Response to Mattes’ “Response” to Paths Not Taken

[1] I am grateful to Book Review Editor Michael Shahan for the invitation to respond to Mark Mattes [see Response to Hinlicky’s “Paths Not Taken”, May 2010, Vol. 10, No. 5.], even as I am honored by the elaborate attention Mattes has paid to my recent book, Paths Not Taken (hereafter PNT). Shahan rightly says that Mattes is a “rising star.” He possesses an incisive intellect and a passionate Lutheran commitment; he is hard-working, well-read and speaks for an important Lutheran theological tradition. The opportunity to respond to his criticisms, explicit and implicit, is worth a lot to me and all who care about the integrity of theology in the tradition of Luther during these trying times.

[2] Mattes makes a point of telling us that his essay “is intended not as a refutation of Hinlicky, since he raises important questions in an erudite fashion. Instead, it is offered as one Lutheran response to the issues he raises” (# 12, parenthetical references to Mattes’ paragraph numbering). I appreciate very much this high-minded, serious and principled approach to PNT; likewise I trust that he will receive my words in what follows in the same spirit of critical charity. Our hope must be that rational debate in good faith on the basis of our common confession will move the argument forward. We must not give up on theology, which is the churchly way of “testing the spirits, to see whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).

What Paths Not Taken is About
[3] When I introduce students to the study of theology, I spend some time distinguishing the levels of discourse that take place under the term “theology” as follows: 1) speech in God’s name, e.g., “Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven…” 2) speech about the God so named, e.g., “…for Jesus’ sake and His death on the cross,” and 3) speech about speech about God, e.g., the ensuing objection and controversy, “Who are you to forgive sins?” In Christian life, we pass back and forth between these three levels of discourse constantly and indeed imperceptibly. But it serves clarity in understanding what kind of claims are being made at a given point to keep these distinctions in mind.

[4] PNT, as the subtitle indicates, “Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibniz,” is almost entirely about theology in the third sense. It has a highly critical edge, moreover. It tells a story about the collapse of theology as the autonomous, non-speculative cognitive discipline of the apocalyptic gospel, which Luther intended, into the “domesticated sublime” of progressive Euro-American culture in classical liberal Protestantism and thence into contemporary constructivism, with Karl Barth’s great protest now fading into oblivion. In my telling of this tale, Gottfried Leibniz emerges from the shadow of Voltaire’s “sneering” (Barth) in the parodied figure of Dr. Pangloss. Leibniz becomes a historically significant transitional figure: the last European lay thinker who sought to re-found fractured Europe on the basis of a Christian belief in the world as God’s creation, in this way meeting the challenge of rising scientific naturalism (best represented philosophically by his contemporary, Spinoza). Even more intriguing, Leibniz can be firmly located in the tradition of Melanchthon’s “theological philosophy” (G. Frank) and its core doctrine of humanity made in the image of God. The supreme irony of PNT, however, is to uncover the shipwreck of Leibniz’s project in his abortive effort to regain Luther’s vita passiva from De servo arbitrio to meet the challenge of Spinoza’s teaching that human creatures are not agents in their own right, but mere modalities of the one divine substance in its infinite play of possibilities. In the drama of PNT, Barth’s theology turns out to be only a more profound version of what Leibniz attempted and it falters finally for related reasons. This sad tale of “dialectical self-cancellations” (Jenson) in the discipline of theology is what PNT is about.

[5] The book undoubtedly undertakes a “complex” argument “in that no thinker… goes unchallenged. So, at places Leibniz, Barth, Melanchthon, and others are affirmed and in other places they are challenged and corrected,” as Mattes rightly notes at the outset (# 2). Writing PNT was for me a work of discovery, as I trust it will be also for readers. In arguing this way, I wanted to lead readers past the self-serving truisms of contemporary constructivism and the convenient narrative it tells about the passage of theology into modernity from Kant through Schleiermacher. I wanted readers imaginatively to reenter the pre-Kantian world of contending world-views which for the past two centuries Kant managed to have banished from discourse as the misbegotten fruits of the so-called “antinomies of reason.” But these contending worldviews are now powerfully re-asserting themselves in so-called “post-modernity.” In particular today we see Spinoza-Nietzsche-Deleuze everywhere; here the deity appears as the infinite unfolding of all possibilities in algorithmic sequence — Darwin’s “dangerous idea” according to Daniel Dennett. It was Leibniz who at the beginning of this development thought out the gospel’s alternative: the Creator Trinity, an infinite harmony of power, wisdom and love who selects and so actualizes this world — redeemed by Christ and fulfilled in the Spirit — as the best (in its full sequence, i.e., in eschatological fulfillment) of all possible. I wanted readers in this way to appreciate Leibniz’s attempt to re-found fractured European humanism with a renewed vocation to make the world a paradise; to grasp what is at stake in his argument for a wise and loving divine determination in the teeth of thorough-going naturalism which in Hobbes and Spinoza prepared the way for the totalitarianisms of the right and of the left which came to fruition in the century past of Hitler and Stalin. Note well, however: “my” Leibniz is relevant for us today as an instructive failure. In other words, Leibniz lost. Spinoza won.

[6] In some ways, Mark Mattes understands very well the ironies attending the third-level discourse of my book about the fates of talk about talk about God. He correctly detects that PNT is revisionist scholarship urging that “Leibniz is best seen not as a Rationalist philosopher but as a Melanchthonian theologian for whom… Christ is the world’s ultima ratio” (#10).1 Thus Mattes rightly sees that, in so interpreting and to that degree following Leibniz, I am no Whiteheadian; far from it. “Leibniz’s view of God, as Hinlicky argues, has roots in Augustine, and is amenable to Trinitarian theism, unlike Whitehead’s view of God, which is similar to Plato’s demiurge in the Timaeus. And, Hinlicky, unlike [Shubert] Ogden, wants metaphysics not to play a presuppositionless, foundational role in theology, but instead to help us articulate the dogmatic truth of the Christian gospel, the substance of faith” (# 20). That is very well put.

[7] Consequently, I can entirely agree with Mattes’ later claim that “we do not do our theology in terms of the perspective of traditional correlationalism [i.e. Tillich] in which we seek to revise traditional teachings in light of contemporary knowledge. God’s reality through the word situates metaphysics and not vice versa” (# 22). I could not have said it better. That would be precisely my Augustinian (indeed Barthian) point about the initium fidei (the starting point of faith), again in Mattes’s own words: “The truth is, is that we all live by faith. The question is: in what do we put our confidence? Can it be a mere word, the “nothing” of a promise in this old world?'”( # 33). To the latter question, I answer, “Yes,” provided only that it is clearly faith in God’s promise, not the credulity of superstition, nor the seduction of idols, nor the thrall of demons; “Yes,” then, because we are given some theological criterion by which to know an old and dying world and distinguish it from the promise of something new as well as truly good. With this proviso, Mattes’ concluding question about “whose fool” we will be is precisely the right (dare I say, the “post-Kantian,” post-epistemological, post-modern?) one with which to re-launch theology as a cognitive discipline in our brave, new Nietzschean world. But this is in fact a return ad fontes. See Augustine’s De utilitate credendi for the full argument on how to proceed amid such warfare of the gods. The preceding reflection would make Mattes (along with me and Luther) an Augustinian too. I hope he can see that and be at peace with it. As Barth said of Leibniz, “we must not be ashamed of those in whose company we find ourselves” — howsoever “foolish” we appear.

[8] Unhappily, however, and in serious disagreement with and/or incomprehension of the case actually presented in PNT, Mattes follows Placher’s all too conventional reading of Leibniz as a Cartesian Rationalist or Crypto-Spinozist (#26), betraying in the process his own entirely derivative knowledge of the 17th century philosopher — not a firm foundation on which to make sharp and dismissive judgments.2 It may be, of course, that I have failed to make the case that Leibniz can better be read as a Melanchthonian than as a Cartesian, but Mattes simply ignores the massive amount of evidence introduced in Chapter Five of PNT sharply distinguishing Leibniz’s “general pneumatology” (Geistesphilosophie, based on the imago Dei doctrine descended from Melanchthon) from the “return of metaphysics” (based upon the renewed primacy of general ontology derived from Suarez). I infer from this strange silence about the actual case made in PNT that there is a deeper reason for Mattes’ over-reliance on Placher’s (ironically, early Barthian “God is in heaven, and man is on the earth”) diagnosis of a “domestication of transcendence.” Indeed, it seems that there is a real issue here between Mattes and me about the relation of nature and grace to which I will return later. But to get to that, we have first to clear out some of the smoke and fog created by this, in my view, rather significant sin of omission. Nevertheless, just as Mattes’ case for the starting point of faith makes him (with Luther and me) an Augustinian (in spite of himself), I think it wise first to highlight the many convergences between us, which Mattes acknowledged in the course of his lengthy “Response.”

[9] To begin with, then: anyone who has any vital relation to theology in the tradition of Luther agrees with Mattes that theology in the first sense mentioned above, as the speech-act of the divine promissio, is the one thing needful that is and must be proclaimed in sermon, sacrament and life together, if the church is to be faithful to the gospel as news from God that speaks into reality our true good. I am deeply cheered, moreover, that Mattes emphatically and repeatedly endorses a major concern of my book to reconnect promissio with the above-noted second level of discourse which identifies the God of the gospel by means of biblical narrative and its creedal plot-analysis.3

[10] This is a very important acknowledgment from the side of proclamation theology. In this connection, moreover, Mattes can further endorse my plea for a critical, autonomous, non-speculative dogmatics as Nachdenken4 and in this vein receive Hütter’s critique of Bayer: “Agreeing with Hütter on this point, to say, ego te absolve, without telling who Jesus is as the one in whose name forgiveness is granted, is no preaching of the gospel. If you tried it, people would demand to know who you think you are saying such things “out of the blue” (# 39).5 Thus Mattes rightly concludes: “Hinlicky reminds us that there is a didactic, catechetical, or doctrinal component to faith — specifically that faith is grounded in truth if it is to be the faith. This concern is important if our proclamation is to stay true to apostolic witness. Hence, in worship, our congregations recite the Nicene Creed on a regular basis. But the didactic component of the faith should not be played off the promise. Instead, the two work in tandem” (# 42). The frosting on the cake for me in all this movement beyond an exclusive proclamation theology is that Mattes even allows a certain kind of metaphysics, not constructivism to be sure (neither do I!), but the sober, descriptive ontology of Nachdenken: “Hence, it is not as if metaphysics, the question about the nature of reality, has no place in Christian faith and life. After all, the Nicene dogma of the homoousios between the human and the divine in Jesus is metaphysical talk. But the metaphysics employed in Christological dogma is at the service of scripture and to clarify doctrine. It is employed, shall we say, on an ad hoc basis” (#22). Agreed. I am grateful for such important convergences between us on the inseparability of the first two levels of discourse in theology: promissio and the descriptive ontology of Nachdenken following the canonical narrative.

[11] It is sufficiently clear of course that had Mattes written a book like this, Hamann not Leibniz would have provided the alternative to Kant, and Bayer not Jenson would signal the way forward. There are nonetheless further convergences between us regarding the third level of theology as a discipline that are also worth noting. Mattes sees that the hegemony of the Kantian dualism of fact and value, necessity and freedom, phenomenal and noumenal domains, etc., renders Luther’s emphatically kataphatic theology inaccessible and unintelligible. Mattes therefore writes: “[t]he limits of faith on theorizing are not the outer limits of the extremes, stretching to grasp the noumenal but failing for the limits of human categories. Instead, faith reaches its limit in the particular promise. It is not faith in general, and finally not faith in faith itself. It is faith in this one thing, this particular promise, so that “I know of no other God except the one called Jesus Christ” (# 32). If this limit of faith, i.e., the kataphatic figure of Jesus Christ (as known in the promissory narrative of the gospel and present in proclamation) is strictly borne in mind, I can fully endorse Mattes’ Luther-like warning: “Even a theodicy must recognize that, if we refuse to live by faith, we will encounter God’s wrath or hiddenness, a God who actually inflicts what the sinner perceives to be evil so that he or she will be the creature of trust that God wants him or her to be, a view not even remotely close to the Kantian sublime” (# 38). That indeed is my own point in PNT of critically correcting Leibniz by speaking (in line with the early Luther’s commentary on Romans 8 and Barth’s doctrine of actual evil as das Nichtige) of the “theodicy of faith” and thus of being “on the way to the best of all worlds.” Do we not also here discover a convergence?

Compatibilism: A Major Confusion
[12] Luther’s vita passiva, Mattes announces, “is not compatibilism” (# 15). The term, “compatibilism” indicates a problem, however, not a solution. Missing this elementary point causes major confusions in Mattes’ “Response.” The problem so indicated is how human beings are agents of their own acts (as per Genesis 1:26–28) and how this creaturely agency is compatible with the universal and supervening agency of God as creator also of such created agencies. Stating the issue this way has nothing to do one way or another with the specific Reformation critique of “natural” (so Scotus, Occam and Biel) but in reality “fallen” (so Luther following Augustine) human powers in justification. It is rather a theological problem of the intelligibility of the very idea of creation, of the creation of humanity in the image of God, of Christ the New Adam, the true image of God who was obedient even to death on a cross. To raise this problem — a central one according to PNT for Augustine and Thomas, Luther and Melanchthon, and Leibniz and Barth — is not ipso facto to side with any one of their varied solutions but merely to ponder a vexing difficulty within the broad boundaries of ecumenical orthodoxy. In this latter perspective, the alternatives to compatibilism in the doctrine of creation are either pantheism (we are not agents of our own acts but modes of the universe and/or God) or atheism (we are the creators of our own worlds). Certainly Mattes does not want us to adopt either of those alternatives! If not, however, we are stuck with compatibilism as a theological problem.

[13] In fact, however, if we are agreed that we live by faith in the kataphatic Christ as affirmed in the preceding section, Mattes and I could also be able to converge on the striking solution of Paul Zahl, which he puts before us: “”Free entities are subjects. Un-free entities are objects. Christ Jesus, the body of God on earth, was free. The world to which he came was un-free. It is un-free still. There is therefore only one subject in the world today, and he is surrounded by countless beleaguered objects” (# 30). Indeed, I agree with Mattes’ statement in support of this: “Luther’s insistence that coram deo we are wholly receptive and coram mundo we are ever active alters the terrain with respect to the question of compatibilism. The question is unmasked as the sinner’s covert claim to a status with God which simply does not square with the sinner’s reality” (# 29), even though this melodramatic rhetoric of “unmasking” is rather unnuanced. Presumably believers can also ask how as creatures they are to co-operate in, with and under God the Creator for the very good reason in Reformation theology of declining self-chosen religious works and undertaking instead God’s mandated work in the world. But hypothetically assuming the case of the self-assertion by the sinner of its self-chosen compatibility with God, Mattes expressly acknowledges in another place that I lay no little stress on the “advantage of Luther’s [model of joyful exchange… as] the shattering of the self-positing ego and the birth of the new, eccentric self” (# 11). That is very much my position. In fact, it is something very much like Zahl’s version of “compatibilism” (the Liberator with His liberated, not the Pelagian monster Mattes imagines) which I go on to develop in the sequel to PNT, Luther and the Beloved Community.

[14] Of course, I would not fault Mattes for not knowing what he has not yet read. But it is exceedingly difficult to make sense out of Mattes’ zig-zagging criticism here of what he has read in PNT, as if voicing the mere term, compatibilism, were to side with — if I read him rightly — St. Augustine’s crypto-Pelagianism! Needless to say, I find this kind of hyper-Lutheran criticism of Augustine simply desperate. In an assertion I accordingly find astonishing, Mattes announces, as if descending from Mount Sinai: “[b]ypassing Luther’s vita passiva, and thus any actual new creation, Hinlicky believes that a proper understanding of grace can address this conundrum ” (# 7) of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Closer to reality, Mattes writes: “In Hinlicky’s Augustinian perspective, God and humanity are compatible because they are not two rival agents on an equal playing field. God provides the context in which humans can become and be liberated” (# 8). This last statement makes the right interpretation of my meaning, especially when “God” is carefully unpacked in PNT in terms of the Trinitarian relations, hence in and for the perspective of ecstatic existence in faith. Yet how am I to understand all the foregoing criticism of compatibilism as criticism when Mattes goes on to affirm the very same thing?6 I confess that I cannot make sense out of the string obiter dicta we find here.7 Indeed, following Placher Mattes unabashedly formulates a sentence that approaches the philosophical determinism of Seneca, Zwingli and Spinoza: “[d]ivine action is not an interruption in or a violation of the normal course of things, but precisely is the normal course of things” (# 28). However, at this juncture I want with Leibniz to affirm, before and beyond divine concurrence in the lawful course of things, the free divine action of grace which surpasses the normal course of events — call it the resurrection of the Crucified! I don’t doubt for a moment that Mattes wants to say that too. Mattes rightly wants it both ways, but he remains quite muddled here, as we may see in his convoluted conclusion: “old beings who assert compatibility with God’s freedom will ultimately and finally find themselves accused, challenged, and impotent. Nevertheless, God who raises the dead allows this creation as both old and new to cooperate in his ever generative and regenerative activities ” (# 44). What are we to make of this manifest contradiction? That genuine Lutheran theology does not care for logic or consequence? Or that it cannot allow any theological insight to anyone else?

[15] There is, I think, a reason for confusion in this connection. Mattes ignores a major theme in PNT, namely, the disappearance of Luther’s electing Creator Spiritus due to the divergent tendencies at work in Melanchthon’s model of justification (# 11) which gradually prevailed in Lutheranism. Melanchthon’s teaching had to assert the human will as a further cause of justification in contradiction to Luther’s monergistic teaching of “faith, that gift of the Holy Spirit.” This latter of course raises the neuralgic problem of election. Instead of exploring this difficult problematic, however, Mattes resorts to a red herring to dismiss the problem out of hand. “With respect to the “two models” of justification by grace through faith,” Hinlicky’s position is dependent on Robert Jenson and the Mannermaa school ” (# 34). In point of autobiographical fact, I learned Luther’s “joyful exchange” from Robert Bertram and its difference from the Kantian school from David Lotz’s book on Luther and Ritschl long before I ever had heard of the Finns. It is true that Risto Saarinen’s Gottes Wirken auf uns crystallized for me the problem of modern German Luther scholarship’s illicit Kantianizing of Luther as the source for the disappearance of the Reformer’s Augustinian teaching on the electing Holy Spirit as sovereign cause of justifying faith.

[16] Luther’s qualifying of the performative imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness through the external word by the sovereign Spirit’s incalculable regeneration to faith (ubi et quando Deo visum est, AC V) threatens not only to unravel the (artificial) early Lutheran consensus in Formula of Concord III; it also awakens an apoplectic fear of Osiander in those who dread creeping catholicism. I acknowledge that fear and to the best of my ability would like to lower the level of anxiety about it. But ignoring this much repressed set of difficulties at the heart of the early Lutheran theologies of justification (as Ollie-Pekka Vainio has exposed), Mattes once again ironically comes to own the very doctrine which he claims to be criticizing: “God’s own justification of the ungodly is present in faith itself as a new creation” (#35, emphasis his). How, pray tell, is that different from Mannermaa’s mantra from Luther’s second Galatians commentary: in ipsa fide Christus adest (in faith itself Christ is present)?

[17] Mattes disregards the central argument about the disappearance of the Spirit in Lutheranism, when it is at the heart of the analysis in PNT. The prophetic thrust of the book’s interpretation of the sublimation of the Spirit into progressive Christian culture consequently is never noted or reported. One would never know from this “Response” that according to PNT the disappearance of the Spirit under the influence of Melanchthon’s exclusively forensic model of justification is the reason why Luther’s vita passiva (which Mattes is so concerned to vindicate) became unintelligible and indeed an object of scorn with Kant. Nor would one know that it was Luther’s notion of “passive disposition” in De servo arbitrio to which Leibniz repeatedly recurred in the Theodicy — even if in the end Leibniz could not succeed in articulating it, since he could not, qua philosopher, appeal to the sovereign Spirit as elector to and donator of faith in the contingencies of time. In a final irony, even the critique of Augustine and of Leibniz’s reliance on Augustine just here, which occurs under the title of “protological dilemmas” in PNT, is neither noted nor appreciated.

[18] Mattes once again goes on to make substantively my very point against the gradual privatization of the Spirit into inward warmth: “God’s favor and gift are not distinguished as object and subject; they are both objective and external to the sinner, and they both work the only truly subjective change that matters for sinners — the end to the old and the beginning of the new, which is a more radical participation in Christ — in both human and divine natures — than any theologian could have expected prior to its arrival through the preacher” (#36), though I should prefer here to speak of God’s gift as the Spirit effecting faith in ecstatic existence by proclaiming the resurrection of the Crucified in the public field of the ek-klesia (which was Reinhard Hütter’s deeper point), rather than the odd dividing of the two natures of Christ which Mattes intimates here.

Faith and Reason
[19] Before I expose our real tension over the relation of nature and grace, it might be helpful to point out to readers that I am an historicist, whereas Mattes appears to be a perennialist. That is to say, I do not think there are timelessly valid definitions of “faith” and “reason,” “theology” and “philosophy,” but that one must rather look and see in every epoch how such binaries are used and understood. Hence, I think it is possible that under transformed conditions what Leibniz intends as the harmony of (true) faith and (true) reason is congruent with Luther’s intention in his day to disjoin true faith from false reason.8 That in any event is why I today in Luther’s train speak (after Kant, against Kant, in a formulation that would be anachronistically impossible for the historical Luther) of “the critique of epistemology and revision of metaphysics.” By this slogan, I mean to develop Luther’s criticisms of self-grounding Reason as a “whore” and of the Aristotelian “metaphysics of persistence” (Jenson) for “making a happy science out of a sad creation.” Whether my argument about Leibniz’s place in such a retrospectively reconfigured tradition of theology from Luther succeeds here (I trace it back to Melanchthon’s original recasting of Luther) is another question. But Mattes ignores that, which is to say, Mattes ignores most of the actual argument and evidence presented in PNT, and in its place offers a distilled essence, as it were, of Leibnizian metaphysics as a kind of timeless possibility which Hinlicky is now supposedly hawking as a contemporary possibility. I find this kind of criticism less than fruitful.

[20] Let me be more concrete. Mattes appears to think that Paul’s proclamation of the foolishness of the cross really is and ever will be “nothing” to the uncomprehending world, which cannot fathom the wisdom of God at the cross without conversion. I certainly agree that understanding God’s wisdom in the cross presses for our conversion, but I don’t think that a Muslim or a Stalinist or a Stanley Fish are incapable of grasping intellectually the point of the Christian paradox. What else is talk about talk about God good for than interpretation of minds to minds? No one got that Christian paradox better than Nietzsche, who got it a lot better than the believing theologians of his day who under the shadow of Kant eschewed the hard work of critical dogmatics in the name of performative utterances, value judgments, searches for the God-consciousness of Jesus and existential groaning after das Unbedingt. Indeed, I think Mattes’ way of dividing faith and reason remains stuck in Kierkegaard’s fear of Hegel when we have long since passed into a culture that for good or for ill is “post-Christian,” that is to say, having just enough memory of the Christian message to hold it at arm’s length in a posture of disdain. We cannot cut the Gordian knot in such a culture by thinking that rationally unmediated proclamation is going to do all the work of effecting our conversion without theological interpretation, hence without faithful reason seeking understanding of the object of belief in the form of critical dogmatics. Straight up, non-apologetic theology telling it like it is will better reach our cynical contemporaries than either the sophisticated con-job of constructivism or the fiat of sheer proclamation.

[21] To bring the matter to a head: promissio is not magic. It does not work ex opere operato. It is not a theological short-cut. Performative utterance does not take the place of the sovereign Holy Spirit enlightening the mind and creating a new heart within, at work then also (where and when it pleases God!) in theology as talk about talk about God. One immediately asks and deserves an intelligible answer: “Who says, ‘I am yours and you are mine?’ And by what right?” Hitler said that, so did Stalin. A good answer in theology is made with the help of what Luther called, after Aristotle, the formal and final causes, what Leibniz later developed as the question of sufficient reason, as if to say: “Yes, God has spoken. So it is written. But why has God said so? What is God’s purpose? What is God’s good reason?” Unless you can follow God’s mind in His works (a posteriori, as Nachdenken) as the gospel narrative portrays, you cannot know God, which is what theology is and must be in all three levels of its discourse: faith’s cognitio Dei. That is what Luther actually wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation: Vera theologia et cognitio Dei sunt in Christo Crucifixo. When did theologians cease being interested in theology? How did they ever turn Luther into a fideist? I say with Anselm and Barth, fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) in order to say with Luther, ut confiteamur (that we might confess the name of God against the devil and before the world for the sake of divine promissio).

[22] By the same token, we can hardly imagine nowadays that what goes under the name of “reason” or “philosophy” in Euro-America is utterly innocent of Christian theology. The terms, faith and reason, are variable, and such is the complex story of their mutual delimitations, confusions and cross-fertilizations through the centuries that it is a matter of considerable effort, such as undertaken in PNT, to achieve clarity about these terms for us today. I confess then to being somewhat flummoxed at being described as a philosophical or metaphysical theologian, when I am a “Barthian” in the sense that it is I who want to recover the autonomous, rigorous, cognitive, non-speculative discipline of critical (not confessionalistic) dogmatics!

The Real Issue
[23] The real issue between Mattes and me is the proper relation of nature and grace. In this difference he and I exhibit countervailing tendencies going back to the beginning of Lutheranism. For his every fear of Osiander in me, I fear Flacius in him. He fears a diminution of divine transcendence, a non-dialectical identification of the Creator and the creature. I fear in him a removal of the Creator from the creation, a non-dialectical identification of creation with sin. “What Hinlicky most desires is that nature and grace be situated so that they cannot be pitted against one another “(# 8). But this desire of Hinlicky’s is wrong-headed. “Desire is not simply disordered, as Augustine hoped. Desire must be ended. That God is love is not a goal which the ordered will seeks above all others; it is Christ who came down, all the way to the cross. And, that is all for God’s proper work to claim sinners” ( # 16). Thus “Hinlicky fails to acknowledge the “Augustinian imperfection” in which Augustine never fully understood that the law properly kills sinners and is not a mode to move from vice to virtue but rather works in tandem with the gospel to move us from virtue to grace” (# 36). In this line of criticism we come to the central dispute, though I venture to say that Mattes and I would both intend to think within the boundaries established by the first article of the Formula of Concord. Yet the tension here is real.

[24] True enough, I don’t acknowledge an “Augustinian imperfection” (Mattes of course means that the “perfect” Lutheran doctrine of justification is strictly imputative of Christ’s ever alien righteousness, although in my view this makes “perfect nonsense” of Luther’s Christological model of the joyful exchange as a real union in faith, not to mention justifying faith itself as resurrection by the electing Spirit to new obedience, that is, regeneration, as in Apol. IV: 72,78,117). More broadly, however, I do pray with the Bishop of Hippo: “Thou hast created us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” I hold with him and the ancient, catholic, anti-Gnostic church that eschatological salvation is the redemption and fulfillment of this very creation where I write these words and you read them. With Luther I hold the supralapsarian insight — he connected the commandments and the creed in his Catechisms with the purpose clause: “God has created us for no other reason than to redeem us.” And yes, I therefore will be a fool and hold with poor, ridiculous Leibniz, that redemption in Christ is the ultima ratio of this world on which the cross stood. But I will argue that to know this is to know with Paul the Apostle and all the martyrs that even now “all things work for good to them that love God” — the theodicy of faith in Romans 8.

[25] For Mattes by contrast God’s transcendence, as for the early Barth or for Gerhard Forde, is what true theology knows, i.e. that we creatures do not know God, that God transcends our grasp. That is why Mattes relies so heavily on Placher’s thesis about “domesticating transcendence” (missing, I suppose, my irony in plundering Placher’s phrase to speak instead of Kant’s “domesticating of the sublime” in the Third Critique). Placher notes, for example, “God acts according to reasons we can understand, Leibniz said, to create a world that combines the greatest variety together with the greatest order. Obviously, none of us can grasp the details, but we can understand the principles at work. We cannot prove that this is the best of all possible worlds, but we can understand what ‘best’ means, for God’s standards have to be, in the new strong sense, analogous with ours. The God of Aquinas, Luther’s hidden God, the object of Calvin’s faith — those haunting reminders of the limits of our understanding when we turn to God — were not the sort of thing for which most seventeenth-century thinkers had much patience.” Well, I don’t buy it. This is just theologized Kant. Allow me to grant to Mattes and Placher that as theologized Kant, theirs is a time-honored, traditional reading of Leibniz. What I cannot grant, however, is that this shallow reading of the matter of God’s hiddenness, let alone of Leibniz’s theology, accords with the new and better scholarship massively reported in PNT, and hence my own revisionist reading of Leibniz as an “Augustinian in denial.” So it is really idle to argue further about this here; readers will have to look and see for themselves.9

[26] If the reader will actually engage PNT ‘s case, they will find that there is not for Leibniz any univocal notion of being, the articulation of which constitutes first philosophy. Leibniz’s alternative of “monadology” borrows for first philosophy the Christian dogma that all creation is organized and that all organization in the creation reflects in some true way the divine Life which is the Holy Trinity in its self-determined purpose for the creation. Hence the human mind made in the image of God can come (as in Luther’s “passive disposition”) to understand and thus to enjoy this reflectivity in doxological glimpses of the final harmony of power, wisdom and love. One might say as a result that the real problem with modern thought from this Leibnizian perspective is its alienating of divine immanence, the victory of negative theology, the triumph of the deus exlex — what the later Barth in defense of the humanity of God in Jesus Christ came to name the “monster God” of the philosophers, rising up in a line running from Scotus and Occam through Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza to Barth’s own days under the shadow of Hitlerized Nietzscheanism.

[27] As for me, it will be evident in my forthcoming Luther and the Beloved Community that the solution to the problem of compatiblism is neither Barthian transcendence nor Leibnizian immanence but Paul’s apocalyptic imminence. Mattes is right to see that I think Barth and Leibniz correct each other, and that both thinkers derive from a tradition of theological philosophy which begins with Melanchthon’s taming of the volcanic Luther. That is, however, merely an historical point. Where Mattes goes astray from so much that is otherwise insightful and constructive in his “Response” to PNT is in his reticence to think theologically also about talk about talk about God. Mattes cuts the Gordian knot by regarding all this in one fell swoop as so much theologia gloriae, as judged from the privileged heights of the Lutheran Sonderweg, as though we could resolutely ignore the massive burden of the gospel’s real history in the world by preaching down all objections and difficulties, whether historical, scientific or indeed metaphysical, with a countervailing promissio. But if Luther’s actual kind of promissio — presenting the Crucified Jesus as God’s pledge to us in our true need — is actually to get spoken and heard in our post-Christian world, it will be because talk about talk about God patiently liberates us and our audiences from all sorts of misunderstandings and false paths that have been taken for the sake of all sorts of fresh appropriations on paths yet to be taken. There is thus a needed “transformation” of Lutheran theology — a Leibnizian transformation.

[26] Mattes, I venture, would not reject this task. Mattes is indeed a theologian in motion; he has moved a considerable distance beyond his early reliance on Forde’s Kantianism towards Bayer’s hermeneutical ontology, and if I am right, there are significant convergences between his evolving views and my own as we stand side by side in the theological crisis of American Christianity and Lutheranism within it. That is, in my view, good progress, even as I would acknowledge the salutary tonic of his critique for giving me this opportunity to articulate more clearly than occurs in PNT divine promissio as the first order of true theological discourse. I believe the convergences which I have laid out here are substantial enough in addition to have clarified some persistent misunderstandings and to make our remaining differences creative and stimulating. So I thank Mattes again for his hard work and look forward to our continuing debate.


1. Furthermore: “Although Leibniz is preferable to Spinoza, even he needs correction since what makes our world the best possible one is specifically that it is redeemed by Christ and perfected by the Spirit. That Trinitarian affirmation is not always as explicit as one wants in Leibniz (but is more so in Barth)” (# 4). This is well said.

2. “Part of the problem with using Leibniz as an apologist is that he himself needs an apology, given the fact that he has few adherents and that his thinking fails to square with that of the classical Reformers” (# 45). I grant the former, but I am not interested in apologetics. As to the latter, Mattes does not deal with the case made in PNT. Following Placher, e.g., Mattes writes: “God is not an agent working alongside us as other agents. Thus, to pit our agency in competition with God’s is a category mistake (which sinners habitually make). To illustrate, Placher draws this comparison: Just as the author of a play is not one of the characters of the play, so God is behind all agency in the cosmos, however grand or small, but not himself one of the agents. This would appear to be an interpretation of the Augustinian affirmation that God is the cause of all causes but not the maker of all choices, an important theme for Hinlicky but, in light of Placher’s critique, not one that Leibniz is able to deliver well” (#27). This is grossly confused.

3. As Mattes writes: “For Hinlicky, the paradoxes of Luther — God as hidden and revealed, preached and not preached, demanding and promising and the human as simultaneously saint and sinner, bound and free, in not of the world — need to be placed in a wider narrative context in order for them to make sense doctrinally. Hinlicky makes an important point with respect to the didactic role of expounding discursive truth in the Christian faith. The role is important so that one can discern truth from error as one attempts to present Christ as gift (a work of the Holy Spirit to inculcate faith) or grow in knowledge of God. But the paradoxes need not be seen as at odds with narrative. This is a “both/and” matter and not “either/or.” The paradoxes are situated within narrative and, conversely, narrative conveys the paradoxes” ( # 20). To this correct elaboration of my concern, Mattes adds his own statement: “Doctrinal systems are devised so that we can teach the faith, so that proclamation will be true to faith… When the distinction of promise and law emerges as central to justification and Lutheran theology, it is not the case that first order language displaces second order. It is not that proclamation takes over and destroys the place of dogma. It is certainly not the case that proclamation is existential, leaving the choice of accepting or not accepting to the decision of one who has been confronted with the divine so that pure faith is in that which is not known, not felt — nevertheless believed. Nothing could be further from the truth.” (# 16).

4. “Hinlicky favors Jüngel’s description of Nachdenken, our thinking after God once God journeys into his own creation for his own self-identification (and the world’s salvation) as what theologians are to do… We can affirm that there is a sense of thinking after (in faith), a discipleship of the mind, what the triune God has done and does. Such thinking is ex post facto of God’s creative and re-creative work with humanity and the world. It is never a foretaste, as Hegel would have it, of an apotheosis of human reason with divine reason” (# 37).

5. Therefore, “[t]he locutionary and illocutionary should not be pitted against one another. Proclamation is intertwined with the scriptural narrative and the doctrinal truth of the ecumenical Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon, and vice versa ” (# 40). More biblically, the problem is not merely that the gospel sounds “out of the blue” — not a problem for an apocalyptic theology with its origins on the Road to Damascus, but a strange problem for a theology that wants strictly for the proclamation do all needful work — but rather, as argued in The Substance of the Faith, that proclamation is always in contention with false proclamation as may be seen in Mark 13.

6. “Placher’s commentary helps us better understand Luther’s description of human cooperation — in both the ungodly and the redeemed — with God. “What I assert and maintain is this: that where God works apart from the grace of His Spirit, He works all things in all men, even in the ungodly; for He alone moves, makes to act, and impels by the motion of His omnipotence, all those things which He alone created; they can neither avoid nor alter this movement, but necessarily follow and obey it, each thing according to the measure of its God-given power. Thus all things, even the ungodly, co-operate with God. And when God acts by the Spirit of His grace in those whom He has justified, that is, in His own kingdom, He moves and carries them along in like manner; and they, being a new creation, follow and co-operate with Him, or rather, as Paul says, are made to act by Him (Rom. 8:14).” To this, Mattes adds his own theodicy: “Thus, as Joseph tells his scheming brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. . . “(Genesis 50:20) (# 28). Ironically, it is just these ideas of Luther to which Leibniz repeatedly recurs in the Theodicy, a fact that Mattes cannot seem to wrap his head around.

7. Mattes treats my very introduction of the term as “fightin’ words:” “The quest for compatibilism must recognize that conflict in theology and with God is unavoidable” (# 38). I suppose this is a covert protest against rapprochement with Catholic perspectives on theological anthropology for which I see as an advantage in Leibniz’s work on the compatibility, if I may put it this way, between the spontaneous bondage of the will in the sense of desire (voluntas) and the freedom of choice (arbitrium) which desire has in pursuing its object. Heaven knows in any case, I am no stranger to “polemical theology;” but the intellectual work of theology is to attain such clarity that we can, if need be, achieve disagreement, so that it is, if it must be, divine mystery that is affirmed, not a conceptual muddle.

8. “For Luther, the distinction between appearance and reality is perspectival and not ontological. And, for Hinlicky, if that is the case, then a harmony between faith and reason is in principle possible and desirable for apologetics and doctrinal clarity” (# 5).

9. Specifically, citing Placher, Mattes holds that “late seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers… were confident of being able to situate God within a metaphysical system. In speaking about God’s relation to the world, they followed Francisco Suárez” in the reintroduction of metaphysics (# 23), that is, they “fit God into our ways of thinking rather than naming the limits of our reason — our “seeing through a glass dimly” — in light of God’s being and work” (# 43). But how can we know God’s being and work to name the limits of reason? Not only is this protest inconsequent, it is regrettably imprecise. Leibniz was ferociously critical of Descartes’ anthropological dualism and divine voluntarism, and in any case, resisted the return of metaphysics as first philosophy on the basis of the Geistesphilosophie or general pneumatology of the imago Dei doctrine inherited from Melanchthon. I trust that the reader will not trust Mattes’ simplicisms but look and see that case actually made in PNT.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.