Is it necessarily more “Christian” to begin with Jesus before speaking about God? Denys Turner asks that we think this through for a bit. In fact, he thinks that if one begins here – methodically speaking – all sorts of problems arise. As he argues in Thomas Aquinas,
Deus vere subiectum hiuius scientiae, “It is God who is the true subject of this discipline.” So says Thomas at the outset of the Summa. By contrast, talk about God is curiously unfashionable among Christian theologians today. They seem to prefer talk about Christ, as if you could theologize with Christological adequacy without standing on secure doctrinal ground concerning God. This seems perverse, being somewhat akin to an English person’s attempting to describe to an American the conduct of a cricket match while suppressing any indications that cricket is a sport. The American, after all, might reasonably conclude that the description referred to some tediously long-winded religious ritual that devotees of most English-speaking nations engage in for periods of five days whenever it is not raining during the months of summer. In the same way, Christian beliefs, Thomas says, might be about anything at all, might for all we know be make-believe fairy tales, allegories, or metaphors for goodness knows what, or, as many nineteenth-century critics of Christian beliefs maintained, have nothing to do with God and are just a roundabout and misleading alienating way of misdescribing human nature and the world. Thomas, therefore, insists. We know that they make sense as theological only insofar as they are revealed by the God they in turn reveal. And Thomas seems both to be right in thinking that you need to show this and to have judge well pedagogically in deciding to begin with the logic of talk about God (100-101).
Herbert McCabe raises a similar point in God Matters:
Our use for the word ‘God’ does not begin with Christology. To put it at its simplistic, we cannot ask the question: ‘In what sense is Jesus to be called Son of God?” without some prior use for the word ‘God.” And, of course the New Testament did have such a prior use. The NT is unintelligible except as the flowering of the Hebrew tradition and the asking of the creation question that became central to the Jewish Bible” (42).
Turner has in mind a very specific set of theologians here: on the Protestant side, Barth, and on the Catholic side, Rahner. Turner’s point is not to deny the fact that Jesus presents us with an image as to what God is like, but rather to show that we go astray when we think we can speak or think about Christ apart from God, or indeed from any set of background or metaphysical assumptions.
As Turner clarifies, failure to adequately think “God” leads to a faulty conception of grace. Turner points to the ubiquity of the “free will defense” among theologians and its mirror image, Calvinistic determination. We tend to fall into the trap of either/or thinking: “unfailingly efficacious grace and human freedom are mutually exclusive, either the one or the other” (156). But this only creates an idolatrous conception of God, of a God who exists on the same plane with creatures.
Unless the ground is in this way cleared conceptually everything will be amiss theologically. But when once the logical ground cleared and the space is opened up, the theology of grace is no longer entangled in the logician’s dilemma that would entail the affirmation of the infallible work of God’s grace only at the expense of the freedom of our human consent to it. More positively, the space is thereby cleared for an understanding of the relation between creature and Creator in terms of the mutuality of friendship that requires neither the erotic’s erasure of identity nor the oppositions that would set the work of justification and sanctification in competition with human choice and free consent. Grace is all: it is friendship, reciprocity, freedom, life shared, equality mutually sustained, Creator and creature “interinanimated” in love” (167-168).