Theology, Mystery, & Apologetics

Saint BonaventureSt. Bonaventure argues that no philosophical system can be complete in itself because the finite and fallen human intellect is prone to a multitude of various errors. Divine revelation, and theological reflection upon said revelation, is required to correct and complete philosophical investigations of the reality we find ourselves participating. And while the Seraphic Doctor may not explicitly state the position that theology and philosophy, faith and reason, operate on an ever-interactive cooperative spectrum of reflective thought, it is an immediate derivative of his traditionalist persuasion.

This may not be a popular approach in our current modernist era of analytic apologetic methodology, but it is the correct position if we are to adequately defend, for example, God’s transcendence and imminence. To say this in another way, apologetics is primarily rooted in defending theological truths, and not necessarily a branch of philosophy as a purely autonomous subject, which would be rationalism. To be sure, philosophy will become an integrated part of the endeavor because it is the handmaiden to theology, but we cannot be tempted to think that philosophy complete in itself, is up to the task of adequately defending revealed truth. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes foolish the wisdom of the world, so we ought to refrain from thinking the wisdom of the world, separated from the truth of Christ’s revelation, will bring forth a proper defense of the faith that gives us hope.

For example, we know by revelation, most explicitly in the “I AM” of Exodus 3, that God cannot be named among other discrete, created things; God cannot be categorized, nor does he fall within any genus of the created order. He completely transcends all of contingent, created reality. A question that may follow this teaching of the transcendence of God is how can we know God exists if he is entirely outside of the materially created order? Wouldn’t we just end up with a concept of deism; a divine being that may have “wound up” nature like a clock and left it to its own mechanisms? This question is answered by the doctrine of God’s imminence. While it is understood that God transcends created reality, it is also the case, at least according to Catholic dogma, that God is imminently present in creation while remaining apart from it. The created, contingent existence we find ourselves living within is sustained, conserved, and upheld by the power of God. Contrary to popular understanding, creation ex nihilo is not something that took place in the distant past, nor is it a mere temporal event accidentally discovered by modern science within the faulty humanistic construct of big bang cosmology. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is something that is taking place here and now, at this very moment of existence. This is why creation is understood to be a gift of the Triune God; His imminent presence in the created order is an expression of his utterly gratuitous, and loving fecundity.

When faced with this understanding of God’s transcendence and imminence, a skeptic, rationalist, atheist, etc. would probably scoff at these descriptions of divinely revealed truth, and most likely offer various criticisms of these theological proclamations. And yet, we must be prepared to defend the above claims against an eager opponent with a philosophically informed and theologically orthodox praeambula fidei for the necessary intellectual preparation. As this scenario plays itself out within the context of conflicting worldviews, an argumentative opportunity presents itself for the rationalist seeking to demystify the revelation of God. It seems that the deposit of faith delivered to the Apostles by Jesus Christ, is suffering from contradictory positions. If it is the case that God totally transcends the created order, God cannot also at the same time be imminent to creation. God cannot, so the rationalist might argue, be both separate from and present to the created order, as suggested by a follower of the Way. Since this is an absolute impossibility according to the law of non-contradiction, so says the rationalist, God must only be found in one of the two options presented if he even exists at all. God is either totally transcendent, and we are left with a deistic concept of God; or he is imminent in the created order, and we have something like a pantheistic concept of God. Either way, the rationalist might say, the Christian is faced with an insurmountable logical predicament.

Rather than shrink from the heat of the moment, the follower of the Way must confront this argument, and it must be done in such a manner that does not sacrifice the divine truths provided in the deposit of faith. To compromise revealed truth in any way whatsoever, whether methodologically or dogmatically, comes dangerously close to denying the instruction of St. Peter; that we are to “sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts,” before we endeavor to defend and proclaim the Gospel.

So how do we approach a scenario such as this, which seems to trap us in a rationalistic dilemma?

When confronted by the sophistries of rationalist philosophers, we first remember the instruction of St. Paul, “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ.”[1] This teaching points directly to the fact that divine revelation puts the believer in the position to accept mysteries hovering outside the grasp of pure reason, rather than truncate such truths to the finite cognitive capacities of the human intellect. Consider for a moment that following this teaching from St. Paul concerning philosophy, he immediately reminds us of the revealed mysteries we assent to by faith, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised, with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”[2] So following the warning that we ought to stay away from “philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition,” we are reminded that in Christ dwells the fullness of deity, our fullness of life is in Christ because he is divine, and that this fullness of life is possible because we have experienced the sacrament of baptism, which is new life partaking in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. If this does not significantly alter the manner in which we not only do philosophy, but also interact with various philosophies, then I am not sure what it would take.

The second thing we need to keep in mind, after following the above instruction from St. Paul, is to “sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts,” and rest upon the Wisdom of God communicated through the Church to inform our defense of the faith. It is worth remembering that no human person by their intellectual power has ever converted a sinner to the faith – conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are the vessels graced by God to proclaim the message by which the Holy Spirit works. This truth should unite our apologetic methods with the words of St. Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith: as it is written ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’”[3]

Now that these important remarks have been made, let’s get back to the above scenario. The supposed dilemma presented by the philosopher has created a false dichotomy due to a fundamental misunderstanding in their thinking according to human tradition. Contrary to rationalist suggestion, God’s transcendence and imminence do not result in the heresies of deism or pantheism, nor does the transcendence and imminence of God contradict one another. God’s essence completely, totally, and utterly transcends the created order because God cannot be categorized among the inventory of materially contingent objects. If such a categorization were possible, we would be left with the idol of the golden calf, rather than the Triune God revealed as “I AM.”

God is also imminent in the created order, however, because his power in the creative act is upholding, conserving, and maintaining the existent reality in a gratuitous outpouring of loving fecundity. That which is created ex nihilo by a divine act of love requires its continued conservation at at every moment of its contingent being. We harmoniously know this through revelation and the rational faculties of the imago dei based on the metaphysics of the analogia entis. The imminence of God is known through the created order because it is “in him we live, and move, and have our being.” So construed, the trap presented by the philosopher is exposed to be fallacious, and the true faith has been properly defended.

This style of argumentation is how we might utilize a Bonaventurian-themed theology to defend the revelation of God while not getting trapped in the methods of those seeking to undermine the faith. Rather than flattening out the mysteries of divine revelation to that of the categories of overtly rationalistic logical categories, the methodology employed above follows the instruction of the St. Paul and St. Peter.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Colossians 2:8

[2] Colossians 2:9-12

[3] Romans 1:16-17

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