Book Review: “Contemplating God with the Great Tradition”

Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. By Craig A. Carter. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021. 352 pp. $32.99 (paper).

Recently, there has been a marked effort among some Christian scholars to recover the classical Christian doctrine of God and the Trinity. This effort has included All That Is in God by James E. Dolezal; None Greater by Matthew Barrett; The One Creator God by Michael J. Dodds; God Is by Mark Jones; The Triune God by Fred Sanders; and The Trinity by Scott R. Swain, to say nothing of the books that have focused on a particular divine attribute.[1] In Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, Craig A. Carter makes his own contribution to the topic. But for those who are familiar with the above titles, the question might arise: does Carter’s book meaningfully differ from what’s already available?

In a word, yes: the works that came before have an appreciably different focus from Carter’s own. Some, such as None Greater and God Is, are primarily concerned with expositing the relevant doctrines and drawing support for these doctrines from Scripture and the Christian theological tradition. All That Is in God, meanwhile, is distinctive in the degree to which it highlights the number and nature of deviations from classical theism among contemporary evangelicals.

This is not to say Carter does not discuss these things in his book. In chapter 2, for example, Carter “[summarizes] trinitarian classical theism” (48). In chapter 9, he examines contemporary evangelical theology at length, which he characterizes as the “conservative wing” of what he calls “the liberal project” of modernist hermeneutics and theology (302).

What really makes Carter’s work stand out, though, is his thoughtful exposition and demonstration of the underlying hermeneutical and theological methodology that led the Church Fathers to formulate what he calls trinitarian classical theism in the first place. According to Carter, a typical assumption of modernist hermeneutics is that one must come to the text free of preconceptions—theological, metaphysical, or otherwise—so as not to read into the text any ideas or “dogma” foreign to it (39).

As Carter plainly states, however, “There is no such thing as exegesis without presuppositions” (54). Rather than vainly seek to rid ourselves of presuppositions and “bias,” Carter argues that we should “deliberately choose to place ourselves as individuals within the tradition of historic orthodox Christianity as our framework of understanding” (39). He identifies this tradition as Christian Platonism, the best expression of which he takes to be “Reformed Thomism” (7‒8).

This point bears repeating, as it lies at the center of Carter’s argument: approaching the task of exegesis with presuppositions (whether theological or philosophical) is justified for the simple reason that we cannot do otherwise. Moreover, adopting the confessions and ecumenical creeds of historic Christianity as our exegetical starting point is reasonable because, as Carter puts it, they are “far more likely to be true than the half-baked metaphysics I pick up from the secularized culture around me” (39).

It could be objected that undertaking exegesis with such a framework already in place is “putting the cart before the horse” or “presupposing [one’s] conclusion” (36). Carter’s response is that the process of theology—in which “we begin with revelation, then we move to doctrines, and finally we deduce metaphysical truths from those doctrines” (37)—does not end once we have formulated doctrines and deduced further truths from those doctrines. Rather, the next step is to “start over again with further exegetical work,” in which we engage in “prayerful contemplation of the text in light of the exegesis already done, and the relation of that text to other texts, and to the doctrinal summary statements we have created” (37, emphasis original).

In other words, on Carter’s account, “The work of exegesis is never done once for all and finished” (38). As such, theology is a self-correcting endeavor in which, once the initial exegesis has been completed and doctrines and metaphysical truths derived from our reading, we should ask ourselves whether the presuppositions we had when we first approached the text accord with the metaphysical and doctrinal truths arrived at after exegesis (37‒38). In this way, the task of theology always leaves room for further refinement.

Much of the book consists of Carter putting this proposed methodology to work: “Having made the best argument I could for the hermeneutical approach of the Great Tradition [in his previous book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition], I have now tried to put that approach into practice in the theological interpretation of Scripture done in the present book” (9). Accordingly, after his sketch of trinitarian classical theism in chapter 2, he spends the next several chapters expositing Isaiah 40‒48, making the argument that “trinitarian classical theism is a restatement of the plain sense of the text, that is, of what the text explicitly says plus what can be deduced from its explicit meaning” (86). Moreover, in keeping with the idea that the doctrinal and metaphysical conclusions of exegesis inform further exegesis, Carter seeks to show that “trinitarian classical theism not only arises out of the text, but also enables us to penetrate more deeply into the res of the text, that is, the subject matter of the text” (86).

It might seem odd that in discussing a book promoting “trinitarian classical theism,” or more specifically “Reformed Thomism,” I have not said much about how Carter defines either of these terms. This is partly because it would unduly prolong this review to discuss these matters in detail, although interested readers can take note that according to Carter, Reformed Thomism finds expression in such documents as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Westminster Confession, and the Second London Confession. But additionally, as I mentioned above, I believe Carter’s presentation of theological inquiry as a process that is situated, cyclical, and self-correcting is an essential kernel of his argument, and, moreover, one that might be more difficult to absorb than his comparatively straightforward presentation of the discrete tenets of trinitarian classical theism.

For Carter to expound the nature of theology would be valuable enough, considering the number of people who still think it is feasible to do theology or exegesis in some kind of “view from nowhere.” The fact that he not only elucidates the situated and yet self-correcting nature of theology, but also demonstrates what this looks like in practice when we start with the theological legacy of the Nicene church as a given, makes this book a potent blend of both theological and methodological exposition, one that I heartily recommend.

  1. Examples include Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (New York: T&T Clark, 2016), and Joseph Minich and Onsi A. Kamel, eds., The Lord is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity (Davenant Press, 2019).

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Themelios, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.

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