Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Analogy of Faith, by Archie J. Spencer

Archie J. Spencer.  The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Analogy of Faith, theologian Archie J. Spencer discusses the question of whether humans can “speak meaningfully of God” (to quote from the back cover).

According to Spencer, a prominent trend in the history of Christian theology has been to say that humans can understand God, on some level, because God is like humans, in certain areas, and there is something within or about humans that helps them to understand God: both have being (existence), both have wisdom, etc.  As Spencer narrates, Augustine went the route of saying that humans have a soul that is like the Trinity, and that enables them to understand the Trinitarian God, on some level.  Spencer contends that some of the roots of the idea of divine-human analogy go back to Greek philosophy and Neoplatonism, but he also refers to Scriptures that adherents of this view have relied on: Genesis 1:27’s statement that God created human beings in God’s image, and Paul’s statement in Romans 1:20 that aspects of God are understood by the things that are made.  Spencer believes that there are many problems with the divine-human analogy: that it can conceptually bring God down to the human level, that it can conceptually elevate humans to the divine level, that nature by itself does not provide a clear portrait of God but requires the drawing of conclusions, and that a focus on nature detracts from God’s revelation through Christ.  Spencer offered other reasons within his discussion, reasons that were rather abstract and philosophical.

At the same time, there has been within the history of Christian theology another belief: that God is radically different from human beings, and that God is incomprehensible to them.  Such a belief does not reduce God, but a concern one may have, Spencer notes, is that it can make God overly transcendent and actually be conducive to atheism.  What can one do in reference to a God of whom one cannot meaningfully speak, because this God cannot be understood?

Drawing on Karl Barth, Eberhard Jungel, and other theologians, Spencer believes that a solution to the theological difficulty of knowing God is to focus on the incarnation: God’s self-revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ.  John 1:18 affirms that Jesus Christ has made God known.  Spencer refers to other ideas as well: that God can make use of human words to make Godself known, and that God can be known through the drama of God’s acts and people’s testimony to those acts.

I do not recall Spencer proposing or referring to a proper way to interpret Romans 1:20 (proper in light of his beliefs about natural theology and preference for looking to the incarnation as God’s revelation).  He did, however, refer to a point that Karl Barth made in reference to Genesis 1:27: that God’s image can be defaced in human beings, but is truly manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.  Barth saw Genesis 1:27 through the lens of the incarnation.

Spencer’s discussion raises questions in my mind.  Did Jesus Christ truly reveal God as God is, since God is above and beyond human beings?  In what sense did Jesus reveal God?  Did Jesus reveal what God wants us to know about him, and yet we should remember that there is so much more about God?  My hunch is that Spencer would answer “yes” to the third question.

Do we need to choose between natural theology and specially revealed theology?  Can we have both?  The believers in natural theology whom Spencer profiles did not think that we should just go with natural theology and dismiss God’s special revelation or supernatural intervention (i.e., the incarnation, Scripture, supernatural grace).  Were they inconsistent to believe in natural theology and special revelation at the same time, or did they acknowledge that natural theology, though useful, is still limited and inadequate for knowing God?

The asset to Spencer’s book is that is does provide a history of the concept of analogy, as it looks at Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, Augustine, and others.  My problem with the book was that it was difficult to read: it was highly abstract, and Spencer could have done a better job in breaking down the concepts.  I understand and appreciate that Spencer is contributing to a specific academic discussion and may not be writing for a popular audience; still, there are theological books that IVP Academic has published, including one in the Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology series (of which this book was a part), that are much more lucid.  And yet, Spencer’s book does give an impression of being deep, and I am tempted to revisit it sometime in the future, in hope that I will understand it better.

Spencer’s discussion did make me more sensitive to the issue of natural theology and special revelation.  After reading Spencer’s book, I came across a blog post by Bobby Grow about natural theology (https://growrag.wordpress.com/2015/10/16/the-three-forms-of-natural-theology-for-the-post-reformed-orthodox-and-even-evangelicals/), and I appreciated one of Grow’s points about why he (Grow) and Barth have issues with it: when we combine special revelation with natural theology, we are essentially combining special revelation with our own subjective inferences from nature, as opposed to allowing God to confront us through Christ and Scripture.  Barth pointed to the Nazis as an example of how natural theology can lead to problems.  I like many of Grow’s posts, but I especially appreciated this post because of the reflection that Spencer’s book inspired within me.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press, in exchange for an honest review.

2 comments:

  1. James,

    Thank you for a very fair review. You are right about the abstraction. However, I could do little about it in the end. The book was originally 657 pages and had to be cut down considerably. Some abstraction was a natural result and time did not permit much of an unpacking of some of the high context concepts..

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for your comment, Dr. Spencer. Wow, 657 pages!

    ReplyDelete

Search This Blog