Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tom McCall and the Need for Scholasticism in Trinitarian Theology

I am just starting to read Tom McCall's book, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. McCall is associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at TEDS (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), in Chicago. I am friends with McCall on Facebook; so I offer this initial impression to the introduction to his book as a friend :-).

McCall opens his book on the Trinity, as any good analytic theologian might do; by setting up the dialogical landscape (or lack thereof) that has inhered (or not) between constructive/dialectic theologians (which is where I am coming from), and McCall's camp, the analytic/philosophic theologians. He introduces his book this way to be clear about one of his intentions for writing this book, and for writing it in the way he does; one of the reasons he is writing this book is to bridge the chasm that is in place between the constructive/dialectic theologian and the analytic. With this context understood, let me quote some of the sentiment that McCall thinks would be good for Systematic Theology in general (it is something that repels me, just to give you a heads up):

[...] The theologians need --- sometimes desperately need --- the kind of assistance that might be found in the analytic toolkit. The theologian R. R. Reno sees this clearly, and he sounds a clarion call for theologians to employ the conceptual tools offered by the analytic tradition. As he sees things, analytic methodology bears a close resemblance to scholasticism, and he thinks contemporary theology could use a good does of it. He says that although the "overwhelming majority of theologians today sift through Heideggar and his philosophical children and grandchildren to try and find useable material," this impulse is fundamentally "misguided." Reno concludes that analytic philosophy might be an important ally for theology, and this is "because analytic philosophy is unequivocally and fundamentally a force for the strengthening of truth, not its weakening. [emphasis mine] [Thomas H. McCall, Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?, 4-5]

Without wanting to be too foreboding, and wanting to give McCall a fair reading; let me just assert up front that exactly what contemporary theology does not need is a good dose of scholasticism! If what Tom means by this is that contemporary theology needs to constructively retrieve the substance metaphysics that classical theism hath bequeathed to us in Christian Theology through the seminal kind of work in this direction provided by the Thomist synthesis with Aristotelian categories and Christian Theology; then I object! I think this is what Reno means, and thus what McCall thinks is clarion.

What we need is an onto-relational metaphysic (or some such nomenclature) that emphasizes a Trinitarian theology that is given shape by an understanding of a personal God who has his being as a Subject-in-Being distinctiveness. In other words, we don't need to work from philosophical categories, like substance metaphysics offers up, that primarily think of God through monadic (unitary) categories. It is this ground that Federal Calvinism (amongst other developments within the Christian theological tradition) has developed; which has given us a God who must relate to his creation through impersonal decrees and Law-like precision.

So, four and five pages in; I object, Tom McCall! We'll see where you lead me ...


  1. "Fear of Scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet” Karl Barth I. 1 § 1-7 (pg. 274)

    1. Hey Anon.,

      Karl couldn't get everything right, could he?

      But I can't imagine that Barth would be a fan of substance metaphysics with his doctrine of God; can you? We would have to know specifically what Reno and McCall mean by a dose of scholasticism. Do they simply mean something like the Ramist locus methodology and dialectic; or do they mean, and this is my hunch, an appeal not to just method but a certain kind of metaphysics---like the kind that has given us classical theism (that red headed step child that people like me like to beat up .

      So I would imagine that Barth would actually endorse my concern, and not consider me a false prophet in this instance.

      Thanks, anon.

  2. :-). I am keen to read this work to as I attempt to construct a relational ontology of my own. I don't object to using some of the tools of analytic phislophy, they can be very useful tools afterall! What I object to is the wholesale reliance on such tools. I have spoken briefly to Tom about this (over Carl Jrs in San Fran no less!) and he didn't seem to object too much. I too will have to read his book.

    1. Hi Myk,

      I look forward to seeing your relational ontology; you're the one, of course, who helped me think of onto relational ontology/metaphysic to begin with ;-). I agree, modal logic etc are helpful and necessary tools; my concern is substance metaphysics.

      Double Bacon Western Cheeseburger; I grew up on those in Southern California at Carls Jr. A great place to do theology ;-). Let me know what you think once you read his book.

  3. A spelling kit would also be a helpful tool! Apologies...


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