Next Blog Post will be on NT Wright

I haven’t dealt with Wright in over three years.   This should be interesting.  Yet it want be on areas that one normally associates with Wright.  I would love to write a paper entitled, “Wright, Chalcedon, and the Overcoming of Metaphysics.”

Opening Notes on Lacugna’s God for Us

Lacugna, Catherine.  God for Us.  Harper San Francisco.

Argues that developing theological reflection slowly separated economy from theology, which made the Trinity appear more and more irrelevant.   I am not sure about her thesis in the specifics, but I think she is on to something:  positing an ontological God apart from God’s decision to redeem the world in Christ does create a metaphysical gap in God.  Like others before her, she seeks to correlate the pattern of God’s salvation in history with the being of God (Lacugna 4).

Introduction and Chapter 1

    Contrary to what might appear, she is not arguing a “fall” in the early church from Nicene onwards.  Rather, the early church necessarily (and rightly) used the philosophical and theological categories available to confront heresies.   The downside is that these categories made correct speech about God’s saving pattern in history increasingly difficult.

    Lacunga correctly downplays the so-called differences between East and West on the Trinity.  That there are differences is evident, but neither side has the clear advantage.   Both ended up separating the being of God from his Acts in history.

    “Economy” is the pattern of God’s saving actions in history.  It is “the order that expresses the mystery of God’s eternal being” (25; cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).   Few early theologians would deny this, but more and more were led, outside of a strong Nicene philosophy, to a subordinationist Christology:  God sends Christ who sends the apostles (and/or the Spirit).  Lacugna sees Irenaeus as evidencing this subordinationism, but I don’t think he is.   She says he is influenced by the Logos Christology of the Apologists, but the text she quotes from Irenaeus evidences nothing of the strict separation of Logos endiathetos/Logos prophorikos.  Of course, it would be equally mistaken to read a sophisticated Nicene understanding of “being” back into Irenaeus.

    After Irenaeus oikonomios took on a new connotation: (For Tertullian) “the economy of the divine being expresses the unity of the Father” (28).

Palamas: A Critique

Part One.

Some questions:

  1. If the breathing technique is so important to prayer, how come none of the apostles ever mentioned it?  Granted, one can agree that Scripture doesn’t say everything, but still, this is a rather important omission.  The disciples asked Jesus a very specific question on how to pray and Jesus gave them a very specific answer.  It didn’t include anything about breathing techniques.

  2. To the degree that the hesychasts follow in the best of the Evagrian tradition (Meyendorff, 2-3), one must ask if this would have ever gotten off of the ground were it not for Origen.  If this genealogy is true, then we are faced with the troubling implication that not only is this tradition of prayer not apostolic, but it comes from a rather suspect source!

  3. If both Persons and Nature are hyper-ousia (cf. Triads III.iii.17-20, which this text doesn’t include), precisely how is it possible to know them?

  4. If grace is already inherent in nature, then what was originally wrong or inadequate with nature that it required grace?  (And the distinction between prelapsarian and postlapsarian man is irrelevant.)

  5. How coherent is it to call the energies “hypostatic” (p. 57, II.iii.8) while insisting that hypostasis does not mean what hypostasis means when it refers to the Trinity?  I realize that Meyendorff glosses “hypostatic” to mean “real existence” (p. 131 n .2), but in the context of the Trinity we now have nature, hypostases, and hypostatic energies (which are not the same as hypostases.  Is it any wonder that Latin critics drew the inference of a “fourth hypostasis?”

    True, Palamas explains this by saying the light is “enhypostatic” .  Robert Jenson has suggested that Palamas places the divine energies outside the gospel narrative (Jenson 157).  I do not think Palamas’s move is as crass as Jenson suggests, but the problems are there. Following Maximus, it appears that Palamas sees the events in the gospel narratives as symbols of higher reality (3.i.13, p. 74).

  6. Does it really make sense to say that God is both beyond knowledge and beyond unknowing (p. 32; 1.iii.4)?   I realize Meyendorff glosses this as a Ps. Dionysian move, which it is, but that only raises further problems.  If God is ineffable (Meyendorff, 121 n.9), then what’s the point of even speaking of God?  I simply do not accept that the “knowledge-which-transcends” apophatic and cataphatic knowledge is not merely another form of cataphatic knowledge, for it ends with positive descriptions of God.  That’s not a problem, but we need to call it what it is.

  7. And a common criticism of Palamas:  If God’s essence is unknowable, how does Palamas know that it is unknowable (Lacugna)?  To be fair, Palamas does anticipate this criticism.  Palamas notes that any answer he gives must be “tentative.”  He then gives a very important answer–we know God “by the disposition of created things” (2.iii.68, p. 68).  In other words, we know God by his works, not by peering into his nature.   There is an important truth to this, and Palamas would have done well to finish the thought:  if we are truly to know God by his works then we must look to his covenant and to the finished work of Christ.   Of course, such a move is counter to any talk of apophaticism and essence-beyond-essence.  Palamas does not continue the thought.

  8. Can simplicity be maintained?   A common Thomist critique of Palamas is that it compromises God’s simplicity.   Palamites are quick to respond that they do not hold to the Thomistic version of simplicity.  However, Palamas himself thought he held (and one should hold) to simplicity.  He asserts, quoting Maximus:  “These realities, though numerous, in no way diminish the notion of simplicity.”  They may not, but it’s hard to see how they don’t beyond merely asserting it.

  9. Strangely, Palamas break with the Pseudo-Dionysian ontology at a key point:  Said model posits a number of descending hierarchies from The One.  Each hierarchy mediates to the one below it.  And for the most part Palamas, and much of East and West at this time, do not challenge this model (for a very beautiful application of it, see John Scotus Eriguena).  Barlaam raises an interesting question, though:  If the divine energies are fully God, then how can they appear to the saint without the mediation of hiearchies?  Palamas answers with an analogy:  An Emperor can speak to a common soldier without raising him to the rank of general (3.iii.5; p. 103).   Palamas’ analogy shows us that we can’t simply accuse the essence/energies distinction of being fully neo-Platonic.  It’s not.  Still, if Palamas is right, and I think he actually makes a perceptive point here, it’s hard to see how he can simultaneously affirm Pseudo-Dionysius’s model.  If fact, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t completely negate it.  This is indeed Colin Gunton’s argument in The Triune Creator.

  10. Now to the heart of the criticism:   ousias do not have “interiorities.”  In other words, there is not a subsection of ousia apart from the life of that ousia.   As Heidegger reminds us, “ousia” is always “par-ousia,” being present.  If Palamas wants to say that the energies make the ousia present, fine.   But if he says that, then one really doesn’t have warrant to speak of a superessential, ineffable ousia by itself, for the very point of the energies and of ousia in general is that it is not by itself.

  11. Perhaps the most damaging criticism of Palamas is the divorcing of economy and ontology. Related to this is that the energies seem to replace the role of the Persons in the divine economy.  For example, the energies are not unique to a single person but common to all three who act together.  This is not so different from the standard Western opera ad intra indivisible sunt.  Catherine Lacugna, quoting Wendebourg, notes, “the proprium of each person…fades into the background” (Lacugna, 195).  By contrast, the Cappadocians would say we distinguish the Persons by their propria–by their hypostatic idiomata.  In Palamas, though, this role has been moved to the energies.   This is further confirmed by the fact that Palamas has the persons as hyperousia.

  12. Apropos (11), and echoing Robert Jenson, if the Persons are eclipsed by the energies and remain in the realm of hyperousia and “above” the biblical narrative, in such case that we can no longer identity the persons by their hypostatic propria, we can only conclude that Palamism, despite its best intentions, is a more frozen form of modalism than anything Augustine or Aquinas ever dreamed of.

Without endorsing his theology, Paul Tillich made a pertinent comment regarding East and West.  For the former, reality and salvation is vertical–union with the divine.  For the latter it is horizontal–the kingdom of God in history.   Perhaps an overstatement, but certainly a warranted one.

Opening post on Palamas Series

I finished reading The Triads (or the Classics of Western Spirituality version).   Rather than doing a long, drawn out essay.  I am just going to post my observations.

Part 1:  Philosophy does not save.

In this first chapter (and by chapter that is the division that Pelikan and Meyendorrf are using, and so I will use) Palamas critiques the Baarlamite notion that we have to know in order to be saved.  Or more precisely and better put, we have to have a good grounding in philosophy before we can understand God.

Part 2: The Body and Prayer

Mostly good section on how the body is good.  I wish he would have taken it a step further and noted, if the body is good, and marriage is good, then is sexual intercourse a good?  Here the anchoretic tradition has struggled in giving a hearty “yes.”  The Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss capably documented the problem here.  I also agree with Palamas that the heart is the rational faculty (I.2.iii; p. 42).

Further, I also agree that “the divine” (my words, not his) has penetrated all of created reality (1.ii.6; 45).

Hyperousia:  The essence is beyond the Godhead (2.iii.8; p. 57).   This is key to his whole construction


Admittedly, Palamas does not go for a full apophatic theology.  He writes, “Let no one think that these great men are here referring to the ascent through the negative way” (p. 37; 1.iii.20).  This kind of makes sense.  Anybody can merely deny propositions of God with no view towards holiness.  Palamas is clear that apophatic theology is necessary to liberate the understanding, but it is not enough for union with the divine.

Palamas says the energies are en-hypostatic (3.i.9, p. 71).  This saves him from the immediate charge of Neo-Platonism.  It raises the question:  which hypostasis(es)?  He answers:  The Spirit sends it out in the hypostasis of another (ibid).

With which we agree with Palamas:

To a certain extent I can accept his conclusions about the reality of the divine light.  I just have problems with calling it a “hypostatic energy.” Further, he gives a very moving description of Paul’s own vision (p. 38; 1.iii.21).

We agree with Palamas, and contra Barlaam and the Thomists, that in the eschaton we will not know God by created intermediaries.

Potential problems:

transcending human nature:  Palamas is suggesting something akin to knowing God beyond sense perception and discursive reasoning.  The saints have “an organ of vision that is neither the senses nor the intellect” (p. 35, I.iii.17).

Open criticisms:

I don’t know how seriously I can take Palamas’s claim that he isn’t dependent on philosophy like the West is.  His doctrine of essence, energies, motion, salvation as transformation are all highly technical philosophical concepts.  Even if “hyper-ousia” is a valid theological concept, it is taken from Plato’s Republic (Plato 549b).  Further, on p. 105 Palamas refers to God as “Prime Mover.”   How is this not using Aristotle?  I am not saying he is an Aristotelian, but his project could not have gotten off of the ground were it not for Aristotle,

Feurbach and Church-Hopping

Feurbarch was one of the few atheists who actually offered a penetrating and insightful critique of Christianity.   He said the Christian faith is merely one’s psychological projections onto an external reality.   Let that sink in.   Unless you presuppose some form of extra-nos kingdom announcement view of the gospel, it’s really hard to say he is wrong.   But let’s say he is.  Moving on.  This is actually the same critique I offered of modern day neo-Paganism.   The average neo-Pagan is projecting onto Old Norse a religion that has been tamed by Christianity.   You are not getting clean Swedish models and noble axe-wielding men fighting off Muslim hordes.  Odin was a sex-depraved fiend.

But back to church hopping.   Let all convertskii realize this: when you go to a Novus Ordo Mass, are you seeing Charlemagnes in the pews or some gay Jesuit priest?   When you go to a GOARCH or OCA church, are you seeing St Alexander Nevsky who massacred the Teutonic knights on “The Battle on the Ice,” or people going through the motions?  When you to, dare I say, a Reformed church, are you seeing John Knox with a sword in his hand, or Covenanters armed to the teeth ready to kill English dragoons, or do you see….well, you get the idea.

Look before you leap.

The Deposit of Faith, towards a definition

What is the apostolic deposit of faith?  This question is hard to answer in a non-circular manner.  The implied answer among all traditions is “Whatever we are already teaching now.”  Such a position is impossible to prove.  For all of the evils of liberal/critical biblical scholarship, they did shed important light on the manner.  If we focus on the apostolic kerygma, we see an emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection according to the Scriptures.   So what is the apostolic deposit?  To quote an older liturgy, “Christ has died.  Christ has Risen.  Christ will come again.”

Reviewing a Manichean Dialogue

One of my favorite pieces on Manicheanism is written by Vladimir Moss.  Moss re-enacts a discussion between an Orthodox Christian and his Manichean priest.   The discussion is mostly brilliant, but there are a few parts where the “good guy” effectively surrendered the debate.

Orthodox. You do surprise me, Father! Tell me: do you believe that the Apostle Peter was a Christian?

Manichaean. I know what you’re going to say: that he was married. But after becoming an apostle he lived with his wife as brother and sister.

Orthodox. Yes, but he did not have to.

The “Orthodox” initially moves in for a “kill shot.”  This would have effectively ended the debate.  The Manichean responds with some (convenient!) “oral tradition.”    Instead of calling shenanigans on it, the Orthodox agrees and in effect loses the entire thrust of the argument.

Further, and while I have taken a lot of flak from the Humeans at Puritanboard for believing in miracle stories, it should be noted that not every miracle story is to be taken at face-value.   Miracle stories from 1200 years ago in a mostly illiterate culture should be taken with a grain of salt.  There is simply no way of empirical verification.  This is quite different from the well-documented prophecies of Richard Cameron (finally, the Humeans on Puritanboard essentially conceded that Maurice Grant was making this up; that is a polite way of calling him either stupid or a liar).  In any case, the “Orthodox” tries to clinch his argument by these hagiographical stories.   In his context, that will work, I suppose.  The Manichean would also hold to them.

Here is another area where the “orthodox,” for all of his good points, implicitly agrees with the Manichean.

Manichaean. Are you saying that it is possible for there to be no lust in the sexual act?

Orthodox. In practice, because of our fallen state, it is almost impossible to clearly separate the elements of love and lust in the sexual act, just as it is almost impossible to separate greed from restoration of the organism in the act of eating, or sinful anger from righteous anger in the disciplining of children and subordinates

The Reformed Protestant has a healthy response:  why call it lust?  The problem is that the ancient tradition, whether Eastern or Latin, simply could not affirm the…(lack of a better phrase)…loss of momentary control that happens in the act.  One should remember the origins of the word “Ecstatic” to fully appreciate what the Orthodox are saying (I think they are wrong, but this is worth explaining.   The climax of the act is ecstasy, ek-static, which in Greek is a “standing outside of oneself.”)   So they called it lust.   Augustine was fully in line with the Greek fathers on this point. There was no way the Tradition could get around calling the ek-stasis “lust,” and lust is sin.  So if you define the ek-stasis in sexual intercourse, even married intercourse, as lust, then you can’t avoid the charge that it is tainted with sin.

The Reformed simply denied the premise and didn’t have the problem.

Further, the Manichean scores huge points when he brings Maximus the Confessor into the discussion.

Manichaean. Well, you must remember that, according to St. Maximus the Confessor, pleasure and pain were introduced into the world as a result of the fall.

For all of the Orthodox’s good intents, to the degree that Maximus is representative of the tradition, to that degree the Manichean is right.  At this point the Orthodox is simply left in the untenable position of lobbing counter-quotations.  So much for Patrum Consensus.  Further, the Manichean is right in that the fathers seem to view Adam and Eve’s relationship before the Fall as sex-less (Maximus is mostly clear on this point.  Cooper labors very hard to exonerate him on this.   I don’t think he is successful).

At the end of the discussion the Manichean, given the shared anchoretic presuppositions, completely clinches the debate:

If virginity is higher than marriage, the transition from virginity to marriage must be a transition from the higher to the lower, which is sad.

Please consider the logic:  if virginity is higher than marriage, and then you marry, you have definitionally fallen.