Review of Lacugna’s God for Us

I did the first part here.

The Problem of Arius

Arius’s challenge was not so much that he had good arguments against the Son’s deity, but that the way he phrased the arguments seem to account for a lot of biblical passages. He did highlight key areas where talk of God’s economy had been eclipsed. The response to Arius was mostly successful: Christ is the economy of God come into the world. The metaphysical oneness of Father and Son, however, made it difficult to talk of God suffering for us.

The Cappadocians

In this section Lacugna gives some helpful clarifications of the philosophical jargon that the Cappadocians used. She sets forth the fundamental thesis of the Cappadocians as God’s ousia exists as three hypostases (54).

Stoic categories: a category is a predicate, a way of talking about being. There are four of these:
substance ←> matter
quality: that which differentiates matter
Disposition: being in a certain state of matter
relation: that which an object is defined by

Aristotelian categories:
Primary substance: a particular entity (this oak tree)
secondary substance: a generalized entity (oak-ness)
relation: a term is relative to another if it implies another (a Father is constituted by Son). Relation is the weakest (thinnest) of categories because it only says what a thing is with reference to another and nothing about the entity itself.

Relational categories work quite nicely when talking about Father or Son. Problem, though: “Spirit” is not a relational term. As Lacugna notes, “The distinction of hypostases is grounded in the relation of origins” (67).   This is one area where Zizioulas’s project falls flat.

Pros and cons of Cappadocian Theology

Saying that the three hypostases manifest the divine ousia lessens the gap between ontology and economy. However, this seems to cut against their likewise assertion that God’s ousia is so unknowable. One agrees that it is, but what is the point of saying that if the hypostases manifest the ousia? If they do, then in some sense the ousia is knowable.

Further, to the degree that hypostasis still connotes a concrete existent of the divine ousia, there is the spectre of tritheism. To speak of hypostases concretizing the ousia almost implies that the ousia is divisible (Sergius Bulgakov makes this point with much force, The Comforter, Eerdmans).


After Feurbach and the Enlightenment, the idea of an “in-itself” is viewed as an impossibility.


The main problem with Palamas is that he posited an essence-beyond-essence, or God in itself. Indeed, one can see the Palamite structure accordingly:



—————– (line of hyperousia)


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.
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. 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. If we can no longer distinguish the persons by their propria, then Palamas is guilty of the same modalism that the East accuses the West of.

Part 2

Lacugna begins with an interesting observation. Pre-Nicene liturgy consisted of a lot of mediatorial prayers to the Father through Christ. While this was not denied by later Trinitarianism, neither was it affirmed as much. From a later vantage point it didn’t seem to make much sense to see Christ as a mediator when he was primarily thought of as sharing the same being as the father. Of course, one does not deny Christ’s consubsantiality, but the emphasis on theologia soon eclipsed the biblical witness to economia. Lacugna draws the conclusion: the saints were soon seen as mediators (210).

Conclusion and Critique

My critique will also include a lot of the later material in her book. While I think her initial thesis is sound (a hard divorce between economy and theology posits an irrelevant Trinity), I think she is rather haphazard in applying it. She correctly notes that on the Cappadocians’ model, God exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, yet she downplays problems for the Cappadocians (they came very close to concretizing the essence; their mysticism made much of their Trinitarianism irrelevant, and so they are prey to Lacugna’s critique). Further, while her take on Zizioulas is appreciated, and though she offers a brilliant and brutal critique of Palamas, she doesn’t really take into account Palamas’s virtual dogmatic status in the Orthodox world. This makes it rather problematic for her to say we should look to the East on the Trinity.

Further, regarding the word “Person.” In her discussion on Barth she does note that that the definition of “person” shifted from the ancient world to the modern.. She accuses Barth of modalism because Barth defined “person” as tropos huparxos and that God is one divine subject who exists in three modes of simultanaeity. There is a certain irony in Lacugna’s rejection of Barth: Barth used the exact same definition, literally word-for-word, as Gregory of Nyssa, to whom Lacugna says we ought to return! The problem, as Bruce McCormack has noted, is that the word person in the post-Enlightenment world simply doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in the ancient world. He notes,

Second comment: as Bruce indicated, the problem repeatedly in the nineteenth century was the assumption that the patristic hypostasis and prosopon could be translated into the English ‘person’, with all the connotations of those words in a post-Romantic age. Strauss, for instance (a quotation Bruce used): ‘to speak of two natures in one person is to speak of a single self-consciousness, for what else could a single person mean?’ However, it is clear that in the patristic construction of Trinity and Christology such ‘personal’ characteristics as ‘self-consciousness’, if considered at all, were attached to natures not persons—this was, for instance, the whole point of the orthodox solutions to the monoenergist and monothelite controversies. (This is why Barth preferred ‘mode of being’ to ‘person’ for the three hypostases of the Trinity; in post-Romantic terms, all that is ‘personal’ in God is one.)

Translation: Person in modern-speak means a situated self-consciousness, implying, among other things, a mind. This is most certainly not what the Patristics meant, to the degree they had a coherent definition of person, anyway. “Self-consciousness” and “mind” for the Fathers was located in the nature, not the person (otherwise we would have three or four minds in the Trinity). Lacugna simply hasn’t reflected enough on what person can mean. To say we should go back to “personalism” is not helpful at all. You can’t say you want to go back to the robust personalism of the Cappadocians if you mean person = self-consciousness, for that’s precisely what the Cappadocians rejected! I have my own reservations about Barth’s project, but he knew exactly what both he and the Cappadocians were saying and avoided all the problems that Lacugna’s project succumbs.

A Trinitarian Ethic

This is where he project comes close to self-destruction. Despite being a Roman Catholic and teaching at Notre Dame, Lacugna is a feminist. To be fair, though, she blunts a lot of her feminist critique and actually raises good points. My problem in this section is her use of vague language that will likely provide fodder for later mischief.


Despite being published by Harper San Francisco, this is a surprisingly good read. The historical analyses on the Cappadocians and Augustine are superb. She corrected a lot of my own misreadings of Augustine. I don’t think she has fully reflected either on how the modern world forced Trinitarian dialogue to mutate nor does she really understand what the Cappadocians were saying.

A Post-Western View of the Trinity

In Robert Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip,” while the majority of the piece dealt with “calvinism,” he did make some comments on why the Eastern view of the Trinity is more preferable than the Western view (and with what the Filioque entails).

In this piece I evaluate the shortcomings of Augustinianism and the inadequacy of the Eastern essence/energy distinctions.  I conclude with some suggestions on moving past the impasse.

This is the final part both of Arakaki’s “Plucking the Tulip” and my response to it.  The response was delayed because I actually thought this part of his critique was very good.  I have demonstrated my own reasons why I find his critique of TULIP to be unconvincing.  I had to wrestle and think through these issues much more than on soteriology.   Indeed, when I was looking into Eastern Orthodoxy, it was the Trinitarian issues that had the most “pull.”   Western theologians today, at least in the Evangelical world, have done a terrible job in presenting a Western view of the Trinity that understands the East’s concerns (or presenting any view of the Filioque, period.  It is a mark of deep and deserved shame on American Evangelicalism that Karl Barth has the most thorough, recent defense of the Filioque).   This is one of the areas where new thought is actually possible.

   I must begin by repeating the now-common refrain that there really isn’t as big as gap between East and West on the Trinity as once was thought.   This is undoubtedly true in the earlier Patristic eras with greater differences coming to light as the first millennium ended.  Certainly, there is a marked divide between later figures like Aquinas and Palamas.

Arakaki begins by noting Calvin’s Western roots.  He writes, “Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which draws on a wide range of Church Fathers,Western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms depends heavily on Augustine of Hippo” (Arakaki 12).

Mr Arakaki tries to connect predestination with the Western view of the Trinity.  He writes, “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (14).   Mr Arakaki is correct to note that double predestination is not unique to Calvin.  As the former Orthodox theologian Joseph P. Farrell has noted, double predestination is an inference from absolute divine simplicity (Farrell, 332 passim.), and almost all medieval Western theologians held to this model of simplicity. Further, Arakaki’s claim that God’s nature is related to God’s economy is absolutely correct.    He notes that his Eastern view is the Cappadocian one, grounding the monarchy of God in the hypostasis of the Father.   Following Metr. Zizioulas he states that such a position emphasizes the person over the nature.  God exists through his mutual love.   To borrow Zizioulas’s famous title, “Being is Communion.”   There is a certainly a truth to this.

Mr Arakaki contrasts this with the Augustinian view.  His summary of Augustine is by and large correct, and I won’t belabor the point with more quotations.  He quotes sources on Augustine to the effect that Augustine emphasized the nature over the person.  Arakaki then notes difficulties with the West’s view:  “the Father is God, the Son is God,the Holy Spirit is God; but the Son is not the Father, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit; but there is not three gods but only one God” (16).  Obviously, such a view is unsatisfying.  It is not surprising that one infers the Filioque from such a construction.  Indeed, if the above is problematic, then it appears that the Filioque is also problematic.

A High-Church Reformed Response

It must be first noted that Western theologians do in fact have a response to Mr. Arakaki.   How can one claim that “The Father is God/The Son is God/The Spirit is God/There is one God”?   Western theologians could make this claim work by positing a “relations of oppositions.”   I am not going to take that route.  I have my own questions about such a model.  I only mention it to say that there are cogent, rational alternatives to his presentation.

Mr Arakaki has certainly placed his finger upon the Western problem.  Indeed, it is a pressure point.   In fact, even more problems could be adduced.   We shan’t mention them here.   In order to respond to Mr Arakaki, I will flesh out the Eastern view a little more, drawing upon perhaps its most forming theologian, Gregory Palamas (as interpreted by Vladimir Lossky).  According to Lossky, “The Father is the sole monarchy of the Godhead,” but this isn’t subordinationist because “terms such as procession and origin 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). This point shouldn’t be passed over.   This is in line with the Eastern emphasis on apophatic theology:   we have knowledge of God by negation.  At its most basic it denies any knowledge of the divine nature.  Rather, we know God by his energies.  (Much more could be mentioned and Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw’s outstanding work, Aristotle East and West, will fill in any lacunae in my narrative).

Palamas on the Essence/Energies

Not only does Palamas see that God has an ousia (I understand the fine nuances between ousia, substance, and essence; in the following I will use ousia as roughly synonymous with essence), but “God also possesses that which is not substance” (Palamas, Chapters 135, quoted in Sinkewizcs, 241).  Yet Gregory is clear that this is also not an accident, of which one does not admit in God.  Palamas calls this entity which is neither substance nor accident an “energy.”  Elsewhere he calls it the “arche of deity” (Triads 3.1.29).  This is crucial for his view of the spiritual life.

In one of Palamas’ more brilliant moves, he notes the Western view of divine simplicity (God’s essence is absolutely simple, admitting of no distinctions) and how impossible it is for deification:  If God’s essence is absolutely and immutable, how exactly can the saint participate in it?  If the saint participates in the essence, then the saint is absorbed into the essence.   If the saint participates in “created grace,” then he is participating in a created medium and not in God.  Admittedly, it’s a brilliant move.

One should keep in mind that Gregory likely holds to something similar to divine simplicity.  He is careful to note that God is “according to the ousia beyond ousia” (ibid).  What he likely means is something like Plato’s beyond being or hyperousia (Republic 549b).  If this is in fact what Palamas means, and I think it is, then he is not as far removed from the West as one might think.  The only difference, it seems, is that he adds a tertium quid to the equation:  the divine energies.

Lossky’s problem points back to Gregory Palamas. Palamas employs the Cappadocians, but with a subtle difference. The saints, for Palamas, participate in the divine energies, but not in the divine ousia, deity sheerly as such. The problem, though, is that the Cappadocians were a lot more flexible than Palamas in their use of terms. Their use of the term ousia (Basil probably excepted) does not suggest anything other than the divine life. As Catherine Lacugna says, whom Mr Arakaki quotes elsewhere with approval, “God’s ousia exists as Father, Son, Spirit.  The three persons do not have a common ousia; they are the divine ousia…Further, as Rowan Williams points out, the doctrine of the Trinity means the identification of ousia with energeiai” (LaCugna, 192, quoted in Letham 249ff).  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 (Jenson 153).  Jenson’s comment needs to be fleshed out:  we can only identify God by his self-identifying in the biblical narrative–the persons arising out of the narrative.  But on Palamas’s gloss what can we even know of the Persons?  He seems to intimate that this “energy(ies)” is above the gospel narrative itself (Triads 3.1.10-13; 3.1.16-19; 3.3.26-27).   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” (Jenson 157).

Further, it appears that Orthodoxy is in danger of what (ironically) Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls the “pleonastic fallacy.”  According to Hart, this fallacy claims “the fallacy that says that—since there is an infinite qualitative distance between the ultimate principle of all reality and the world of “unlikeness” here below—it is necessary to posit a certain number of intermediate principles or “hypostases” in the interval between the two in order to bridge that distance” (Hart).  While this fallacy was initially pointed out against neo-Platonists and Arians–and I have no intention of saying the Orthodox are the latter!–one cannot help but see certain similarities.  On such a gloss we see an apophatically unknown God who is made knowable–not by the persons, mind you, because Lossky says the terms for hypostatic differentiation are only “inappropriate expressions”–but by some other tertium quid, the energies of God.

Further, we can only have an indirect knowledge of God.  Granted, we aren’t knowing God through a created medium, pace Roman Catholicism, but it is still a medium nonetheless. We do not know God as he is but only through the energies.  If this knowledge is indirect knowledge, then how do we know God’s essence?   As Robert Letham remarks, “If the divine essence is unknowable, how does Gregory know it” (Letham 249)?

Given Orthodoxy’s commitment to a relational ontology, one must ask how this is even possible if we only relate via the energies and not the persons, as it appears Palamas says.  Further, we must note Arakaki’s earlier claim:  “This is because theology (the nature of God) and economy (how God relates to creation) are integrally related” (Arakaki, 14).  I agree, but if all we can know are God’s energies and not his ousia, as Basil says (Letter 234), then one wonders how such a claim is even possible.   If the ousia is hyper-ousia and beyond our knowing, which was Basil’s point against Eunomius, then we may be allowed to hope that that theologia and economia are integrally related, but that is only a guess.  By definition, we can’t know that.  As Robert Letham remarks on Palamas,For all of the problems of the Filioque, it at least attempts to say that what is true in ontology is true in economia: The Son is the giver of the Spirit in history because he is a giver of the spirit in ontology.

Putting the Filioque at the End

Let’s assume that my (and Jenson’s) critique of Palamism holds.  Even so, that does not prove the Filioque is true.  This is not a problem, though.  As of now, one can affirm what the Filioque is trying to get at (God is not dissimilar in ontology and economy; the economy reveals the ontology) while seeking to work past difficulties inherent in the project.

At the risk of horrifying everyone both East and West, I will expand (and correct)  Hegel’s “I-thou/Master-slave” analogy.  This does not mean I agree with all of what Hegel says.  I think he is more insightful than people realize, but he is also wrong on a number of points.  The present use of him is simply an analogy. I am not endorsing his ontology.

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 (Jenson 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!) Following Jenson, in perhaps a mildly Augustinian strain, we can note, “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. We can tentatively  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).  Seen from this light, the East-West debate is simply two sides of the same coin.  Neither side tries to rise above the problematic.

On What Can We Agree?

I certainly agree that Augustinian triadology is simply inadequate.  It solves many problems but at great costs.   While I think the Orthodox concept of the divine energies is problematic–and I’ve only touched on one aspects.  I think there are more damaging criticisms available which I won’t pursue here–to the degree that Orthodoxy talks about the “divine light” I can appreciate.  I realize that Orthodoxy sees the two terms as synonymous.  I do not.  My arguments challenge a concept of the divine energies but not the divine light.  There is no reason why on a post-Augustinian gloss that one cannot appropriate the divine light.   Protestant biographies abound with saints who experience the divine light–glory–of God.  The Covenanter John Walsh was known to be surrounded by light while he was praying.   Even the modern Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, recalls an instance when he was flooded by divine light in language quite similar to that of Eastern Orthodox stories (Pannenberg).

In conclusion I agree with what the Filioque is trying to say.  God is not dissimilar in mission as he is in ontology.  Further, while God is transcendent we must be careful in positing that God’s essence is so radically other that we have no consistent way of saying how we can know God.  But even granting Eastern criticisms, we must confess that the East is not the way we should go.  Their Trinitarianism, while consistent and occasionally beautiful, comes at too great a cost.  If pressed hard enough we are left with a frozen view of God (to borrow Jenson’s phrase) above the biblical narrative–and such a view tends toward agnosticism (since we can’t know God as he really is).     Even worse, and in line with some other Orthodox critiques of Palamism (Moss), it’s hard to see on an Orthodox gloss how we can even have a “personal” relationship with God if the persons, too, are hyperousia and our only manner of communion is through the “energies.”

Which Way the West?

It is often remarked that Protestantism is divorced from the early church, that it can’t look back to church history and find itself.  What does one make of this claim?  Admittedly, it’s hard to find the location of First Presbyterian Church, Jerusalem.  Certainly, Protestants must acknowledge the hard work of the ancient church(es) in working through canonical, Christological, and Trinitarian issues.  We stand upon the shoulders of giants.   However, since Protestantism does not claim an infallible tradition, nothing significant is sacrificed when Protestant theologians began to admit that their tradition erred in formulation et al in years passed.

Further, nothing is lost in admitting that previous models of metaphysics may not have been the best to work with.  This does not mean jettisoning the hard work of the early church(es).  It does require a critical receiving of texts and positions, asking what light can they shed on our current situations, and cautiously moving forward.  Rowan Williams has cogently suggested that we saw such a handling of philosophical issues in the Nicene crisis (Williams 2002).  According to Williams’ reading, Arius conservatively employed a number of respected (if pagan) philosophical traditions which compromised the biblical narrative of the Son’s being with the Father. It was to the Nicene Fathers, Athanasius and Hilary, to “deconstruct” the older metaphysics around a new terminology that was more faithful to the biblical narrative (Farrell 184; cf. Hilary, De Synodis 76).

When one reads the Filiioquist debates, especially between two competent debaters, one has to admit that both sides make good cases.  I think there is a reason for that:  both sides are operating off of the same problematic: the Person(s) as causing the origin of another Person(s).   Either side, as Sergei Bulgakov noted with great clarity, must inevitably result in some dyad:  either Father-Son + Spirit or Father + Son/Spirit.  The triad has been lost.

It is to the credit of some recent theologians like Pannenberg and Jenson that they can find models to speak of the Trinity in a way that does not inevitably reduce to some form of monad + dyad.  Indeed, Panneberg can speak of mutual reciprocity, “the divine consciousness existing in a threefold mode,” and “each of the persons relates to the others as others and distinguishes itself from them” (Pannenberg 1991, 317; contra Robert Letham, Pannenberg is not advocating, at least not here anyway, three centers of consciousness, which would fall prey to some form of social Trinitarianism.  Pannenberg’s language is very clear:  a consciousness existing in a threefold mode is still one consciousness, one subject).

My own essay does differ from traditional Protestant proposals.  I do not hide that fact.  I hope I have demonstrated the truths behind the Filioque and what it means for our knowledge of God, even if I demur from the confessional formulations of it. It must be admitted that Calvinism’s Trinitarianism (to the degree that such an entity exists) stands or falls independent of my own formulations (and vice-versa).  Calvin did not write much on the Trinity for the simple fact that he didn’t have to.   Roman Catholicism did not differ from him on that score, so there wasn’t a point.  Calvin’s later doctrine of autotheos per the Son did raise some concerns, but even Catholics like Robert Bellarmine conceded that Calvin was largely in the “Tradition” on this point (Bellarmine 307-310, quoted in Letham 256).  I depart from Calvin in terms of language but hope that my own conclusions are not too far removed from his.

Works Cited:

Arakaki, Robert. “Plucking the Tulip,” (accessed 6 January 2014).

Basil the Great.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers vol 8.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ.

Bellarmine, Robert.  “Secunda controversia generalis de Christo,” Disputationum de controversiis Christianae fidei adversus haereticos.  Rome, 1832.

Bradshaw, David.  Aristotle East and West:  Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Bulgakov, Sergei.  The Comforter.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Farrell, Joseph. P.  God, History, and Dialectic:  The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes and their Cultural Consequences.   Seven Council Press, no date.

Hart.  David Bentley.  “The Lively God of Robert Jenson.”  First Things.  October 2005.  [Accessed 10 January 2014].

Hegel.  GWF.  Phenomenology of Spirit.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Jenson, Robert.  Systematic Theology vol 1.  Oxford University Press, 2001.

LaCugna, Catherine.  God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.

Letham, Robert.  The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.  Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2004.

Lossky, Vladimir. A l’image et a la ressemblance de Dieu.  Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1967.

Moss, Vladimir.  “Romanides on the Holy Trinity.” [accessed 13 January 2014].

Palamas, Gregory.  One Hundred and Fifty Chapters. ed. Sinkewicz, Robert.  Toronto:  Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1988.

——————-.  Triads (Classics of Western Spirituality).  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart.  Systematiche Theologie.  Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988-1993.

—————-.  “God’s Presence in History.”  [accessed 10 January 2014].

—————-.  Systematic Theology.  Trans. G. W. Bromiley.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Plato, The Great Dialogues.  trans. W. H. D. Rouse.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008.

Williams, Rowan.  “The Philosophical Structures of Palamism,” Eastern Churches Review 9 (1977): 27-44D.

—————.  Arius: Heresy and Tradition.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Zizioulas, John.  Being as Communion. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

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.

Review Pannenberg Intro Systematic Theology

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

An Introduction to Systematic Theology by Wolfhart Pannenberg

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

The take on Creation was good.

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

“The Spirit of…?”

One of the simpler, alleged defenses of the Filioque (Calvin used it) is that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well because the texts often say “The Spirit of Christ.” Doug Wilson used this argument, too.

Calvin argues for the Filioque along the following lines: Calvin notes in Romans 8 that the Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of Christ” or “the spirit who raised up Christ.” See also II Peter 1:21. (ICR, 1. 13. 18). (Unless I am missing something, this seems to be the extent of Calvin’s discussion of the Filioque, but it’s been years since I’ve read The Institutes–though I have read them through twice so I do know what Calvin is saying).
Grammatically, while admittedly vague, Calvin’s argument is not a stretch in logic. However, it’s not enough to prove a case, either. The following is from Acolyte4236.

There is biblical material that speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ, but this doesn’t help. First, because the Spirit is also God, so if “of” equals “from” then either the Spirit isn’t God or the Spirit is hypostatically generated from himself as well, which is absurd. Second, the Scriptures also speak of the Spirit of truth, but no one thinks that the Spirit is hypostatically generated from the divine “attribute” of truth.

Review of Orthodox Readings of Augustine

The set up of this book was weird. It was published by an Orthodox Seminary, yet most of the authors were Roman Catholics, I think. Most of the authors were quite critical of many Orthodox distinctives. I wonder if the editors/publisher thought all of these things through.

Contents of the book:
Notwithstanding, most of the essays were good. Demacopolas gives an interesting survey of Augustinian studies in the past few centuries. He gives particular notice to the neo-Palamites, noting that they have done the most in framing the Augustinian debate as a fierce East vs. West battle. Interestingly, almost all of the authors in the book, even the pro-Orthodoxy ones, will critique this move of neo-Palamism.

Some of the essays are just weird. Flogaus argues that Palamas was influenced by Augustine. While that’s shocking, Flogaus certainly cites his sources and is fairly convincing. Except Flogaus doesn’t seem to think that he is actually convincing? It’s like “Yeah, Palamas borrowed from St Augustine, but not really.” Brian Daley gives an interesting comparison between Maximus and Augustine. While many Westerners (von Balthasar, most notoriously) think there is one pure line of thought from Augustine to Maximus to Aquinas to one’s favorite movement today, Daley actually puts the breaks on that reasoning. He does note some similarities between the two authors, but supposes that could simply be the common Catholic consensus of the time, rather than Maximus overtly borrowing ideas from Augustine. Instead, Maximus almost doesn’t quote Augustine–if at all–especially in places where it would have been most pertinent had he done so.

Joseph Lienhard discusses Augustine’s use of the Cappadocian fathers. It’s not clear what Lienhard was actually arguing. I don’t remember a specific argument. It is true that Augustine quoted a few of the Cappadocians around a dozen times, but that doesn’t prove–nor does Lienhard specifically argue thus–that the Cappadocians were basically Augustinians. I would like to have seen Lienhard specifically interact with Augustine’s use of St Basil. Augustine quotes Basil as advocating original sin, which Basil emphatically denies (Hexameron, Homily 2.5; 9.4). ??????????

The main event of the show is the Trinitarian discussions by Ayres, Hart, Behr, Bradshaw, and to a strange degree, Jean-Luc Marion. Ayres writes a fantastic essay, even if I demur at points, arguing for a metaphysics of the Spirit. He makes many outstanding insights, most notably that each act of “sending” is also an act of “revealing” (130). The essence is the Trinity itself (Behr offers a corrective to that essentially true insight). Ayres via Augustine sees the revelation of the Spirit as an invitation to reflect on the Triune economy (143). Nevertheless, I do not find Ayres’ filioquist reasoning persuasive simply because such reasoning is convoluted to begin with and can also be used to argue for precisely the opposite conclusion. However, that shouldn’t take away from the otherwise brilliance of the essay.

David Bentley Hart argues that the Nicene ontology destoyed the old pagan metaphysics. The Father did not generate the Logos with respect to creation, nor was the Logos’s generation a “second moment” of the Real, but the Logos is the reality of God. Hart makes many insightful points to that respect; unfortunately, he tries to take on David Bradshaw. He says that Bradshaw mistranslated and misunderstood Augustine on “intelligibis,” making Augustine to say that the mind comprehends the divine nature. Hart says that’s not what intelligibis means (never mind that Latin theological dictionaries do render the word in the way that Bradshaw used it). Hart tries to rebut Bradshaw when Bradshaw says that for Gregory of Nyssa the divine names refer to the divine energies primarily, not to the Divine Nature. Yet in the next few sentences Hart admits that for Gregory the divine names refer to how God manifests himself toward us, which is another way of saying they are the divine energies!!!!!!!!

David Bradshaw gives a brief summary of his book Aristotle East and West. He notes that for Augustine, truth is defined as convertible with being, and the more united (unitary?) one is, the more being it has. More importantly, for Augustine God’s being is identified with God’s will–God’s eternal act of willing. The implications are staggering–and which Hart doesn’t want to face, given his commitment to Absolute Divine Simplicity: if God’s being is necessary and natural, and God’s eternal act of willing is identical with God’s being, then could God have willed otherwise? If yes, then how does that follow with the identification of being and willing? If no, how is that not a form of Origenism? And putting necessity on God? Hart doesn’t really give an answer to this question.

Fr Andrew Louth closes with a gentle reminder that we should read Augustine on the psalms, for in the psalms we hear the voice of Christ speaking to us.