In my first post in this series on “courtroom” apologetics, I mentioned an order of truth: God, theology, proclamation, reason, and apologia. In this post, I’ll explore that order in more detail. We’ll return to the courtroom in the next post. For now, let’s dig deeper into our theological and philosophical soil.
The ordering of the categories of theology, proclamation, reason and apologia suggests that these categories are not analytically distinct, but in fact participate in each other. There is no apologia without theology. Indeed, properly understood, apologia is a form of public theology.
Apologetic arguments therefore do not prepare the ground for theology, as though there is a neutral form of reason prior to theology. Rather, apologetic arguments are (or ought to be) a category of theology, which seeks to represent (re-present) the truths of Christian theology in public, beyond and in concert with Church proclamation, in ways that cohere with the reason Christian theology already proclaims is embedded in the human soul and in all of creation.
Notice the subsidiary role of our theology, proclamation, reason and apologia to the reality of the Triune God and the Gospel. We may do a very good job of proclaiming the Gospel and describing its reason, or we may do a poor job. Either way, the job is never complete because the Gospel is a dynamic, unfolding reality that flows from the relational life of the Triune God. The full implications of the proclamation that “God was in the world in Christ Jesus reconciling all things to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) remain to be seen and can never be fully explained. The character of our proclamation is bold and certain insofar as its core is the living Triune God, yet it is careful and provisional insofar as it embodies the limits of human thought and human speech about God.
Another comparison between Karl Barth and John Paul II is helpful here. Barth, consistent with his understanding of revelation and philosophy, resisted any systematic definition of God:
The equation of God’s Word and God’s Son makes it radically impossible to say anything doctrinaire in understanding the Word of God. In this equation, and in it alone, a real and effective barrier is set up against what is made of proclamation according to the Roman Catholic view and of Holy Scripture according to the later form of older Protestantism, namely, a fixed sum of revealed propositions which can be systematized like the sections of a corpus of law. The only system in Holy Scripture and proclamation is revelation, i.e., Jesus Christ.
But Barth – who, after all, over the course of thirty-five years wrote a Church Dogmatics comprised of about six million words of dense text – did not mean we can say nothing truthful about God. After resisting what he understood as the Catholic and Scholastic Reformation’s too-neat methods of systematization, Barth emphasized the importance of words and speech:
Now the converse is also true, of course, namely that God’s Son is God’s Word. Thus God does reveal Himself in statements, through the medium of speech, and indeed of human speech. His word is always this or that word spoken by the prophets and apostles and proclaimed in the Church. The personal character of God’s Word is not, then, to be played off against its verbal or spiritual character. It is not at all true that this second aspect under which we must understand it implies its irrationality and thus cancels out the first aspect under which we must understand it.
Barth’s concern throughout his discussion of the Word in Volume I of the Church Dogmatics is to preserve the freedom and integrity of theology against Enlightenment rationalism. Barth was particularly concerned with the way rationalism gave rise to nineteenth century liberal demythologizing Protestant thought. Barth also resisted how rationalism underwrote both Protestant fundamentalism and the Scholastic Thomism of much Catholic nineteenth century Catholic thought.
John Paul II also recognized the limits of human understanding in Fides et Ratio. Having asserted that all human beings are capable of exercising reason to learn about things within the order of natural reason, John Paul II offered a cautionary note:
It should nonetheless be kept in mind that Revelation remains charged with mystery. It is true that Jesus, with his entire life, revealed the countenance of the Father, for he came to teach the secret things of God. But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently.
Certainly John Paul II assigned a higher value to reason and philosophy than Barth. Nevertheless, for John Paul II as well as for Barth, the task of “faith seeking understanding” is never complete. We can never know, or say, all there is to know and say about God, and we can never come to a “coherent” understanding of God without faith.
Both Barth and John Paul II recognized these limits because they were steeped in the scriptures and the Church Fathers. The recognition of human limitations was a key theme for the Church Fathers and for the great Medieval Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. The Fathers understood that limits of human thought and speech in relation to God meant that theology always proceeds by way of analogy or negation. St. Augustine, one of the Church’s great synthesizers of faith and reason, once said “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Augustine was not suggesting we can know nothing of God. Augustine clearly held that God reveals Himself in both the book of nature and the book of scripture. But Augustine was making emphatically clear that we can never understand God in the sense of having God neatly figured out and contained. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this beautifully: “Even when he reveals himself, God remains a mystery beyond words.”
Our human limitations mean that we are simply incapable of speaking directly about God. Our propositions never correspond directly to God in esse because God, by definition, is wholly other than us mere creatures. Yet we can speak faithfully of God by analogy, and we can say what God is not by negation.
Consider again the first line of the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God, the Father almighty…..” Our term “Father” does not apply directly to God. Every other “father” we know of is finite, fallible, flesh-and-blood. Every other “father” we know of became a “father” by a sexual act with a woman, or in relatively rare circumstances, by the use of reproductive technologies uniting sperm and egg cells, or by force of law (legal adoption). None of these characteristics could apply to God as “Father.” Even the case of adoption, a metaphor often used in scripture, is only an analogy: there is no law above God Himself that could determine the conditions for our adoption by God. Nevertheless, there are things about the term “Father” – generativity, compassion, direction, care – that communicate in human concepts who God declares and shows Himself to be. These are analogical categories that scripture and the Church have given us as a good way of speaking, which provides confidence and certainty concerning their propriety. Yet we must never confuse the analogy with God in esse, in His essence, which transcends all created things.
The analogical speech in the first line of the Creed also suggests a way of apophatic, or negative speech about God. If we say God is the “Father almighty,” we can clearly identify things God is not, such as finite, fallible, or flesh-and-blood. Yet, again, we must never confuse the ability to negate certain kinds of speech about God with the ability to capture or define God in esse. A god who is susceptible to captivity by human speech and reason would not be the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – indeed, such a thing would be merely a human idea and not a god at all.
Since theology must always proceed only by analogy and negation, and since all apologetics is public theology, it follows that a Christian apologia cannot finally accept any supposedly neutral ground rules for philosophy apart from theology. A strong foundationalist epistemology is an un-Christian epistemology.
Analytic philosophy and logical-grammatical rules, to be sure, can represent important tools for apologia. If the creation bears the Divine logos, there is inherent in it a beauty and order that is to some degree susceptible to logical-grammatical analysis. Even Barth employed the rules of grammar and logic in his fideistic-sounding Dogmatics. And Christian theology tells us – by way of analogy and negation, of course — that God in His simplicity and perfections does not contradict Himself. To use John Paul II’s framework, various forms of philosophy, including analytic philosophy, can achieve knowledge appropriate to the subject of philosophy, but this does not mean philosophy stands independent of “faith.”
Therefore, we rightly expect Christian reason to exhibit principles of non-contradiction, correspondence, coherence, and symmetry. Where our apologia confronts un-reason, we rightly refer to these principles. But if Christian theology is the truth of the universe, we must recognize the limits of our words and our thoughts, and we must never confuse human attempts at explanation with God Himself. God is the three-in-one, who created the world from love and became incarnate in Christ to redeem the world. He is not, finally, an equation of formal logic.
In my next post, I’ll explore the notion of “ontotheology” – the perverse idea that God can be studied just as anything in nature can be studied. We will begin to see that courtroom apologetics are a form of ontotheology that reduces God to the sort of object suitable for adjudication under the limited rationality of the courthouse.
Andrew Davidson, ed., Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic 2012).
Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, September 14, 1998.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1.3 §5 (“The Nature of the Word of God”).
 Fides et Ratio, ¶13. This theme is also evident in the work of another great Swiss theologian – Hans Urs von Balthasar – who was a friendly critic of Barth’s. In Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth, Balthasar notes that “human words and concepts, though quite useful, can never exhaustively echo God’s word and wisdom, whose inner fullness can never be delivered up for our handling, even to the very end of the world. Heretical thought has the tendency to close off certain avenues, to overlook certain aspects and to speak in definitive, apodictic formulae. Catholic thinking, however, remains open.” Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (Communio Books / Ignatius Press 1992 ed.), at p. 253.
 St. Augustine, Sermo 52, 6, 16.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶230.