Lutheran Metaphysics

@dga471, what would the competitors be? I was kinda thinking it was A-T metaphysics vs no metaphysics.


Why not a Lutheran approach?

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What would that look like? I really don’t know what that would look like in terms of the metaphysics of chemistry/science.

It would look like an embrace of paradox.

I’m late to this party and tried to skim the two related threads. Please forgive if I miss pertinent posts in my remarks.

Before Luther posted his 95 Theses in October (1517), he posted 97 Theses in September against Scholastic theology. In the 97 Theses you find Luther struggling with the notion that the scholastic ethos, what has been called here A-T philosophy, tends to take on a life of its own. What I mean by this, and what Luther argued in the 16th century, is that the inner workings of (Neo)Scholasticism become more valuable, more true than the world itself. The system is worth saving at all cost regardless of what “data” is marshaled against it; the “plain facts” – whether atomistic or holistic – are subservient to the metaphysical Scholastic system. Luther saw this played out most fully with his 95 Theses regarding sin, grace, and indulgences. However, a scientific analogue was tested at Luther’s Wittenberg with Copernican astronomy as well.

The Lutheran approach, at least in my humble opinion, will be to stay neutral on much of metaphysics. What this means at a practical level is what many of you have been saying already. It is unclear how AT actually influences/helps the scientist in the lab. The difference, however, is in what AT inclined thinkers say regarding the value of AT in explanation or understanding the larger world. AT style thinking is keen to see the entire universe in coherence. Lutheran metaphysics, if I may use the term, will always see a disconnect with any coherent system of thought and the way the world appears. This is more apparent in science as our knowledge can literately change before our eyes. It is less easy to see in metaphysics as those theories rarely go the way of the dodo, but get repackaged in new language.

This disconnect between believing that the world is more than it appears, yet limited to the world as it is given is the paradox or tension in Lutheran thought. We are free to build metaphysical systems, even AT style systems, but will always be leery of the potential for idolization. The system is fallible and must be able to fall, forgetting that we’ve sold our birthright. In that vein, what would make the AT system false? Or, another way, what state of affairs would cause an analytical Thomist to give up their system in chemistry or otherwise?

The big players in the Christian philosophical world are variations of AT and variations of Plantinga’s Reformed thought (which draws heavily on Aquinas!). The view you seem to be in alignment with would be some sort of nominalism/skepticism in your epistemological stance that colors your metaphysical positions. This is where I often find myself as well. It isn’t quite as sexy as AT or RE as it doesn’t tend to tie up all the loose strings in a nice neat package. But then neither does the world seem to be a perfectly packed ball of string! I guess I am much more comfortable with uncertainty and remaining agnostic as to properly deciphering primary/secondary substances alongside quadruple causes.


Thanks @Philosurfer for a wonderful contribution to this conversation.

I completely agree with you that there is a danger of idolizing the system of A-T philosophy, perhaps even more than the Bible and the Gospel message. There’s certainly many scenarios which could convince me, as a sympathizer of Thomism, to cease being an “orthodox” Thomist. Even though A-T philosophy, as an wide-ranging framework, is difficult to outright falsify, one can easily imagine situations where say, it makes things much less awkward to explain if we can allow a multiplicity of substantial forms in an object, as opposed to one form only (as @vjtorley alluded to). In fact, as a non-Catholic, I feel I am in a better position to pick and choose parts of A-T philosophy and theology instead of having to buy into all of it as some Catholics feel compelled to do, Thomas being an officially endorsed theologian of the church.

That being said, I think there’s a difference between discarding parts of A-T which are unhelpful, and completely doing away with all of scholastic thought, and eventually falling into heterodox theology. An example in this vein is the trend among some contemporary Christian philosophers (including Plantinga) to defend theistic personalism as opposed to classical theism: thinking of God as merely a super-powerful version of a human instead of the immutable, supremely simple Ground of all Being.

Now, there could be good philosophical reasons for a professional philosopher to reject classical theism. But I think there’s a difference between deliberately and knowingly rejecting something after having studied it (as Luther did) versus being taught by your pastor a theistic personalist view of God without even being aware of the historical, orthodox, classical view and thinking that it obviously must be the only way to think about God. Unfortunately I find that a lot of modern discourse about God and Christianity among the evangelical world is surprisingly historically naive - for example, it seems that we never know what happened, theologically speaking, between Augustine and Luther. Aquinas is either completely unknown, or condemned as “too Catholic”, even though classical theism was commonly accepted by both Catholic and Protestants for many centuries. An example in this forum: earlier, I mentioned the classical, orthodox idea of God as pure actuality and was met with an accusation that I was endorsing panentheism.

So to sum up, while one might legitimately conclude that nominalism is true, I think one should do so after considering all the options, and having obtained a good historical awareness of how things developed theologically.


Yes, and I should mention that the generation after Luther went right back to Scholastic categories to help with theology and philosophy. Go figure!

This may be so, but are these the only options? I would say, without being able to provide a third category (paradox!), that these forced options are a product of the game being played and not so much reality. The Lutheran will always be leery to terms such as these as they tend to be divorced from Scripture and rely more on speculation. Here is a an example from the biological sciences to try and get at what I’m talking about. Many of you will know about the individual versus group selection debate in the biological sciences. I wrote about it with some friends here:

What my friends and I realized was that that all the contemporary authors wanted to claim Darwin as their champion. Darwin is either an individual selectionist or a group selectionist (multi-level selectionist in the most current language) depending on who you read. However, when you comb through Darwin’s works, including his personal letters, he really does seem rather confused on the issue. This is partly due, we argued, to the fact that Darwin didn’t have a well-worked out theory of evolution yet. It took many years of thoughtful research to generate sustainable evolutionary theory (much beyond the life of Darwin) and then problems with the theory arose regarding individual versus the group. Darwin was okay with living with the ambiguity, but many more contemporary biologists are not (if their research touches on this topic). Why was Darwin okay with ambiguity and contemporary thinkers not? We proposed something to the effect that it was due to the theory ladenness. Darwin was more willing to let the world “speak” for itself, observing both individual and group selectionist tendencies in organisms and populations. Contemporary theorists were more willing to impose the theory over observations. Moreover, THEY wanted Darwin as either/or individual/group selection because THEIR theory demanded it.

Now, what is the data set for God regarding his characteristics? What does Scripture say about God? I would argue that He is both simple AND personal. Why do I need to emphasize one to the denigration of the other? Is it really an either/or? I suppose, if I wanted a really nice consistent picture of the world (metaphysics), then it makes sense to go one way more than the other. But, much like Darwin with the group selection debate (and Luther regarding various theological issues concerning God!) I am okay with the tension of not making my worldview/metaphysics more relevant than the plain text of Scripture or the world. Is theory involved here, absolutely. The question is not so much getting at a perfectly theoretical neutral stance – A View From Nowhere – but always being mindful of the limitations that your understanding brings to the world both theological/philosophical and scientific.

I take my intellectual meanderings as more inline with the classical idea of a Christian as a pilgrim, one who is journeying through the life they’ve been given. We find ourselves in foreign lands with foreign ideas and foreign gods. In fact, our own ideas are often foreign to fellow sojourners. Thus, I think a developed notion of an ethics of belief alongside something like a virtue epistemology is the proper starting place for a Christian in the world. However, this means that grand metaphysical schemes, no matter how comforting to the believer, will always be suspect!



This is pure gold! Thanks so much for articulating that, it really resonates with me! I haven’t had the philosophical background to articulate it nearly that well.


Very much agree here. I want to see this fleshed out in some articles.


I admit, the fondness for paradox (I like “mystery” better I think) in Lutheranism is very attractive to me. I come from a very non-liturgical Baptist’ish background, work in the Wesleyan tradition, and attend a Presbyterian church, but if it weren’t for a few things (I’m probably too liberal for LCMS and too conservative for ELCA) I’m pretty sure I could find a theological home in Lutheranism.

However, one thing that I worry about with the ready acceptance of paradox is that it could be a little too easy to use it as an intellectual “get out of jail free” card – i.e. instead of doing the hard work of being skeptical about our own theological/philosophical interpretations and working to resolve conflicting evidence it could be too easy to throw our hands up in the air and declare “paradox”! Do Lutherans have any sort of guidelines or theological/philosophical rails that help limit playing the paradox card?


8 posts were split to a new topic: What is Classical Theism?

We have some things in common* (like an affinity for accepting paradox, but ‘mystery’ is good). :slightly_smiling_face: We are told in a couple of places that God is inscrutable. And how the Timeless (or Timeful) relates to us in linear sequential time certainly involves mystery! No, I don’t think Molinism is the answer. (And I love Lutheran hymnody… but Welsh is good too. :slightly_smiling_face:)

*I’m also from a baptistic/revivalist background, and have been a member of both Baptist and Presbyterian churches.

Yep. You are correct. I imagine that a lot of the Lutheran absence from large public conversations regarding theology and culture is due to something akin to what you are worried about.

I do not have a nice set of rules that demarcate proper paradox use! However, I follow an insight that I find in St. Augustine’s Confessions, chapter seven I believe. St. Augustine discusses his rediscovery of St. Paul. It is a wonderful piece of text where he pits the Gospel message against his learning from the Greeks. He recognizes that the Greeks had nothing on the notion of forgiveness. That the forgiveness in Christ IS one’s identity and that the Greek systems of thought were seriously lacking in this regard.

However, he doesn’t simply dump the Greek notions of thought. Instead he reinvests in them knowing that his identity is NOT Platonism. Augustine is now free to explore the possibilities that Plato offers to Christianity. It is similar with Aquinas, he was free to explore Aristotle as it didn’t matter one iota if Aristotelian proved inadequate. He was simply exploring the ideas. They are penultimate identities/conceptual schemes that shatter at the foot of the cross. For an artistic rendition of this thought look and read about the Constantine Room at Vatican City. All is man’s conquest (Constantine’s), but at the center height of the ceiling is this image – a body broken on the Cross that breaks Sophia at His feet.

Thus, due to our identity in Christ, we are free to explore this world in all its strangeness. Nothing hinges on whether we are correct or incorrect. That kind of freedom can be abused in terms of ignoring the world and hiding behind the paradoxes we face, but it also motivates creative thinking. It isn’t that paradox necessitates a retreat from problems, but often ignites the imagination to try and figure out what the hell is going on… Thus, as I said to @dga471, he is free to explore and adopt A-T thinking if he thinks it best fits his understanding of the world, just please don’t force all of us to be A-T thinkers (or Reformed for that matter)!

This freedom to explore the world around us then gets codified in a strong sense of vocation as getting your hands dirty in the world. @Intjer brought this idea up nicely in his comment on this post. One might accuse the Lutheran dissuasion from metaphysics as being related to the impracticality of it all. In what way’s does metaphysics help me serve my neighbor? That sounds weird to my ear as a philosopher, having spent many years of my life around metaphysicians, but the idea is that metaphysical problems pale in relation to my daily life in community with neighbors who could care less about metaphysics as their needs are more direct.


Maybe it (not that it is absolutely necessarily to articulate it) helps you to have a well-grounded worldview and to be secure in who you are in Christ so you can take risks (not meaning to be seeking risks, but as they come up and are necessary) to help your neighbor?


Of course I did not mean to imply that @dga471 was forcing A-T on us (me). He is sojourning and enjoying investigating this new land as evidenced by his comment that he seems in a better place to pick and choose what seems good, true, beautiful from an ‘outsider’ perspective. I would be very interested in what the attraction is to A-T thought from @dga471 AND what he sees as its problems. He is in a good position to provide a little give and take with it!


Metaphysics never helped me be secure in Christ… The actual absolution of my sin given to me when the pastor (or a friend) forgives me in the name of Christ, coupled with the promise at my baptism and the weekly communion of the saints reaffirms my identity. In fact, as I’ve had it out with a few of my reformed friends, metaphysics gets in the way!

Now, does what I just mention assume some metaphysical issues - absolutely! The difference is that I grounded my metaphysics in the epistemological. Christ forgave (forgives), now I can go forward. The issue is epistemological, not metaphysical. How do I know that Christ forgave?

Do I need a full blown worldview to know that Christ forgives? What does the worldview add? How might the worldview get in the way? Am I even justified in thinking that the person sitting in the pew next me shares my worldview? These are rhetorical and not directed at you @DaleCutler! My philo-sense went off and I sometimes can’t help but spout out a bunch of questions - helpful or, often enough, not!


I guess it differs from person to person. For me, having a robust doctrine of God as a being so different in nature from us has made me comfortable understanding why God seems so hidden sometimes - why I don’t need God to constantly tell me of His presence with a audible human voice (like a regular human would) in my head in order to be convinced that He is there. It gives me great comfort to pray to God knowing that He is the cause of all Being itself, who sustains the universe continually, instead of merely a super-powerful demiurge who occasionally supernaturally intervenes only in times of crisis. Oddly, I’ve personally never found it difficult to accept the idea that our sins can be forgiven through Christ. It seems obvious to me that if God exists, then the odds of Christianity (as opposed to any other religion, or view of God) being true skyrockets. The difficulty for me is more whether any of this is true in the first place.

Talking about A-T philosophy more broadly, by making me think of people as a united substances, instead of merely a collection of atoms that happen to animate together, it’s made our humanness more “real” in some way. I’ve also found myself saying: that cup, that dog, that book - all of those things actually exist in nature as unities! They are not merely abstract constructions of the mind. Despite the awkwardness of reconciling it with chemistry, this view of the world is more down-to-earth for day-to-day situations. I don’t have to keep reminding myself that what I see around me is all an illusion; that nature is only truly seen when we look at it through a microscope. Instead, when I look through the microscope, I am learning more about the fundamental essences of things that I see around me. In other words, even scientific research is better integrated into my understanding of reality.

Now, of course I’m not saying that you need to hold to hylomorphism in order to treat people humanely. I’m just saying that for myself, it really reinforces the reasons for doing so, just like knowing that people are made in the image of God does! And of course, I could imagine that for another person, classical theism and divine simplicity might make it more difficult for them to relate to God, if it gives them the impression the God is distant, abstract, or impersonal. And you could argue that many of the things I said above could be achieved without having to hold to divine simplicity or A-T philosophy at all.

But it seems clear that I need at least some basic metaphysics to even understand what it means for Christ to forgive me. How can Christ’s forgiveness make much sense if Christ is no more than a figment of my imagination? Secondly, even if you don’t need a well-developed worldview to become a Christian, you might need it to keep living comfortably as one. Some people seem to be OK with paradox, tension, and living with unresolved questions, but some really want an answer, even if they know very well that it is surely a flawed and incomplete one!


I think this is a straw man of the paradox view.

If we embrace paradox we want answers too, but are wary of settling for overly simplistic answers. The danger in self contained and self consistent systems is that they are overly simplistic, and therefore false in salient ways.

The point of paradox is that we can recognize the legitimacy of concepts that are in tension with one another, before we figure out how the tension is resolved. Of course we seek resolutions to the tension, but while recognizing that the idoloterous temptation is to illegitimately “resolve” by ignoring the legitimacy of one or more sides of the tension.

This is in large part how science works. We can, for example, recognize the legitimacy of all the evidence for dark matter in astronomy, while at the same time recognizing our inability to find a dark matter particle. These two ideas are in deep tension, and they are both true. We don’t know how it resolves. We can hold on to both sides of the tension becuase we know their is mystery here. There is legitimacy to both sides, and we don’t loose hold of either side.

Similar sorts of conflicts arise in the contradictions between observed cosmological constants, both with each other, and with the predictions form quantum theory. There is legitimacy to all these mutually contradictory pieces of knowledge, but we don’t know how it all resolves. It would be an error to just pick on estimate and ignore the rest. We have to make sense of it all together.

Mystery is not a cop out from seeking answers. Rather is a brute fact of the human experience. Embracing mystery is how we even can begin to seek legitimate resolutions to the tensions of paradox.


Yes, but many physicists are not happy with this situation either. Concrete steps are taken to resolve the tension, for example, I have recently heard many people declare that the WIMP proposal for dark matter particles is effectively dead due to the constant null results, and this has propelled a lot of renewed interest in exploring other DM particle candidates like axions. I think many physicists have regularly wanted a grand resolution to tensions and contradictions in their data; this is why string theory exists (to resolve the tension between quantum field theory and general relativity), even though many of its assumptions (like supersymmetry) still have no experimental proof, and it’s possible that it may all be wrong. Similarly, Einstein spent the last few decades of his life looking for a unified “theory of everything”, to no avail. In fact, the whole history of modern physics can be narrated as a series of attempts at synthesizing all physics that was known at the time into one bigger theory.

So for many (especially theoretical particle physicists), having an answer for hand for how things fit together seems important, even if that answer is probably wrong, as we have no idea what experimental data we will get in 100 years. The problem is that only God knows the full answer, but we only have a limited number of years living on this Earth to figure it out. Is it wrong to speculate and tentatively believe some coherent picture with the limited knowledge that we have? Is it idolatrous and arrogant like the Tower of Babel, or is it sincerely trying to imitate God, knowing that all being ultimately springs from the same Creator, who is simple and one?


Who says we have to be happy with the tension?

We just have to accept it as reality, and work to make sense of it, recognizing that we are facing grand question that may not be resolved in our lifetimes. We do not have to like the reality, but we have to accept it, without pushing prematurely to an overly simplistic solution (i.e. wrong).

So, of course, we want grand resolution. The paradox approach has us wary of simplistic resolutions that deny legitimacy to one side of the tension. We’d rather live in the reality of tension, as uncomfortable as it is, than move to a false resolution.

I think you are working from a strawman understanding of paradox. We don’t press paradox because we like tension and don’t want to find answers. We embrace paradox because tension is the reality of being limited humans trying to understand things bigger than us. If we were not facing tension, this would be de facto evidence we were not actually engaging reality in its fullness, which is beyond our comprehension.

Take a look at the GAE as another example, and look at Tim Keller. He was caught in tension. He read Genesis one way, and understood there was legitimacy to what scientists said too. He was stuck there. Now we know there is a resolution to his conundrum in the GAE, but for 150 years it just was not known. That is how paradox works. We know that we are usually before the resolution of the tension, and if we deny the tension we loose out on our ability to make progress to a real solution.

Embracing paradox and mystery is not to become a “mystery monger,” passing over solid resolutions just because we like the pain of mystery. Rather it is to recognize reality that we do not know how many things fit together, while at the same time trying to fit it all together.

This is in fact how science works, in an embrace of paradox. It is in stark contrast to the “closed” self-consistent systematic metaphysics such as A-T. It is not a denial of metaphysics either. Instead paradox allows for an “open” metaphysics that know much is beyond our comprehension (recognition of a fact, not as statement of desire), and therefore resists the pitfall of settling for a fully self-contained metaphysics.