Metaphysics and the Interpretation of Scripture: A Reply to Daniel Treier

Craig A. Carter
Professor of Theology
Tyndale University

In the last issue Dan Treier responded to my book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. I thank him for doing so and I wish to offer a few thoughts in response so as to continue what I think is an important conversation about the importance of certain metaphysical commitments for the true interpretation of Scripture.

At the outset of his paper, Treier says that he is not sure if one can maintain both “the Protestant primacy of the literal sense and the hermeneutical pertinence of a classically Christian theological ontology.” He concludes the paper with “a hopeful yes” but with the significant qualification that “such an ontology can embrace aspects of Christian Platonism without insisting on its general or comprehensive necessity.” This conclusion reflects the general tenor of the entire paper in which a certain vagueness is allowed to persist as to the exact metaphysical propositions we should (and should not) embrace and also as to the exact relationship of these metaphysical propositions to biblical exegesis. This vagueness is not unique to Treier; rather, it is endemic today in confessional Protestant and Evangelical theology.

The crucial question is how classical theism, and the classical metaphysics upon which it rests, relates to the Bible. It actually is a question of whether or not the classical Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the creedal tradition, including metaphysical doctrines such as simplicity, immutability, eternity, and aseity, express the true teaching of Scripture. If we wish to affirm the classical doctrine of God, to what extent are we then obligated to hold to the metaphysical principles and doctrines on which it rests such as act and potency, causation, and realism? Since, as everyone knows, the Bible does not contain the technical vocabulary of Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, the question naturally arises as to how one could claim biblical support for doctrines such as Divine simplicity, which rests on the concept of God as pure Act. This problem is not restricted to issues related to classical theism; it extends to the central confession of the Trinity itself.

The Bible, of course, also does not contain the term “Trinity” as used in the Nicene Creed, nor, for that matter, the categories of “person” and “nature” as used in the Definition of Chalcedon. The Westminster Confession of Faith and other Reformation confessions teach Divine simplicity, which is not comprehensible apart from certain classical metaphysical categories such as actuality and potentiality. The orthodox creeds and confessions have always made use of extrabiblical categories, terms and concepts in stating the teaching of Scripture, but in our “post-metaphysical” age of ideology this sort of things is frowned upon by powerful cultural forces.

Addressing these questions requires thinking carefully about how exegesis, doctrine, and metaphysics relate to each other. It requires us to consider the relationship between philosophy and exegesis and between faith and reason. Should systematic theology make use of philosophy? Should exegesis make use of systematic theology? These issues are vast and complex. But we cannot shrink from the task because the questions and concerns Treier identifies in this paper are very widespread among Evangelical and conservative, confessional Protestants today. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Protestant theology is in crisis today and that the nature of this has to do with the most fundamental part of our Christian confession imaginable: the nature of the biblical God.

This paper will proceed as follows. In part one, I will summarize and comment briefly on the four steps Treier takes in the essay as he wrestles with the issue of how the literal sense of Scripture relates to classical metaphysical doctrines about God. Then, in part two, I will try to respond by suggesting some possible ways of thinking more clearly about the relationship of metaphysics to the Bible.

I. Engagement

In part one of his essay, Treier confesses that “Like many biblical and theological scholars, I received meager philosophical training.” This is probably true, not only for most Evangelical scholars in biblical and theological studies, but for most theologians in the Anglo-Saxon world in general. It is a little less extreme in Europe, but in North America philosophy is not taken very seriously by biblical scholars and theologians. It is not required for entrance to seminaries or graduate programs in theology. These programs fail to teach much of the history of philosophy or metaphysics. Treier notes that this left him perplexed as to what to make of the postmodern critique of metaphysics. Like many others, he perceived the extremes to be Thomas Aquinas and Jurgen Moltmann and looked for a middle way. I would suggest that this is the story of twentieth century theology: looking for a middle way between classical theism and modern, relational theism.[1] However, in my opinion, the search for such a middle way is a dead end.

Treier notes that modern “historical habits of mind” seem to involve the rejection of metaphysics and can lead to the rejection of Scripture’s witness to the triune God. He rightly notes that the stress on the single meaning of the text as the human author’s intention is “pluralizing” since very often it is impossible to know precisely what the human author intended (especially in edited or anonymous texts). Thus, meaning comes to depend on a hypothetical (unprovable) historical reconstruction of the psychological state of the human author behind the text. Meaning thus no longer resides in the text itself or in the Divine Author’s mind. It should be noted that the only way for authorial intention to be (1) decisive for meaning, (2) stable, and (3) never contradictory of other texts is if it is primarily Divine authorial intention. But modern historical criticism ignores the Divine Author in its preoccupation with the human aspect of Scripture.

In part two, Treier states that biblical ontology is “systematically underdetermined,” which is an ambiguous phrase. If it means that the Bible does not present a system of metaphysics complete with philosophical descriptions, arguments and technical terminology, then it is true but hardly controversial. Any Thomist would say the same. If it means, however, that metaphysical truths cannot be deduced from doctrines that arise out of exegesis, then it is making a much more radical claim, one that anyone who holds to the Westminster Confession could not accept.

Treier suggests that the Bible sets “certain parameters within which theologians should address ontological systems, but not requiring a particular theoretical account or tradition.” He puts forward three reasons taking this approach. First, he says that those who (like me) claim that certain metaphysical doctrines are deducible from doctrines supported by exegesis often make little reference to biblical texts when they make ontological claims.[2] Second, he says that Christian Platonism is an example of contextualizing the Biblical message for Greek culture, which means that “insisting upon Christian Platonism in return risks colonizing all subsequent cultures.” Third, he says that my case for the necessity of Christian Platonism depends on debatable definitions of “metaphysics” and “modernity” that the Bible does not require. He suggests that Kevin Hector has offered “plausible” reasons for avoiding some versions of metaphysical inquiry without becoming relativistic.

In the third section, however, Treier seems to reverse course and acknowledges that “Christian Platonism’s substance metaphysics came to expression in conciliar Christology” and so it appears that to reject it completely risks undermining the creedal core of Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy. Thus, Treier finds himself arguing both sides of the case at once. On the one hand, he argues that metaphysics is optional and not really based on biblical teaching. But, on the other hand, it seems that the creeds presuppose metaphysical doctrines, and he does not want to undermine creedal orthodoxy. What to do? He wonders “Perhaps, therefore, Protestant hermeneutics cannot be disentangled from classical ontological commitments as readily as many biblical scholars believe.” He then goes on to discuss some concerns raised by Michael Allen about Iain Provan’s book, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture.[3] Treier notes that Richard Muller sees more continuities than Provan does between Calvin and the Medieval tradition of the four-fold sense. Treier raises the vexed issue of nominalism with regard to Luther, but he does not consider the recovery of classical metaphysics in the second and subsequent generations of reformers.

In the fourth section, Treier rightly sees that what is at stake is the doctrine of creation. The pressure felt by theologians to speak about ontology comes from the fact that the Bible teaches certain things about created reality that dominant streams in modernity deny. Treier’s response to that pressure is typical of contemporary Evangelical theology: he retreats into biblical theology, not as a basis for making ontological statements, but as an alternative to doing so.[4] He contrasts a sacramental ontology with a “covenantal ontology.” One is reminded of Karl Barth’s famous axiom: “the creation is the external basis of the covenant; the covenant is the internal basis of creation.”[5] But the question I have for both Barth and Treier is this: “Is covenant an ontological category?”

Treier is aware of the problem. He writes: “For all its importance, however, covenant is a redemptive-historical category. . . this category helps us understand relations and acts, not being as such.” He knows that historical categories alone do not allow us to re-state the biblical truths of creation that undergird the truths of redemption. He suggests the answer is a “doxological ontology,” the exact meaning of which, I confess, I do not really understand. In what sense is the doxological ontology he recommends different from a sacramental ontology? Does the kind of Christological mediation he is describing have overlaps with sacramental ontology? Could it be expressed in terms of substance metaphysics? Could it be expressed adequately while rejecting substance metaphysics? Is it anything more than biblical theology waiting for dogmatics to take it up and make use of it? It seems that the hermeneutical confusion Treier admits to experiencing in the opening paragraphs remains unresolved by the end of his paper.

In conclusion, Treier writes the following two sentences that I wish to highlight:

Such an ontology can embrace aspects of Christian Platonism without insisting upon its general or comprehensive necessity. Such an ontology can also embrace seriously literal interpretation while insisting upon its robustly Trinitarian practice.

I have questions about each of these sentences. First, which aspects of Christian Platonism, as I defined it in the book, are to be rejected or may be regarded as optional? Could a faithful biblical interpreter embrace nominalism or mechanism or materialism or skepticism or relativism? Second, why does the second sentence make it seem as if it is hard to hold together literal interpretation and Trinitarian theology? The literal meaning of the Bible, I would have thought, is precisely the doctrine of the Trinity. I will have more to say about these issues below.

II. Response

It seems important to reiterate at the outset of my remarks that Treier is representative of a large number of Evangelical biblical scholars and theologians in that he regards metaphysics as a bit esoteric, that is, as a rather arcane, mysterious, perhaps hopelessly complicated and not particularly useful bit of academic theorizing. As a systematic theologian he does not see the need to engage in depth the classical metaphysical tradition that stems from the church fathers through Augustine into Medieval figures such as Anselm, Lombard, and Bonaventure and comes to a high point in the Augustinian-Aristotelian synthesis of Thomas Aquinas. This tradition continued in Protestant scholasticism into the eighteenth century before going into eclipse in the Enlightenment and becoming a minority position in the nineteenth century before almost disappearing in the twentieth.

In 1879, however, Pope Leo XIII issued Aterni Patris, which sparked a massive revival of Thomistic studies, which bore much fruit in the twentieth century among Roman Catholic, especially French Dominican, scholarship.[6] Now, in the early twenty-first century, confessional Protestants are re-discovering the classical metaphysics of the Great Tradition and we are witnessing a revival of interest in a Reformed version of Thomism. In a development that would have seemed incredible as little as three decades ago, figures such as William Perkins, John Owen, Francis Turretin, Amanda Polanus, and Petrus Van Mastricht are becoming important for conservative systematic theology. Contemporary scholars such as Carl Trueman, Richard Muller, Scott Swain, Michael Allen, Matthew Barrett, Stephen Duby, James Dolezal, J. V. Fesko, and Fred Sanders, most of whom have been influenced by the example of the later John Webster, are recovering the classical tradition of metaphysics through the Reformed scholastics.[7] In so doing, they are choosing a starting point for dogmatics that lies outside of modernity. It is almost as if they, along with Pope Leo XIII, do not accept the notion that Hume and Kant have demolished substance metaphysics once and for all. This development is, I would argue, not only significant but also extremely hopeful.

It is important to note that the term “Christian Platonism” is primarily a historical term used rather un-controversially in patristic scholarship to describe the thought of Augustine. In The City of God, Augustine discussed the Platonists extensively even to the extent of providing a mini-history of Greek philosophy in Book VIII. He concluded that the Platonists were the best of the Greek philosophers. At least they believed in the existence of a transcendent realm of unchanging realities on which the changing world of flux depended for stability. The Christian doctrine of creation provided a basis for the Platonic realm of ideas, although scholastic theology would improve on both the Platonic and the Aristotelian accounts of universals. For Plato, the universals existed in an intelligible “third realm” apart from the sensible world. Whereas Aristotle held that form subsists in the material entity and not separately from it. Scholasticism came to view the universals as ideas in the mind of God and therefore as eternal. So Christian Platonism is not static nor is it finished; it is a tradition. It grew historically into Thomism and persisted for centuries in the form of scholasticism in both pre- and post-Reformation, and both Roman Catholic and Protestant, streams. Augustine insists that although Platonism can tell you that God must exist, there is nothing in the books of the Platonists about the incarnation of Jesus Christ or the redemption of the world through his atoning death and resurrection. Augustine can be scathing in his indictment of the Platonists for participating in idolatry even though they knew better, and he clearly expected them to become Christians and criticized them when they did not. His efforts were not directed toward making Christians into Platonists. Instead, he was out to make Christians out of Platonists.

Perhaps we should not emphasize Christian Platonism today and speak instead of Reformed Thomism or Reformed scholasticism. However, in the name of historical accuracy, I must insist on the point that Aristotelian-Thomism and Reformed scholasticism are both subsets of Christian Platonism, historically considered.[8] Even the contemporary Roman Catholic, analytic, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser agrees with that assessment.[9]

I would like to make three main points in response to Treier’s paper. First, I want to argue that systematic theology is concerned with exegesis (what the biblical text means) and also with doctrines that can be deduced from the results of exegesis. Second, I want to argue that some of the doctrines thus derived from the Bible are metaphysical in nature, such as creatio ex nihilo, Divine aseity, and Divine transcendence. Third, I want to argue that the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries includes metaphysical doctrines. Therefore, metaphysics can never be separated from systematic theology or become optional for us if we wish to give an account of what it is that the church has believed about God, Christ, and creation for its two-thousand-year history. In conclusion, I will issue a call for confessional Protestants to recover our common heritage of metaphysical truth as part of the renewal of Protestant theology in the twenty-first century.

How Theology Works

 Theology consists of exegesis plus dogmatics. We begin by reading the Scripture and doing exegesis. Exegesis is the attempt to re-state in our own words the true meaning of the biblical text. In exegesis we seek to inhabit the thought world of the text and grasp its meaning from the inside as it were. As we engage in this work, we gradually pile up exegetical results and as we do so we begin to notice patterns. As we analyze these patterns of ideas, we begin to formulate doctrines. So, for example, as we contemplate the exegesis of texts such as Genesis 1:1; Psalm 33:6, 9; 90:2; John 1:1-3; Acts 14:5; Romans 15:17; Colossians 1:15-17 and Hebrews 11:2, we begin to formulate a doctrine of creation.

Theology, however, is more than the mere repetition of the thoughts contained in Holy Scripture. It also involves making deductions from what the Scriptures teach. As the Westminster Confession puts it:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.[10]

Notice that the whole counsel of God includes both what is “expressly set down in Scripture” and also that which “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” As we contemplate what the Scriptural texts mentioned above expressly say about creation, it is possible to deduce from what they say the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Thus, we have a doctrine which can both be said to be a biblical doctrine and also a metaphysical doctrine. We can deduce the idea of transcendence from creatio ex nihilo and transcendence entails simplicity, eternality, aseity, and immutability. Space here does not permit me to argue all this out in detail. My point here is simply that I am claiming that the metaphysical aspects of Trinitarian classical theism arise out of the contemplation of the results of Scriptural exegesis.

This understanding of how theology works should preclude anyone from accepting a naïve biblicism that reduces theology to the mere exegesis of texts and summarizing the results of such exegesis in the form of biblical theology. Such work is good but it is not the whole of theology. Certainly, exegesis and biblical theology are foundational and determinative for theology, but by themselves they are not complete. Historic Christian orthodoxy has always found it necessary to go beyond summaries of biblical exegesis to consider what sorts of metaphysical doctrines may be ruled out by Scriptural teaching, as well as what sorts of metaphysical doctrines can be deduced from Scriptural teaching.

Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

 One of the arguments the Arians used against the Nicene homoousios is that it is not a biblical word so therefore it should not be mandatory. To put it in the creed required one to confess an extra-biblical term in order to be considered orthodox. Why is this justified? It can only be justified if oneness of being (homoousios) between the Father and the Son is a concept that can be deduced from what Scripture does actually teach. One of the things that convinced most of the fourth century bishops who had reservations about the word homoousios to come round to supporting its inclusion in the creed was the fact that those who rejected it seemed always to end up making the Son subordinate to the Father ontologically. The emergence of the heteroousians in the 350s and 360s, once it became fashionable to deny Nicaea, was proof that the rejection of the homoousios was actually a rejection of the clear Scriptural teaching that the Son is equal in glory and majesty with the Father. The homoousios was useful to rule out false metaphysical statements, which distort biblical teaching.

It is impossible to name a doctrine more central to, or emblematic of, classical orthodoxy than the Nicene teaching that the Father and Son are two hypostases but one ousia. Yet this lynchpin of orthodoxy requires us to think in terms of a substance metaphysics in which we make statements about the being of God, not merely about his actions in history. It is true that we come to know the truth about the sameness in being of Father and Son by means of God’s self-revelation in the incarnation. But what we learn from God’s action in history goes beyond repeating the narrative of what happened; it includes deductions from that narrative about the very nature of the eternal, Divine being in and of itself. To imagine that one could ever totally disentangle metaphysics from classical theology is a non-starter.

Systematic theology depends on exegesis and biblical theology but cannot be reduced to them. Systematic theology involves contemplation of the result of exegetical work, formulation of doctrines on the basis of those results and then deducing from these doctrines what must be true about the being of God and God’s relationship to the creation. Systematic theology thus produces a metaphysical account of the reality in which the biblical interpreter stands while doing exegesis. This provides the context for a “second exegesis”[11] of the text from within that metaphysics. All exegesis involves presuppositions about the nature of reality including the nature of the interpreter, the nature of the text, and the nature of the God about whom the text speaks. In this second exegesis, there is an opportunity for the interpreter to ask whether or not the first exegesis was conducted on the basis of the correct metaphysical account of reality. This may sometimes lead to correcting the exegesis done the first time, but it will always lead the interpreter to see deeper meaning in the biblical text. The unity of the Bible will come into sharper focus and the inter-relationship of various texts will become plainer. The result will be a deeper and more profound understanding of the biblical text.

In this process of doing what I call a second exegesis, we are doing exactly what the historical criticism that emerged out of the Enlightenment disallowed. We are reading the text from within the framework of the historic creeds and confessions of the church. We are using orthodoxy to deepen our understanding of Scripture. Many Evangelicals today understand the relationship between biblical and systematic theology to be a one-way street in which the traffic flows only from biblical exegesis to doctrinal formulation. I am suggesting that it is a two-way street and that traffic ought to flow in both directions. Systematic theology is supposed to be every bit as “biblical” as biblical theology is. The difference is not that one is biblical and the other is a combination of biblical content plus a dose of speculative opinion or personal preferences or cultural biases. No, both are meant to express the teaching of Scripture.

Biblical theology focuses on doctrine arranged according to the canonical presentation of teaching, while systematic theology focuses on contemplating the doctrines arising from Scripture, considering what may be deduced from them, how certain metaphysical concepts must be ruled out, and certain other ones reformed for use within theology. There is an endless cycling back to the sources over and over again for deeper insight. Theology never leaves the Bible behind as if it were merely a source which could be dispensed with once it has been milked by exegesis. Scripture stands forever as the Word of God to the church. Its riches and depths can never be fully plumbed in this life.

For the Enlightenment rationalists, the meaning of the text is reduced to what the human author intended to convey to the original audience in the original, historical situation. This kind of historicism renders Divine inspiration moot for all practical intents and purposes. The Church, on the other hand, has always seen the Bible as the Word of God given in the words of human authors and has always understood its meaning as going beyond what the human author may have consciously understood. As Peter puts it, the Old Testament prophets searched and inquired as to what the Holy Spirit was saying through them about the Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12). There is more meaning in Isaiah 53 than Isaiah himself comprehended, but that meaning is not just anything the interpreter wants it to be. The meaning is controlled by virtue of the fact that it is the meaning intended by the Divine Author who speaks through the entire canon of Scripture. When the systematic theologian re-reads Isaiah 53 in the light of the New Testament more meaning is apparent than the original audience would have seen. Yet that meaning is by no means in contradiction to what Isaiah the prophet consciously intended, nor is it incompatible with the meaning understood by the prophet’s first readers and it is never disconnected from the original human authorial intent. All this is true because of the miracle of inspiration, which is the reason why layers of meaning come to be embedded in the text by the Divine Author.

Some of these layers of meaning were not uncovered until the early church entered into the controversies that led to the formulation of the ecumenical creeds. The classical doctrine of God that emerged is not partially based on culture-bound, philosophical speculation and partially based on biblical exegesis. Rather, the entire classical doctrine of God, including the metaphysics used to express it, is an elaboration of the truth contained in the Holy Scriptures.


As confessional Protestants today we need to be sure that our doctrine of God is not a departure from classical orthodoxy; but rather, is consistent with the ecumenical creeds of the first five centuries and the confessions of the Reformation. In order to do so, we need to make sure that we understand the metaphysical implications of that doctrine. The best way to do that is to engage in Ressourcement and recover the patristic, medieval, and post-Reformation formulations of the doctrine of God including its metaphysical foundations. I am pleased to see this recovery going on today and hope to make some small contribution to it myself in my writings. But I feel compelled to add this warning: if we do not locate a starting point for our systematic theology outside of modernity, we will lose the metaphysics that is necessary to make sense of the classical doctrine of God.

The best starting place for confessional theology in the twenty-first century, in my view, is the post-Reformation reformed scholasticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Understanding these theologians will require us to understand the theological and philosophical tradition in which they worked. It is crucial that we take our stand within that tradition, not simply to repeat it mindlessly, but rather, in order to build on it as we confront the future. We must reject forcefully the idea that doing metaphysics is in any way optional or unnecessary, let alone a departure from the purity of biblical truth.

[1] For an example of this, see Oliver D. Crisp, Analyzing Theology: Toward a Systematic Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019). In chapter two he describes classical theism and theistic personalism and then declares that he will pursue a “middle way” that he calls “chastened theism” (33). He states explicitly that part of what motivates him to do so is the criticism of classical theism in writers like R. T. Mullins, who denies simplicity, immutability, and other key elements of classical theism.

[2] I acknowledge that this has been a problem at times, and I seek to address it by spending four chapters discussing the doctrine of God as it emerges from Isaiah 40-48 in my forthcoming book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).

[3] See Michael Allen’s review of Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017) in Reformed Faith and Practice, Vol. 5, Issue 3 (Dec. 2020).

[4] For more on this move, which is widespread in Evangelical theology today, see Carl Trueman, “Foreword” to my forthcoming Contemplating God with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), xi-xiii.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, translated by J. W. Edwards, O. Bussey and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958).

[6] See, for example, the work of Gilles Emery, Servais Pinckaers, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and many others. Etienne Gilson is of central importance as well.

[7] See, for example, the interesting collection of essays in Aquinas Among the Protestants, eds. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Oxford: WILEY Blackwell, 2018).

[8] For an insightful and comprehensive understanding of Platonism as a tradition, see the work of Lloyd P. Gerson: Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), From Plato to Platonism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), and Platonism and Naturalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).

[9] See his blog post: “Join the Ur-Platonist Alliance”

[10] Westminster Confession of Faith Chap. 1 “Of the Holy Scriptures” Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Vol. IV, ed. James T. Dennison (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 235. Italics added.

[11] I explain and put into practice this concept of a “second exegesis” at length in my forthcoming book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition.