Thoughtful, irenic, clear writing style, and without doubt the most prolific American theologian today. You have probably already guessed his name, but in case you haven’t, here are a couple more hints. He has authored over twenty books and has edited or co-edited almost the same number. The number of essays he has written for scholarly journals and collections is virtually countless (if you don’t believe me, check out his curriculum vitae, which he hasn’t updated since 2016—he’s no doubt too busy working on his next three books). He is as comfortable writing on biblical theology as systematic theology. When he prepares to write on a given topic, he first reads … everything! Still need another hint? He is an expert in the theology of St Thomas Aquinas.
Yes, dear readers, I’m talking about Matthew Levering, professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary and author of Scripture and Metaphysics, Jesus and the Demise of Death, and Was the Reformation a Mistake?
Levering’s recently published book Engaging the Doctrine of Creation follows the approach for which he is well-known: a balanced overview of his topic, supported by a plenitude of quotations and scholarly references, concluding with his always judicious assessments. For a poor yokel like myself, the invocation of so many voices, patristic, medieval, and contemporary, can be quite overwhelming yet at the same time helpful. One cannot read Levering without jotting down the titles of articles and books with which one wants to follow-up. (Did I mention he’s a master of content footnotes?) Levering reads and thinks within the theological tradition. He does not seek controversy, but neither does he avoid hard questions. His judgments are always informed by the magisterial teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I suppose that this might be frustrating for anyone who is hungry for ground-breaking, cutting-edge, best-selling theology; but for someone like myself, I find Dr Levering’s approach reassuring. As the title indicates, Levering’s goal is to engage the traditional Christian doctrine of creation in light of contemporary concerns. His discussion is intentionally non-comprehensive. He tells us right at the beginning, for example, that he will not be devoting as much attention as he would like to the creatio ex nihilo or the doctrine of providence. No doubt he will address these topics more thoroughly in a future volume.
Chapter 1 is devoted to the topic of the divine ideas. Divine ideas? Isn’t that a Neoplatonic relic? But Levering quickly shows us that it’s a question that can be neither ignored nor dismissed. After all, how did God come up with the idea of creation? Was it something novel and unexpected for him, like an artist sitting down before a canvas, not knowing what the brushstrokes would reveal? That doesn’t seem quite right. As St Augustine writes: “He was not ignorant of what he was going to create.” Yet this might suggest that the divine consciousness is “an eternal data bank of the forms of creatures,” and that doesn’t seem quite right either. As his principal dialogue partner on this topic, Levering chooses the Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. Lossky vigorously objects to the Augustinian and Thomistic formulations of the divine ideas. They undermine the Church’s teaching of the creatio ex nihilo and commit the Church to an emanationist construal of creation, as if the cosmos is merely a prosaic, disappointing copy of God’s inner life. Levering summarizes Lossky’s critique over the course of several pages, before offering his response. He believes that the Orthodox theologian has misunderstood the nature of divine eternity and ontological status of the divine ideas:
Given Aquinas’s understanding of eternity as God’s intelligent and free self-presencing, the divine ideas should not be located “prior” to creation, as though God considered the panorama of his options (the divine ideas) and then implemented some of them volitionally in creation. Rather, there is only the triune creator God, who in his eternal ingelligent presencing freely wills certain things to be, without changing his infinitely actual will.
Chapter 2 is devoted to the topic of divine simplicity, which is a hot topic in contemporary theology. Many argue that Aquinas’s understanding of divine simplicity inevitably leads to determinism. Analytic critics call this modal collapse. If the divine essence is incomposite, then the freedom of God is severely compromised. Levering here chooses as his principal partner the Eastern Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw, who offers a trenchant critique of Aquinas in his book Aristotle East and West. Levering devotes ten pages to summarizing Bradshaw’s arguments. As in the previous chapter, Levering believes that Aquinas can meet the challenge. The Angelic Doctor, as it turns out, was not unaware of the problem posed to freedom by the divine simplicity and addresses it at some length in both the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae. We must distinguish, says Levering, between “the necessary and free modes of God’s one eternal will: “We know that in willing himself necessarily—in the very same act of willing, since God’s infinitely actual will does not change or alter in any way—wills finite things freely in accord with their contingent mode of being.” I do wish, though, that Levering had explicitly addressed the alleged problem of modal collapse. Something seems wrong about the way the problem has been formulated by analytic philosophers. By my mind, they misunderstand the nature of divine transcendence.
For me personally chapters 1 & 2 are the most interesting in the book, both because of my own Orthodox commitments and my recent reading in St Dionysius the Areopagite. I kept wondering if the Areopagite might have something to add to the debate, particularly as exegeted by Neoplatonist philosopher Eric Perl. If God exists beyond being (and does Aquinas really think otherwise?), does the divine simplicity really pose the either/or dilemmas advanced by Lossky and Bradshaw? I lack the theological chops to offer a judgment on the debate, but I think that Levering has presented a substantive response that needs careful consideration by Eastern critics of Aquinas. It may still be that the Byzantine distinction between essence and energies offers a superior philosophical defense of divine freedom; but let’s not pretend that it does not have problems of its own, as David Bentley Hart, among others, has pointed out. More importantly, we need to stop pretending that this is a make-or-break issue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The Latin theological tradition is not defined by the Thomism of Thomas. Duns Scotus has his own interpretation of divine simplicity, and he’s just as Catholic as Aquinas.
Chapter 3 is devoted to the multiplicity of creatures. Why did God choose to create so many different kinds of beings? And why the dinosaurs? As his dialogue partners, Levering chooses the Jewish physicist Gerald Schroeder and St Basil the Great. When the cosmos is understood as theophany, he suggests, even dinosaurs manifest the divine glory:
The vast interstellar spaces, with thier explosions and implosions, their black holes and dark matter and yet-to-be discovered mysteries, are not meaningless. The extinct species that make up such an overwhelming majority of all species that have ever lived are not purposeless. Nothing is cosmic waste or cosmic absurdity, even though material things decay and die, collide with each other, and consum each other as part of the ongoing unfolding of spatiotemporal being … Rather than being useless, dinosaurs and galactic systems are theophanic: in their finite actuality, they point to the creator who is pure act.
Chapter 4 is devoted to the Imago Dei. Levering surveys the different opinions that have been advanced by both classical and contemporary theologians. His dialogue partner is Richard Middleton. I skimmed this chapter pretty quickly, I confess, but folks who love Old Testament exegesis should find it fascinating. Levering concludes: “The intelligent capacity for royal-priestly communion with God, a free participation in God’s wise governance and gifting, is what distinguishes the human race from all other animals.”
Chapter 5 is devoted to reflection upon the divine command “’be fruitful and multiply” in light of the very real threat of ecosystem collapse. Maybe God shouldn’t have saved Noah and his family. Look what’s happened as a result. Levering raises pressing concerns about overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources that the Churches—and humanity—must address. He avoids apodictic conclusions, both because he is non-scientist and because he is seeking to be faithful to the teaching of the Roman Church on contraception. I suspect that some readers, perhaps many, will be disappointed. Levering is a biblical optimist: “I take heart from the seeming recklessness of the provident God who, despite the destruction caused by fallen humans and despite the overpopulation of the land of Israel and its environs, commands his people to be fruitful and multiply.” When does optimism become reckless gambling?
Chapter 6 is devoted to the question of original sin. How do we properly interpret Gen 2-3, given all that we now know of the history of the cosmos and the emergence of human life on our planet? Levering’s Latin Catholicism comes to the fore in this chapter. He cites Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical: “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.” In other words, Catholics are bound to believe in a historic Adam and Eve from which all human beings are descended. Why is a commitment to monogenism important? Because the Tridentine doctrine of original sin depends upon it. Somewhat surprisingly, Levering neither exegetes Trent for us nor provides a statement of what he understands original sin to be, though its general features become clear as the discussion proceeds. The essential point is that death—not just physical death but the inherited condition of spiritual death that is damnation—is God’s just punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve. If death is not a just punishment, he reasons, then the horrible calamities and sufferings of human history reveal a “cruel, unjust God.” Levering picks four dialogue partners: Karl Rahner, Peter Enns, Jonathan Edwards, and Thomas Aquinas.
I found this chapter disappointing, probably because I’m not an Augustinian on the doctrine of original sin. Discussion of Eastern Orthodox alternatives is reserved to the footnotes. How one assesses Levering’s presentation will depend on how persuasive one finds Aquinas’s arguments. Nor does Levering offer any help regarding the challenging theodicial questions raised by the presence of death, violence, and predation before the emergence of humanity. But perhaps a convincing solution is unavailable to us, whether Augustinian or not.
Chapter 7 is devoted to the atonement of Christ. Again Levering remains firmly in the Latin tradition and its commitment to satisfaction and retributive justice. Yes, satisfaction has a place in the tradition, even the Eastern tradition; but does it deserve the centrality the Latin Church has conferred upon it? Levering chooses Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff as his principal dialogue partner. Wolterstorff argues, in Levering’s words, that “Jesus made a crucial ethical advance by rejecting the ‘reciprocity code’ as a standard for justice.” No longer is justice to be conceived as retributive, a balancing of the scales; no longer are we to return evil for evil. “Love your enemies,” the Lord declares, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Levering agrees with Wolterstorff’s interpretation, with this important qualification: Jesus did not repudiate the reciprocity code tout court. We may still anticipate God’s repayment of our acts of love: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13-14). Levering also points out that Jesus affirms retributive justice in the parable of the Last Judgment, as does the Apostle Paul. Levering concludes:
Although Wolterstorff rightly underscores the ways in which Jesus rejects the reciprocity code, therefore, he exaggerates when he argues that Jesus’ “rejection of the negative side of the reciprocity code implies opposition to retributive punishment in general.” On the contrary, Jesus consistently looks forward to a retributive punishment that God will apply at the final judgment to those who reject God’s offer of mercy in Jesus. Wolterstorff is, of course, aware of this, but he does not give it sufficient attention. He states simply, “If redressing injury (harm, evil) has any place at all in the moral order, God will do it. Leave it to God.” But if the Gospels and Epistles are any evidence, there is no “if” about whether “redressing injury” has a place in God’s moral order.
This leads Levering into a discussion of the Cross as satisfaction for the sins of humanity:
In my view, the above biblical texts about Jesus’ cross indicate that the justice that Jesus fulfilled on the cross—as part of his mission to accomplish the restoration of Israel and to inaugurate the kingdom of God—was in fact retributive justice: Jesus paid the retributive penalty of death for us. As I noted above, the New Testament also teaches that those who are being configured to Jesus’ love by the Holy Spirit will receive an everlasting reward due in reciprocal justice (though the reward will go beyond any merely human reciprocity), while those who freely reject Jesus’s love will receive retributive punishment.
In other words, Levering believes that the Scriptures teach a retributive theory of substitutionary atonement. The Eastern Fathers are notably absent (cf. Patrick Henry Reardon’s Reclaiming the Atonement). Pascha disappears into the background. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and Edwards win the day.
As I read this chapter, I kept thinking that Levering really needs to read George MacDonald’s unspoken homily “Justice,” as well as the growing body of biblical and philosophical scholarship on restorative justice. He is not ignorant of this scholarship—he mentions some of it in his footnotes—but it does not inform his conclusions; it cannot inform them, because of Levering’s (and Aquinas’s) prior commitment to the Latin dogma of eternal punishment (cf. John Kronen and Eric Reitan, God’s Final Victory). (Hell has a way of working itself back into one’s reading of the Scriptures.) Levering is not quite comfortable, though, with the notion of eternal punishment and so seeks to mitigate the divine wrath by invoking a distinction, which he finds in Aquinas, between active and passive punishment: “God does not actively inflict the punishment [of eternal perdition], but the punishment is retributive because the punishment consists in a harm that the sinner incurs due to the harm that the sinner has inflicted.” I wonder where Levering finds this distinction between active and passive eschatological punishment in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to fit, for example, with Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment. God’s condemnation of the goats is as active as his rewarding of the sheep.
I recommend Engaging the Doctrine of Creation to all theologically-minded Christians, no matter their denominational commitments. It is classic Levering, which means that it is filled with biblical and theological substance and thoughtful analysis. I have only one suggestion—and it’s probably unfair of me to raise it. One day I hope the author will eventually turn to writing his own systematic theology. If and when he does, I hope he will provide us with his own voice, rather than the many voices of the theologians and exegetes he has exhaustively devoured. Matthew Levering has both the intelligence and the erudition for such a project.
To my readers, I suggest that Engaging the Doctrine of Creation might be profitably read alongside the little book by Simon Oliver: Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed. The two books complement each other very well.