Assuming for a moment that we live in a ‘post-metaphysical’ age, it’s not difficult to understand the reticence some feel toward the claims of Classical Theology, if not an outright rejection. To take an obvious example, few approach the Summa Theologica as a text demanding contemplative ascesis, opting instead to view it as the worst type of abstract theological reasoning. Medieval theology as a whole seems riddled with off-putting jargon; talk of ontology, efficient causality, causi sui and so on, seem far removed from the biblical witness. Clearly alien philosophical categories have infected the Bible’s purity.

Of course, with even the slightest bit of historical understanding and patient reading, this superficial view is easily enough denounced. Hans Boersma makes this point in Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapesty. About such reactionary views relating to anything non-modern, Boersma writes,

The word “ontology” may put some people on edge. The expression places us, so it seems at least, in the area of abstract, metaphysical thought. Should Christians really concern themselves with ontology? Isn’t the danger of looking at the world through an ontological lens that we may lose sight of the particularities of the Christian faith: God’s creation of the world, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the particular ecclesia community, and Scripture itself? I understand these fears, and I appreciate the word of caution as an important one. Nonetheless, the objections do not make me abandon the search for an ontology that is compatible with the Christian faith…I believe that the Great Tradition of the church – most of the Christian ear until the late Middle Ages – did have an ontology. The call for a purely “biblical” theology seems to me terribly naïve. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all work with a particular ontology; unfortunately, usually the ontology of those who plead for the abolition of ontology turns out to be the nominalist ontology of modernity (20).

Boersma is exactly right: when people deride metaphysics, the image they have in mind is more often than not something of a late and, arguably, aberrant variety. For instance, the nominalism of Duns Scotus whereby we construct systems because nature and grace have been rent apart; William of Ockham, where logical absurdities based upon God’s absolute willing capacity terrify. This is a cosmos where God no longer relates to his creation by virtue of his abiding kabod, but instead wills to enter into contractual or covenantal relationships. Something has changed; the physical universe is pitted against the supernatural.

Yet the real danger of an outright rejection of ontology or the metaphysical claims of Classical Christianity is not only the tenuous turn to positivistic accounts of Scripture and revelation. Rather, the issue is the concomitant rejection of Pauline Apocalyptic. An “unconscious demythologizing” rears its head, to the use the words of Stanley Stowers, whereby we have to assume in our post-metaphysical age that Paul, for instance, is simply trading in metaphorical language when he says, “you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27) rather than referring to an actual, really existing, substantial bond with the Risen Christ .[1] Another example is John Calvin. Due to his prior philosophical commitments, Calvin explains Christ’s descent into hell as an intensification of Christ’s suffering on our behalf. The point isn’t so much that Christ descends on Holy Saturday; the important part to recall is that “he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man” (II.xvi.10). The metaphysical and apocalyptic reality of Holy Saturday is subtly thinned out.

When we deride metaphysics it’s important to recall that we are not simply positing a purer account of Scripture, thereby jettisoning overloaded jargon and speculation. We are also rejecting any meta-physical account of communal, really existing, substantial bonds; any sense of something really and truly happening during the Triduum.


[1] Stanley Stowers, “Matter and Spirit, or What Is Pauline Participation in Christ?”, in The Holy Spirit: Classic and Contemporary Readings. 

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