Am I deconstructing the Fathers?

Do Protestants merely pick and choose the Fathers.  It is often suggested that our use of the Church Fathers is merely an exercise in deconstruction.   Maybe it is, but several issues need to be resolved first:

  1. What is meant by the term “deconstruction.”  Are we using it in the Plotinian-dialectical sense, the Hegelian sense, or the Derridean sense?  They are not the same.
  2. Give an example.
  3. Even if the contention is true, please explain in a non-circular fashion why this is bad.
  4. What about genuinely legitimate problems, like the Fathers’ commitment to substance-metaphysics?

In a sense free will could be affirmed

I try not to use the term “free will” because it means a million things to different people.   Still, there is a sense in which anyone can affirm it, and in this sense the Protestant Scholastics did affirm it.  They made the distinction between freedom of coaction.   Translation:  the will is a “spiritual” (non-corporeal) entity by anyone’s gloss.  By definition it can’t be “forced.”   Berdyaev and the existentialists were right on this point.  I deny free will in the sense where one takes it to mean “I am the efficient cause in my salvation.”  It’s hard to affirm that proposition and Paul’s “May I never boast but in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

Review Pannenberg Intro Systematic Theology

Pannenberg, Wolfhart.  An Introduction to Systematic Theology.  Eerdmans.

An Introduction to Systematic Theology by Wolfhart Pannenberg

A fantastic read, but ended in a let down. Pannenberg rightly suggests that a lot of our categories for doing systematic theology are not only outdated, but a few are contradictory and wildly at odds with the Hebrew narrative. Our understanding of God, for example, owes more to the quasi-heretic Origen’s definition of God-as-mind (that is how Origen glossed “pneuma” in John 4:24ff), which raises problems when we discuss God’s immutability, infinity, and other doctrines. Interestingly,  John of Damascus and essentially everyone else in the ancient world followed Origen on this point. Glossing pneuma as spirit in the Hebraic sense solves all these problems.

The take on Creation was good.

The Christology section was a let down. He did a great job emphasing the Hebraic-ness of Jesus but conceded to much to neo-Protestantism and didn’t deal with the potential tensions in Chalcedonian ontology.

Review Paul Tillich History Christian Thought

Tillich, Paul.  History of Christian Thought.

As far as histories of Christian thought go this is actually one of the better ones.   A number of issues, though, prevent it from a fully recommendation.

Absorption into “The One”

Tillilich’s most important contribution in this volume is his lucid discussion of Neo-Platonism.  Going beyond traditional accounts, Tillich describes it as “the abyss of everything specific.”  Neo-Platonism, as it relates to the “One,” says that the One is beyond all distinctions, beyond the difference between Subject and Object (it’s hard to define what Neo-Platonism means by “the One.”   Loosely-speaking, we will call it the “God-concept” for lack of a better term).  It is not purely negative but is rather positive: it incorporates everything into itself.

This might seem like an arcane discussion, but it is crucial to understanding not only the rest of Christian thought, but Tillich’s own ethics and theology.  Tillich will identify God, or more importantly, our experience of God, as the “ground of being.”  Salvation, thus, for Tillich, is entering into the “New Being.”  Sin and evil are, obviously, nothing, no-thing, the dissolution of being.  Readers will certainly recognize Augustine’s discussion of evil as a privation of Good.


Tillich gives a particularly good analysis of the recurring realist-nominalist debate.  He goes beyond the mere textbook descriptions which say that realists believe that universal ideas exist, whereas nominalists do not.  That’s true, but fails to capture the power of the movement.  Tillich notes that for the realists, universals were dynamic powers of being arranged in a hierarchy where the one universal above mediated below, and so on.    When I read this, all of a sudden Platonism made perfect sense.  Interestingly, Tillich notes that when Greek paganism became Hellenized, the pagan gods were simply transposed into universal mediations.   This is particularly insightful when we apply this same analysis to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox syncretism ala Mary and the saints.

High Points Through History

Not every thinker is going to be consistently good in analysing church history.   Tillich’s particular strengths are Augustine, Anselm, and Luther.   I do not buy into Tillich’s apologetics, but his discussion of the ontological argument was good.   While risking some oversimplification, he notes a number of differences between Eastern and Western thought.  Salvation for the former was absorption into the One, a vertical movement, whereas the primary reality for the latter was a horizontal movement, eschatology.  This is a terrible oversimplification, but there is some truth in it as it relates to Origen’s influence on Eastern theology and Christology.  Western thought, by contrast, was able to better develop a kingdom of God eschatology.  Tillich, though, does not develop this point in greater detail.

The Bad Parts

Tillich, despite his protests, is a liberal.  He relies on outdated scholarship which makes the silliest claims (he thinks Daniel got his material from the Persians, which is silly even on Tillich’s own analysis since the Persian religion was ontological absorption, whereas Daniel spoke of the horizontal movement of the Kingdom of God in history–Daniel 2, 7, and 9).  Further, while Tillich himself gives a good criticism of Eastern ontology, it’s difficult to see how his own view isn’t similar

Depraved Sexual Ethics

Tillich makes a number of strange claims that do not make sense unless one is aware of Tillich’s own life.  (Tillich, while there was no official diagnosis, likely suffered from satyriosis).  He accuses Calvinist countries of having a repressed sexual ethic.  This is strange since it was the Puritans and Reformers who delighted in sexual love between husband and wife.   The Romanist Thomas More accused the Reformers of drinking and “lechering.”  What does Tillich mean by this claim?   According to his wife’s biography of him, and his son’s own memory,

And I am saying that at the beginning they agreed sexual involvement with others was permitted and that this arrangement got out of hand. He wouldn’t stop and she didn’t like it anymore, perhaps after the trauma of emigration and adjusting to a new world and a new child” (p. 14)

This quote is one of the rather tame ones and I won’t cite more for propriety reasons.  It gets a lot worse, including Tillich’s frequenting of brothels.  How can Tillich justify this?  Simple.  It goes back to his “ground-of-being” theology.  Salvation is finding actuality in “the New Being.”  Tillich, thus, would seek sexual experience in other women, even prostitutes, but rationalized this by saying he wasn’t seeking “actuality” in these encounters.

Unfortunately, even by Tillich’s own ethical theory, I think he fails.  We must bring up the uncomfortable likelihood that he risked (if not openly caught) venereal diseases from these encounters.  This would have a destructive side-effect on his existence.   Would this not, accordingly, be a slide into non-being and dissolution?  Indeed it would, and so by his own existential standards he is condemned.

I think this explains his anger at the Calvinist sexual ethic.   The Reformers and Puritans saw joy in married sex–something Tillich rejected in his own life–and denied sexual encounters with strange women, something Tillich openly sought.


Is this book worth getting?  It’s hard to say.  The philosophical analyses were superb, but knowing Tillich’s own background I’m uneasy recommending it.  I bought my copy at a garage sale for about ten cents (and the previous owner bought it from a public library book sale for about the same price.  No profit or royalties were made by anybody).  I wouldn’t spend more than that on it.


The Relations Strike back

I used to think that the Western view of the Trinitarian relations was its Achilles’ heel.  I am not so sure anymore.    The Western view is still inadequate in many ways, but Western theologians were usually deeper and “on to something.”   While I don’t like Augustine’s formulation, he at least has a more coherent and thought-out model of the relations between the hypostases than does the East.  When I was against the Filioque, I had what I thought was a good response to the argument that what is true in the Economy is true in the Ontology.  Still, Rahner’s rule wasn’t easily dismissed.  Robert Jenson writes,

For it is the very function of trinitarian propositions to say that the relations that appear in the biblical narrative between Father, Son, and Spirit are the truth about God himself.

Review Moltmann Coming of God

Moltmann, Jurgen.  The Coming of God.  Fortress Press.

Alternates between promising and atrocious.   He has some great sections on the nature of death and time, which are about as good as any I have read.  He shows nicely how Revelation 1 contrasts with Greek thought:  Christ is the one who is, and was, and is to come (notice he did not say “will be,” which is what a good Greek would have said).  This shows in a nutshell that the future is the coming of God.

Then proceeds with an analysis of Constantinian and Augustinian models of eschatology.  If the Kingdom has come in the presence of the State (the former) or the Church (the latter), then while a future coming of Christ might still be hoped for, such a hope will be marginalized because the Kingdom is already now.

He then torpedoes his own ship with a strange rant–and there is no other way to describe it–with a plea to save the environment and third-world countries.  I felt like I was at an Al Gore eco-terrorist conference.  I am not a free-market capitalist, and I admit horrible things have been done to the environment, but his analysis is simply off.  He claims that the evil white man made Africa poor.   Granted, the evil white man did horrible things, but a better claim would be that the European exacerbated an already bad situation. Even before the European came, many tribes were selling each other into slavery, practicing magic, and worshiping idols.  The European didn’t cause that.  (I do agree with him on forgiving third-world debt.  I’m not sure it will fix anything, but it is a nice sentiment:  if a civilization doesn’t have a strong work ethic and a future-oriented vision, change will simply not happen.).

He ends with a nice section on the future feast of God, which is a much better model of the afterlife than merely contemplating the Platonic Forms for all eternity.