temporal world had a Beginner (Cause).

Vertical Form of the argument:

This argument begins with “present contingent existence.” It argues from effect to Necessary Cause.

(1) If everything were contingent, then it would be possible that nothing existed. 

(2) But something does exist (e.g., I do), and its existence is undeniable, for I have to exist in order to be able to affirm that I do not exist. 

(3) Thus, if some contingent being now exists, a Necessary Being must now exist, otherwise there would be no ground for the existence of this contingent being.

But granting the arguments, would this even prove the Christian God?  It will get closer than you think.  Such a God would not be the one of finite godism, “since the cause of all finite things cannot be finite.”  Nor can it be the god of polytheism, since there can’t be more than one unlimited being.

Miracles: The Supernatural Precondition

The problem of definition: 

Weak sense: something that is not contrary to nature, only our knowledge of nature (Augustine). On this view an event doesn’t even have to be supernatural to be a miracle. This is obviously inadequate.

Strong sense: an event beyond nature’s power to produce (Aquinas, SCG 3).

A miracle doesn’t have to violate natural law. It is simply a new effect produced by a supernatural cause.

Answering objections

Spinoza: standard objection of “violating immutable natural laws.” Response: He begs the question on immutable laws.  He also operates in a closed system. 

Hume: Miracles are in-credible. Uniform experience is against miracles.  Response: He begs the question in advance by claiming to know uniform experience. He can’t know all possible sense experiences. Moreover, as Geisler notes, “he never weighs the evidence on miracles.  He simply adds evidence against them.”  Even worse, Hume’s method of “adding evidence” eliminates any unique experience in history, even natural ones.

Revelation: The Revelational Precondition

The possibility of divine revelation depends on the reality of God.  If God exists, which he does, then divine revelation is not only possible, but actual. The only real challenges today concern whether humans are capable of receiving this revelation (postmodernism) and whether the medium is reliable.

Geisler correctly notes that “In order for an infinite Mind to communicate with finite minds, certain things must be possible. To begin, there must be a common  principle of reason that both possess.” Language and being are analogical.

Geisler’s charts are really good.

While some like to say that man’s thought sinfully distorts general revelation, and at one level that is true, general revelation is still essential to human thought. And while it is true that “Scripture determines what we believe on general revelation,” we still use general revelation (e.g., laws of logic) to make that statement.

That doesn’t fully answer the existential question: when our understanding of general revelation and our understanding of special revelation clash, who wins?  Geisler says the interpretation with more certainty. Sometimes this is general revelation, sometimes special.

Logic: The Rational Precondition

Geisler summarizes here his other writings on logic.  At their most basic they are:

1) Law of non-contradiction
2) Law of identity
3) Law of excluded middle.

In order to help us think better, Geisler has given a nice summary of categorical propositions:These should be written on the inside of all study bibles.

(1) There must be only three terms. 

(2) The middle term must be distributed at least once. 

(3)Terms Distributed in the conclusion must be distributed in the premises. 

(4) The conclusion always follows the weaker premises(i.e., negative and particular ones). 

(5) No conclusion follows from two negative premises. 

(6) No conclusion follows from two particular premises.

 (7) No negative conclusion follows from two affirmative premises.

Most evangelicals will go with him this far, but what is the relationship between Logic and God? According to Geisler, Logic is subject to God ontologically. “God is prior to logic in the order of being.”  Nevertheless, God is rational by his very nature. On the other hand, logic is prior to God epistemologically.  As Geisler notes, the statement “God is God’ makes no sense unless the law of identity holds (A is A).”  The statement “God exists” isn’t true unless the law of noncontradiction is true.

Meaning: The Semantical Precondition

Thesis: all true statements must be meaningful.  Geisler identifies three different types of schools: conventionalism (Wittgenstein), essentialism (Plato), and realism.  Conventionalism is self-falsifying, for when it says all linguistic meaning is conventional, it, too, is relative.

Truth: The Epistemological Precondition

Thesis:  Truth is that which corresponds to its object.

Exclusivism: The Oppositional Precondition

Thesis: Christianity’s truth claims entails that other religious oppositions are wrong (or at least cannot be correct at the same time as Christianity’s).  Much of this is standard fare in evangelical apologetics, but Geisler hones in one of John Hick’s questionable presuppositions.  Hick says an undifferentiated Real is known in all faiths.  The problem is that an undifferentiated Real doesn’t have any definable characteristics, which means it can’t be identified. It can’t be known in any faith!  Even worse, if it is undifferentiated, then no symbol can represent it.

Language: The Linguistic Precondition

Thesis: How do our concepts relate to God?  They can’t be equivocal, for that would be self-defeating.  They can’t be univocal, since God is infinite.   Analogy makes the most sense. It allows for both similarity and differentiation.  Similar to Parmenides’ dilemma, Geisler notes: “Either one’s principle of differentiation is inside of being or it is outside of being. If outside, then things do not differ in being; they are identical in being, and monism is true. The only way to maintain a pluralism essential to theism is to insist that things differ in their very being. Yet how can they differ by what they have in common? The answer is that they cannot, if being is univocal. But it isn’t.”

We’re not done yet, though.  We can say that we have univocal concepts but analogical predication. The definition is the same between God and creatures, but the application is different.

Interpretation: The Hermeneutical Precondition

Contra Heidegger, Geisler asks how he can say Being is unintelligible. How could he know this about Being unless he understood it?  Moreover, Heidegger’s denial of correspondence assumes that his denial corresponds to the way things are.

Heidegger correctly notes that man is a contingent being, yet he draws back from affirming the logical conclusion: there is a Necessary Being.

Contra Derrida, his statement that all meaning is limited by language tries to get outside those limits in order to establish them.  (The rest of the criticisms flow from this critique).

Savage Burn: “it is fruitless to turn to poetry to avoid metaphysics. Metaphysical questions still exist, and they cannot be answered in anything but metaphysical language. Any so-called poetical protest is nothing more than an exercise in ventilating one’s tonsils.”

The Alternative

Can we know things objectively? Yes.  The metaphysical precondition, God, has made it possible.  Geisler: “The objective basis for meaning is found in the mind of God.” Much of this chapter is standard fare in grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  The following is a long quote, for which I indulge the reader’s forgiveness, but it is worth noting:

Applying the six causes to meaning will help explain the point. Following Aristotle, scholastic philosophers distinguished six different causes: 

(1) efficient cause—that by which something comes to be;

 (2) final cause—that for which something comes to be; 

(3) formal cause—that of which something comes to be; 

(4) material cause—that out of which something comes to be; 

(5) exemplar cause—that after which something comes to be; 

(6) instrumental cause—that through which something comes to be.

 Remember the example of the chair? A wooden chair has a carpenter as its efficient cause, to provide something to sit on as its final cause, its structure as a chair as its formal cause, wood as its material cause, the blueprint as its exemplar cause, and the carpenter’s tools as its instrumental cause. As we have seen, applying these six causes to meaning yields the following analysis: 

(1) The writer is the efficient cause of the meaning of a text. 

(2) The writer’s purpose is the final cause of its meaning. 

(3) The writing is the formal cause of its meaning. 

(4) The words are the material cause of its meaning. 

(5) The writer’s ideas are the exemplar cause of its meaning. 

(6) The laws of thought are the instrumental cause of its meaning. 

In conclusion, we use the laws of logic in biblical hermeneutics.  Anything else makes rational meaning impossible.

Historiography: The Historical Precondition

Method: The Methodological Precondition

The Evangelical method begins with an inductive basis in Scripture, which involves an abductive step.  It will also deduce truths from Scripture and make use of analogies.  He puts them all together into what he calls a Retroductive Method, worth quoting in full:

1. The Inductive Basis: 

(a) God cannot err. 

(b) The Bible is God’s Word. 

2. The Deductive Conclusion: 

(c) The Bible cannot err. 

3. The Use of Analogies: 

(d) Just as Christ was divine and human yet without sin, even so the Bible is divine and human yet without error. 

(e) Just as nature (God’s general revelation) presents difficulties with possessing errors, so does the Bible (God’s special revelation). 

4. The Use of General Revelation: 

(f) The earth is not square. 

(g) The sun does not move around the earth.

 5. The Retroductive Method: 

(h) The biblical teaching is fleshed out in view of facts known from general revelation and the data (phenomena) of Scripture.

 (i) There are errors in the manuscript copies.

 (j) The Bible uses figures of speech and other literary devices, round numbers, everyday (nontechnical) language, paraphrases, etc.

 (k) The deductive conclusion (point c) is understood in the light of the retroductive enhancement. For example: (1) The Bible is without error only in the original text, not in all the copies. (2) Round numbers, observational language, figures of speech, and paraphrased citations are not errors.

The rest of the book is a summary and defense of inerrancy, inspiration, and the like.  Some things to note, like Geisler’s chart between accommodation to error and adaption to finitude.

Note: To the everlasting embarrassment of Bible critics, at least those who claim to be followers of Christ, Jesus affirmed exactly the opposite of what much of negative “higher criticism” teaches.

Overcoming Ontotheology (Westphal)

Westphal, Merold.  Overcoming Ontotheology. New York, Fordham University Press, 2001.

This is a Christian, albeit sympathetic, reading of academic postmodernism as it has come to us via Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.  It is not a treatment of the emergent church. That is not academic postmodernism.

Ontotheology is when someone treats God as another datum to be analyzed and uses this datum to explain all of reality.  Like all of Westphal’s books, this is very well-written and learned. Parts are even in German. There is a danger to this book:  both sides, modernist and postmodernist, and the Christians within both camps, might say that this book, and by extension Continental Philosophy, is the true philosophy.  Therefore, analytic philosophy is ontotheology. Even worse, they might argue that Continental philosophy = postmodernism. Westphal himself doesn’t do that, as he notes that some postmodernists like Rorty are closer to the analytic tradition in some ways.

For Heidegger, philosophy starts out as Being qua being, but this needs an Unmoved Mover to complete the system. For Heidegger, if we try to introduce God into this system, we can only do so on philosophy’s terms.

We will have to square up to Westphal’s use of the term “postmodern.”  By it he is simply denying that humans can have a “God’s-eye view” of Truth. He finds this in Plato’s claim of “the unaided intellect” which is purified from the senses (Phae 65e ff). Pure thought meets a pure object. 

What critics like Kant and Heidegger suggest is that we can never escape Time.  Our experience is always temporal. With this in mind, Westphal summarizes the leading postmodernists (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rorty, Heidegger, Derrida):

  1. All our experience is linguistically mediated.
  2. Every language is a conceptual scheme that lacks universality.
  3. Every language is contingent.
  4. Every language is a perspective.

Christian Philosophers and the Copernican Revolution

Westphal’s specific argument is that Kant’s claim to a thing-in-itself is not necessarily an anti-Christian claim.  Indeed, Westphal argues that Kant correlates (somehow) the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. For him, the distance between things-in-themselves and appearances is the way the world is versus the way I experience it.

Positive Postmodernism as Radical Hermeneutics

*Foundationalism is a replacing of mythos with logos.

The Hermeneutical Turn in Modern Continental Philosophy

The trace: something at work in my thinking that is not present now yet never has been fully present.

Laughing at Hegel

Mediation: mediation involves otherness.  Immediacy is its absence. At this level Hegel is a philosopher of difference. Hegel does hold to immediacy at one level, though.  Something is immediate in its being “self-evident,” yet it is not self-evident in itself. It is self-evident to us.

Immediacy is abstract self-relation and hence it is abstract identity (EL 74A). Immediacy is a product of social mediation, of our being in history.  Hegel’s argument is that immediacy can never exist at the level of abstraction, for then it would only give you the altar of the unknown god.

Immediacy tries to undo all of the relations that connect to us.

What does Hegel mean by “dialectics?” First, he doesn’t mean what you’ve been told by bloggers that he means.  He never uses that triad (thesis/antithesis = synthesis) in the way that you think he does. For him, and well for all of the philosophical tradition, dialectics is the negative point of reason (EL 81R).  Everything finite is its own sublation. Westphal suggests that this sublation, this aufhebung, is a recontextualization into the whole.

If you want a triad, it is this: abstract self-relation, mediation through another, and the self-mediation of the totality.

The Otherness of God and Ontological Xenophobia

I see where Horton got the “meeting a stranger” motif.  I agree that the Augustinian/Ps.-Dionysian project is more Neoplatonist than classical theists want to admit.  I just don’t think Derrida is the answer.

For the Neoplatonist et al, the goal of religion is “overcoming estrangement,” by which he means finitude.  For Covenant man, it is meeting a stranger who descends to us. In the former we ascend via negation. In the latter God descends to us.


Heidegger himself might not avoid his own criticism, for in saying we must go beyond the horizon of being to understand being, is he not putting being into intellectualist terms?


*He says Husserl’s process of epoche is an attempt to escape finitude.  I’m fairly certain Husserl is not doing that.  

* Westphal takes issue with Plantinga’s attack on Kant’s “creative anti-realism.” This hinges on whether Westphal’s theistic reading of Kant is tenable.  When read in light of Kant’s philosophy of religion, I don’t think it is.

* Finally, the pious churchgoer might wonder if there is any point in reading Derrida.  I would have to say no. Everything Derrida wants the Reformed already have in the archetypal distinction.  Further, while we agree with Heidegger that we should overcome ontotheology, God has already done so in being the God of the Covenant.


Divine Discourse (Wolterstorff)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the claim that God speaks.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wolterstorff takes the findings in current speech-act theory and applies them to the claim that God speaks.  He insists that his project is not another treatment on theological revelation, but that discourse is different from revelation.  For revelation to occur, not only must must the actor speak, but the actee must receive the propositional content of the speech (29).  However, promises and commands are not (primarily) intended to reveal the unknown to us, but to show us our duties, etc.

This leads to the basics of speech-act theory.  The locution is a meaningful sentence uttered. Moreover, as Wolterstorff notes, “Acts of asserting, commanding, promising, and asking…are all illocutionary acts; by contrast, acts of communicating knowledge, when brought about by illocutionary acts, are all perlocutionary acts” (32; emphasis original).

The Rules of the Speaking Game

Speaking, especially speaking one between another, assumes certain rules that are “given.”  Thus, there is a new relation between the speakers. This relationship has “built-in” rules. Wolterstorff explains, “If I say ‘I saw Jim drive off with your car’…I have not simply transmitted information” (84).  He goes on to say that if you understood what I said–assuming I am not lying–you are now obligated to take me at my word.

It is not that the words themselves are binding, but the conditions attached to them.  The conditions yield consequences of the words being uttered or not uttered (87).  

Can God Speak?

Nota Bene:  Illocutionary acts are related to locutionary acts by way of the counting as relation; perlocutionary acts are related to illocutionary acts by causality.

NB, 2:  Could the conditions attending the “Rules of the Speaking Game” shed light on the nature of imputation in justification?  I think so. If God declares me just on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, is it a legal fiction? The Reformed can answer no on two counts:

  1. If God says something it’s probably best that we not argue with him on that point.
  2. But assuming with the objection that God’s words aren’t good enough, we can go a step further: God’s speech-act “You are righteous on account of Christ” is a real phenomenon because it met real conditions in speech-act theory.  The relations that govern the laws of discourse are real, not legal fictions. God himself is the author of all reality. When I speak in mundane affairs I can create a new relation (I pronounce you man and wife; you’re fired, etc).  If this is true and easy for me to do, why is it suddenly hard for God to do? Because of his speech I have a new relation to him: loving Father. (see p. 97 for more technical details)

Discussions of Barth and Derrida

NW gives the standard criticisms of Barth.  He gives a very careful and clear discussion of what Barth means by Jesus being the Word-as-Revelation of God.  For Barth, Jesus is the medium of God’s revelation, but it is important to note that Barth does not see any revelation of God as being “speech.”  God does not speak, per Barth. NW hovers around the main criticism of Barth but never delivers it: Barth cannot see God as speaking because God, being wholly other, cannot enter the realm of the phenomenal.  In short, Barth is an Origenist. (The only theologian to really make this observation was the fellow-gnostic Hans urs von Balthasar).

I enjoyed the section on Derrida.  NW rightly points out that not everything Derrida said is wrong.  While we must appreciate (and employ!) Derrida’s criticisms of Plato, at the end of the day we must part with Derrida.  If everything is a “trace” of something else, “and meaning is not anterior to signification, but a creature of ‘our’ signification,” then the Bible as God’s speech has no original meaning (Wolterstorff 161).  We must destroy Plato to the hilt, but this is too high a price to pay, pace Derrida.

Towards an Ethics of Belief

At the end of the book Wolterstorff hints towards a future project:  the ethics of belief. Considering that God can speak, are Christians warranted in holding that God speaks?  Yes. It seems a rather simple question, but Wolterstorff uses it to explain how epistemology can work.

Many times true beliefs are formed by “doxastic practice” (269).  

Criticisms and Evaluation

As Reformed Christians we should rejoice in any work that champions God’s word as speech, as speech-act.  Many chapters in this volume are pure gold. The section on John Locke at the end of the book is almost worth the price of the book.

I have some criticisms, though.   This book is not as clear as later works (Horton, Vanhoozer) on the differences between locutions, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts.  Further, and as is often the case with analytic philosophy, some pages tend to go on without any clear purpose.  

NB 3: Token-type language ontology:  in straight-forward language (Common Sense Realism?) words can be “tokened,” some enduring and some perishing in character (135ff).   

NB 4: “Performance interpretation” is analogous to Frei/Lindbeck school.

The “Biola” Turn in Christian Philosophy

Or, a return from relativism.

I have several goals in this paper.  I utilize Dallas Willard’s metaphysical realism to rebut post-Kantian idealism.  I also challenge James K. A. Smith’s quasi-Derridean view of interpretation.

In “How Concepts Relate the Mind to its Objects: The God’s Eye View Vindicated,” Dallas Willard defends a robust realism in the face of various post-Kantian proposals.  While criticisms of Kant are common and always welcome, this paper takes a different turn. It is a response to the various “creational hermeneutics” by men like James K. A. Smith who appear to posit an endless deferral of meaning.  To be fair, Smith doesn’t advocate a strict Derridean view. He assumes meaning is possible. Rather, he advocates that every hermeneutical event is always (already?) situated by our finitude. We never approach the realm of “pure interpretation.”

Further, Smith isn’t a Kantian.  He isn’t saying (as far as I am aware) that our minds create reality.  In this case, many of Willard’s remarks won’t directly apply to him. There are some parallels, though.  Both Kant and Smith function as though there is a “wall” between our minds and reality.

On one level that seems true enough. I don’t even know what a pure interpretation unsullied by presuppositions would look like.  I think there is something more, though. It’s not enough that Smith wants to avoid a Derridean relativism or something like an endless deferral of meaning.  Well and good. I fear, though, that his epistemology is underdeveloped and if pursued consistently, will in fact lead to relativism.

In a new chapter to Fall of Interpretation Smith responds to criticisms of Derrida.  He says Derrida does affirm that communication takes place. However, it only takes place within “communal discernment” (Smith 215-216). Indeed, communities “fix meanings.”  We will come back to this claim later.

Dallas Willard’s article provides a summary of how the mental process works. He discusses what a concept is and how the nature of a concept (which always includes intentionality, relations, etc) avoids what he calls the “Midas touch” of post-Kantianism. Followers of Kant see the concept as an activity of the mind.  As Willard explains, “It [the Kantian view] always turns the ‘mediation’ of the relation between the mind and world into a form of making: the object which comes to stand before the mind is in some essential way made by a ‘grasping’ of something other” (Willard 2-3).

The Structure of the Knowing Act

While Willard’s article decisively rebuts Kantianism, it does have a small payout for the “Derridean Christian Philosophers.”  If what Willard says is true on how the mind knows, then it doesn’t matter if we posit that our knowledge is “mediated” or “structured” by communal knowings.

Survey of the Material

Kant: what comes before the mind as objects are products of the action of the mind (Willard 4).  Evidently, there is some amorphous sludge that is present before our mind. Our mind then categorizes it and “out comes the perceived object.”

Beginning of the Case

Willard’s main argument is that all knowing acts involve “intentionality,” which is the “about-ness” or “of-ness” of something.  If I know a dog, this dog, then “there must be something about each of the terms (my thought of my dog, my dog) that my thought of my dog is “together with” or pairs up with my dog” (5).

What is a Concept? 

A concept is acquired, applies to or is “of” something (extension), has intension (inherent properties), is transpersonal.  If there is anything that “mediates” between our minds and the outside objects, it is concepts, not endless linguistic deferrals or “communal” interpretations. 

Further, concepts are properties, not acts or events.  As such, they don’t “do” anything. A concept also has a “nature.”  This means it has properties, relations, and an overall place “in the scheme of things” (8).  Since it is a universal, it is exemplified in time and space but itself is not in time or space.  

With all of this in mind (no pun intended), we can see that intentional properties are concepts which form a bridge between thought and its object.  I do not think of the intentional properties but “of what is before my mind through them” (10). The intentional properties of a concept are not identical with “the properties which things must have to fall under the concept” (11).

We can try to say it another way: there is an intentional affinity (the of-ness or about-ness of a concept) between the concept and the properties of the concept. They are related in such a way that the intensional properties “always come to mind upon the instancing of the property which is the concept, but not by being instanced in the thought along with the concept” (12).  In other words, the concept is before our mind, not simply the inherent structure of the concept. The following diagram might help:

Thought of a dog (exemplifies) concept of a dog (has natural affinity with) properties making up caninity (exemplified in) Dogs (Fido, etc). (Willard 13).

The Pay off

If the above is true then the objects of thought do not take on any character. They aren’t changed in structure from an amorphous sludge to a dog.  Therefore, we are not “locked inside language” (14).

How does this work with the Radical Orthodox type crowd which posits an intermediate communal meaning?  At the most basic level it makes it irrelevant. Let’s take the concept of a dog. I read about a dog in a text.  How does placing “the communal interpretation of the faith-community” between myself and the dog “make” the text correct?  

That might be somewhat trivial.  Let’s take a theological dictum. If all the RO guys are saying is that we must read in conjunction with fellow believers, then there really isn’t a problem. A more hard-line approach would be “the church’s interpretation is our interpretation.”  Only Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy say anything that silly. It’s common enough, though. Let’s look at it. What mediates the church’s reading of the text and the text itself? It doesn’t work to say the church, for that is no different from their own characterization of Protestantism writ-large.  Further, it’s no different from the very foundationalism they eschew.

But if the church doesn’t mediate between the church’s interpretation and a given fact of experience, then who does?  We are then thrown back to the individual believer’s responsibility to interpret the world, receive data, and make judgments.  These judgments aren’t infallible, but they are still warranted. He can accept many of them as basic beliefs (in the absence of overriding defeaters).  



Heidegger on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Image result for heidegger hegel phenomenology of spirit pdf

This was a helpful book. It is Heidegger’s running commentary on key passages in the Phenomenology of Spirit. It illuminates Hegel and provides a entry point to Heidegger’s larger work.

In this post I will briefly give an overview of the book and then show how Hegel (and Heidegger) are fully within the Greek, Hellenic position.

Heidegger reads Hegel as arguing that being is being-present. It is the manifestation of a thing. Being is always being Par-Ousia–manifestation. From there we see an interplay between Being as the real and the Absolute as the real. If the Absolute is the real, and our knowledge is not yet at the absolute, it is then relative to the absolute.

Knowledge is relative to a thing.

Like a good Greek Hegel/Heidegger privileges sight over hearing as sees knowledge as manifestation (Heidegger 57). The ultimate goal, though Heidegger never clearly states it as such, is unmediated knowledge–the Absolute which has fully come into being [arrival?] as Absolute.

The book contains some useful observations on reflection and the subject-object distinction. What I found helpful is how the book easily lends itself as a foil to Revelational thought. Revelational thought (what I have elsewhere called Hebraic Christianity) is verbal. Reality is verbal. God speaks and a thing is. For onto-theo-logy, reality is manifestation and appearance. It seeks to transcend mediation.

**For a useful introduction to Heidegger and modern Continental Philosophy, see Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Derrida’s of Grammatology

Review: Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross


Boersma, Hans. Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Hans Boersma uses concepts like violence and hospitality, particularly in their recent philosophical venues, as a set of ciphers to explore the atonement. He succeeds brilliantly. I wish I read this book in seminary. It might, just might, have staved off a number of bad decisions later on.

Asking “Is the Atonement violent” sounds funny, and it is, but feminist and postmodern theologians think it is an important question. Unfortunately, they answer it. For Boersma, Hospitality is God’s work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ (Boersma 15). God comes to us in Christ to invite us into his eternal fellowship. Hospitality is a metaphor for the love of God (17).

Violence, then, is any exclusionary practice. Theologically, it could be something legitimate like church discipline, but raised to doctrine of God levels, it could be something more problematic: the decree of election which excludes others from God’s presence. Boersma will deal with this later.

Problem: Does “violence” negate God’s hospitality in Jesus Christ?

Boersma examines the three models of the atonement and notes that when they are abstracted and placed as *the* model, problems can arise. For example, the Christus Victor model is wonderful and scriptural, yet it doesn’t tell me *how* sins are forgiven. Boersma will place it within a larger Irenaean framework and show how it works.

Postmodernism, following Jacques Derrida, says that any act of true hospitality must be pure, unconditional. Pure hospitality means I forego all judging, analyzing, and classification of the other.”

Is the Derridean model coherent? Not really. Boersma points out that hospitality always takes place within the finite limits of space and time. By definition it will be limited in character (31). There is always this fear in postmodern literature that the limits of temporality are negative. Boersma wonders why. I think it goes back to the old Origenist problematic: the Fall and Finitude are linked.

Postmodernism isn’t on any firmer ground when it challenges violence. What is violence? It is something like “anything that contravenes the rights of another, or causes injury to the life, well-being, etc., of another” (quoted in Boersma 44). The problem is that this definition rules out all forms of corrective punishment. It also rules out self-defense, but perhaps worst of all, it is self-defeating when postmodernists try to “protest” systemic injustices. Boersma lists a number of defeaters:

  1. If I physically restrain my wife from crossing the road when a car is coming, am I offering violence?
  2. When the govt forces my kids to go to school, is that an act of violence?
  3. If I engage in economic boycotts, knowing that such boycotts will jeopardize the well-being of the average worker, how is that not violence?

Postmodernism cannot give a coherent reason why their good acts of physical resistance aren’t violent, yet “the other side” (Alterity!) is violent. The takeaway is that there can be good acts of violence. “Hospitality does not exclude all violence” (48).

Nonetheless, hospitality bespeaks the very essence of God. Violence is one of the ways he safeguards it.

Boersma argues that the High Calvinist (read: Supralapsarian) understanding of double predestination draws violence back into the being of God in eternity (56). Specifically, the violence (exclusion) of his hidden will overshadows the hospitality of his revealed will.

Boersma’s survey of Calvin is accurate. He avoids the Calvin vs Calvinist thesis and is free from any rebuttals from that side. His argument has some force and can’t be ignored. If the will that really matters is the hidden will, then I can never truly know if Christ died for me.

On the other hand, Boersma doesn’t deal with the “Owenian” challenges to non-limited atonement.

Boersma argues that Paul’s doctrine of election was focused on Jewish historical categories, rather than eternalist categories. Divine election, then, has four characteristics: 1) it is an act of sovereign grace, 2) it is an act of God in history, 3) it is a corporate act, and 4) it is an instrumental act (77).

The instrumental aspect links election and covenant (80). Israel isn’t elected for her own sake. While this approach certainly relieves God of having violence in his eternal being, it does play out rather violently in history. Israel’s election means the Canaanites exclusion. To his credit, Boersma doesn’t balk at that hard fact. Boersma concludes: “Precisely because God’s hospitality takes place within a history that is already marred by human violence, his hospitality cannot be pure or universal in character” (84).

We have to speak of God’s action in Christ in metaphorical terms. That doesn’t make them “less real.” Boersma asserts that all our language is metaphorical. Indeed, I would have taken it a step further and said our language is analogical. As he notes, “All interpretive access is indirect, by means of association” (105).

Staving off charges of relativism, he notes that not all metaphors are created equal. Some are root metaphors. While Jesus likens himself to a hen at one point, it’s better to speak of him primarily as a Son than as a chicken.

In terms of the three models of the atonement (moral, Christus Victor, substitution), Boersma suggests that the best way to unite the three models is by means of Irenaeus’s recapitulation model (112). He takes it one step further: Not only does Jesus reconstitute humanity, but he does so as Israel’s Representative.

Liberal theologians initially seized upon the Abelardian model of Jesus’s Atonement as a good moral example because it seemed to remove violence from God the Father. This ideal collapses upon a careful reading. Boersma notes, “As soon as a moral-influence theory introduces any divine purpose at all into the crucifixion, an element of violence or exclusion is introduced into our understanding of the cross” (117).

Boersma gives a fine summary of Rene Girard’s thought. Girard argues that the only violence in the Cross is human violence “and that God uses the cross to bring about a nonviolent society” (134). The violence is one of a scapegoat mechanism. While an attractive and compelling theory, it comes at a high price:

  1. Human culture is violent at its origin. This is a half-truth. If he means all post-fall culture, then it is true that it can never be free of violence. But if that’s the case, then it is not clear how the Scapegoat can create a violence-free culture.
  2. To say it another way, Christ has nothing to do with creation.But Jesus is the Word that spoke creation into being and in himself sets forth an “eternal hospitality” (145).
  3. Girard opposes any “penal” language about the cross, going so far to suggest that the early church corrupted the pure message (Girard, Things Hidden 180). If the cross on Girard’s reading is so obviously a scapegoat mechanism, then how did the church get it wrong so early? Further, if Western culture is so violent at root, then how can Western culture (presumably by way of the Cross) also have the seeds of democracy, equality, etc.?

The violence of the atonement in Augustinianism

Boersma, and he isn’t alone, notes that the Augustinian tradition faces the temptation to “juridicize” the atonement at the expense of other models. This is exacerbated by some forms of federal theology. The high point is seen in the pactum salutis where the members of the Trinity engage in a transactional exchange.  Boersma notes, “In federal theology, therefore, the world of God’s eternal decrees overshadowed the historic covenant relationship and diminished its significance” (166). In a footnote Boersma attributes this mindset to Klaas Schilder, citing a passage from Berkouwer’s Providence of God.  Yet Schilder didn’t believe this.  True, he rejected common grace, which seemed to be Berkouwer’s point, but Schilder’s own critique of federalism is very much in line with Boersma’s.

An inference from this is the individualization of the atonement. It’s not clear how God’s dealings with Israel in history function in this scheme.  Boersma counters with a brief Pauline study on law and salvation. He calls it a “national-historical reading” (174). It contains penal elements but places them within the larger recapitulatory action of Christ. The curse falls on the people as a whole, which Christ, the reconstituted Israel, takes upon himself for his chuch.

Therefore, there is certainly substitutionary language, but it should be seen more in terms of representation than a 1:1 exchange (177).  God’s justice is restorative justice (178).

The book ends with several learned interactions with liberation theology and Radical Orthodoxy. This is one of those books that engages criticisms of traditional doctrine at a very high level. It stands within the tradition while seeking to clarify tensions that have arisen.

Grammatology (A Review)

First, what Derrida is not saying.  He is not saying “Everything is relative.”  He is not saying, “There are no absolutes.” That’s what the American university professor believes, but that’s not Derrida.  So in one swoop 99% of Conservative Culture Warrior criticisms of “postmodernity” are false.

French Postmodernism is not as difficult as it may appear.   Derrida does a good job in defining his terms, and as long as we keep those definitions present, much of what he says is not only coherent, but quite insightful:

The Holy Grail (or Pandora’s Box) of philosophy is “being-as-pure-presence.”  What does that mean?  It’s hard to say.  One helpful definition,

[It is a] transcendental signified” … which transcends all signifiers, and is a meaning which transcends all signs.

In other words, a Gods-eye-point of view.  As finite creatures, we can never have that.  But presumably that is what we want.  Or so Derrida says.  Outside a few gnostic hyper-Calvinists at Puritanboard, I don’t know anyone who wants that “being-as-presence.”

So for all the danger of Derrida, we are on relatively solid ground.  Indeed, much of it sounds like a robust Christian hermeneutics.  Mediation goes all the way down. “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”  There is no aspect of our experience that escapes the play of signifiers. Instead of a metaphysics of presence we have an ontology of quasi-trace. Reference never gets to a “pure” outside that isn’t already touched by mediation and signifiers.

Indeed, throw in some Trinitarianism where each Person infinitely defers to the Others, and we have done a complete end-run around Western metaphysics.

But that’s not what Derrida means and that’s where he runs into problems.  He knows we can’t have pure presence, so any pure presence is always already supplemented with (x).  And this fact of supplementation is an act of violence, for it posits nature as lacking.

Again, if we are looking at it from post-fall Christian theology, that’s true.  There is no pure, good nature (in the sense of Harambe and children playing with each other).  But I don’t think that is what he means.

The real villain is writing.  Writing dislocates the subject that it constructs.  Writing displaces speech and introduces “an economy of signs” (142). Writing means that the “representing” is the actual thing itself.


*Derrida says thought is “the blank part of a text…[meaning] nothing” (92).  Presumably it functions as an empty set.   But this is just not how thought and language work.  Language, albeit not-yet-verbal, is what makes thought possible.  Now if what he means by this is thought can never be a “transcendental signified,” fine.  But I don’t think he means that.

**Let’s pretend Derrida’s analysis is correct for a moment.  So what?  I’ve never met a single human being who has ever thought that supplement = violence, or can even conceptualize that. Postmodernism will fail, not because it is wrong, but because no one cares whether it is right or wrong.