Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Theology after Metaphysics?

I often hear about post-metaphysical theology and I confess that I still find the suggestion a tad confusing. Here are some wise words from John Betz that express well my concern:

[Metaphysics has] a regulative function that keeps Christian discourse (first and foremost of the incarnate Logos) from degenerating into mere mythology or, what amounts to the same thing, simply the ‘language game’ of this or that community. … [W]ithout a theological metaphysics, the transcendent perspective, which metaphysics holds open, threatens to collapse into the ‘way of speaking’ of this or that ‘faith community’. … [Metaphysics] serves to safeguard the transcendence of God who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Tim 6:16)

John R. Betz, “The Beauty of the Metaphysical Imagination.” In Belief and Metaphysics, edited by Peter M. Candler Jr. and Conor Cunningham, 41–65. London: SCM, 2007, p. 42.


  1. Although perhaps a bit stronger on what metaphysics can accomplish, this quote is also fitting, Charlie:
    “The notion that theology can dispense with metaphysics is just as misguided as the notion that metaphysics is not also theological. It is similarly erroreous to claim that metaphysics ever ended (each critique or deconstruction of metaphysics is always in the end another metaphysic) or that it cannot be restored to the heart of the arts, humanities, and the sciences.”

    Adrian Pabst
    Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (p. xxviii)

  2. *erroneous* Good grief.

  3. And now I have realized that Robin posted this, not Charlie. A Facebook friend shared your post, Robin, but a picture of Charlie was next to it on the FB post. Ergo…the need to apologize for yet another mistake. (Sigh.)

    I promise my manuscript will be more carefully edited than my blog posts!

  4. Tim, no worries.

    I completely agree with Pabst on that.

    I am currently reading his book on Metaphysics (slowly—it is hard going).

    Thanks for sharing; it is a good quote.


  5. One issue is whether theology “after metaphysics” would be desirable or even possible. Another is what one means by “metaphysics.” It seems obvious to me that one can responsibly address the former issue only after addressing the latter.

    I have proposed a “theology without metaphysics,” but by “metaphysics” I mean something different than what Betz and Pabst mean by it. I spent several pages trying to explain this, but some have still responded to my proposal as if I were suggesting that theology should avoid metaphysics in all of the relevant senses. That’s a misreading of my argument, but the point here is suitably general: in order to assess a candidate stance on “metaphysics” and its role in theology, we must first understand what the stance-taker means by that term. I imagine that these conversations would make a lot more progress if we were to adopt such an approach.

  6. Kevin,

    I have not read your book yet (but intend to) and did not have you in mind here. I can’t speak for Robin, but I had in mind a general attitude that I have seen in some theological circles: metaphysics are intrinsically antithetical to theology’s task or that the gospel does not presume any kind of metaphysic.

    I look forward to reading your newest work. Your session at the AAR was on my list to attend but conflicted with several other very good sessions and, alas, I am not able to bilocate.

  7. Dear Tim,

    Thanks for this response. In case it wasn’t clear, I did not mean to suggest that you were misreading me, nor that your comment had anything to do with me. I’m prideful, but not delusional! No, I had some other folks in mind; my point was that their misreading was a particular instance of the more general issue I meant to raise, namely, that the meaning of “metaphysics” must be clarified before we can take any meaningful stance for or against it.

    (For another instance of this issue, think of current debates about whether Hegel is a “metaphysical” thinker. It’s not at all clear that Professors Beiser and Pippin, for example, mean the same thing by that term, such that it’s not clear how meaningful their disagreement is.)

    To be a bit more precise, I would say that “metaphysics” can mean at least four things in this context: (1) a set of claims about the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics as ontology); (2) a set of claims about that which transcends the physical realm (metaphysics as supernaturalism); (3) a set of claims commonly associated with “classical” or Greek metaphysicians (metaphysics as substance metaphysics); or (4) an assumption or mindset according to which the fundamental reality of objects corresponds to our predetermined ideas about them (metaphysics as ‘correspondentism’).

    Of the theologians who aim to get beyond metaphysics, some have wanted to get beyond metaphysics in the first sense, some in the second sense, and so on. Likewise, those who oppose “theology without metaphysics” have sometimes done so on behalf of metaphysics in the first sense, sometimes in the second sense, and so on. As long as the anti- and pro-metaphysical theologians are arguing about metaphysics in the same sense, all is well. But sometimes anti-metaphysical theologians are unclear about what they mean to avoid, and sometimes pro-metaphysical theologians are unclear about what they mean to defend, in which case there’s little chance of engaging in a productive argument. That’s why I suggested that we need to clarify what we mean by “metaphysics” before we oppose or defend it. Again, then, I didn’t mean to imply that your post had anything to do with me, and I’m sorry if I came across that way.

    With all best wishes,


  8. I will call your narcissistic worries and apologize for responding in something of a defensive fashion.

    Thanks for the post and clarification. Your comments only intensify my desire to read your book. All too often folks throw around categorical dismissals to sound radical or what not, when, in fact, equivocation is all that’s happening. But, I suppose one needs to rhetorically generate an audience in these dark days for the humanities and theology, or convince themselves that what they have to say is truly important. How’s that for reductive? 🙂

    Best wishes and merry Christmas to you!


  9. Great conversation. As someone who published a W&S book advocating for theology (under the banner of preaching) after metaphysics, I’m definitely intrigued! But I wanted to use this post to let you all know that if you’re interested in how these conversations affect the church, there is going to be a great — and very affordable — conference focused on precisely this subject in April at Drury University in Springfield, MO. A call for presentations is open as well. So far speakers include folks like John Caputo and Peter Rollins, among several others.

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