How do we know God? Can we know God as he is in himself?
Those are the questions on the back of God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics and the Task of Theology by Steven J. Duby. They are excellent questions – and this is an excellent book. The latest in the new Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, published by Apollos in the UK and IVP Academic in the USA, this book distills Duby’s previous book on Divine Simplicity, and blends it with reflection on other aspects of theology in order to serve up a rich and helpful book. It is worth noting from the outset of this review that God in Himself is a serious academic text – there is Latin aplenty, and a reasonable theological knowledge is assumed by the author. A good way to prepare for it could be by reading Peter Sanlon’s Simply God, which covers similar territory in more accessible language. But I digress. On with the review.
God in Himself is an easier read than Divine Simplicity, but not by much, not least as Duby ranges wider than ‘just’ the question of who God is and what God is like. It is a theological book both in that it thinks deeply about God himself, and takes the task of theology seriously: “to undertake the Christian practice of pondering and speaking about God in himself is to have a foretaste of the eschatological joy into which Christ invites his people“. Whilst this is a technical book of theology, it is also undeniably an intense work of discipleship, echoing the necessity of theology being both intellectual and personal, taking place within both the Academy and the Church, rather than either or.
I have a fond memory, in a second year Systematic Theology module, of asking whether or not Karl Barth was *too* obsessed with Jesus. The amused laughter of my coursemates was intriguingly deflected by the lecturer. On the one hand, we can never make too much of Jesus, but on the other, we can focus too much on him and not on the Godhead in totality. This is where Duby’s superb chapter ‘Incarnation in Context: Christology’s Place in Theology Proper’ is a helpful corrective. He rightly notes that “The incarnation must inform our doctrine of God without being its first or only epistemological principle“. His conclusions to this chapter lean into a vibrant doctrine of Scripture, which dovetails nicely with a new NSBT, Canon, Covenant and Christology by Matthew Barrett, which takes Christology appropriately in discussion of what the Bible is.
Much of the content of God in Himself is technical and quite hard going, but Duby writes well and makes it as easy as possible. For example, writing on the on-the-surface-of-it-quite-simple topic of analogy, we read;
“An analogical view of theological speech attempts to honor divine transcendence and divine communication by maintaining that the sense in which our language applies to God is neither exactly the same as nor entirely different from the way in which it applies to creatures. However, the concept of analogy has a long history and has not been free from criticism. In order to offer a responsible commendation of an analogical view of theological description, it is crucial that we take into account its historical development and, afterward, some key objections raised against it.”
Here Duby is introducing his impressive final chapter, which engages with Barth, Aquinas and others before focusing on the fact of human creatureliness as a way to understand the importance of analogy: “Taken together, divine transcendance and divine communication compel us to be cautious in theological description while also hopeful that the creature’s participation in God may enable a truthful use of creaturely language in theology proper.” Whilst God in HImself is a serious work of academic theology, it is also refreshingly related to and rooted in the life and practice of Christian discipleship.
In terms of the book as a book, readers will note that there are two versions, one published by Apollos in the UK, and the other (purple cover) by IVP Academic in the USA. There are merely cosmetic differences. Both include Duby’s forceful, followable argumentative style – inviting the reader through a series of important conversations, and ending each chapter with helpful summative conclusions. This is not a meandering book. In his closing paragaph, Duby offers us a challenge: “Contemporary preoccupation with ‘mission statements’ and ‘measurable outcomes,’ and the like needs to be relativized by the joy of knowing the triune God“. Amen! I’d warmly recommend this book to those of you interested in seriously exploring the questions it engages with, and if my review has put you off in terms of it being a bit dense, I’d recommend a few other things below. You can get your copy from IVP’s website now!
Peter Sanlon’s Simply God is a more readable book on many of these issues.
Matthew Barrett’s Canon, Covenant and Christology takes some of these issues into conversation with what Jesus believes about the Bible.