Review of Divine Humility: God Morally Perfect Being by Matthew A. Wilcoxen

June 28, 2021

Wilcoxen, Matthew A. Divine Humility: God Morally Perfect Being. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2019, pp. 227, $39.95, hardback.


Matthew A. Wilcoxen is an Associate Rector at Church of the Resurrection in Washington DC. He earned his PhD in Systematic Theology from Charles Sturt University, Australia.

In Divine Humility, Matthew A. Wilcoxen asks why humility has not always firmly been considered one of God’s eternal attributes in the Christian tradition. Honouring their theological achievements, this book visits the work of St. Augustine, Karl Barth and Katherine Sonderegger and puts them to work answering some of the tradition’s oldest and newest questions.

Chapter 1 introduces the task at hand through the question of how (or if) the metaphysical attributes of the divine being can relate to his divine subjective moral attributes. It begins with a concise critique of Heidegger’s Onto-theology and his influence in certain strains of contemporary theology. Wilcoxen highlights existentialism’s dependence on the very enlightenment principles it tried to rebel against while preparing for itself a “conflict of traditions” (p. 10), which additionally estranged it in part from its “rival tradition of inquiry, Christian Theology” (p. 11). Instead, Wilcoxen takes an analytic approach to be more conducive for returning to a contemplation of God in which the moral and metaphysical are not philosophically split apart from the outset.

Chapter 2 presses toward an analytic definition of humility. With the help of analytic philosopher James Kellenberger, Wilcoxen rethinks common assumptions about the meaning of humility; for example, that one must have a low opinion of oneself or that it is the “absence of self-assertion” (p. 46). By rejecting these assumptions, Wilcoxen is able to do at least two important things. Firstly, he reframes the contrast between pride and humility towards a pride and shame continuum, both of which depend on self-concern. With this, he frees humility from being defined negatively: solely as pride’s opposite. This move will allow him to do ontological work later by defining humility as “a different way of one being oriented toward the self altogether” (p. 48). After a fruitful discussion with the fathers of the Christian tradition on these new terms, this positive definition of humility anticipates St. Augustine’s doctrine of God. One cannot help but sense a rushed definition of virtue at the beginning of this chapter, which is discussed later through the dialogue with tradition, but not further defined. This leaves an explanatory gap between “virtues” as they are understood in ethical terms and the divine attributes and one wonders how or if they bear upon each other conceptually.

Chapter 3 is an example of Wilcoxen’s aptitude for clear exposition of classical and biblical material. He introduces the “generative tension” (p. 82) in Augustine’s understanding of God in se (immanent trinity) and pro nobis (economic trinity) by asking how humility can be conceived within the nature of God. Problematising this further, Augustine must ask the question of how God shares his life with contingent creatures whilst remaining God. Tracing the doctrine of incarnation through Augustine’s exegesis of John 5:19-30 and Philippians 2:6-7, Wilcoxen challenges certain readings of scripture that posit God as “essentially cruciform or vulnerable” (p. 96) in se or forma dei because this risks making the nature of God the Son (forma dei), dependent to some extent on Christ’s human nature (forma servi). Instead of blending the two without caution, Wilcoxen perceives how communication and participation mark Augustine’s approach: He resolves “that the divine nature communicates to the human nature of Christ at the level of moral character but not immutable being” (p. 99). Wilcoxen perceptively explains that in Augustinian thought, humility (rather ambiguously) is the tension that allows God-to-remain-God and humanity-to-remain-humanity while bringing the two into fellowship.

More than Barth’s radically Christological outlook, it is Barth’s stubborn theological conviction that humility is an attribute of God in se that captures Wilcoxen’s attention in Chapter 4. Regrettably, Barth is only able to secure this by defining divine humility as the utmost obedience of the Son to the Father. It is left unclear whether the submissiveness or the obedience is the mark of humility here leaving much to speculation. Furthermore, without clearly distinguishing between Christ’s obedience in his human nature from obedience in his divine nature, Barth strays dangerously close to positing that Jesus had only one will. Wilcoxen observes that Barth ‘mirrored’ the historical life of Jesus into the divine life with such a Christocentric fervency that his accordance with conciliar tradition was put in jeopardy. Drawing helpfully from Maximus the Confessor to correct Barth’s insights, Wilcoxen wisely warns that Barth’s approach does not allow us to work from the prior doctrine of divine simplicity (God a se) towards an understanding of the work of Christ-for-us (ad extra). This ironically leaves the latter rather un-submissive to the former. Thus, his equation of humility and obedience betrays his obstinate conviction that God must be somehow humble in his own inner life, a position for which Wilcoxen gives him credit even if Barth fails to earn it theologically. Here, Wilcoxen is a model, to theologians and students, of how to read charitably without becoming slack in criticism. Students may also learn here how to think within the context of tradition, trusting in the resources of an older community.

Wilcoxen’s fifth chapter takes a final shot at locating humility in the divine being relying on Sonderegger’s biblical impulse to meditate on God’s unicity and omnipresence. She is thus able to argue that humility is an attribute of the morally perfect being, by assuming from the outset that ‘God’s moral character’ is his ‘perfect being’ contrary to Barth and Augustine who deemed it necessary to observe a kind a tension between the two. Sonderegger treats the unicity of God as metaphysical and thus that God’s being is his relation to creation. This relation is a real, dynamic and objective presence disclosed in his hiddenness. God’s holy humility is then approached through a contemplation of his omnipotence reframed in terms of the concept of ‘energy’. Here, Sonderegger gets behind the logical hurdles which arise in traditional modes of reasoning about whether God’s relation to creation is one of primarily will or cause exclusively. Her innovative method (via eminentae) surpasses Barth’s because she reasons from God’s internal life a se towards his life ad extra casting a view back to God as the radiant and eternal source. Sonderegger proves hugely helpful to Wilcoxen’s fascinating project though it is still an open question whether there are existing contributions in the history of the Church which may retain the traditional language of will, cause and substance and yet accomplish what Sonderegger has without the language of energy.

In this book, one can sense Wilcoxen’s conviction that the task of systematic theology is best fulfilled under the guidance of the scriptures, interpreted within the Christian tradition and community of faith. Rather reservedly, this work also implies a tangible proximity between systematic theology and ethics. It is therefore no surprise that his presentation examples attention to God’s own involvement in the history of the church. Wilcoxen also secures a firm place for the generative value of mystery within systematic theology to inspire awe in the one who contemplates God.

Philip Miti

Universität Heidelberg


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