Review of Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism by Craig A. Carter

February 14, 2022

Carter, Craig A. Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021, pp. 352, $32.99, paperback.


Craig A. Carter currently serves as research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and he serves also as theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of St. Michael’s College and has published multiple books within the discipline of theological studies. Carter is both Reformed and Baptist, confessing the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). The book at hand is the second part of a trilogy that aims to recover important insights from the classical Christian tradition. The first installment was Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, which took up the subject of classical theological hermeneutics.

In Contemplating God with the Great Tradition (CGGT), Carter argues that Christians today should be intentional with retrieving and confessing the doctrines of God and the Trinity that were developed by the pro-Nicene patristic fathers along with the hermeneutics and metaphysics they used in so doing. This retrieval is necessary if Christians are to confess the doctrines of God and the Trinity as articulated in the Nicene Creed (pp. 1–11). Carter names this model of God Trinitarian classical theism (TCT), and he juxtaposes it with what he terms relational theism (RT).

Carter begins with an autobiographical preface wherein he describes how he “changed his mind” over his career as a theologian. While initially intrigued by the theological projects of Stanley Grenz, John Howard Yoder, Colin Gunton, and others, Carter became convinced that these projects could not avoid the pitfalls of revisionist theology, and after much reflection and engagement with the patristic fathers he shifted to the TCT of the “Great Tradition” (GT). After discussing what he sees to be numerous problems with RT, he engages in a polemic for theologians to retrieve the TCT of the GT. He defines classical theism (CT) as “the historic orthodox doctrine of God, and it says that God is the simple, immutable, eternal [atemporal], self-existent First Cause of the cosmos. God creates the world and acts on it, but the world cannot change God in any way” (p. 16). RT, on the other hand, “is a term that we can apply to a number of different doctrines of God, all of which affirm that God changes the world and the world changes God” (p. 16). Examples of RT include theistic personalism, theistic mutualism, open theism, panentheism, pantheism, process theism, polytheism, and social trinitarianism. The problem with RT, he claims, is that they diminish God’s transcendence and overemphasize his imminence.

Carter’s second chapter lays out all the content that he means to communicate with TCT in the form of 25 theses. He helpfully lists all 25 of these theses in summary form in the Appendix (pp. 307–308). In summary, TCT is a doctrine of God that affirms a classical, or Latin, view of the Trinity, as well as the assorted doctrines included in CT. Such is the doctrine of God that is affirmed by all the pro-Nicene fathers and is enshrined in the Nicene Creed. Not only this, but TCT is the result of the proper interpretation of Scripture concerning the doctrine of God. Chapters 3–6 develop the biblical basis for TCT by means of a theological exegesis of Isaiah 40–48. Carter’s three main emphases here are that God is “the transcendent creator,” “the sovereign lord of history,” and “the one who alone is to be worshipped.” The first of these focuses on the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (CEN), which claims that God created the cosmos from nothing and requires a high theory of divine transcendence. The second of these focuses on how God acts upon creation and history, moving history towards its destiny in the Kingdom of God. The last emphasis re-focuses on God’s transcendence, claiming that God alone is the Creator and worthy of worship.

In the final three chapters of the book, Carter looks at TCT throughout history by focusing on the biblical nature of TCT and RT’s abandonment of CT and the doctrine of CEN by reverting to “pagan mythology.” He criticizes modern theologians who have insisted that CEN is not a biblical doctrine and is a result of the primitive Christian message being subsumed into the Greek metaphysics assumed by the patristic theologians. He concludes with an Epilogue wherein he discusses why the church does not change its mind on the doctrine of God and why TCT is the orthodox doctrine of God. All versions of RT—explicitly or implicitly—are outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity.

There are several positive aspects about CGGT. First, Carter takes seriously the task of historical theology. Taking his que from the projects of Lewis Ayres[1], Khaled Anatolios[2], and Stephen Holmes[3], he has serious reservations about the so-called revival of trinitarian theology in the 20th century. More times than not, the 20th century projects were more revised than retrieved with many of these revisions smuggling in foreign metaphysical assumptions. Carter is right to properly understand and locate the patristic fathers in their historical contexts and to consider their metaphysical assumptions. He is also right to demonstrate that TCT was not developed apart from the fathers’ commitment to the biblical witness. Carter rightly demonstrates that the patristic fathers’ use of Greek philosophy is more nuanced than the Hellenization thesis admits, and that careful study of the patristic sources reveals that the fathers frequently revised Greek philosophy in service to Scripture. He also rightly emphasizes the importance of Christian doctrine for Christian worship, and he rightly emphasizes the creator-creature distinction.

Despite these positive qualities, CGGT has numerous problems, the first of which concerns some definitions on which the project hinges. Carter frequently describes RT as denying “transcendence” of God. It is very unclear what he means by “transcendence.” Not only this, but it is interesting that Carter insists on using these conceptual terms that were developed by enlightenment thinkers, especially since he spends so much of his book decrying the atrocities that modernism and the enlightenment created for Christian theology. More significant than this, however, is that Carter nowhere provides an actual definition of “transcendence.” The following list of propositions seem to be included in what he means by the term.

  1. God is distinct from and unlike the creation.
  2. God cannot be affected by creation in any way.
  3. God enjoys aseity.
  4. Aseity hinges on the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS).

Carter claims that all versions of RT deny transcendence of God, implying that all variants of RT are guilty of denying some of these propositions. The first problem here is that Carter never defends his view of transcendence; he asserts it as though it were axiomatic. Second, many whom he designates as RTs explicitly affirm transcendence, such as William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne, though they define it differently. Craig and Swinburne have written lengthy treatments on the doctrine of aseity, and all three of these philosophers affirm CEN, a doctrine that necessitates that God exists a se and is distinct from creation. Carter seems to think, however, that DDS is necessary to affirm CEN and aseity. This may be, but there are numerous arguments against such a claim in the philosophy-of-religion literature, none of which Carter engages. What Carter has done is setup definitions of the views that he disagrees with, definitions that many of the alleged adherents would deny, and critiques those definitions as though they represent said adherents, which is the straw man fallacy. Carter commits this fallacy numerous times throughout the book. If he is going to hinge as much of his polemic on this idea of “transcendence,” then he needs to 1) provide clear and distinguishable definitions of the key terms and concepts, and 2) faithfully engage the literature that argues explicitly against his position. Otherwise, he will continue to straw man his opponents and not convince his readers.

Another definition that Carter struggles with is “social trinitarianism” (ST). It is worth noting that he never provides an actual definition of ST in the book; rather, he mentions Swinburne’s and Moltmann’s varieties of ST and seems to presume that these are representative of all varieties of ST. For example, because Swinburne and Moltmann emphasize that God is temporal, Carter assumes that every version of ST affirms this, which is demonstrably false. Though he affirms that God is temporal with creation, William Lane Craig affirms that God is atemporal sans creation. Craig also affirms ST, though his is very distinct from Swinburne’s and Moltmann’s. Had God never created, on Craig’s model, then God would exist both as a social trinity and atemporally and would not constitute a variety of RT. This is but another instance of how problematic definitions lead Carter to build up straw men.

Another problem is that Carter never engages those with whom he disagrees. He cites Swinburne, Craig, Plantinga, Bruce Ware, and many others as RTs, but he never engages with their actual arguments. He cites them as examples of RT, reminds his readers of why he thinks RT is unacceptable, and then dismisses them as missing the bar of orthodoxy. To treat fellow scholars in such a manner is uncharitable and unscholarly. If one is going to write off other scholars, especially ones with the distinguished careers as those mentioned, then they owe those scholars the charity and dignity of engaging their arguments, demonstrating which of their premises are false, and demonstrating why those premises are false, and Carter does none of these. He insists repeatedly that we need to retrieve TCT, but he never engages with any of the arguments against CT in general. He never tells his readers what the arguments against DDS, immutability, impassability, and atemporality are, and he never explains which of the arguments’ premises are supposedly false. This is consistent with the overall polemic in the book.

There are more issues with CGGT, but space only allows for the discussion of one more. Though Carter aims to demonstrate that TCT has its roots in Scripture, much of his exegesis is theologically stretched and he ignores numerous important exegetical voices. For example, he argues that DDS finds its biblical roots in Exodus 3:14, where God reveals himself as “I am who I am.” While this is one plausible translation of the Hebrew, there are others as well, such as “I am who I will be,” which finds support in a lot of contemporary Old Testament scholarship. Carter never engages or mentions these other plausible translations, and he never argues for his preferred translation as a result. A similar negligence occurs in chapters 3–6, where he exegetes Isaiah 40–48. Though he mentions a few contemporary scholars in passing, Carter neglects major important interpreters of Isaiah in these chapters, such as John Goldingay and John Watts. He accuses most contemporary biblical scholars of being beholden to philosophical naturalism, which causes them to misinterpret Scripture. While some contemporary interpreters are guilty of this, it is extreme to believe that this represents the majority. Goldingay and Watts, for example, are not philosophical naturalists, and they do provide interpretations of Isaiah in its canonical context—which Carter argues for. This canonical hermeneutic may not be their primary exegetical method, but it does play a part in their exegesis. Carter thus continues to straw man his opponents.

Though there are positive aspects of CGGT, they are far outweighed by the negative ones. Though Carter has good intentions, his poor definitions, lack of engagement with those with whom he disagrees, and his repeated use of the straw man fallacy make CGGT unsuitable for a work of scholarship. This is not to say that Carter is a bad scholar, but that CGGT falls short of scholarly standards. I neither would recommend it as an introduction to the doctrine of God or as an important work in the field. Overall, it makes too many errors in scholarship and most of its contents contribute nothing to the ongoing discussions and debates over the doctrine of God. The most original part of the book is its attempt to ground CT in a theological exegesis of Isaiah 40–48, but even here errors abound. For those interested in contemporary articulations of and arguments for CT, I recommend the works of Katherin Rogers, Brian Leftow, James Dolezal, Paul Helm, and John Webster. Carter’s CGGT has potential, but it is never actualized.

Andrew Hollingsworth

Brewton-Parker College

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

[1] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018).

[3] Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012).

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