A Proposed Rule for Theological Speech

Stop saying that various doctrines are rules for theological speech. I have in mind particularly the recent wave of Patristics scholarship to which an unnamed supervisor of an Oriel theologian has been central, but I think the phenomenon is wider than this. When this supervisor uses the term ‘grammar’, he means ‘a set of rules or principles intrinsic to theological discourse, whether or not they are formally articulated’ (Nicaea and Its Legacy, p 14). Thus another of his supervisees: ‘Simplicity and non-condradiction, then, are both rules for speaking about God’ (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity’, p 21). The theological doctrine of divine simplicity, not to mention the logical principle of non-contradiction, are both interpreted as rules for speaking.

This, I submit, is deeply mistaken. My point is not so much about realist foot-stomping; it’s not as if I’m complaining that the great saving truth is being exchanged for mere breath. The recent wave of Patristic scholarship is very obviously not committed to a general theological anti-realism. The relevant scholars just think it’s helpful to talk in terms of ‘grammar’; I disagree.

Here’s another proposed rule for speech. The milk is off. Just as ‘God is simple’ can be construed as meaning ‘Do not attribute parts to God’, so too can ‘The milk is off’ be construed as meaning ‘Do not attribute freshness to the milk’, ‘Do not say that there is milk for the tea’ etc. My comment about the milk is bound to regulate our discourse about breakfast. But it’s just bonkers to think that the statement is somehow part of our ‘grammar of breakfast’. It’s an ordinary, first-order comment on how it is with the milk. As it happens, the way it is with the milk is of great importance to our breakfast, and so for our breakfast discourse. Hence my comment’s regulative force. But to seize upon its tendency to regulate discourse and elevate that to the status of the comment’s meaning is confused and confusing.

I take it the same applies to, eg, ‘God is simple’. It’s a first-order comment on how it is with God: namely, that in God there is no complexity of any kind. Now this is a very important fact (if indeed it is a fact, that is, if there is no complexity of any kind in God) about God. So important that proper acknowledgement of it will tend to regulate our discourse about God, as well as various other of our practices. Of particular importance to Patristics scholarship, of course, is that it will tend to regulate the practice of Scriptural exegesis. Hence the temptation to think of such claims in terms of their linguistic role.

The temptation, however, should be resisted. Some theological claims have an especial tendency to regulate theological discourse. This is what people are getting at when they indulge in ‘grammar’ talk. But they regulate discourse not because they have any special grammatical or meta-lingustic status, but simply because they tell us particularly important truths about God. Instead of ‘grammar of divinity’, I would favour instead, eg, ‘core doctrine of God’; instead of talking about some doctrine’s role as a rule of theological speech, I would talk of its role as a hermeneutical key to some author’s theology (or of some author’s use of it as a key to Scriptural hermeneutics). Thus we still capture the important truths the current scholarly jargon is trying to articulate without the same sloppiness about object language and meta-language.


3 thoughts on “A Proposed Rule for Theological Speech

  1. I do understand and sympathise where you’re coming from (and incidentally, I think Lewis Ayres would too – he pushes the realism line as much as anyone).
    However, I think you need to bear in mind that by Ayres and Radde-Gallwitz are making claims about the historical development of doctrine and that ‘meta-level rules about theological language’ for them essentially means heremeneutical rules governing exegesis of scripture. Of course you’re right to say that divine simlicitly is first of all a first order claim about God’s being. However, in the fourth century, it also worked as a hermeneutical rule which governed exegesis on a meta level in a way that, say, certain trinitarian doctrines couldn’t. Both pro-Nicenes and neo-Arians could offer different scriptural arguments for their positions, but these still had to work within a framework which saw scripture and non-contradictory in its portrayal of the divine.
    Moreover, figures such as Basil of Caesarea eplicitly clarify and use these doctrines for the very reason that it enables them to develop a more sophisticated hermeneutic within which other theological claims can be formulated.
    As a matter of historical fact, then, certain doctrines come to have an elevated hermeneutical role (as you seem to acknowledge).
    The language of ‘grammar of divinity’ does have potential for confusion; however I think that talking about it in terms of hermeneutics of scripture, as Ayres and Radde-Gallwitz both do, mitigates this. Ultimately its function is to convey a historical reality in the history of doctrine, and it does this successfully.


  2. Thanks Brendan. Of course that’s what Ayres and co. are after, and I don’t think they fail exactly. I just think that they don’t need to use such language to get what they’re after, and, given that the language is confusing, it’s best to replace it with something else. Even in terms of identifying the historical reality of exegetical practices and their role in doctrinal debate, it’s running together issues of what a grammaticus would have taught with issues about language games and their rules in an unhelpful way. And it’s just silly to say that ‘God is simple’ “means, in the most obvious sense, ‘do not attribute parts to God”: the ideology of grammar being a standing temptation to such silliness.


  3. Just to annoy you, I think Wittgenstein would broadly agree here- but just because he would disagree with a view of grammar as ‘a set of rules or principles intrinsic to theological discourse, whether or not they are formally articulated’ in any obvious sense. Such it is!


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