Idealism and Christian Theology: Concluding Thoughts and Table of Posts
April 24, 2017 — 15:48

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Having finished commenting on every chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology, allow me here to offer some concluding thoughts on the book and its aims and scope.

First, some comments regarding scope. The title ‘idealism and Christian theology’ allows for a very wide scope. In the design of a volume like this, a judgment must be made about how broadly or narrowly the title is to be interpreted. Here, the title bears a relatively narrow interpretation in two respects, only one of which is explicit in the introduction. The explicit restriction of scope is that the volume considers only Berkeleian and Edwardsian idealisms and not, e.g., Kantian or post-Kantian idealisms (p. 3). The implicit restriction is that the Christian theology is confined exclusively to conservative/traditional Protestant theology.

By my count, three of the essays focus primarily on Berkeley and five focus primarily on Edwards. Of the three essays remaining, one (Wainwright) is primarily concerned with comparison and contrast between Berkeley and Edwards, and the other two (Wessling and Arcadi) focus on the theological consequences of idealism without engaging in significant exegesis of either Berkeley or Edwards (though Wessling connects his version of idealism with Edwards and Arcadi connects his with Berkeley).

While I’m tabulating things, here are some facts about the authors: four work primarily in philosophy, seven in theology. All eleven authors are male. Six of the seven theologians are affiliated with Christian institutions (colleges or seminaries), all of which have a conservative Protestant orientation. Three authors are affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary. By contrast, all four of the philosophers (and the one remaining theologian) are affiliated with secular universities. All of the Berkeley essays (and the one comparative essay) are by philosophers, while all of the Edwards essays are by theologians.

These facts are likely connected with a point of contrast between the Berkeley essays and the Edwards essays, which I have been noting as I go along: the Edwards essays pretty much universally pay careful attention to Edwards’ own theological commitments, and the way Edwards himself connects his idealism with his theology. The authors writing about Edwards generally seem sympathetic to Edwards’ theology, as well as his idealism. By contrast, Airaksinen is the only author to pay significant attention to Berkeley’s theological commitments. The other authors writing about Berkeley are generally concerned with how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with certain theological claims they (the authors) take to be important. This observation is not necessarily a criticism; it’s another choice about scope. The two questions (how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with his own theological commitments; how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with our theological commitments) are both perfectly legitimate, provided we distinguish them from one another. However, it is a little odd, and perhaps unfortunate, that all the Berkeley essays are on one side and all the Edwards essays on the other. This probably has to do with the disciplinary divide: the fact that all the Berkeley essays are by philosophers and all the Edwards essays are by theologians (with one comparative essay by a philosopher).

Second, some comments regarding the aims of the volume. In my introductory post, I wrote: “This post will be not so much a discussion of the book’s introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.” However, there turned out to be a degree of mismatch between my conception of the connection between idealism and Christian theology and the conception that animates this volume. My own account had primarily to do with a certain cluster of problems faced by the Christian idealist, which might be placed under the general heading ‘theology of the body.’ The body has significant importance to Christian theology, and idealism might be accused of running into Gnosticism by devaluing the body. To be sure, these sorts of issues do crop up in several places in the volume, and in some cases are addressed quite insightfully. (See especially the essays by Hamilton, Cortez, and Arcadi.) However, as the editors emphasize in the introduction (p. 3), this volume is more concerned with the value of idealism for constructive theological work than with the compatibility of idealism with basic points of orthodoxy. Of course, the orthodox theologian can use idealism constructively only if it is compatible with orthodoxy, and this is the reason that my question (the compatibility of idealism with ecumenical orthodoxy regarding the theology of the body) does come up in a number of places. But this is not the central focus.*

Finally, an overall evaluation. This volume must be understood as a defence of the harmony (not mere logical compatibility) of Berkeleian/Edwardsian idealism with traditional/conservative Protestant theology. Read in this way, all of the eleven essays are good, and at least six are excellent. The book is important and timely insofar as it stands at the intersection of two trends: the increasing seriousness with which idealism is taken in analytic philosophy, and the increasing engagement between analytic philosophy and theology. I, for one, think both of these trends are positive developments, and I therefore hope that this book will help to solidify both of them and also to begin a larger conversation about the relevance of metaphysical idealism to Christian theology.

Table of Posts

(Cross-posted at

* Thanks to Joshua Farris for helpful correspondence on these points.

Tan on Edwards’ Christology
April 11, 2017 — 12:45

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 9 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards Dynamic Idealism and Cosmic Christology” by Seng-Kong Tan. The article addresses the relevance of Edwards’ idealism to his accounts of the two central mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Whereas most of the articles in this volume are primarily philosophical and deal with Christian theological commitments only at a rather basic level, this essay dives deep into the theology. Anyone not steeped in the history of these doctrines is likely to find it difficult to follow. I found it quite challenging myself, and will here only attempt to summarize the picture of Edwards’ Christology presented by Tan.

Orthodox Christology involves a sort of two-stage model. As the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed has it, Christ was “begotten of the Father before all worlds” but, at a particular, identifiable point in history, “came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Thus our Christology must address two distinct points: the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was eternally begotten of the Father, and subsequently became incarnate forming (as the tradition has it) a hypostatic union with a complete human nature, so that there was one individual person who was at once divine and human.

Tan argues that Edwards’ accounts of both stages are intimately connected to his idealism. Edwards, according to Tan, adopts two Augustinian analogies: he speaks of the Son as the divine intellect and the Spirit as the divine will, and he also speaks of the Spirit as identified with the mutual love between the Father and the Son. The relevance of idealism here is that the Son and the Spirit are, like everything in Edwards’ system, identified as ideas. The Son is ‘begotten’ through the Father’s self-contemplation. As on the Thomistic picture, God is thought to know all possible creatures by knowing Godself (to know what creatures are possible is to know what God can create). This idea that God has of Godself is the Son, begotten in an eternal act of self-contemplation. The Holy Spirit is the act or operation of mutual love between the Father and the Son which arises necessarily and eternally from the act of self-contemplation whereby the Son is begotten. Thus the Son is intellect, knowledge, contemplation, while the Spirit is act or will (178).

For Edwards (according to Tan), creation is a Trinitarian act of the continual communication of ideas. These ideas are ultimately to be found in the Logos, the Son, and communicated by the Spirit. This amounts to a continuous creation. (I’m not totally clear on what’s meant by ‘communication’ here—in fact I’ve had some confusion about that in some previous chapters as well.) A feature of Edwards’ particular brand of continuous creation that is important to the understanding of the Incarnation is that the identity of objects over time is effectively a matter of divine fiat (183). It apparently follows from this that a created human nature can be united with the Logos by mere fiat, without any fancy metaphysics (185). Edwards has more to say about the kind of communion or indwelling that exists between Christ’s human nature and the Logos but curiously it seems that, at least on Tan’s telling, this isn’t really required for hypostatic union, since unity/identity are in general created by arbitrary divine fiat. On the other hand, as Tan is at pains to emphasize (183-4), the fiat is not arbitrary in the sense of capricious, but only in the sense of being a free choice shaped only by divine wisdom, so Edwards may think it would have been somehow unfitting for God to decree such unity in the absence of communication or indwelling.

(Cross-posted at

Crisp on Edwards on the Incarnation
April 6, 2017 — 6:03

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 8 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards, Idealism, and Christology” by Oliver Crisp. This is the second of the two previously published essays, having appeared in another edited volume in 2011.

The first part of the essay provides an admirably clear overview of Edwards’ distinctive metaphysical views, particularly as they relate to God and creation. Crisp then goes on to draw out some consequences for Christology and defend the orthodoxy of Edwards’ position.

Crisp enumerates 11 Edwardsian positions he takes to be relevant, but it seems to me that there are really just three that are of central relevance to the question of the Incarnation. Using slightly different terminology than Crisp (in order to sum things up more briefly), we may call these; immaterialism, stage theory, and occasionalism. Each of these doctrines is important primarily for what it denies, not for what it affirms. Immaterialism denies the existence of mind-independent extended substances; stage theory denies that created objects persist over time in any metaphysically significant sense; and occasionalism denies that created objects are ever efficient causes. In all three cases, Edwards, like most other proponents of these views, tries to soften the blow of these denials: immaterialism doesn’t deny that there are bodies, but merely denies that bodies are mind-independent material substrata; stage theory doesn’t deny that there is some relation between the apple this morning and the apple this afternoon which makes us call it ‘the same apple,’ it just denies that this relation is, in truth and strictness, identity; finally, occasionalism doesn’t deny that one event happens because of another, it merely says that, in the oomphy ‘anti-Humean’ sense God, and only God, is responsible for making the events happen in this order.

Each of these theories, Crisp suggests, might be thought to cause problems for the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. First and most obviously, Christian theology holds that the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on a body—in reality and not appearance only—and this might well be thought to conflict with immaterialism. Second, orthodox Christology holds that Christ became incarnate just once, in apparent conflict with stage theory which would have Christ bearing some relation to a series of human body-stages. Third and finally, the Third Council of Constantinople affirmed that Christ possessed a human will (faculty of willing) distinct from the divine will. Presumably the Council meant to affirm that Christ’s ordinary human actions were undertaken by ordinary human willing. But Edwards (unlike many other early modern occasionalists) makes no exception to his occasionalism for human minds/wills. Like Malebranche (the most extreme of occasionalists), he holds that when we will to move our arm God moves it for us. In what sense, then, can Christ’s actions be said to be undertaken pursuant to a human will?

Crisp’s answer to all three of these objections is fundamentally the same: the key point affirmed by the Chalcedonian Definition (in connection with Christ’s humanity) is that Christ is “perfect in humanity … consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects, except for sin” (quoted on p. 158). In other words, orthodox Christology is fundamentally committed to the claim that Christ became a human being like other human beings. It is not fundamentally committed to a particular metaphysical conception of human beings. Thus Edwards can say that Christ has a human body just like we do (which is to say, he was associated in a special way with certain divine ideas); that this body persists through time just like our bodies do (which is to say, it doesn’t really persist at all, but is preceded and succeeded by certain suitably related bodies); and that Christ undertakes voluntary actions in the body just like we do (which is to say, he wills certain actions and on the occasion of his willing God makes the actions occur).

This, I think, is all convincing. The real question becomes, can Edwards’ metaphysics make sense of all the things it needs to make sense of? But insofar as the challenge is to make sense of the ordinary case (and not the extraordinary case of the Incarnation), this is a question about the viability of his metaphysics, not a question of its theological orthodoxy. If Edwards can indeed make sense of the ordinary everyday cases, then he can do at least as well as the dualist in making sense of the Incarnation.

(Cross-posted at