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,

The Cappadocians and the Divine Life

Notes Jenson:

According to Gregory of Nyssa, when we speak of God we may think first of the three identities*, each of whom is God.  Then there is the life among them, the complex of their energies, which, according to Nyssa, is the proper referent of phrases “such as the one God.”  And finally, there is the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such, the character by exemplification of which someone is called ‘God;’ in Gregory’s theology, this character is infinity.  The divine ousia is not an infinite something, or infinity as a something, but the infinity of the one God, that is, of the identities’ mutual life.

Jenson, Systematic Theology, 153.

Jenson quotes Against Eunomius, Opera, ed. W. Jaeger (Leiden: Brill, 1960), I:366.  Further, one should note that by “identities” Jenson means “hypostases” as commonly understood.  Jenson does that because “identity,” whatever its limitations, does not have the weaknesses that “person” has.

Steven Wedgeworth has helpfully summarized Gregory on this point.   Gregory writes,

We cannot separate one from the other and leave one behind by itself: but, when one mentions the energy, one comprehends in the idea that which is moved with the energy, and when one mentions the worker one implies at once the unmentioned energy

Against Eunomius 1.17.

We can draw a number of conclusions:

  1. Gregory does indeed speak of God’s energies, but he also defines them:  a complex of energies is the divine life.  A divine life = the energies.
  2. Ousia is deity.
  3. Deity is infinity.
  4. Infinity is the Identities’ mutual life.
  5. When we speak of the energies of God, we are pressed back upon the life of God, which brings us back to the nature of God.

So far, so good. Here the Cappadocians run into a problem of their own making.  According to Basil (Letter 234) we cannot know what God is, only who he is by his energies of operation.  However, it’s hard to say we don’t know what God is but we know that the deity = ousia = infinity = the divine life.    I wholeheartedly affirm the latter.

Further, the biblical narrative is quite clear that the Son and Spirit do in fact reveal the Father

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.

What did Gregory mean by Monarchia

The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution.

But Monarchy is that which we hold in honour. It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one Person, for it is possible for Unity if at variance with itself to come into a condition of plurality; but one which is made of an equality of Nature and a Union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a convergence of its elements to unity— a thing which is impossible to the created nature— so that though numerically distinct there is no severance of Essence. Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost. The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; without passion of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Ghost the Emission;

That passage is taken from this Third Theological Oration, and he doesn’t say what he means by it right there. Basil and Nyssa, who are closest to his thought, said it was the hypostasis of the Father (and Eastern Orthodoxy has generally followed that line). However, I read something else by Nazianzen,

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, as as to bring in a mob of gods (JA: What Gregory would call anarchia/polyarchia/democracy), nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty stricken conception of Deity; either Judaizing to save the Monarchia, or falling into heathenism by the multitude of gods. This then is the Holy of Holies (Trinity–JA), which is hidden from the Seraphim…

“On The Theophany, or Birthday of Christ”

Schaff edition, volume 7, p.347

For the underlined part I have the simple definition of monarchia = Father alone = Deity = Judaism, which Gregory rejects. The easiest reading, then, at least in this passage, is that the Monarchia = the Godhead. A lot of interpreters of Gregory (many Roman Catholics and Anglicans, very few EO) have taken that route. This seems to put him at odds with Basil/Nyssa, who said it was the hypostasis of the father. Of course, by identifying the monarchia = the Hypostasis of the Father, they wouldn’t have denied the deity of the other two.

Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy

This book not only traced the Filioque controversy, it also embodied the spirit of it. This reader felt not only the logical force of both sides’ arguments, but sometimes the emotional turmoil that went with them. For example, if the Council of Ferrara-Florence was the most painful moment in Church history, it was also the most painful chapter in this book. Siecienski has done what few thought possible: present a fair, balanced account of a subject that probably defies human though and has started several wars.

Siecienski’s method is to read the fathers’ and theologians’ arguments per the internal relationships of the Trinity and avoid any type of simple reduction into a “pro-Western” or “pro-Eastern” model, except where the case is obvious like in Photios, Aquinas, and Anselm. This is an important move. When Western fathers like Hilary and Ambrose say that the Spirit proceeds et filii or even Filioque, Siecienski denies they are saying what later Filioquist polemics say they are saying. What Siecienski implies but does not say is important: these fathers do not teach the development of the filioque , and if they do not teach the development of the filioque, they are actually witnesses to the normativity of the Eastern model.

The hero of this story is St Maximus the Confessor. He demonstrates a way to interpret Western fathers who spoke in language similar to the filioque as a way of expressing the eternal relationship between the Son and the Spirit—which he thinks is what the Filioque was trying to do. The text under consideration is his Letter to Marinus, and the reception of that text at varying points in European history says a lot about the presuppositions of either side. The Latins originally championed the text and saw Maximus as a good Roman Catholic. Did not Maximus say the Filioque was orthodox and did he not appeal to the Pope? The Orthodox then responded that Maximus specifically denied causality to the Son. Whatever else Maximus may have meant by Filioque—and it’s not clear he understood precisely what Filioque would later mean—he is not using the term in the sense it would later be used. The Latins realized this and at other points in history they denied the authenticity of Marinus.

Maximus is reading the Filioque to say (if not accurately) that the Spirit proceeds through the Son from the Father alone. For him this is the superior understanding for it maintains both an eternal relationship between Spirit and Son yet maintains the causality of the Father alone. He says while the Spirit does not derive from the Son, his procession from the Father always presupposes the Son (Siecienski, 77). What this eternal relationship entails exactly is not clear, and it would be the work of Gregory II of Cyprus and St. Gregory Palamas to expand upon it.

As is the case with many polemical controversies, after a while there is not anything new being said. One notices a common theme, a charge and a counter, running behind the numerous florigela and Scripture references. The East charges the West with introducing two causes into the Godhead, the Father and the Son. Since the time of St Gregory of Nazianzus all admitted the monarchia of the Father. The Father is the principle of unity as he causes the other two persons of the Trinity. When the West began positing the Son as part of that cause, which they had to do if they were to uphold filioquist logic, the East responded that the West is introducing two causes in the Godhead. The West responded that it was positing the two persons as one cause of unity. To the East, that was a distinction without a difference.

So, who is correct? It would help to consider Anselm of Canterbury’s logic. He said one can posit two persons as one cause because one can also posit three persons with one essence (118). Obviously, Anselm is locating the property of causation within the one essence of God. He might not say essence, but that is what his analogy assumes. From that he says since the Son is one essence with the Father then when the Creed says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, it also implies from the Son.

I think Anselm’s logic is inadequate. While he stops at saying that somebody must also proceed from the Holy Spirit as well, the logic demands it. If causation is a property, not only of the Father’s hypostasis, but also of the essence, and the Holy Spirit is part of that essence, then absurdities follow: The Holy Spirit must proceed from himself, and another person of the Godhead must proceed from the Son and the Holy Spirit. Men may mock St. Photios’ rebuttal, but they have yet to face the logical force of it.

Conclusions and Response

This book will likely be the standard in Filioquist studies for the near future. It is published by Oxford, which means all must defer to its teachings, and the author writes with a spirit of peace and a hope for the unity of the Church. While the weight of the argument leans to the East, he avoids simple reductions.

Because of his charitable spirit, which is to be praised, Siecienski does not always follow through with his arguments. He does not note the interconnection between a strong Filioquist theology and a strong view of papal supremacy. To note this, however, one must also discuss absolute divine simplicity and the Latins’ different interpretation of “one” and “unity.” (The “many” are reduced to “the one.”) Thomas Aquinas is very clear on this point—the filioque and papal rule stand or fall together. For this reason I disagree with his suggestion that the Church could have been unified at the Council of Florence had the Emperor allowed Mark of Ephesus to expound Gregory II of Cyprus’ teaching on eternal manifestation (158). Yes, if he had been allowed to expound upon these teachings, the anti-unionists would have clearly won the debate at Florence. But given the framework upholding the Filioque and Papal universal jurisdiction (see the Pope wanting the Patriarch to kiss his boots in public and in obedience), it is hard to imagine the Pope simply capitulating to these arguments.

At the end of the book he traces different attempts at unity by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox throughout the twentieth century.   Of particular interest was Sergii Bulgakov’s comment that the “relations of opposition” position was absurd.  Relations are predicates, not subjects.  In order for a relation to exist, there must be a person–not vice-versa.

On a similar note, and in good modern academic fashion, Siecienski simply dismisses the logical force of Photios’s arguments. He never says where Photios is wrong. To be fair to Siecienski, though, if he had engaged what Photios implied, he would have to broaden the scope of his project. Photios is giving a genealogy of the Filioque. One suspects the reason modern academicians do not seriously engage Photios is because his arguments resist the trend of microhistory.

The book is worth the $50. Given the dearth of accessible, yet balanced literature on this topic, Siecienski’s project will likely be a landmark for the next decade

Christ and the Decree

Part of this post is a book review of Muller’s Christ and the Decree.  The other part is a critique of Calvinist Christology.

Richard Muller’s work begins on a promising note:  he refuses to view election in any way apart from the Person of Christ, specifically regarding the role of the mediator.   Part of the difficulty in this review is noting what is Muller’s own view and what is John Calvin’s.    Assuming Muller wants to identify his position with Calvin’s, I will use “Muller” and “Calvin/Calvin’s contemporaries” interchangeably.   One of the so-called caricatures of Reformed theology is that it posits an angry Father making an arbitrary decision on who gets to go to hell and to heaven.   Muller reconstructs Calvin’s work to show that Calvin spoke of election in the context of Christology; therefore, election and the saving work of Christ can never be separated.  By the end of the review one will see how successful Muller was.

This review will examine the historical development of Reformed perspectives on predestination as they relate to a specifically Reformed approach to Christology.   The reviewer intends to offer a critical evaluation at the end of the review, documenting shortcomings in Reformed Christology.   Until then it is the reviewer’s intent to use a fairly appreciative tone and highlight some very important arguments Calvinists have made on this topic.  Also, whether or not the doctrine of unconditional election is true or false is independent of Muller’s historical thesis.   If election is false, that in no way validates whether Muller’s reconstruction of these Reformers is true or false.

Muller begins his book with a review and reconstruction of Calvin’s Christology.  There are some difficulties in evaluating Muller’s line of argument on Calvin.   When Muller speaks of the “church fathers,” it is not always clear to whom he is referring.   Sometimes by “fathers” he means simply Augustine.    Occasionally he will contrast Calvin and Augustine with “the Eastern Fathers,” but then he arbitrarily divides “the Eastern Fathers” from “Hilary of Poitiers,” who did his most formative work in the East.

As to the Christology itself, Calvin distinguishes the Person of the Son from the Son as God, which leads to the Reformed doctrine of aseity and autotheos (Muller 29).  Much of the book will hinge on the connections between aseity, autotheos, and extra calvinisticum. This leads to Calvin’s important doctrine of mediation, which is framed according to the Son’s two natures.   Muller claims that Calvin’s Christology is a historical Christology that focuses on the covenant-keeping God who acts in history to save man.   Muller claims this is a genuine innovation.  In fact, it is the covenant-keeping Christology that sets Calvin apart from the Eastern and Chalcedonian Christology (33).  Presumably, the East is more interested in a Divine Person who assumes a human nature to himself, whereas Calvin is more interested in the mediator who acts in history to save his people.  (By the end of the review one will see if this claim can be substantiated.)

The rest of Muller’s book tracing the development from Peter Martyr Vermigli to William Perkins documents how these writers viewed election “in Christ.”   There is no such thing as a nude Deos absconditus who makes deals “behind the back” of the Son.   Starting with Vermigli, we see an emphasis on grace as mediated (57), putting a Reformed slant on a very Roman Catholic doctrine and structure (showing how much a child of Rome Protestantism truly is). One side-note related to this, and important for Muller’s thesis, is that election is mediated by Christ while reprobation is im-mediate (80).   In other words, Christ actively saves the elect while no person actively damns the reprobate.   Obviously, Muller is putting a very infralapsarian spin on the matter.

Criticisms of Calvin’s Christology

It is curious that Muller thinks Calvin’s Christology is robustly historical, while the Eastern Christology is more concerned with abstract speculations.  Is it true that the East does not focus on the “historical dimension” of Christology?    In his landmark study on Cyril of Alexandria, John McGuckin notes concerning the Alexandrian tradition, “It began its consideration of all theology in terms of the narrative of the eternal Lord’s acts of salvation towards his people” (McGuckin, 176, emphasis added).   Elsewhere Brian Daley notes, commenting on the pre-Nicene and Nicene theological method, that the Fathers did speak of the work of Christ in a historical manner, “he [Eusebius of Caesarea] distinguishes such language from the narrative of what God has done in history through Jesus, the plan that he calls ‘the economy’” (Daley 42, emphasis added).   One could object that McGuckin and Daley are offering reconstructions of older Christologies in newer terminologies.   Fair enough, though if that is true then Muller is doing the same thing with Calvin.
Joseph P. Farrell writes concerning what he calls “First Europe” (Eastern and Western Patristic Orthodoxy), that the God they speak of is this God who does these things for His people.   Concerning St Ambrose Farrell writes, “For him, the ultimate reference in this passage is to God the Son, Christ in his Incarnation.  This fact gives the context an historical specificity” (Farrell 3-4, emphasis author’s).  Therefore, one must conclude that Muller’s assertion that the Fathers were not concerned with the historical dimension of Christology is simply false.

The Problems of Triadology and Christology are Inter-connected

One of the more common complaints against Calvinist Christology is the specifically Nestorian structure it takes.   In other words, Reformed Christology has a tendency to speak of the separate natures of Christ as ultimately (and logically and temporally) prior to the Person of the Son.    The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter eight, paragraph six, speaks of the Person of the Son as both “divine and human.” It says this because it sees the two natures constituting the Person, rather than simply the divine person assuming a human nature.

Calvin gives this specifically Antiochene Christology a more rigid structure.   Starting with Calvin we see the office of mediator replacing, if only in emphasis but likely exceeding that, the Person of the Son.  In other words, as Muller hints, “Office has replaced person” (180-181).  This is not accidental.  If the extra-calvinisticum be true, if there is the divine nature still outside of the Person of the Son, then there has to be, for Muller, priority on the office of the Mediator.  But more importantly, this goes back to the Reformed emphasis on the finite non capax infiniti:  the finiti cannot contain the infinite.

The most Nestorian moment in Reformed Christology is the idea that the two natures constitute the Person.    This is seen specifically in the Westminster Confession of Faith, but also in the Reformed Scholastics.  Peter Martyr Vermigli says “Christ is constituted out of both natures” (Muller 59).   Theodore Beza calls Christ a medius, a mean between the two natures (92).   Ursinus will go even further and assert that the Logos is not the whole Person of the Mediator (102).   Interestingly, although Muller does not draw this out, we see here a connection between the doctrine of autotheos—the Son as fully God in and of himself—a Nestorian structure of the hypostasis, and the extra-Calvinisticum.  Anglican John Milbank summarizes this admirably by noting that Calvin’s Christology “…has a somewhat Antiochean dynamic interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ, as if this were some kind of schizophrenic interplayof different persons” (Milbank 33).

With the heavy emphasis on the extra-Calvinisticum and the doctrine of autotheos, it is questionable if Reformed Christology can remain faithful to Nicea.  Nicea said Christ was “God of God,” emphasizing that Christ does derive his divinity from the Father.  In fact, it is precisely this that the Niceans meant by “God.”  God was ho theos kai pater tou Iesou Christou.   We call upon God as Father, not as simplicity itself.  The doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum falls prey to the same problems that St Gregory of Nazianzus noted of earlier, problematic doctrines of the Trinity:  it lacks a personal principle of unity.   True, the Reformers do want to confess that the Son is of the Father, but they immediately confess that he is also God of himself.    At best this is very confusing.  Somewhat worse, and more likely, it is simply contradictory, at worst…

St Gregory notes, and his argument is worth quoting in full,

“The three most ancient opinions concerning God are anarchia, polyarchia, and monarchia.   The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so.  For anarchy is a thing without order, and the rule of many [polyarchia ] is factios, and thus disorderly, and thus anarchia.  For both of these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution.
But monarchia is what we hold in order…” (Gregory of Nazianzus 301).

One would think Gregory is simply discussing different political systems.  While that is in the background, and Gregory’s presentation of sacerdotal monarchy is certainly to be preferred, he is primarily talking about the doctrine of God.  It is true that he defines monarchia as the Holy Trinity in one sense, but in another Gregory is simply restating the traditional view that the Father is the monarchia of the Son and Spirit.

Finally, given the doctrine of autotheos, one is reminded of the often standard confusion of person and nature.   Given Calvin’s construal of the Son of God per his autotheotic divinity and the Son of God the Father, it is often difficult to know concerning which “Son” Calvin is speaking.  The charges of Nestorianism are not groundless.

On a side note, Muller does admit that Calvinism has a Scotist and nominalist structure:  God’s will is prior to his goodness (89).


The problems in Reformed Christology notwithstanding, Muller’s book deserves high praise.   He has done yeoman’s work synthesizing a large amount of material, the nature of which is prohibitive to the average layman.   On the other hand, many will have trouble with Muller’s turgid prose.   There are a few problems, however.   In the background of the book is the recent “Calvin vs. the Calvinist Debates,” which posits that the later Reformed scholastics warped Calvin’s pure message.   I am not competent to discuss the ins and outs of the debate, nor is it relevant to the current review.  Muller wants to posit a clear continuum between Calvin and the scholastics, and he makes a convincing case.  On the other hand, every time he comes across contrary material which seems to posit election within the arbitrary decrees of God, Muller simply brushes it aside, often with no more than a few words of argument, if that much.

Secondly, while Muller highlights the interconnections between various Reformed loci, and he rightly places the Reformers in their Anselmic and Augustinian contexts, he does not seem to be aware of some the main implications of an Augustinian ontology.   Augustine was famous for saying that God is his attributes. He writes, “The Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is then the same as to be wise” (Augustine 106).   Therefore, if God’s attributes = his essence, and his essence is immutable, then an attribute such as “will” is also immutable. Consider the argument, understanding “simplicity” to be a great “=” sign.  If A = B, and B = C, then A =D.    Further, per this Augustinian gloss, then one must come to the conclusion that “to foreknow = to predestine.”   If foreknow then equals predestine, and God foreknew the damned to reprobation, then given Augustinian simplicity one must conclude that God also predestined the damned to hell.  This forces a reevaluation of the earlier claim that election is mediate while reprobation is immediate.
Future Reformed historical theologians need to come to grips with a number of questions:   given Augustinian simplicity entails the filioque, and given that Reformed Christological and soteriological distinctives stem from said simplicity, how then does the filioque impact Reformed soteriology.    I do not fault Muller for not dealing with these questions.  The scope of his work is simple (no pun intended) enough.   Further, it is to his credit that he notes the connections between simplicity, extra-calvinisticum, and autotheos.  It remains to future Reformed historians to face the challenges to Augustinian simplicity.

Works Cited

Augustine.  “On the Trinity.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (First Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

Daley, Brian.  Gregory of Nazianzus.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Farrell, Joseph P.  God, History and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes, no publisher, 1995.

Gregory of Nazianzus.  “The Five Theological Orations.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volume 7. (Second Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

McGuckin, John.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Milbank, John.   “Alternative Protestantism.”  Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Traditon. eds. Smith, James K. A. and Olthuis, James H.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Muller, Richard.  Christ and the Decree:   Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 1986 [2008].