Epistemology and non-being participation

Some of this will be my own reflections on CvT’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge and the rest will be towards a construction of anti-scale of being philosophy.  I am not reviewing the whole book because it’s unnecessary.   Why do a review of any CvT work after Bahnsen’s magnum opus?  Further, the last 150 pages of CTK could have been left off and the book would have been better.

While CvT’s critique of Romanism was good, he didn’t integrate his earlier (and fine) critique of Plotinus, Augustine, and being/non-being into his larger critique of Romanism, which likely could have buried Romanism.  Instead, he got sidetracked on showing how Karl Barth is secretly in line with the nouvelle theologie of post-Vatican II theology.  That simply doesn’t wash.   For all of Barth’s problems, he rejected the analogia entis and the substance metaphysics upon which Rome is built.

CvT gives a fairly good summary and critique of the early church fathers.  There is some difficulty in this, since no one, even anchoretic traditions, are entirely clear on who constitutes (and when!) the ECFs.  Even admitting Tertullian is a heretic, I don’t think you will find many exceptions in the ancient world to the epistemology CvT is summarizing.   The later Palamite epistemology is simply a refinement (and perhaps bungling) of some neo-Platonic themes, so to the degree that CvT accurately summarizes and critiques the being theologies of Augustine, Plotinus, and Eurigena, the criticism applies to Palamas (and Palamas and Augustine are closer than one might suspect).

CvT writes that the early church could not find a Christian view of freedom to coalesce with a Christian view of necessity, with the result the fathers opted for a nonbiblical view of free will.

Non-Christian Continuity and Discontinuity

A non-Christian view of continuity sees an identification of God and man, as seen below:

The higher on the scale, the more real and “true” the thing is.  Van Til notes that Tertullian sees sin as “the opposite of good.”  This sounds correct until we realize that means sin is “lower” on the scale of good.   Sin has “slenderness of being.”

On the principle of continuity it is hard to see how Tertullian (and Justin)’s view of God is different from the Stoics’.  But when he argues against Marcion, he says the Christian God is “Other” than man (107).

Later Platonisms

Moving to the fathers (Origen and Clement) we see the scale of being hardened in place.   CvT quotes Plotinus to the effect, “thought is motion” and this is inferior to ecstasy.   (Rowan Williams has a helpful summary on this point).

Here our chart is modified. God is now seen as hyper-ousia, above ousia.  How does one then get from the highest point on the scale of being to “above being?”   Mysticism, ecstasy.   Van Til can then make the critique that many of these fathers employed both rationalism (scale of being, continuity principle) and irrationalism (ecstasy, mysticism).  In fact, rationalism and irrationalism on this gloss are dialectically correlative.

If man is on the scale of being and participates in good, then consistently we must say he also participates in non-being.

Is Finitude Evil?

This is the key point: on metaphysical accounts (and yes, I used the word “metaphysical”) man is defective because he is finite (he participates lower on the scale of being, even to participating in non-being.   Biblical religion, by contrast, sees man’s problem as ethical:  he is in rebellion to God.   CvT then gives a helpful discussion on “total depravity.”  We are not saying that man’s noetic capacity is ruined.   It is in rebellion.

A Metaphysical Fall from Oneness

Augustine is very clear (City of God section on the Platonists) that One = Truth = Being.   The further away from the One we get, the more irrational we get.   The problem is that historical facts are in the realm of the many (further, since history is contingent).  This is similar to Plato’s problem of learning by experience.  Van Til writes,

When Plato took his line and divided it sharply between eternal being of which there was genuine knowledge or science, and non-being of which there was no knowledge, he was faced with the question of how learning by experience is possible (129).

Back to Augustine:  Eternal Truth and History are dialectical opposites.  If Christ is the Eternal Word (and true) then how could he be historical? If historical, then not eternal, and thus not true, and thus unknown.  This is where one’s onto-epistemology leads.  As Van Til says, “The first option leads to truth without content.”

Van Til has a nice phrase to summarize all of this:  slenderness of being.  (And that is where these traditions find man’s free will).

Other notes:

Rejecting the Augstino-Platonic view of Time:  sheer timeless (moving image of eternity) would swallow up all distinctions.


I almost understand what CvT means when he says pure rationality and pure irrationality demand one another (144).  I wish he would have clarified it.

I understand his criticisms of Barth and some of them are valid.  I don’t think he fully showed how Barth’s actualist ontology is at odds with Rome’s analogia entis.

Mary(ied) Relations with Joseph

I’m reading some old biblical typology discussions on whether Mary and Joseph ever consummated their relationship after Jesus’s birth.   I used to always think this was a no-brainer  When I read all the church fathers it seemed to seep into me that maybe they didn’t.  I’ve rejected that view, too.  I am going to look at the evidence.

1.  The text clearly says that Joseph did not know Mary until after she purified herself from childbirth.  I know of all the Anchorite hoops jumped through on this verse, but the most natural meaning of the text is that they eventually consummated their relationship.

2.   Mary was a good Jewish girl.  Hebrew girls wanted to give away their virginity to their husbands.

3.   Deliberate refusal of sex for “spiritual” reasons in marriage is simply docetism.

4.  Marriage is a reflection of Christ and his church.  What would an unconsummated marriage teach about Christ and the church?


I never could shake this argument

All Protestants intuitively know this.  However, as some begin to move into Patristics they pretend it isn’t there.   I first came across it in Jim Jordan’s brief commentary on Revelation (which I don’t endorse).  Jordan writes,

Anyone who reads the Bible, climaxing in the New Testament, and then turns to the “apostolic fathers” of the second century, is amazed at how little these men seem to have known. The Epistle of Barnabas, for instance, comments on the laws in Leviticus, but completely misinterprets them, following not Paul but the Jewish Letter of Aristeas. It is clear that there is some significant break in continuity between the apostles and these men.

No argument here.  It’s the next sentence that loses all his readers,

What accounts for this? I can only suggest that the harvest of the first-fruit saints in the years before ad 70, which seems to be spoken of in Revelation 14, created this historical discontinuity. (I’d say the first-fruits Church was the Pentecostal harvest of the third month; we look toward the Tabernacles harvest of the seventh month; note Leviticus 23:22, which comes right after the description of the Pentecostal feast, and may well shed significant light on the problem we have here mentioned.)

That might be true, but you just can’t drop bombs like this out of nowhere and expect people to follow along.  But I digress.  Back to Aristeas.   There are a number of comments that OB didn’t approve on the LXX.  His next point is spot-on.

We ought to be careful, too, in assuming we have a comprehensive picture of the early church. We have a few writings of a few men, many of whom were not pastors and teachers but educated first generation converts from paganism, lay scholars who were engaged in debate.

Anchorites love to appeal to St Ignatios and the fact that he was a disciple of John.  What of it?  What gives you the right to take a mere selection (fewer than 20 pages) of one man’s writing and apply them to the whole church?  This is the crudest of logical fallacies

Am I deconstructing the Fathers?

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

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

Empire and anti-chiliasm

“The Constantinian Imperial churches condemned early Christian millennarianism because they saw themselves in the Christian imperium as “the holy rule” of Christ’s Thousand Year empire.  So every future hope for a different, alternative kingdom of Christ was feared and condemned as a heresy” (Moltmann, xv).

I am not making the claim that a Christendom-model is necessarily bad.   I just find it interesting that condemnations of chiliasm by the church happened around the same time that the Imperium became officially Christian.  I need to reread Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations and see if he specifically interacts with this point.

An olive branch to my Orthodox friends

I know I seem critical of Eastern Orthodoxy and I make no bones about that.   I do believe with regard to the believer’s confidence it casts doubt on the finished work of Christ and the down-payment of the Spirit (Listen to this interview by Fr Thomas Hopko.   One gets the impression that Christ might not be enough to save the believer.

Kevin Allen: Father, there are evangelicals who are listening out there, and they are saying, “You know what? These Orthodox, they have no idea whether they are saved or not, even if they have lived a righteous life, and they have spent all their time on their face prostrating, and tears, and everything else.” What you are saying is, you never know.

Fr. Thomas: Yes, I would say that is absolutely true, and the evangelical is completely and totally wrong. But I would say the evangelical is right if their answer to the question, “Are you saved?” is “Yes, absolutely, as far as God and the blood of Christ,” but to say that I can be saved, simply by saying that I accept Jesus as my savior, is blasphemous.

To put it mildly, that’s problematic.  But back to my main point.  It was because of the Orthodox guys that I read through the entirety of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Second Series).   I cross-referenced what they said with what Seraphim Rose said, noting both agreements and disagreements (anybody want to laugh at Rose on creation after reading Basil’s Hexameron?).  Perhaps more influentially, it was the outlaw priest Fr Matthew Raphael Johnson who really got me reading the fathers.   I am saddened that The Orthodox Nationalist is no longer broadcasting.  Those were some outstanding podcasts and his articles are well worth your time.  And for the record, I largely accept his apologetics proper

Did the Church Fathers teach theonomy?

These kind of questions give Eastern Orthodox apologists all the ammo they need against Calvinists.   The problem with the post-Bahnsenian theonomists is that they will scour church history for examples of “theonomy.”  Rushdoony really wasn’t as bad on this point as people will think (more later).  In order to prove church history is on their side, Young Turk theonomists will read church history sources and look for guys teaching theonomy.  The question then becomes, “What does theonomy mean?”  Does it mean some form of God-oriented social order which takes account of the law of God?  If so, then most everybody in church history is a theonomist.  It’s hard to see why Bahnsen even got in trouble.  Heck, RTS-Jackson even believes that (kind of).

That’s cheating, though.  Joseph Farrell has pointed out that everyone, even the pagans, believed in theo-krasia.  But theonomists will quickly rebut, “We see church fathers employing the judicial laws as still valid.”   Technically, that’s true.   They did employ some judicial laws.  My question is “Did they adopt the Bahnsenian hermeneutics that the judicial law in exhaustive detail is binding”?  The answer is clearly no.  Eastern fathers have a theoretical antinomian streak (2nd Commandment, anyone?  footnote1).  True, we do see some fathers like Gregory the Great arguing for the Sabbath, but that’s unremarkable on anyone’s gloss.

The problem is that Church Fathers were more interested in Christology, Trinity, and monasticism than they were in the social functions of the law of God.  To read otherwise is to commit the worst of anachronistic fallacies.

Footnote 1:  There actually might be more of a parallel.   Theonomists for the most part reject the practical applications of the 2nd Commandment, too!