Being and the Bible – Part 2

As a tribute to the topic of the 2016 Los Angeles Theology Conference (LATC) for this year, “The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture,” we are running a number of posts of the doctrine of Scripture.

Today’s post is the second of a three part series looking at at how different perspectives on “being” impact our perception of the Bible.

My concern in this series is to think through the ways in which different ontological perspectives (ideas about being) have influenced how people approach the ‘being’ of the Bible.[1] In a prior post, I looked at the impact of Greek and Medieval notions of being upon perceptions of the Bible’s ‘being’. In today’s post, I will consider post-modern ontologies, and their influence on views of the ‘being’ of the Bible.

Heidegger’s Critique of Ontotheology

The Enlightenment, which took a particular hold on the eighteenth century, carried with it the idea that the mind is able to reason toward reality apart from anything external to it. In this era, the Bible came to be treated as if it were a ground of knowing apart from its ecclesial and confessional situation. Such an approach gave rise to rationalistic approaches to the study of the Bible. However, in the wake of Nietzsche’s exposure of the vacuity of pure rationalism, a post-metaphysical counter-movement, closely linked with the thought of Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), began to gain steam.

When surveying the Western tradition, Heidegger found it inherently onto-theo-logical, in that it conflated a philosophical category (ontology – the study of being) with religious one (theology – the study of God). Whether appealing to the God of the Bible, or merely a first cause, Western philosophy sought to ground its knowledge of being in some immaterial base principle. In short, the Western tradition was steeped in foundationalism.

Heidegger not only idenfitied Western philosophy’s bent toward foundationalism, he also strongly critiqued it. ‘Being’, understood as a genus from which species derive, and ‘being’ taken to mean the actual beingness of entities are, he asserted, two very different things. Whereas Western philosophy was concerned primarily with the former, Heidegger shifted his attention to the latter. In short, whereas modern metaphysics put essence before existence, Heidegger, along with Sartre, reversed this order, placing existence before essence.

Marion and Post-Ontological Theology

Heidegger’s work sparked an interest in post-ontological or post-metaphysical theology, exemplified by Jean-Luc Marion (1946- ), a French philosopher and theologian schooled in the phenomenological tradition. In his monograph God Without Being, Marion contends against the late medieval move that placed God within an overarching metaphysical framework, rather than recognizing him as the One who transcends all creaturely notions of being. In addition, Marion stresses the need for a distinction between philosophy and theology. Theology, for Marion, belongs to the realm of faith, not logic.

According to Marion, right thinking about the intersection ‘being’ as a concept and how we think about the ‘being’ of God is a very serious matter. We have immediate access only to entities, and not Being in the ultimate sense. Attempting to define God’s being by what we know of the being of entities is, in Marion’s appraisal, tantamount to idolatry. Instead of fitting God within creaturely conceptions of being, our proper stance is that of a receiver, open to God’s gracious and loving revelation.

A Post-Ontological ‘Being’ of the Bible

Post-ontological theology in the stream of Heidegger and Marion offers a correction of late medieval and modern notions of ‘being’ that had become autonomous, hubristic, rationalistic, and isolated from the realm of faith. It views the knowledge of God not primarily as a matter of conception, but rather affection. Our language of and to the ineffable God is thus to embrace praise over predication. Practically, this is accomplished liturgically. The Bible, then, is a liturgical instrument, and its proper apprehension involves discovering what is given and shown, to the end of worship. It is a thing to be received by the community of faith, not mastered by the autonomous subject.

This notion of what the Bible is represents a move far afield from the rationalism of scholasticism and modernity, and the corrections offered by post-metaphysical theology here are to be seriously considered. And yet, it may be asked whether lack of predication in such an approach strips the very worship it seeks to achieve of any specific referent. Further, in moving away from essence and toward existence, it may be queried whether modernity’s subjective turn is here exacerbated rather than alleviated.

In Part 3 of this three-part series, Tim Harmon considers various theological approaches to the ‘being’ of the Bible.

Note that this series involves examining the intersection of philosophy and theology. For students who are interested in learning more about this area of study, Dr. Marc Cortez will be teaching a Th.M. seminar on Philosophy for Theologians during the Summer 2016 semester at Western Seminary.

[1] Much of the material for this series was originally presented in a paper I delivered at the 2015 Kingdom Theology Conference, Trinity Cheltenham, U.K.

About Tim Harmon

Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.