Notes on Hegel

Taylor frames his book in order of several of Hegel’s main works. He does an excellent job outlining difficult terminology and highlighting key points which will serve as hermeneutical loci later.

Front Cover

Self-Positing Spirit

This introduces Hegel’s “identity of difference and identity.” Starting slowly, following Taylor, here is what I think he means. Hegel is trying to overcome the Kantian duality. Hegel wants to overcome this with his notion of “overcoming oppositions.” Therefore, identity cannot sustain itself on its own, but posits an opposition, but also a particularly intimate one (80). In short, Hegel married modern expression with Aristotle’s self-realizing form (81).

Following this was Hegel’s other point: the subject, and all his functions, however spiritual, were necessarily embodied (82-83).

The Contradiction Arises

Contrary to mindless right-wing bloggers, Hegel did not form the “dialectic” in the following way: we posit a thesis (traditional community), then we negate it (cultural marxism), which allows for the “synthesis” (our pre-planned solution all along). Here is what Hegel actually meant: there is reality, but the very structure of reality already contains a contradiction. The subject then must overcome that contradiction.

Taylor notes, “In order to be at all as a conscious being, the subject must be embodied in life; but in order to realize the perfection of consciousness it must fight and overcome the natural bent of life as a limit. The conditions of its existence are in conflict with the demands of its perfection (86).

Taylor has much more to say but that will suffice for now. Of course, I radically disagree with Hegel’s conclusions. That does not mean Hegel is value-less. On the contrary, one can see key Augustinian and Origenist points in his outlook.

Taylor seems to structure his discussion of Hegel along the following lines: Phenomenology of Geist is a sort of preparatory stage for the Logic. At the end of the last discussion, Hegel said that Spirit (Geist) comes to know himself, and that finite spirits are the vehicles of this self-knowledge. This is partly why Hegel says that Geist must be embodied.

We start off with an inadequate notion of the standard involved; but we also have some basicaly correct notions of what the standard must meet. However, we see the inadequacy of both when we try to realize it. Obviously, Hegel is simply following Plato on this point.

What if we are just arbitrarily positing some standard of knowledge? No big deal, for upon reflection we will find out that said standard is likely faulty and we will have to “re-think it.” When we re-think it we get closer to the truth. Thus, “the test of knowledge is also its standard” (136).

Hegel ends this discussion with the suggestion that consciousness inevitably posits self-conscious, which will be taken up in the next chapter.

I’m skipping the section on “self-consciousness” because I really didn’t understand it.

One thing I do appreciate about Hegel is that his worldview really is unified. His discussions on “ontology” (the study of essence) are directly connected to his politics and views on religion (and to show how “real-life” this really is: when Karl Marx read Hegel he kept a few elements but mainly despised the man and his system. He negated Hegel–pun intended. Following his negation, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao took this negation of Hegel and murdered 200 million people. Philosophy really does matter).

In the Formation of Spirit Taylor notes that Hegel idealized the ancient Greek polis: he saw a complete unity between citizen and society (171). Unfortunately (or inevitably) this had to break down. Spirit cannot become universal if it is confined to the walls of one particular city. This is an important, if somewhat abstract point. I will develop it further in my final reflections on Hegel.

Taylor remarks, somewhat side-tracking the discussion, that sin is necessary for salvation in Hegel’s view (174). Of course, as a Christian this is completely unacceptable, but it also shows my appreciation for Hegel. Hegel can be seen as the consistent high-point of a certain strand of Western thought. We saw the same type of thinking in Origen (for God to be Lord, there must be something for him to be Lord “over”).
Essentially, what Hegel is saying is that men feel a basic attitude of alienation–their substance lies outside them and they can only overcome it by overcoming their particularity (donum superadditum? 179). Unfortunately, that is what Hegel calls a “contradiction.”

This part of Hegel’s Phenomenology is dealing heavily with social life, which I will cover in greater detail in the chapters on politics.

This next section of the book, and presumably the logical outflowing of Hegel’s thought, deals with “manifest religion.” I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, partly because it is the most atrocious aspect of Hegel’s thought, and partly because I want to get to the politics. However, Hegel is nothing if not consistent, and it is important to see how one section implies the next (which is exactly how his later Logic is set up). And as always, even when wrong Hegel has some excellent insights on the human dynamic.

Building on Hegel’s premise that God/Geist/Spirit, which is the ultimate reality, must be embodied in history, it follows that one must ask in what manner is it embodied? One of the most fundamental modes, Hegel posits, is in religion (197). Briefly stated, Hegel sees each epoch in human history as manifesting religion, but always in a contradictory way. The Greeks were able to apprehend “the universal,” but they could only do so in a finite and limited way (and thus the infinite/finite contradiction). This contradiction is not a bad thing, though, for it opened up the possibility of the Christian religion (with a detour through the Hebrews). Hegel sees the ultimate religious expression in the Incarnation.

What do we make of this?

Like anything Hegel says, much of the surface-level language is quite good, but once you get beyond that you see the truly bizarre theology. Hegel has a strong emphasis on community and will say that is where the true Christian expression is found. From our perspective, this sounds a lot like saying Christ is found in the church, and that is true. Unfortunately, Hegel was not using that in the same way we are.

At this point in the narrative we are beginning the discussion of Hegel’s two-volume Logic. While this is the hardest of his works to understand (and I certainly don’t understand them beyond a fourth-grade level), it will be easy to discuss them. His main points are clear and tied together.

A Dialectic of Categories

When one is studying reality, Hegel says, one can start anywhere in the system, for each facet is ultimately tied together (226). If we start with “Being” then our method will proceed dialectically. What he means by that is the very structure of reality has a contradiction, and in overcoming that contradiction Being moves forth to something else. Throughout the whole of this discussion, Hegel is starting from Kant and reworking the system along problems he sees in Kant.

To avoid confusion, and to silence the right-wing conspiracy bloggers, Hegel’s idea of contradiction is this: he has a two-pronged argument, the first showing that a given category is indispensable, the second showing that it leads to a characterization of reality which is somehow impossible or incoherent (228).

In developing the above contradiction, Hegel assumes the Plotinian dialectic: a Something can only be defined by referent to another with which it is contrasted (236).

Hegel says a lot more on these topics, but I will not. Throughout Taylor’s analysis he reveals interstesting facets of Hegel’s thought, showing him to be a true heir of Augustine and Plotinus. We’ll discuss these topics later. The next discussion, Lord willing, will focus on the Essence.


Most right-wing bloggers think that Hegel’s view is the Illuminati finding its ultimate expression in world-government. Actually, what Hegel means is that communities become vehicles of the “Spirit.” This can (and has) been taken in numerous ways. I see it as communities organically expressing a common spirit, common values (see Augustine, City of God Book 19.4).

Hegel is trying to overcome the dilemma that social life poses: per man’s subjective life the important thing is freedom of spirit. However, man also lives in community and the norms of the community often bind his freedom of spirit (it is to Hegel’s credit that he recognized this problem generations before Nietszche and the existentialists).

Hegel suggests the form man must attain is a social form (366). It is important to note that what Hegel means by “state” is much different than what Anglo-Americans mean by it. Hegel means the “politically organized community” (387). Let’s explore these few sentences for a moment. Throughout his philosophy Hegel warns against “abstractions,” by which he means taking an entity outside its network of relations. With regard to politics, if abstraction is bad then it necessarily follows that man’s telos is in a community. Man comes into the world already in a network of relations.

Reason and History

Given Hegel’s commitment about the fulfillment of spirit, it follows that communities grow. As seen above, Hegel’s applies to history the problem of self-fulfillment. How does man realize the fulfillment of the Idea?

Jews: realization that God is pure, subjective Spirit. Ends up negating finite reality.

Greek: opposite of Jewish mentality. Harmonizes God with “natural expression.” Ends up with idolatry. Greek polis is pariochial. Each state his its own God. A universal realization of spirit is thus impossible. Men were identified with Greek state. Democracy natural expression. There is a necessary contradiction within the Greek polis: only represents a part of finite reality.

Romans: Origin of the idea as “Person,” bearer of “abstract right” (397).

Christianity: the finite subject and absolute spirit can be reconciled. The task of history is to make this reconciliation public–this is the Church.

Germans: they were to take it to the next stage.

The rest of European history is a working out these processes, a transformation of institutions. It is hear that we see feudalism, etc. At this point we need to correct a mistake about Hegel: Hegel is not saying that world history climaxes with Prussian Germany. There is no sensible way he could have believed that. Germany was weak and defeated when he wrote (it would have been interesting and perhaps more perceptive to say that Russia was the bearer of the World Spirit). Nonetheless, as Hegel notes and as his critics routinely miss, history did take an interesting turn in the 19th century and the force of ideas does not simply stop because the historian wants them to stop.

The Foundations of the Modern State

Monarchy as the Representative Individual: consistent with his earlier points, Hegel notes that there must be some way for the individual to retain his subjective right, yet at the same time freely and fully identify with the community (Staat). This happens by way of monarchy. Beneath the monarchy are Estates, who mediate the King to the people. Nowhere does Hegel mean representation according to our usage today. The King does not “represent” the will of the people, but through his kingly majesty allows the people to identify (399).

The French Revolution: Political Terror

Hegel defines it as “absolute, unlimited freedom.” Complete freedom means that outcome should be decided by me. Of course, since I am in society it is not decided by me alone. Therefore, complete freedom is decided by the strongest individual.

Charles Taylor is embarrassed by Hegel’s rejection of the principles of the French Revolution. I think the reason is that if Hegel is right and one should view the Modern Narrative as a continuation of the French Revolution, then the only moral alternative is to reject said narrative. He notes (if not likes) Hegel’s challenge to modernity: the modern ideology of equality and of total participation leads to a homogenization of society. This shakes men loose from their traditional communities but cannot replace them as a focus of identity” (414).

Translation: all natural societies organically flow from a unified belief system/ethnos (cf. Augustine, City of God, 19.4). Modernity is the negation of this. Without this unified system of belief, men cannot “connect” to one another. Thus, no real community. Thus, no real unity and society is held together by force (ala Hegel on Rome) and terror (ala Hegel on France).

Modernity is nominalism of politics.

Hegel’s conclusion, which Taylor rejects, is a rationalized monarchy. Hegel was a monarchist but he was not a traditionalist, and for that reason he was not a conservative. He agreed with the older conservatives that society must be founded on authority, estates, and a strong monarch; Hegel, however, based these spheres, not on divine right or tradition, but on reason. In this sense Hegel stands firmly in the Enlightenment.

According to Hegel France is utterly lost in terms of a political future. England is better, but she is not far behind in spiritual rot, for England (like America today) is run riot with an excess on particular rights. And in this chaos of individualism, special interest groups backed by powerful elites have taken control (like America today).

Taylor notes that for Hegel,

“The only force which could cure this would be a strong monarchy like those late medieval kings which forced through the barons the rights of the universal. But the English have crucially weakened their monarchy; it is powerless before Parliament which is the cockpit of private interests (454).

I first found this line of reasoning from Fr. Raphael Johnson’s take on Russian history. I guess Johnson got it from Hegel himself since he wrote his Master’s thesis on Hegel.

Taylor continues to the conclusion,

Hence the vehicle by which rational constitution could best be introduced and made real was a powerful modernizing monarchy…Hegel had hopes for the future based on the climate of his times. Germany had been shocked into reform by the Napoleonic conquest. It consisted of societies founded on law in which principles of rational Enlightenment had already gone some way and seemed bound to go further. It had a Protestant political culture and hence could achieve a rational constitution unlike the benighted peoples of Latin Europe, and it was not too far gone in rot like England. It held to the monarchical principle and the monarchs retained some real power unlike England, and yet the societies were law societies (454-455).

This paragraph warrants some reflection:

  • Although I am a traditionalist, and Hegel is not, I agree that a modernizing monarchy is much preferred than unreflected claims to “Throne and Altar.” Many monarchists today naively think that “restoring a king” will return the land to justice. Ironically, this tends to lead to the same problems that Republican government leads: you have the vision of a few determining the fate of the whole. Rather, a strong monarch who enforces Republican structures in the land, arising from the will of the ethnos (shades of Johann Herder), existing primarily to reign in the excesses of the free market, is one who is both authoritarian yet the people are still free.
  • while we are at it, I actually encourage one to read the thoughtful positions by N. T. Wright and Oliver O’Donovan on monarchy. However, most Protestant political forces have been confessedly thoroughly anti-monarchist, and it is no surprise there are few Protestant Monarchies left. Happily, though, there are examples of good, Protestant monarchies.


In many ways Taylor’s book is essential. One has to know how Hegel is using terminology and Taylor is a reliable guide in that regard. Taylor cannot square himself with Hegel’s politics, though, since Hegel is a rejection (negation?) of modernity.

Hegel is hiding within you

Yesterday I finished Martin Heidegger’s Hegel’s Concept of Experience. Leaving aside both the author and the topic, this was a helpful book.  It is Heidegger’s running commentary on key passages in the Phenomenology of Spirit.   It illuminates Hegel and provides a entry point to Heidegger’s larger work.

In this post I will briefly give an overview of the book and then show how Hegel (and Heidegger) are fully within the Greek, Hellenic position and those who hate Hegel yet prize the Greeks–especially Christians today–are inconsistent.

Heidegger reads Hegel as arguing that being is being-present.  It is the manifestation of a thing. Being is always being Par-Ousia–manifestation.  From there we see an interplay between Being as the real and the Absolute as the real.   If the Absolute is the real, and our knowledge is not yet at the absolute, it is then relative to the absolute.

Knowledge is relative to a thing.

Like a good Greek Hegel/Heidegger privileges sight over hearing as sees knowledge as manifestation (Heidegger 57).  The ultimate goal, though Heidegger never clearly states it as such, is unmediated knowledge–the Absolute which has fully come into being [arrival?] as Absolute.

The book contains some useful observations on reflection and the subject-object distinction.   What I found helpful is how the book easily lends itself as a foil to Revelational thought.  Revelational thought (what I have elsewhere called Hebraic Christianity) is verbal.  Reality is verbal.  God speaks and a thing is.  For onto-theo-logy, reality is manifestation and appearance.  It seeks to transcend mediation.

Perhaps this sheds knew-if unintended meaning–on the phrase “absolute truth.”  All of a sudden the term “absolute truth” sounds worryingly Hegelian.  It seems like–and after Hegel and Heidegger you really can’t argue otherwise–it is truth detached from the historical narrative, the particulars, the narratival idiomata.

I am not a relativist.

**For a useful introduction to Heidegger and modern Continental Philosophy, see Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Derrida’s of Grammatology.

God as Fugue: The Musical Theology of Robert Jenson (1)

Jenson, Robert W.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press.

Robert W. Jenson’s systematic theology is refreshingly different from standard models.   Loosely drawing upon older medieval and early Reformational loci, Jenson gives us a succinct yet profound model for presenting theology.  True, Jenson does cover the standard loci (norms of authority, God, Christology, etc), but Jensons’s theology, either unlike others or more explicitly than others, operates from a common theme.  Jensons’s theme is “the identity of God.”  The way Jenson works this theme is similar to a musical fugue.  As he introduces his theme, he allows it to take upon itself different connotations with each repetition, ending in a stunning climax.

Norms of Authority

    Jenson’s approach here is very interesting.  He doesn’t simply say, “The Baahhbul alone is our authority.”  Perhaps we may fault him on that, but neither does he open himself up to immediate counters to that position.  He recognizes the inevitability of tradition in the Church’s identity, but he raises a question from that that few do:  it was tradition itself in the mid-2nd century that necessitated a formal canon.   The implication: tradition, whatever its specific liturgical content may have been, was no longer adequate to the Church’s life by itself.

    Jenson adds yet another key to this piece:  the Spirit’s life in the church (26ff).  Such a move sounds a lot like Eastern Orthodoxy, and it does incorporate a lot of Orthodoxy’s strengths on this point, but Jenson takes it to a different (and utterly more biblical) conclusion:  the Spirit’s presence is the in-breaking of the Kingdom, which opens God’s future to God’s people.  A Spirit-founded church is a future-moving church.

Jensons’s theme, accordingly, is “the identity of God.” The practice of theology, then, is “speaking this identity,” which is speaking the gospel.  Jenson defines the gospel as “Jesus of Nazareth, the one who….is risen from the dead.”

What is God’s identity?  Classical theology will say “3 Persons/1 Essence.” This is of course true, but the twilight of classical ontology and the current earthquakes from nihilism force clarification upon the theologian.  This is the Church’s opportunity.  Jenson identifies God as “The One who brought Israel out of Egypt” (44, quoting Exodus 20:2).  The New Testament expands this identity as “The One who raised Jesus from the dead.”  God is the one who rescued the Israelite from the dead.  It is important to see that God is identified by his events (59).  Jenson that follows with several profound meditations on the nature of idolatry.

The music is not yet finished.  We have easily established the Father’s identity.  We have hinted at (though not fully developed) a connection between the Father’s identity and that of his Son, the Resurrected Israelite.  We must now see how these two “connect” in identity without losing their differences, and the role of the Spirit in that connection.

God’s identity is told by his story.  In identifying God, we have a dramatis dei personae, “characters of the divine drama” (75).  Exegetes have since come to the conclusion that “Son” is often a title for Israel. Yet Israel as a fallen nation cannot live up to that sonship.  Another Israelite, God’s Son in a different sense, is with and by whom God is identified.   “He is God himself as a participant in Israel’s story” (76).  This leads naturally to an extended discussion of the Servant passages.  Jenson, contrary to many evangelicals, does not say that the “Servant” is simply code for “Jesus.”  He allows the Servant narratives to unfold and in the unfolding we see “Suddenly, the Servant is an individual within Israel” (80).  Giving his prophetic speech, rising from the dead, and ushering in eschatological peace, the Church could not help but identify this servant with the Son of David from Nazareth.  The next persona in the drama is the Spirit of the Lord.  Jenson does not at this point explicate the Spirit’s role-identity.

How are they One Being?

Jenson notes that classical pagan ontology identified “god” by metaphysical predicates.  Deity is a quality that can be participated in by degrees.  To bridge any gap, pagan metaphysicians would invoke relatively divine-human figures to mediate that deity.  From this standpoint, Jenson explains the work of the early Christian apologists until Origen and the role of Logos-theology.

Logos had a two-fold meaning:  the sense the world makes and the expression of that sense (96).  This allowed Justin Martyr to say that the Logos enthietos is eternal relative to God’s being (although there was some equivocation as to his timelessness)  but the Logos prophorikos is temporal relative to God’s creating act (97).   Besides obvious problems, Justin’s theology could not explain why there should only be one mediator between the divine realm and the temporal one, and not many like in Gnosticism and Paganism.

Origen sharpened this problematic.  In Jenson’s beautiful description, Origen “conceived of the work of Father, Son, and Spirit as a sort of inverted stepped cone: the Father gives being to all creatures, the Son opens  the knowledge of God to creatures capable of knowledge, and the Spirit performs the purification” (98).  Origen perfected and avoided Justin’s starker problems by exploiting a favorite image of classical antiquity:  the image.  A statue of painting is not its archetype but neither is it not its archetype.  “Being an image of something is a distinct mode of being” (98).  This allowed antiquity (and early Christians) to posit a descending hierarchy of images.

Anticipating Hegel (!), Origen, using this imagic model, can say, “In that God knows himself, there subsists God as the object this knowledge; and in that this knowledge is expressed with divine perfection, God-as-his-own-object in an actual other than God himself” (99).  Despite its beauty and profundity, Origen’s problematic was unstable.  Beginning from the presuppositions of pagan metaphysics, Origen could not avoid the question “How divine was the Logos, on a spectrum of being of sheer divine and sheer temporality?”  Any answer disrupts the inherent subordinationism.  Scripture, however, asks different questions:  Creator or creature?  Origen really couldn’t answer this question, either. Not surprisingly, the Arian crisis soon exploded this problematic.

Discussions of Arianism, Nicea, and Athanasius are well-known, so this section of the essay will be brief.  What is important to note is that key terms are beginning to be sharpened.  Ousia in early Nicea is what a thing is; hypostasis is the differentiation of it.

Despite the Nicene-Constantinople victory, we must note what they did not accomplish.  As Jenson notes, “The Cappadocians acknowledged only relations of origin as constitutive of the divine life.  Thus, the eschatological character was suppressed” (108).

How does God’s reality present itself in history?  Following Pannenberg (Systematiche Theologie, 3:333-347, quoted in Jenson 109n. 132) Jenson gives an interesting musing that “It is exactly in that Jesus or his Father or the Spirit refers absolutely from himself to one of the others as the One God that he is in a specific way a perfect correlate to that other, and so himself God within and of the history plotted by these referrals.”  Jenson will later clinch this argument by sharpening Gregory of Nyssa’s:  the term God for Gregory refers to the mutual action of the divine energies, to the perichoretic divine life” (214).  This being of God is not a something (and thus we avoid Heidegger’s destruction of classical ontology), but a palpable going-on…God is primally hypostatic: to be God the Father, or God the Son or God the Spirit, does not require that there antecedently be something one could call ‘God’” (214, 215; and thus we avoid Tillich’s critique of a quaternity).

Jenson’s discussion of Christology necessarily leads to a rather unique locus in his system:  Patrology.  This seems odd, since Patrology itself is not an ultimate norm for doing theology and authority.  True, but Patrology does function as a grammar of how to do theology, illustrating key moves and problems.   Those who ignore Patrology will find themselves unable to explain key problems in Christian theology.

Before we continue the discussion on Patrology, and in keeping with our musical theme, we should not Jenson’s masterful handling of the Holy Spirit and the Filioque debate.   It must be admitted that conservative American evangelicals have failed miserably on this point.  If I could think of harsher language, I would use it.  Jenson begins by noting the problems in Augustine’s formulation:  exactly how is one of the three specifically “spirit?”  If hypostases are identified by relations of origin (Father-Son), we have a further problem, since no relation appears in the name “Holy Spirit” (147).  Jenson then mentions Lossky’s poewrful argument against the West:  by positing the Father and Son as a single cause of the Spirit, the West has muted the hypostatic characteristics of both Father and Son.

How can we respond?  Before responding, we should briefly note the Eastern position.  The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead, but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origine are but inappropriate expressions for a reality alien to all becoming, all process, all beginning” (Lossky, A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu, 78, quoted in Jenson, 152).  Jenson remarks: “This is a vision of God as frozen as any we have encountered, and a new evacuation of Trinitarianism.  The trinitarian propositions in their Eastern use fail to describe the Father’s subordinating of the Son and the Spirit, we discover, only because they do not describe any action at all (Jenson, 152).

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas.  Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference.  The Saints participate in the divine energies, which are the divine life, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such.  The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas.   Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life.   Here is the problem for Palamas:

“It is one thing to say that abstract deity is itself always the same quality, as the Cappadocians did; it is quite another to say that deity taken as God himself is a static essence.  Ironically, Orthodoxy is here driven to a bluntly modalist doctrine:  God himself is above the biblical narrative, which applies only to his energies (153).  Perhaps most disastrously, Orthodoxy has a tendency to “reify the energies, the moments of the divine life, and at least in the case of the Spirit, the energies replace the person in the historical actuality of salvation” (157).

So what is Jenson’s solution?  By way of clarification, he explains Hegel’s famous “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  If you and I are to be free for one another, each of us must be both subject and object in our discourse.  If I am present, I am a subject whom you have as my object.  But if I am not an object for you as subject, if I somehow evade that, I enslave you.  I am not reciprocally available to you (155).

How then, can this mutual availability happen?  How is an I-Thou relationship possible without becoming a struggle for power?  (Jenson notes with humor that postmodernism carried out this program under a tutelage of horror!)  Jenson, in perhaps an unacknowledged Augustinian strain,notes, “there is freely given love…a third party in the meeting of ‘I’ and ‘Thou.   Thus, if you and I are to be free for one another, someone must be our liberator (okay, granted this isn’t the best term–JA)…If I am to be your object and you mine, so that we may be subjects for each other, there has to be one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other.  The theological conclusion is obvious.

Still, it does not fully answer the Filioque debate, at least not here. Jenson tentatively works toward a Western answer.   The debate over the Filioque is misplaced.  If God is indeed the God of the future, and we see Cappadocian hints of an ever-forward moving futurity in God, then does it not make more sense to see the better question as “The Spirit is the End and Goal of all God’s ways”?  East and West debate over the beginning Archimedean point when they should be discussing the divine goal as the Spirit’s Archimedean point” (157).  Quoting Pannenberg again, “The fault of the Filioque is that the true Augustinian insight that the Spirit is the fellowship of the Son and Father ‘was formulated in terms of relations of origin’” (Pannenberg, I: 347, quoted in Jenson, 157 n. 67).

Jenson has an interesting, yet ultimately unsatisfying chapter on the atonement.   He accepts many of the criticisms of Anselm:  strictly speaking, on Anselm’s view there is no need for the Resurrection.  Upon the death of Christ the transaction is complete.   Theology, unfortunately, remains incomplete.  Even more pointedly, “The New Testament speaks of God’s action to reconcile us to himself, and nowhere of God’s being reconciled to us” (186).  The problem, however, with these subjective critiques of Anselm, and the theories they represent, fail to say how Jesus’s death accomplished anything specific.

After a brief and interesting discussion of the Christus Victor model, Jenson proposes a liturgical understanding of the atonement:  the church’s primal way of understanding the atonement is that we live this narrative (189).  “We rehearse the Word-event in our lives.”  I am not exactly sure how he describes his proposal.  He gives an interesting outline of public liturgies during Passion week and ends with an admittedly interesting suggestion:

“If a theological proposition is one that says, ‘To be saying the gospel, let us say F rather than G,’ and if the gospel is spoken in language and by more embodied sorts of signs, by sacrament and sacrifice, then we must expect theology to take the form of ritual rubrics” (190).

This isn’t wrong, per se, and I can attest to the power of liturgy in my own life, but one suspects that Jenson himself isn’t entirely free from the critique he offered of subjective models:  precisely what happened on the cross?  He answers it was Israel’s denouement of her Scriptures” (183).  Very good and well said, but what does that have to do with me?

We must wait for the Resurrection for the answer to that question.  He asserts that it accomplishes our reconciliation to God.  With this we agree, but we suspect Scripture has said much more.

Jenson concludes his book with summary chapters on Spirit, Jesus, and the Being of the One God, incorporating much critical scholarship and noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.


Astute readers will notice some similarities between Jenson’s approach and that of David Bentley Hart. Both theologians write musically. There are some differences, to be sure.   Hart, for the most part, accepts classical ontology;  Jenson does not.   Jenson, further, is sympathetic to those in the Reformed tradition (see his spirited defense of Jonathan Edwards).  Hart’s vitriol towards Calvinism is well-known.  Most importantly, perhaps, is that Jenson can write in a coherent and readable (if sometimes dense) manner.  Hart cannot.

Appendix:  God and the Future

Our God is different from the Pagan gods because he is not afraid of “time.”  God’s acting in salvation for his people is an acting in time, “not defending against the future, but securing it” (67).  Gregory of Nyssa was on the verge of completely dismantling classical metaphysics hold on God-doctrine.  Identifying the divine ousia as infinity, Gregory took it a step forward and identified it as temporal infinity, a future-oriented infinity (infinity qua infinity would dissipate into nothingness, the temptation of absolute models of simplicity).  According to Jenson, “The Arians err defining God as having no beginning, when they should define God as having no end” (216).  In Jenson’s succint pjhrase, “The Father is the whence of the divine life; The Spirit is the whither, and the Son the specious present” (218-219).  The way in which the whence and the whither are one, the way in which the Triune God is eternal, is by the events in Jesus’s death and resurrection” (219).

Barth and the End of Classical Metaphysics

McCormack, Bruce.  Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.  Baker.

Bruce McCormack suggests that the best model for understanding Karl Barth’s theology is Realdialektik–God is indirectly identical with the medium of his self-revelation.  It is dialectical in the sense that it posits both a veiling and unveiling of God. God is unveiled in Jesus’s flesh, but since it is in Jesus’s flesh, God is in a sense veiled (McCormack 145).   This is another way of using Luther’s Deus absconditus.  Interestingly, this dialectic solves the postmodern problem of “Presence-Absence.”

What is Classical Metaphysics?

Barth’s project is in many ways an attempt to overcome the limitations of classical metaphysics.  Among other things, classical metaphysics (and it doesn’t matter whether you have in mind Eastern and Western models) saw the essence of God as an abstract something behind all of God’s acts and relations (140).  This view is particularly susceptible to Heidegger’s critique of “Being.”  It is also susceptible, particularly in its Cappadocian form, to Tillich’s critique:

The Cappadocian “Solution” and Further Problem

According to the Cappadocians, the Father is both the ground of divinity and a particular hypostasis of that divinity.  Taken together, we can now speak of a quaternity.  Secondly, the distinctions between the relations are empty of content.  What do the words “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “proceeding” mean when any analogy between the divine essence and created reality is ruled illegitimate, as the Cappadocians insist (Tillich 77-78)?  The Augustinian-Thomist tradition at least tried to move this forward, even if its solution was equally unsatisfactory.

Further, with regard to the Person of Christ, essentialism connotes an abstracted human nature which is acted upon (McCormack 206).  Further, in essentialist forms of metaphysics the idea of a person is that which is complete in itself apart from its actions and relations (211).  A wedge is now driven between essence and existence.  Christologically, this means that nothing which happens in and through the human nature affects the person of the union, for the PErson is already complete anterior to these actions and relations.

Election and the Trinity

Barth navigates beyond this impasse with his now famous actualism.  Rather than first positing a Trinity and then positing a decision to elect, which necessarily creates a metaphysical “gap” in the Trinity, Barth posits Jesus of Nazareth not only as the object of election (which is common to every dogmatics scheme), but also the subject of election.  How can this be?  How can someone be both the elector and the elected?

For Barth the Trinity is One Subject in Three Simultaneous Modes of being (218).  To say that Jesus Christ is the electing God is to say that God determined to be God in a second (not being used in a temporal sense) mode of being…this lies close to the decision that [Election] constitutes an event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being (218).  Election is the event which differentiates God’s modes of being…So the event in which God is triune is identical with the event in which He chooses to be God for the human race” (ibid.)

Participation, not Theosis

Barth’s actualist ontology allows him to affirm the juridicalism within the Scriptures (which is markedly absent from many Eastern treatises) and the language of participating in the divine but without recourse to the theosis views so dependent on classical metaphysics.

Barth is historically-oriented, not metaphysically.  The divine does not metaphysically indwell the human so as to heal the potential loss of being.  Rather, the exaltation occurs in the history of Jesus Christ.  “The link which joins the human and divine is not an abstract concept of being, but history” (230).

For Barth, God’s ontology is the act of determining to enter human history (238).  God’s essence and human essence can be placed in motion–they can be actualized in history.

Exaltation, not indwelling

The terms describing Jesus’s history are agreement, service, obedience–they speak of the man Jesus standing before God, not being indwelt.

Reworking the Categories

If Barth’s criticisms of classical ontology hold, then a humble reworking of some categories is in order.  Instead of hypostasis, Barth uses the term “identification.”  The identification in question is an act of love.  Jesus is God, but God as self-differentiation.

This may seem obscure, but it bears great promise.  Both East and West have struggled with defining “person.”  A good Eastern theologian will not even define it, since, as John Behr notes, you cannot give a common definition to something which is by definition not-common.  Eastern Orthodox like to say how “personal” their theology is, yet ask them to define “person.”   The West actually does define it, but the problems aren’t entirely gone.  If person = relation, then how come the relations between the persons are not themselves persons, and ad infinitum all the way back to Gnosticism?  Given these huge problems, we should not so quickly dismiss Barth’s proposal.

Mercersberg Theology Part Two

Continuing my review of Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism.

The Formal and Material Principles of the Reformation

While not agreeing with many of Schaff’s conclusions (or at least the way he formed them), one must confess that Schaff has succinctly stated the differences between the Reformers and Rome on the questions of soteriology and scripture.  The material principle of the Reformation is how man is made right with God, and Schaff defines this principle as the justification of the sinner on the merit of Christ alone through faith (alone).[i] Schaff then gives a point-by-point analysis of Rome and Geneva on this matter.  He anticipates Roman objections to Protestant soteriology and tries to answer them.   Many of these objections and counter-objections are found in dozens (if not hundreds) of Protestant and Roman Catholic manuals, and it is pointless to retread the ground here.  I would like to make one point, though.  Much of Schaff’s argumentation relies on an outdated and distorted view of what Judaism was during the time of St Paul.[ii]

More importantly is Schaff’s defense of the Formal Principle of the Reformation, for one’s doctrine of authority will determine how one approaches the texts that determine one’s soteriology.  Like in his defense of the material principle, Schaff gives a brief discussion of sola scriptura, anticipates Roman objections, and then gives his own conclusions.   Again, I will not focus on all the objections and counters, simply because others on both sides of the issue have done so admirably.  Rather, I will focus on what I think are key weaknesses, fallacies, and clearly factual inaccuracies in Schaff’s proposal.

What is in the Bible?

Without argument Schaff assumes that the Bible = the Protestant Canon, and he rebukes Rome for incorporating the Apocrypha into the canon.   Schaff writes, “For under the written word of God, the Church of Rome understands not merely, as we do, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, but in open contradiction to the oldest and purest tradition of an Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius, Hilary…incorporates also into it the Apocrypha.[iii]”  Whether one agrees that the Apocrypha should be in the canon or not, one must admit that Athanasius and Origen, to say the least, view the Apocrypha as Scripture.[iv]

What is Tradition?

Schaff routinely objects to Roman Catholic tradition, and some of his objections are worth noting, but he only rarely defines tradition, or notes the Bible’s own use of tradition.   Schaff defines tradition as the channel by which Scripture is carried forth into history.[v] However, he does not always allow this definition of tradition to inform his own construction of doctrine.  He approaches something akin to the Vincentian Canon (VC), and rightly notes how many Roman Catholic depart from the VC.[vi] However, Schaff wants to have his cake and eat it, too.  It appears that he formally agrees to the VC that all valid traditions must have been universally recognized.  Elsewhere in the book, though, he firmly rejects letting the VC (or any similar derivative) guide the church as a rule.  As noted earlier in his rejection of the Tractarian movement, Schaff is firmly opposed to going back to the practices of the ancient, undivided church.[vii]

Is Scripture a Free-Floating Phenomenon?

Disregarding what he (Schaff) has said elsewhere about Tradition (in the good sense), he writes, “As long as the apostles lived, the inspired bearers of the divine word, such tradition was sufficiently safe.  In case of corruption or perversion, the apostles might apply the necessary correction.  But the case must be wholly different, after the death of these unerring witnesses.  If the gospel was to be perpetuated in its purity, it became indispensable that it should be committed to writing.[viii]”  There are three noticeable problems with this argument.   The first problem is that this is an assertion, not an argument.  Aside from asserting that oral tradition is necessarily faulty, Schaff does not give us a reason why the gospel would necessarily be lost if it were not for writing.  He simply asserts that it will be lost.   The second problem (which is inherently tied with the third problem) is that if Schaff’s argument is true, then we must confess that the apostles failed to train faithful men who would be able to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2).  Following upon this, the third problem is that even granting the completion of a canon, and even granting Schaff’s argument that without written form, the gospel would necessarily be lost (which I do not grant), one must face the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christians did not have a written canon (at least nothing resembling a modern, Protestant canon) yet one must grant that the average Christian did preserve and pass down the faith, often without a complete canon.[ix]

Therefore, the question Schaff must answer is how the church was able to pass down the faith, how the gates of Hades did not prevail against the Church, and how all of this without the aid of a Protestant canon (or anything vaguely resembling a canon for many centuries).   One simple answer—and it is the answer of Sts Ignatius and Irenaeus, not to mention the lawyer Tertullian, is that of Apostolic Succession.   The bishops in visible communion with one another preserved, guarded, and passed down the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  Yet Schaff rejects this option in no uncertain terms.[x]

Therefore, Schaff must acknowledge the following realities given his own construction:   the church function without Scripture (at least in any real, formal sense) and without a visible, episcopal unity (since Schaff rejects this); therefore, on what grounds did the Church preserve the faith?  This question bears further reflection.[xi] For the answer to this question could lead the theological student down the road of “theological nihilism.”   For in negating tradition as is defined by the historic church, and in the fact that Christianity is a process, which means that other, earlier expressions of Christianity were inadequate, and coming to grips with the fact that there was no functional “Bible” for much of the early Church’s history, the theological student is confronted with a number of options:  without the Bible or a visible tradition, on what grounds can I base my faith?  Saying the “Bible alone” is inadequate for the Church was able to function quite well without “the Bible alone.”  More importantly, there was no “bible alone” for the longest period of time in the church.  Further, without tradition how am I to know what the contents of the Bible should be?  Finally, and perhaps most devastating to Schaff’s project, if Christianity is a process (or progression), on what basis am I to judge various expressions of Christianity?  This point will be pursued further in the conclusion.

[i] Ibid., 80.

[ii] Of course, I have in mind the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.”  While there is no such creature as “The New Perspective on Paul,” given that the leading representatives often disagree with one another on fairly fundamental issues, one can certainly acknowledge converging points:  1st century Judaism did not seek to “earn righteousness” by scoring merit points.   In other words, it is logically fallacious to read late-medieval Roman Catholic distinctive back into 1st century Judaism, rebut this construal as wrong, and then clearly conclude that Roman Catholicism is wrong.   Such a distortion causes numerous biblical problems, not least of which the Old Testament law did not envision itself as necessitating the adherent to “earn righteousness.”   The reader is referred to the works of Richard Hays and N.T. Wright for a clearer exposition.   Contrary rebuttals may be found by Guy Waters, Justification and the New Perspective on Paul: A Review and Response (2004).

[iii] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 100.

[iv] See the following:  Origen, ad Africanus, ANPF vol. 4, 391; Origen is actually giving a defense of the legitimacy of the Apocryphal books Susannah and Tobit as integral to the Church’s life and practice; Athanasius, First Discourse Against the Arians, NPNF (Second Series) p. 313, where he identifies Susanna and The Letter of Baruch as Scripture.  (Yes, I am deliberately noting the irony of using the series of Church Fathers edited by Schaff to point this out.)

[v] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 148.

[vi] Ibid., 102.

[vii] See especially Ibid., 161.

[viii] Ibid., 119.  Emphasis added.

[ix] And more often than not, this Christian lacked the conceptual framework for a complete canon.  In other words, it is doubtful he would have even understood what a “canon” was in the modern sense of the word.  For a very revealing discussion on the canon, consider St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Philadelphians chapter 8.  St. Ignatius identifies the canon (admittedly an historically inaccurate use of the word given modern connotations of it) as “the cross, death, and resurrection” of his Savior.  The larger context of his letter actually prefers something akin to tradition over wrangling about which texts accurately constitute “the canon.”   See ANF vo1. 1:84.

[x] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism., 161.

[xi] Other questions along this line of reasoning could be asked:   for example, without a formal canon (and a Protestant one at that!) how was the church able to maintain a fairly uniform expression of doctrine and rites spanning from Ireland to India to Russia?

Analysis of the Mercersberg Theology

An essay on Phillip Schaff’s ecclesiology that I did a while back.   It touches on some Christological and Eucharistic issues as well.  It needs to be revised and expanded.  I’ll probably do five or six parts here.

“Analysis of the Mercersberg Theology”

I come not to bury Schaff but to praise him.  Such should be the mindset of those Christians who disagree with the Mercersberg Theology.  It is limited and inadequate at its best and likely heterodox at its worst.   However, it represents a particularly fine analysis of European and American Protestantism up to the 19th century.   Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin correctly identified many weaknesses within Protestantism and attempted a systematic reconstruction of the Protestant project with a particular emphasis upon the theology of John Calvin and a hope to return to the ancient faith of the Church.


Did Schaff and Nevin return to the ancient church?  The simplest answer is no.[i] Yet a simple “no” does not do justice to their work.  One should first identify their goals, state their arguments, and compare the conclusions to the Fathers and Councils of the Church.   The reader can decide if Schaff and Nevin were successful.

In order not to unnecessarily bias the reader, I should outline my own theological and ecclesiastical convictions.  Whatever else the future may hold, the author is currently a member of a conservative Presbyterian denomination.  Therefore, the following essay should not be read as a rebellious “slam” against the Reformed church.   While the author is sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and many of his conclusions have been formed by reading the Orthodox fathers, both ancient and recent, the following essay should not be read as a defense of Eastern Orthodoxy, for the criticisms of Protestantism found below have been made by many Evangelical theologians, not least of which the Mercersberg theologians.   If Orthodox and Roman Catholic readers find the following essay helpful in understanding a certain moment in American religious history, well and good.

Finally, Protestants should not feel anxious, threatened, or angry by the following remarks.  This is done in a spirit of charity to my fellow Protestant brethren.  If one is seeking the truth, as we all are, and one has weak arguments, one should welcome correction, and I trust by the grace of God I, too, would respond in a grateful manner.   In responding to the Mercersberg theologians, I am responding to what I deem to be the best defenses of Reformed Protestantism.  If one is going to critique a position, charity and fairness demand that one critique the best possible arguments; I believe Schaff and Nevin Provide these arguments.[ii]

A More Reformed Hegel?

In reading Nevin’s preface to Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism, I had moments when I thought I was reading G. W. Hegel.  In its simplistic form, Hegel’s philosophy can be understood as a process where the subject demonstrates its opposite while still retaining its own identity, leading to a new situation (or “higher mode of consciousness”).[i] In one sense, Hegel’s system can be seen as an evolutionary process.   The specifics of Hegel’s philosophy need not trouble us here; however, one should note that Schaff and Nevin applied the same method to Church History and their location of the Protestant movement within that history.

In a discussion of the place of the Protestant church within the narrative of late medieval Catholicism, Nevin makes the point that Protestantism was birthed in a unique moment in Western History as a result of “the advanced life of the Middle Ages.”  Nevin is quite clear that Protestantism was not birthed from the theological fruit of the fourth century, but rather the fruit of the 15th and 16th centuries.[ii]

This is a very interesting admission by Nevin.  While Schaff and Nevin routinely make the argument that the Reformed Church is the legitimate offspring of the historic church (which is itself often left undefined), he implicitly notes that the theology and practices of the two churches (presumably the Nicene Church and the Reformed Church) are dissimilar.  In any case, Schaff is more clear about the dialectical process of the Protestant church, “But history, since the presence of sin, unfolds itself only through extremes in the way of action and reaction.[iii]”  On one level, Schaff’s comment is perfectly innocent and straightforward.  It is true that one often sees overreactions in history.  Further, it is also true that such overreactions can call for a clarification of the Church’s doctrines and practices.   Nevertheless, it is quite problematic to maintain that history is a (necessary) process of dialectical oppositions.[iv]

There is an even more pressing problem than a dialectical view of history.   If it is true that the church received the faith “once delivered for all the saints” (Jude 3), how exactly does it progress?   It is one thing to say that there is a further clarification of doctrine (for example, the Ecumenical Councils), but it is quite another to say that it is progressing.  The first view is that of the historic Church; the latter is that of modernism.   What is Schaff’s view?  It’s not entirely clear.   On one hand Schaff qualifies what he means by “progression” by limiting it to the “apprehension of Christianity,[v]” placing his definition of progression within the former category.  But on the next page, however, Schaff speaks of a progression of doctrine in terms of a “transforming” element to its content and form.   This language suggests far more than mere apprehension and clarification.

At the end of the discussion, however, Philip Schaff firmly rejects any understanding of the church as “receiving the apostolic deposit.”  I know Schaff does not reject Jude 3, but on his reading it is hard to see how he can affirm it.  Schaff rejects the Oxford Tractarians (think Anglo-Catholics) as regarding “the church as a system handed down under a given and complete form…They wish to shut out of view the progress of the last three centuries entirely; to treat the whole as a negation, if possible; and by one vast leap to carry the church back to the point where it stood before the separation of the Oriental and Western communions.[vi]”   We may advance two conclusions from this:  1) While to his credit Schaff rejects the higher critical modernism of German theology, it is not clear on the above quotation why he can reject it, for German higher criticism simply sough to “develop” the faith; and 2) earlier we asked if Mercersberg can get us to the earlier, undivided church.   Given Schaff’s above quotation, we can safely say not only can it not get us there, but that it does not desire to go there.

[i] Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 21-22.

[ii] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism trans. John Williamson Nevin (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1845), 49.

[iii] Schaff, Ibid., 126.

[iv] One cannot help but speculate on the role of the Filioque in the later Protestant and Hegelian formulations of history.  One is referred to the work of Dr.  Joseph P. Farrell, particularly his God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes.   One of Dr. Farrell’s arguments is that the Augustinian formulation of the Filioque clause had an implicit dialectical process, for it posits an element of “twoness” within the Triad.  The implications of this are staggering.  If God is dialectically conditioned, and God is seen as the Sovereign Lord of history (a premise all should accept), then one must view history as dialectically unfolding.   Perhaps this is why Nevin and Schaff did not challenge the Filioque clause.   The bulk of Dr. Farrell’s book is available at Google Books.  The full text can be purchased in electronic format at  It is unfortunate that Dr. Farrell’s work is not made more easily accessible to the larger public.

[v] Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, 75.

[vi] Ibid., 160-161.


[i] I have received a lot of help in clarification on the Mercersburg Project from Mr. Robert Arakaki in private correspondence.

[ii] Actually, I think the historical theology of Richard Muller provides the best portrayal (if not defense) of Reformed Protestantism.   However, the Mercersburg theology, or at least the texts that inform it, are more accessible to the average reader.


The most helpful essays of 2010

The most helpful essays of 2010 (or in the past few years)

Azkoul, Fr. Michael. “Sacred Monarchy and the Modern Secular State.”   Decent job in demonstrating the worldviews that underlie both sacerdotal monarchy and modern democracy.  I do not often agree with Fr Azkoul, but this is a good read.

Bradshaw, David.  “Augustine the Metaphysician.”  Orthodox Readings on Augustine.  Eds. Papanikolaou, Aristotle and Demacopolous, George.  Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008.  A summary of his Aristotle East and West.  While Bradshaw has been ridiculed, and his detractors have done little more than simply chant “De Regnon is debunked,” he has offered one of the more powerful critiques of the limitations of Western theological thought.

Farrell, Joseph.   “A Theological Introduction to the Mystagogy of St Photios.” A summary of the neo-Palamite critique of Western theology.  While people ridicule Farrell because of his Giza Death Star theory, Farrell’s summary of St Maximus has actually been quoted in the leading theological work on St Maximus, which the author notes few critics of neo-Palamism have actually interacted with Dr. Farrell.  ‘Sup?

Farrell, Joseph.  “Prolegomena:  God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations to the Two Europes.” The arguments in this book have had a powerful impact on me.   Farrell outlines how the dialectical tensions within the Filioque have an effect on all of Western society.    Also shows how Russia did theology without relying on the dialectical tensions of Aristotle and Plato.

Milbank, John.  “An Alternative Protestantism.”  Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2005.  I actually read this a few years ago, but Christology has been the reference point in my theological journeys, and Milbank’s essay pointed out some major problems in Reformed Christological thought.

A lot of Fr. Matthew Raphael Johnson’s essays continue to challenge me.  Unfortunately, his site is no longer running, and not all of his essays have been transferred to The Orthodox Nationalist.

Trifkovic, Srdja.  “Orthodoxy versus Modernity.”  If I may employ a van Tillian term, Trifkovic nicely outlines the antithesis between the globalist elite and what an Orthodox outlook should be.   Or in any case, he demonstrates why the Globalists hate traditionally Orthodox countries–and these reasons why should make conservative Protestants pause, for they should realize they are next on the globalists’ agenda.