In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.
Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward.
First, what is clearly the case is that Leithart wants to shift theological attention away from a static metaphysical substratum that characterizes human being, and toward the social and relational features of what it means to be human. What we are is determined by whom we are in relation to and how we are related to them. First and most determinative of course is our relation to God, but God is not, in Leithart’s view, chiefly interested in relating to individuals qua individuals, but as communities and through communities. (I am not suggesting that Leithart wishes to dismiss the notion of individual salvation, or an individual relationship with God, or anything of that sort, but there is unquestionably a shift of emphasis, one which may be in some ways salutary given the hyper-individualistic character of American Christianity). For Leithart, the stoicheia, by ritually structuring both the terms of humans’ relationship to God and their relationships toward one another, are much more than merely some ritual add-on to an otherwise uniform human nature; they are rather, as it were, determinative of that nature. This sociological conception, he thinks, is actually more along the lines of how the Apostle Paul used the concept of nature, or physis. (See chapter 2 particularly.)
Second, Leithart clearly wants to use this shift of focus to provide us a new lens for thinking about soteriology and ecclesiology—indeed, to be able to think them together as essentially the same thing, rather than two loosely-related dogmatic questions. Because salvation is above all the deliverance from the stoicheic barriers that regulate social and religious life, it is necessarily a change in one’s human relationships. And it is not the replacement of stoicheic community with no community, but the induction into a new post-stoicheic community that lives in conformity to the life and death of Jesus. Thus, Leithart might say, the traditional dogmatic category of soteriology is simply the description of what this looks like from the standpoint of the individual, while ecclesiology is the description of what it looks like from the standpoint of the community. But neither is intelligible without the other. It is not hard to see how the social definition of nature plays into this—formerly our natures were determined by the stoicheic regime under which we lived, but now we receive new natures, which is to say new configurations of our relationships: in justification, our relationship to God is completely changed, and the fact that this happens without the mediation of the socio-physical “elements of the world” means that our relationship to society and the world are simultaneously transformed and we live henceforth as a very different kind of human being. (See pp. 207-214, chapter 10.)
Third, Leithart clearly wants to question many traditional ways in which the relationship of nature and grace have been conceived in Christian philosophy and theology. This theme is not really developed until Appendix One, but he leaves us in no doubt that he considers it central to his project. Critical for him is that there be no such thing as “pure nature,” that is to say, a conception of human nature that can somehow be grasped in abstraction from any relationship of gracious dependence on God. He is particularly critical of late medieval metaphysical theories, which he believes sought to articulate a sort of two-storey model of human nature (pp. 296, 298-99). In this model, God created an initial freestanding human nature that could function, flourish, and be understood entirely with reference to its earthly capacities, and then God layered on top of that as it were a new set of human capacities, namely, a capacity for a relationship with God—in Catholic theology this is described as the donum superadditum. This is the realm of grace in distinction from nature and it this which salvation through Christ adds back on after it was lost by Adam’s fall, which left man’s nature fully intact. Although he initially appears to favor Aquinas’s formulation, in which humans are created with a natural desire for fellowship with God that can only be fulfilled by God’s grace (297), and initially credits the Reformed for by and large retrieving this conception (300-301), before suddenly switching tack and suggesting that any attempt to distinguish nature and grace is unacceptable (303).
In what follows, I will develop three lines of critique.
First, taking my cue from the curious shift in the argument on p. 303, I will suggest that the most natural (no pun intended!) reading of Leithart is that he intends no mere shift of emphasis, but actually means to argue for the obsolescence of the category of human nature (or nature at all?) as generally understood, and its replacement with a purely constructivist understanding of the term.
Second, I will argue that if this is indeed what he intends, it is profoundly problematic if not incoherent from a metaphysical standpoint.
Third, I will argue that if this is indeed what he intends, it is profoundly problematic if not incoherent from an ethical and ecclesiological standpoint.
Leithart’s Critique of the Notion of “Nature”
Let’s begin, then, with the turn in Leithart’s argument on p. 303. In the previous pages, he has been critiquing theological anthropologies which assume that man’s orientation toward God and perfection in communion with him is something added on top of and separable from an underlying human nature that bears no reference to God. He then says
“The distinction between nature and the supernatural is evident in both atonement theologies and accounts of justification, though in distinct ways. In atonement theology, natural/supernatural dualism appears in the detachment of atonement theology from the historical events and circumstances of Jesus’ life and in the ways the effects of the atonement are conceived in ‘supernatural’ rather than natural (sociopolitical) terms. In theologies of justification the natural/supernatural dualism appears in medieval accounts of causation, and thus of notions of cooperation with grace, both of which the Reformers rejected. Within Protestant soteriology, however, nature/supernatural dualisms reappare insofar as justification becomes detached from historical concerns for social and political justice. Nature is isolated from social and institutional factors; society is treated as a loose-fitting garment on an unchanging nature. By contrast, as has been emphasized throughout this book, the Bible treats social arrangements as internal to human nature.” (303)
The complaints voiced in most of this paragraph make sense and are at least logically plausible even if the underlying historical narrative is sometimes questionable (as I think it is in the case of Protestant soteriology, for instance, in part because I think Leithart fails to substantiate his charge that some of the Reformed orthodox accepted the kind of disjunction he is particularly concerned about). There are some real odditities at both the beginning and especially the end of this paragraph, however. At the beginning, we may be surprised to note that he complains not about the “separation between nature and the supernatural” or “dichotomies between nature and the supernatural” but simply about “distinction between nature and the supernatural,” as if it were transgressive to even draw any kind of distinction, even one premised on the fact that human existence is at every point dependent on God. This certainly seems implied in the exposition of the following pages, though it seems to undermine the point of the preceding few pages, which survey different ways of drawing the distinction, some of them condemned, and some, it had seemed, sound. If a distinction between nature and supernature is to be ruled invalid, it can only be because either (a) all is nature, and nothing is grace—that is, all that we are can be described by reference to our initial created capacities, and we have no further need of God, or (b) all is grace, and nothing is nature—that is, nothing that we are can be described by reference to our initial created capacities, but everything depends rather on subsequent divine reconfigurations, transmutations, and transfigurations. Clearly Leithart is not after the former, so he must be after the latter.
At the end of this passage, it is worth noting that the discussion in fact takes quite a different turn altogether: no longer is Leithart complaining about the invalidity of the natural/supernatural distinction, but the invalidity of the distinction between nature and society, between physis and nomos. Huh? It is certainly difficult to connect the dots of why Leithart would make this leap. In fact, a distinction between physis and nomos, between man’s biological existence and the social and political structures of human life together, would seem to help rather than hurt Leithart’s cause here. Consider, if the concern is that saving grace have direct consequences for “social and political justice,” then shouldn’t a distinction between the baseline features of human nature on the one hand and “social and institutional factors” on the other be a great help? After all, no one is contending, I don’t think, that grace turns men into bats or seahorses. Rather, the claim is that grace, by transforming the human relationship to God, ipso facto changes the way that humans relate to one another. The reason the latter claim is plausible and the former implausible is precisely the fact that we can distinguish physis and nomos; we can distinguish certain basic features of how we were created from how we behave toward one another and organize ourselves. Inasmuch as these latter were disordered by the Fall, God’s new law, which is grace, has implications for human law, even while it does not replace human nature, which still has lungs rather than gills, arms rather than wings, and men and women rather than androgynes. All this seems pretty straightfoward and coherent, so why the puzzling claim that “the Bible treats social arrangements as internal to human nature”?
This striking claim appears frequently in the book, though it remains head-scratching throughout. Leithart chiefly develops it in chapter 2, claiming to follow the Apostle Paul’s usage. A look at the Pauline usages of the Greek word physis, in context, seems to prove far less than Leithart means to. Certainly Paul is far more interested in discussing the social and religious expressions of human nature than more baseline physical and metaphysical features, but that could be because he takes the latter for granted, not because he has any intention to elide them. And his use of the word “nature” or physis to refer to human cultural life is hardly that puzzling or surprising; we speak in this loose sense quite frequently—“It’s in her nature to behave that way”; “It came naturally to her”; “It’s natural for Brits to be unduly fond of the seashore.” Indeed, we have a both colloquial and technical way of referring to this: “second nature.” And yet when pressed we will distinguish between “nature and nurture”—our DNA counts for something, but it is not the same thing as the habits and influences that shape us after birth. Conventionally, we would recognize the former as simply given, and the latter as the product of human will. Of course, this distinction is rapidly breaking down in modernity as we come to treat the biological process itself as the pure product of human volition, open to tinkering as much as anything else, but one would hardly expect Leithart to jump on board with that agenda.
Perhaps, indeed, Leithart means no more than to highlight the importance of “second nature,” and to note Paul’s rhetorical use of nature-language to describe cultural forms. But he certainly sounds like he’s saying more than that. Consider:
“Cultural and religious distinctions that would in Sophist classification fall under the heading of nomos Paul categorizes as differences of physis. There is a ‘natural’ order, but for Paul constructed orders also have the force of nature.” (28)
“Thus Paul might use physis in a fairly consistent manner to describe ‘an order created by God’—whether created or covenantal. That works, but the point noted above remains: Paul has ‘socialized’ and ‘historicized’ the language of ‘nature.’ Even if it describes a divine institution, it is one revealed in history. For Paul, physis and nomos, physics and law, nature and culture, are not finally separable.” (29)
“If human physis is intertwined with human and divine nomos, then the elementary particles of physics are also linked to law, custom, and practice. And if physis is so closely linked to nomos, then a change of law might also involve a change of nature and its elements.” (29)
“Paul implies that Jews and Gentiles are both hypo ta stoicheia, but he also writes that there are ‘Jews physei,’ Jews who are Jews by nature, which implies that there are also Gentiles who are Gentiles physei. The way the elements combine differs so much that it produces humans who have divergent natures.” (75)
“So fundamental are these stoicheic institutions that human beings who are ‘of’ diferent cultures are different in ‘nature.’ For Paul there was no unified human nature prior to the Last Adam: there were Jews ek physei shaped by their birth and training ek tou nomou; Gentile life has a different fundamental physics and thus a different physis.” (207)
This is some odd stuff, to say the least. And Leithart’s language is very slippery here and hard to pin down. Sure, nature and culture are “linked” and “not finally separable”; Aristotle (against whom Leithart contrasts this Pauline anthropology) would’ve been the first to recognize that. Humans are after all social and political animals. It is in our nature to create laws and cultural institution, and the particular laws and institutions we do create, accordingly, both reflect and shape our nature; by giving expression to certain potencies of our nature rather than others, we create an environment where, in turn, certain potencies will continue to be realized more readily than others. Nature and culture are intimately linked. But they are still distinguishable. For our nature is that which enables us to create certain things, but we cannot create our nature itself—the attempt is necessarily self-destroying, as C.S. Lewis cogently argues in The Abolition of Man and as our society has spent the last century demonstrating. Once again Leithart seems curiously unwilling to distinguish between distinguishing and separating. And this is no minor misstep, as Richard Hooker reminds us:
“The mixture of those things by speech which by nature are divided, is the mother of all error. To take away therefore that error which confusion breedeth, distinction is requisite. Rightly to distinguish is by conceit of mind to sever things different in nature, and to discern wherein they differ. So that if we imagine a difference where there is none, because we distinguish where we should not, it may not be denied that we misdistinguish. The only trial whether we do so, yea or no, dependeth upon comparison between our conceit and the nature of things conceived.” (Laws III.3.1)
Of course, if it is the nature of things themselves that are being denied, we will have no ground left to tell what counts as distinguishing and what as misdistinguishing—a frightful plight indeed!
In any case, if man’s nature is to be “socialized” and “historicized” in this way, it would seem to imply that man has no biological nature, not one in any continuity with the rest of the physical and animal creation, at any rate. For it seems obvious at the least that the events of salvation history do not (until the last day, at least) alter the physical make-up of the universe. Or does it? Consider these particularly odd passages:
“The humanity of Jews and Gentiles is determined by different nomoi, and because of that they have different ‘natures.’ A change in the cultural, ritual and institutional patterns that define those natures is a change of human nature, a transformation of a dual physis, divided between Jew and Gentile, into one new, universal human physis. . . . The world works differently now, because it is no longer made up of the same stuff. It is as if Paul announced that Jesus transformed the world right down to the quarks.” (41-42)
“Jesus threw the world into a crisis: How can the human race continue after Jesus and the Spirit have tampered with the physics of religion and society? If earth is no longer earthy, fire no longer fiery, air no longer aerial, water no longer wet and heavy, then the world as we know it no longer exists. If you destroy the elements of the socioreligious cosmos, then can there be a cosmos at all? If you rearrange the elements, how will the world stay together? Will not things fall apart? Will not chaos engulf us all?” (218)
Well it sure sounds like chaos would engulf us all if water were no longer wet! (Cf. for instance the majestic passage in Hooker’s Laws I.3.2—“now if nature should intermit her course.” And indeed, one could not ask for a better treatment of how the laws of nature both are and are not linked to human laws and divine laws than Book I of the Laws.) Clearly this is rhetorically-charged, apocalyptic language, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously, and yet it is unclear just how we should take it, or how we should take the following claim that chaos will not engulf us all because “The Spirit is the new fundamental element of social life . . . . The Spirit is the quintessence of a new world.” (219)
A Divine Social Constructivism?
It is probably obvious enough why passages like these might make any Christian theologian, philosopher, or ethicist nervous. As mentioned above, we are certainly familiar enough in our day with a social constructivist idea of nature—that is, the notion that human nature is not something given and essentially fixed, from which widely differing social customs, laws, and institutions emerge, but something plastic and malleable, in which the customs and laws we adopt determine our nature, with nothing holding us back from choosing radically different social practices and thus remaking our nature as we see fit. Of course, there is obviously some truth in the postmodern insights that underlie this account: we are far more aware than ever of the dramatic differences between how human beings in different parts of the globe and different forms of social organization live, such that many things we took to be simply “natural” turn out to be matters of custom. Likewise, as we have rapidly altered our own social environment through extraordinary technological change, we have found ourselves unwittingly (and sometimes quite wittingly) rewiring very fundamental features of our individual and collective behavior. In such a setting of rapid change and startling diversity, it is easy to start wondering whether there are any fixed limits to human nature, or if we are not simply free to remake ourselves as we see fit.
Of course, such a thought experiment would seem to run thud up against the wall of reality sooner rather than later, even if the last couple decades have seen our intelligentsia do their utmost to keep running through that wall. The recent film Zootopia represents a wonderfully self-refuting reductio ad absurdum of our postmodern social constructivist mania, presenting a city of myriad species of animal living together harmoniously, a city “where anybody can be anything they want to be.” But of course there is nothing that so readily demonstrates the limits of social constructivism than the basics of animal biology. Bunnies cannot be foxes, nor can bunnies and foxes be friends. Bunnies cannot and will not have the same skill set as rhinoceroses, although the protagonist of the film strives mightily to. Human biology too imposes some pretty fundamental limits on how much we can reimagine ourselves, unless we embrace the brave new world of tampering with our DNA, in which case we have moved beyond social constructivism altogether, tacitly admitting its self-contradiction.
Now clearly, Leithart is not endorsing this nonsense. Although admitting that human beings enslaved to flesh will always struggle against their limitations and remake their nature through stoicheic institutions, their efforts will always be judged and found wanting. Human attempts to determine our nature in relation to fleshly strivings are countered by God’s “anti-sarkic paedagogy,” first in the form of divinely-authorized stoicheic regulations that created a new “Jewish nature,” and then in the form of the post-stoicheic resurrection order that gives Christians a new nature. Leithart’s understanding of nature, then, is not a willy-nilly human social constructivism, but a divine social contructivism. God prescribes social and relational orders that determine human nature as one thing rather than another, and then changes these throughout his covenantal dealings with his people, resulting in a succession of natures.
Hence the rejection of any kind of nature/grace distinction that we considered above. Each of God’s gracious dispensations in which he enters into relationship with humankind constitutes a new configuration of human nature. Leithart wants to resist the notion that there ever was any enduring substrate, prior to this series of covenantal dealings, that we could single out as “nature” rather than “grace,” since this would suggest, he thinks, the possibility of an autonomous essence of humanity independent of any relationship to God. Of course, it is not at all clear why this should be the case. Why can we not simply say that the enduring core of human nature is man’s relationship of absolute dependence to his Creator qua Creator, which persists through every other covenantal permutation, indeed, all the way to consummation? The only reason why Leithart might hesitate to go in this direction is if the horizontal social element must be as definitive for his relational ontology as the vertical. In this case, each change in covenantal dispensation, inasmuch as it alters the terms of human relationships to one another, would leave no portion of human nature untouched.
However, Leithart’s own statements in the book militate against such a conclusion. Consider the statement quoted in our previous post: “For there is nothing more fundamental about human beings than how God regards them.” If this is the case, then how God regards them as image-bearing creatures ought to be fundamental enough to give us ground to begin talking about human nature in a universal and stable sense. And indeed, he does at one point, briefly expounding Paul’s statement about sexual desires “contrary to nature” in Rom. 1:26, note the existence of “a permanent structure of creation.” “From the beginning,” he says, “God made them male and female, and the gospel does not dissolve the created structures of human sexuality” (27). However, this cannot but feel a bit arbitrary. Why couldn’t the gospel dissolve these created structures on Leithart’s account? Why wouldn’t it?
This is why Leithart’s divine social constructivism is not much more reassuring than the postmodern version. It seems to reduce to a radical voluntarism, in which things are what they are simply because God wills for them to be thus, and God can and will change them at will. Such a radical voluntarism seems to have several serious consequences. For one thing, it makes even the narrative of Scripture itself difficult to render coherent, which is ironic, since one of the greatest strengths of Leithart’s book is the sweeping, all-encompassing retelling of the Biblical story that he provides. But if different covenants constitute natures in some strong sense, then it is difficult to see how God’s dealings with his people at one stage can be considered to be in any continuity with earlier dealings.
Moreover, this kind of move has serious consequences for epistemology, inasmuch as it seems to suggest that without decoding the secret key of the biblical narrative, humans do not even have access into who or what they are. There can be no science of human nature of any kind without revelation. This thus constitutes a kind of radical Van Tillianism, and Van Til’s influence certainly does loom large in Leithart’s background. However, in Delivered from the Elements, Leithart seems to want to one-up Van Til. For while Van Til insisted that the antithesis between believer and unbeliever was only epistemological—that is, they shared a common human nature, but the unbeliever could not rightly claim knowledge of it—Leithart’s view seems to suggest—indeed, explicitly states—that believers and unbelievers have different natures, that is, are not metaphysically the same. And if this is true, it seems to entail a radical fideism, in which any kind of meaningful conversation between believer and unbeliever is not merely useless, but frankly impossible.
Now, to be sure, it is difficult to believe that Leithart really intends all of these radical (and indeed scarcely coherent) consequences. But if the statements quoted above are mere rhetorical flourishes, or intended merely to emphasize some heretofore-neglected dimension of theology, then we might reasonably ask whether so much unclarity was really needed to make the point.
Consequences for Ethics and Ecclesiology
Perhaps more concretely, this kind of approach seems to provide little safeguard against the kind of ethical confusion we discussed above. Consider this quotation from Leithart:
“Sexual difference remains. Paul does not teach that the created male-female distinction is undone in every respect. But at the root, he announces the union of male and female in Christ, that the division of the socioreligious world into ‘male and female’ has become as obsolete as the arrangement of the world into circumcision and uncircumcision” (220).
This is somewhat reassuring in an age of profound sexual confusion, in which there is no longer any male or female, and in which many progressive Christians will quote passages such as this in support of such anthropological nonsense. But it is not very reassuring, because again it feels arbitrary. Without wanting to provide any kind of account of a stable human nature that sets the terms for all of God’s subsequent dealings with mankind, how does Leithart ground such a claim? What would he say if someone objected that he were just insisting that “sexual difference remains” because he is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative? And if sexual difference has become as obsolete as circumcision—which is really pretty darn obsolete, when you think about it—then in what respects does it remain? I am not simply quibbling here. For indeed this question is the question of the hour for 21st-century American Christians, and I worry that Leithart gives us few if any resources for answering it compellingly. In other words, a theological anthropology that can’t tell us why half us of have babies and the other half don’t is not worth its salt.
And this is really just the tip of the iceberg. For it is not clear to me that Leithart’s model leaves us in a position to answer most of the ethical and ecclesiological questions that any good theological anthropology must address—questions such as the following: do we have the same moral obligations to unbelievers created in the image of God as we do to fellow believers? If not, what obligations do we have to them? Inasmuch as we find ourselves in social structures along with unbelievers, to what extent are these part of our identity, part of our “nature,” in Leithart’s language, and to what extent are they to be scorned or renounced? From these two questions flow nearly all the issues of Christian ethics and political theology, yet Leithart addresses them only in a brief passage which simply highlights the potential tensions, without clarifying how they might be resolved:
“We still have ancestry and parentage, but our ancestry and parentage no longer determine the limits of our love and concern. We are still citizens of nations and fall into different social and economic classes, but we are no longer Americans physei, or Koreans or Peruvians or Hutu, or part of the 1 percent or the 99 percent. Our nature is determined instead by the Son and Spirit, by water, word and feast.” (223)
The last line also draws attention to fundamental questions of ecclesiology that a project such as Leithart’s has to answer at some point. If our identity is determined both by our vertical relationship to God and our horizontal relationships to one another, then the question must arise: to what extent does a person’s relationship of faith toward God make them a Christian, and to what extent does their membership in a visible community of believers make them a believer? I have a feeling that Leithart would try to refuse the terms of the question, arguing that it depends on an inward/outward disjunction he wants to transcend. In particular, Leithart wants to lay especial stress on baptism as the visible outward act whereby God constitutes both a new vertical relationship and a new set of horizontal relationships (see pp. 221-23). It seems plausible, in fact, given Leithart’s previous writings, that it is his concern for a new baptismal theology that is the engine driving all the metaphysical revisionism. If the deliverdict of justification is to apply to all the baptized, then pesky questions about who’s in and who’s out, arising from the persistence of our sinful nature, can be pushed aside by saying that baptism simply is constitutive of a new human nature. But all these pesky questions are simply deferred, not resolved, given that we all know all too well that there is a host of baptized people who give no sign of sustaining a relationship of faith toward God, and often want nothing to do with his people either.
Once again, don’t get me wrong about all this. I think Leithart’s book is pregnant with sociological, metaphysical, ethical, and ecclesiological insights, insights that can be very valuably appropriated and indeed applied as antidotes to much one-sided and unimaginative contemporary Christian thought. However, it generally seems to be the case that they can only become valuable in this way if first strained through the filter of common-sense. “Well, obviously he couldn’t really mean that, so what he must be saying is this.” I find that this is often the case in theology that makes a lot of waves nowadays, and I think it is a good smell test for good theological and rhetorical method: if your theology only becomes usable once it goes through everyone’s de-weirding filter, well then you need to rethink your method.
In my next post, which may be the final one of this review, and may take a little while to appear (I’m hesitant to make promises at this point), I will review more closely how Leithart uses his stoicheia lens to analyze our own historical moment, beginning with the Reformation and continuing to modern secular order. Stay tuned.