Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 2: Chapters 2-3

macquarrieI bought Principles of Christian Theology in 2007, when I was working on my master’s thesis and made it my business to own as many volumes of Christian existentialist literature as I could get my hands on. I say own rather than read, and in fact I don’t think I’d ever even opened this enormous book until it came time to start this blog series. (MacQuarrie did, however, furnish one of the epigraphs to that thesis, although I can’t remember what it was or from where it came.) My plan, like Nathan’s, I think, is not to try to summarize every detail of Principles–that was my mistake when we did Truth and Method three years ago–but to talk about the points of the book that I find the most interesting and/or disturbing.

I will point out that, in the great Christian existentialist theological divide between the conservative Barth and the liberal Tillich, MacQuarrie positions himself squarely in the middle. We saw that in the introduction, in his view of the Bible as absolutely necessary but not infallible, and we will see it again in his attitude toward natural theology in Chapter 2. That moderation will, I suspect, mean that MacQuarrie will make both me and Nathan itchy, for opposite reasons, and should therefore make for some interesting discussions. My own theological orientation is pretty squarely Barthian, though MacQuarrie’s presentation of him as overly Spartan to the point of fideism holds some water for me; it will be interesting to see if he shifts my opinion over the course of Principles.

This post will cover Chapters 2 (“The Tasks of Philosophical Theology”) and 3 (“Human Existence”). I don’t think we’re going to have a set number of pages, or even a set number of chapters, to cover in each blog; we’ll just stop in places that make thematic sense.

Philosophical Theology

Philosophical theology, as MacQuarrie sees it, conducts a sort of internal review of theology proper, revealing the assumptions that undergird theological assertions (which are, like all assertions, always already undergirded by assumptions) and determining whether or not they are sturdy enough to serve as a foundation for future theology. In this sense, the philosophical theologian’s job is not dissimilar from Kant’s in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant wanted to figure out if any genuine metaphysics, which is to say any scientific metaphysics, was possible. MacQuarrie is not bound to a Kantian notion of science, but he does think that theology should be reasonable, that it should be able to withstand logical scrutiny. It is the job of the philosophical theologian to provide that scrutiny and to give her verdict. Philosophical theology, in other words, determines whether theology is even possible.

In a way, then, philosophical theology parses out the relationship between faith and reason. But MacQuarrie is hesitant to use that language because it risks turning faith, which is fundamentally an existential orientation–into something merely cognitive. If we find MacQuarrie sounding a lot like James K.A. Smith here, we shouldn’t be surprised. He is, after all, a disciple of Martin Heidegger, a major influence on Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and one of our patron atheist saints here at The Christian Humanist).

Natural Theology

What MacQuarrie calls “philosophical theology” can be seen as a replacement–or even as another name–for what has historically been called “natural theology.” Natural theology “linked the theologian’s world with the world of ordinary experience, or to put the same thing in another way, it showed the connection between theological discourse and everyday discourse” (46). Probably the most notable manifestations of natural theology were the “proofs” of God, be they Anselm’s ontological argument, Thomas’s cosmological argument, or Paley’s teleological argument. (MacQuarrie points out that only the latter two are, strictly speaking, natural theology, since the ontological argument relies solely on reason rather than observation–but “rational theology” is also seen as spurious nowadays, so why not lump it in?)

The problem is that, in the last two centuries or so, natural theology has fallen into deep disrepute on the part of both philosophers and theologians. Philosophers have rather systematically debunked most of its stronger claims, such that even the people who are still interested in the classical arguments for God’s existence tend not to see them as proofs in the mathematical sense. (Nathan made this point in CHP Episode 143: Proofs of God.) The more interesting critiques, perhaps, come from the theological side.

Theologians from the Calvinist tradition, for example, sometimes suggest “that man’s fallen or sinful condition has stripped him of ‘sound intelligence’ as well as of moral integrity and that his corruption extends to the intellect as well as to the will” (49-50). To this objection–very famously made by Barth in the 20th century–we might add the related one that there is an absolute gulf between man and God that can be bridged only by divine action, not by human logic. MacQuarrie is clearly thoroughly disgusted by the first argument and responds morally as well as logically:

The Calvinist believes that he himself, as one of the elect, has been rescued from this sea of error and that his mind has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. However much he may insist that this is God’s doing and not his own, his claim is nevertheless one of the most arrogant that has ever been made. It is this kind of thing that has rightly earned for theology the contempt of serious men. (50)

This idea, too, is one that frequently comes up on our program, often under the name of “bad Calvinism.” If we are to take total depravity seriously, it must indeed be total depravity–that is, it must include the Calvinist as well as the non-Calvinist. I am more inclined to take the second objection more seriously, as is MacQuarrie. The problem here is not with the argument itself but with the place the theologians take it. In restricting the revelation that must always proceed downward to the events contained in the Bible, they go too far. MacQuarrie recommends that we open up the world to other sorts of divine revelations–subordinate, perhaps, to the biblical self-revelation, but not therefore unrevelatory. Calvinists have traditionally called this phenomenon “general revelation,” but MacQuarrie points out that it is composed of many specific revelations, not one general one.

He thus allows the theologians to temper the concept of natural theology–but he warns them against eliminating it altogether, lest theology be cut off from all other disciples and from human reason itself. Natural theology has been chastened by the last two centuries, but it still has value. MacQuarrie’s approach in turning natural theology into philosophical theology is phenomenological–he will not attempt to prove anything, per se, but will merely describe the assumptions underlying theology.


Like Pascal, MacQuarrie begins his theology not with God but with humanity, on the grounds that humanity is the animal that has faith and that it is easier to examine humanity than it is God, anyway. But an examination of humanity is, as the history of philosophy attests, incredibly difficult: Our selves are simultaneously the thing closest to us and the thing furthest away from us. The only thing we can hope to do is use that phenomenological approach, in which we suspend questions of accuracy and try merely to describe the things we experience as value-neutrally as we can, that serves as his overarching method for Principles of Christian Theology.

MacQuarrie’s anthropology will be very familiar to anyone who has encountered Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as it is a very close adaptation of Sartre’s metaphysical and anthropological schema. Sartre famously divides the world into l’être-en-soi (being-in-itself) and l’être-pour-soi (being-for-itself). The difference between the two of them is that being-for-itself has self-consciousness, whereas being-in-itself doesn’t. Being-for-itself, in other words, is aware, on some level, that it is being-for-itself–and what’s more, it seeks meaning and purpose in a way that (as far as we know) being-in-itself doesn’t. The difference between me and the wooden elephant figurine that sits on my desk is that I am aware of myself as an observer of the wooden figurine. Unless Leibniz was right, the wooden figuring has no idea that I’m looking at it and no way of looking at me.

(The more interesting question, one that Sartre doesn’t answer, as far as I know, is whether the elephant that served as a model for my figurine is more like the figurine or me. MacQuarrie, for his part, puts it somewhere in the middle. I don’t know about that. Elephants mourn their dead and recognize themselves in mirrors; they may very well be l’être-pour-soi. They might even have some sort of religious faith, a capacity that MacQuarrie reserves for human beings.)

Sartrean anthropology involves human beings in any number of contradictions: We are free in our actions but bound by our circumstances; we are rational but irrational; we seek meaning but live in a world that does not offer it to us, at least not readymade; and, most importantly for MacQuarrie, we are anxious about our existence but we are also hopeful about it. To take appropriate stock of humanity, we must take stock of these tensions, which MacQuarrie is adamant in calling tensions rather than absurdities or contradictions, as Sartre does.

MacQuarrie pays special attention to the tension between the individual and society, before concluding that because human beings are intrinsically social, there can be no theology that merely deals with the individual. The health of a society depends on the health of its members, and the health of an individual depends on the health of her society.

Sin and Disorder

As all Christian anthropology must, MacQuarrie’s sees brokenness throughout the human self (on both the individual and social levels). Rather than calling it brokenness, however, he speaks about it as disorder and imbalance. To ignore humanity’s finiteness gives us over to utopianism, angelism, and rabid individualism; to ignore humanity’s possibility gives us over to a merely animal life. MacQuarrie, following Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, suggests that all of human life consists in leaning too far to one side or another. This imbalance is what theologians call sin; although MacQuarrie introduces that term late in the section, he prefers to talk about disorder because it is a secular category.

Our disorder leads us to all kinds of alienation–first from ourselves and then from other existing beings. Alienation, in turn, breeds despair of a very particular kind:

Is it not the case, however, that there is still a third level of alienation, a deeper level where one feels alienated from the whole scheme of things? Perhaps this could be called “lostness.” It is the sense of being cut off not only from one’s own true being or from the being of others, but from all being, so that one has no “place” in the world. This is surely the deepest despair that can arise out of the disorder of existence. (71)

The advantage of an existentialist anthropology–even one that, like Sartre’s and Camus’s, goes much too far into absurdity and despair–is that it, unlike the blithe humanism so common in post-Enlightenment philosophy, actually takes stock of the contradictions of human life. Only by accounting for these contradictions can we have any hope for the future–for grace, to use another theological term.

This longing for order is also a kind of faith, which again, MacQuarrie defines as an existential attitude rather than the sort of blind and irrational trust that atheists sometimes characterize it to be. Genuine biblical faith takes stock of the absurdity of human existence and of the seeming abyss of death and then chooses to live in hope. In the next chapter, which Nathan will cover next week, MacQuarrie will discuss the process by which a person chooses to have faith.

1 thought on “Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 2: Chapters 2-3

  1. I likely would have been more allergic to the project called Natural Theology or Philosophical Theology had Macquarrie started from big, unargued assertions rather than from descriptions of experience.  But I’m convinced enough by Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s descriptive projects that I can go along with this kind of philosophy.

    That said, I still wonder whether someone operating within Indian or Chinese philosophical traditions would see as provincial what Macquarrie sees as universal.  Obviously 400 years of colonial and post-colonial history make that question a tricky one to unravel, but I still wonder whether Macquarrie’s concept of universal experience owes more to a shared history or to something more like a transcendent human nature.

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