The road that led me here…

So, given my current predelictions, how did I get here, especially given my hard-line Calvinist heritage? There’s a lot of answers to that; I suppose the best one is my readings in apologetics got me thinking on different lines.

I came from the Bahnsen-Van Til school of thought. While I felt comfortable in defending the faith, I also knew that the more familiar I was with the history of philosophy, the better I would do in apologetics (yes, I know–the Holy Spirit gives the victory et al, but it is not for nothing that people keep studying regardless of that).

So I started reading up on Medieval Philosophy. This led me to the “Radical Orthodoxy” group. I have some posts from my old blog on Radical Orthodoxy, both their strengths and weaknesses. They showed me the late-medieval philosophical presuppositions in Reformed hermeneutics (or to be more precise, modern Reformed hermeneutics).

Fast forward a few months (this is late 2007). I listened to some lectures by David Bentley Hart along the same lines. It’s not that he refuted Calvinism–he simply relativized its truth claims in light of the larger story. At this point, where do I go from here? I supposed Calvinism could still work, but I was no longer convinced (I hadn’t refuted it–I just wasn’t convinced).

Roman Catholicism was always out of the question. But, like essentially every other Protestant American, I knew next to nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g., they were Catholics with awesome beards, and had spent the last 7 centuries resisting Muslim slavery). So I started reading up on EO. I thought it was awesome and their writers were a lot better than the Calvinists I had been reading, but I never considered converting (this is the summer 2008).

Well, I realized that I needed to get straight on the doctrine of God. That’s the ultimate issue. Soteriology, liturgy, icons, beards–that’s wonderful but the doctrine of God is the real dealbreaker. That’s where I am now. I did skip a bit in this for time–stuff I might come back to later.

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ADS and God’s act of willing

If God’s will is identifiable with his essence, and God’s act of creation includes his will (or God willed to create), and God’s essence is necessary, then is God’s willing of creation necessary? If God’s willing of creation is necessary, then does that not make creation necessary? And does this not pose problems for the Christian concept of God and creation?

On the other hand, denying that God’s essence is identifiable with his will allows for a metaphysical plurality within the Godhead, rescuing us from the above impasse.

HT: Perry Robinson

Joan of Arc and Miracles (and I fixed comment notification)

Last year I got in a discussion with a Christ-hater and an Obama-worshipper on Joan of Arc, or the movies that recently came out. One of the movies (I can’t remember and really don’t care) was openly anti-Christian. There were scenes of rape and necrophilia (or so the movie review told me. I didn’t watch it) and when Christ appeared he looked like Hell and the Devil. The two people mentioned above loved that part for its realism. They said, “We really can’t know the difference between an appearance of God and the Devil.”

Now, despite how utterly wrong they are, they did touch on an important truth. Satan does masquerade as an angel of light. Could Joan not have been tricked by the devil? I don’t think so. It is doubtful that demons would have appeared to her and told her to “worship God and be more pious.” I guess they could be it seems counter-productive (something about if Satan be divided).

The other movie, for what it’s worth, is quite good and wholesome.

Filioque or Triad?

I am rereading Lossky’s In the Image and Likeness of God. I read it last year but really didn’t know the issues involved. I need to really hammer down what I believe about Triadology. Apostolic succession, Eucharist, liturgy–that’s wonderful but keeping the discussion at that level means that Roman Catholicism is just as viable an option–which it is not. The Filioque, Triadology, and Absolute Divine Simplicity are the issues upon which the debate hangs. They are “deal breakers.” The following is from Lossky’s book. I am going to spend future posts unpacking these two pages.

According to St. Maximus, God is “identically a monad and a triad.”{24} He is not merely one and three; he is 1=3 and 3=1. That is to say, here we are not concerned with number as signifying quantity: absolute diversities cannot be made the subjects of sums of addition; they have not even opposition in common. If, as we have said, a personal God cannot be a monad– if he must be more than a single person– neither can he be a dyad. The dyad is always an opposition of two terms, and, in that sense, it cannot signify an absolute diversity. When we say that God is Trinity we are emerging from the series
of countable or calculable numbers.{25} The procession of the Holy Spirit is an infinite [85] passage beyond the dyad, which consecrates the absolute (as opposed to relative) diversity of the persons. This passage beyond the dyad is not an infinite series of persons but the infinity of the procession of the Third Person: the Triad suffices to denote the Living God of revelation.{26} If God is a monad equal to a triad, there is no place in him for a dyad. Thus the seemingly necessary opposition between the Father and the Son, which gives rise to a dyad, is purely artificial, the result of an illicit abstraction. Where the Trinity is concerned, we are in the presence of the One or of the Three, but never of two.

The procession of the Holy Spirit ab utroque does not signify passage beyond the dyad but rather re-absorption of the dyad in the monad, the return of the monad upon itself. It is a dialectic of the monad opening out into the dyad and closing again into its simplicity.{27} On the other hand, procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, by emphasizing the monarchy of the Father as the concrete principle of the unity of the Three, passes beyond the dyad without a return to primordial unity, without the necessity of God retiring into the simplicity of the essence. For this reason the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone confronts us with the mystery of the “Tri-Unity.” We have here not a simple, self-enclosed essence, upon which relations of opposition have been superimposed in order to masquerade a god of philosophy as the God of Christian revelation. We say “the simple Trinity,” and this antinomic expression, characteristic of Orthodox hymnography,{28} points out a simplicity which the absolute diversity of the three persons can in no way relativize.

Does Letham Fall into Heiddeger’s Ontological Trap?

No, because Letham is a good Christian thinker. However, given his arguments against the East in Holy Trinity, it’s hard to see how he avoids it. Letham writes, criticiszing Vladimir Lossky,

Lossky’s doctrine of the divine essence…actually contradicts the historic Trinitarian doctrine. The essence is above the persons, as Lossky presents it. It is superessential. Yet Lossky can also say that God is greater than his essence. Lossky wants to have his cake and eat it, too.

p. 348.

Letham has several problems with this. First, he’s bothered by Lossky’s (and the East’s) insistence on the essence/energies distinction. Let that slide at the moment. He says by saying God is “above being” we introduce a new category into the Trinity. This isn’t that bad an objection, really. This is the same argument he makes against Bulgakov’s Sophiology. And Lossky makes similar arguments against Bulgakov. More on that below.

But Letham should consider if we do not place God above being, then we end up identifying God with being (this was Heiddeger’s blistering critique against 20th century theology, his Nazism notwithstanding). If you identify God with “being,” the problems are numerous: an abstract God, a limited God, an idol. And with this argument Heiddeger thought he had nailed Christianity. But Heidegger had never read the wild Trinitarianism of the Eastern Fathers. He didn’t know of Dionysius’s God outside being and St John of Damascus saying that God exists outside himself.

Long before Heiddeger the Eastern Fathers had already anticipated and silenced him. Therefore (back to the discussion), Lossky is correct in positing God outside himself. Or rather, God existing above being.

But are introducing a new category into the Trinity? Maybe. This is a legitimate problem for Letham, given his commitment to absolute divine simplicity. Given ADS, then this is introducing a new category into the Trinity. But if you don’t hold to ADS, then it isn’t a problem.

If all of this is true, then is Bulgakov wrong for introducing Sophia = ousia = glory? No. Bulgakov might be wrong for identifying person and essence (Aquinas does the same thing, but never mind). Given the trickiness of God’s relation to being, I think Bulgakov’s sophiology is quite helpful.

For a thorough discussion, see Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being.

Uniting Justification categories with Theotic categories

A difficulty facing many Christians is allowing data from other paradigms within your own paradigm, without seeing a contradiction between the two. Even more complicated is when this data, like your own, also comes from Scripture. While badly oversimplifying the debate, one could say that the Christian East views salvation in terms of theosis: divinization, partaking of the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4). The Christian West, to one degree or another, sees salvation in terms of justification (Romans 3:24-26).

The two paradigms do not contradict one another, but rarely do they meet. And maybe the reason why is the way justification is usually portrayed. Justification is often portrayed as “a single decisive moment when you instantaeously pass from ‘unsaved’ to ‘saved.'” And there’s a pastoral truth to that. The problem comes, as the American Reformed church knows from the Federal Vision controversy, when you place calling, sanctification within this frame. Because if you even slightly confuse sanctification with justification (and keep in mind we are talking about instantaneous moments), then you have committed Romanism and abandoned the gospel. Seriously though, given the framework of the debate, it is a big deal.

And of course, if the context of the soteriological debate is Roman merit theology, then the Reformers are correct to advocate such views on justification. But the student of history is left scratching his head, for he notes a number of things:

  1. Not only did the early and early Medieval church not focus on justification by faith alone, they really didn’t even focus on justification (aside from mentioning it).
  2. Rather focusing on deification and theosis (being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ), they never had the problem of legal forensic justification.

But–justification is a biblical category. What do we make of it? This is where I have found N.T. Wright’s views on justification quite helpful. If justification is seen as recognizing that one is a Christian, instead of the “door” to becoming a Christian, then the emphasis on theosis is maintained, as is the concept of justification.

St Augustine, Interiorities, and the Problem of Space

Even though I have come out against ADS, I am not at all opposed to St Augustine, per se. Nor should one be. His Confessions is masterful and he did honestly deal with a lot of issues that have plagued philosophers for a long time. Theologically, while I believe he erred on a lot of points, I think he was consistent and trying to work out a full-orbed worldview. I applaud him and continually stand in awe. For a good overview of his life and work, see Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Life.

One book on hermeneutics that fascinated me was James K. A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation. Smith argues that “interpretation” is ubiquitous. It is futile to get to “the bible’s own interpretation.” We are never going to get to that “pure spring” of biblical truth. We can get to biblical truth, yes, but it is always mediated. Whether Smith is ultimately correct is beside the point at the moment (interestingly, Smith, a Calvinist, if his arguments are correct, has refuted the heart of Sola Scriptura–it is this book that eventuall…never mind)

One of Smith’s arguments is from Augustine’s Confessions. Smith follows St Augustine who said that language makes public the private intentions of the “other.” Language must span a gulf between interiorities, since the other has no means of entering my soul. (and here is the key point). The space between souls requires the mediation of signs, which in turn requires interpretation. Interpretation, therefore, is ubiquitous.

In other words, there is this “gap” in reality at all times. Again, I suspect it goes back to ADS. If God is absolutely simple essence, and God is utterly transcendent (that I agree), then one can never know/approach/commune with God directly. One simply can’t commune with super holy utter essence without oneself being subsumed with that essence. Therefore, one must posit an intermediary. But is this a “created intermediary?” It may not have to be and I am sure some Augustinians have a good response to this, but it’s hard to see what that response may be. I know this isn’t the direction Augustine is taking it (though Aquinas came to this conclusion).

Augustine is right to posit a “gap” between I and the Other (the other in this case being knowledge and communion with God). However, if one adopts an essence/energies distinction, one can maintain one doesn’t commune with the essence of God but one does commune with God himself via his energies (St Basil, Letter 234).

Transcendence and Immanence are maintained and come together in the Holy Trinity.