On why I am opposed to magic ontologies

You might expect me to say, “Because God condemns sorcery.”  That is true.  Or you might expect me to say, “Burning incense to the Queen of Heaven is a sin.”  That is true.  But that is not what I am talking about.  I was in some fascinating Facebook discussions about Greek thought.  Here is a summary of my points:

I do not think there is a dichotomy between Hebrew and non-Hebrew languages. In that sense I agree with Barr’s critique. However, Greek though, influenced by Egyptian magic (Plato studied in Egypt), does have differences with the structures behind the “Hebrew way of life.”

We will say it another way–and this is where Augustine is very helpful, if very wrong: when I ascend up the chain of being, do I gain more being inversely with corporeality?

But if you read Ps. Dionysius and others, one knows God by beginning with abstract concepts of Deity and then rises up the chain of being by negating those concepts. Plotinus, Nyssa, Origen, Evagrius and others are very clear on this. Jesus, on the other hand, descends to us and takes flesh and knowing him we know God.

Footnote: in the eschaton are we going to drink wine on Yahweh’s mountain or achieve hyperousia and contemplate the Empyrean Forms?

when I say thought patterns I mean the way the human brain forms ideas. They most certainly saw the world differently, which might be why God called for war against Hellenism in Zechariah 9.

John Henry Cardinal Newman summarizing the anchoretic life (which is Hellenism applied). 
“Surely the idea of an apostle, ummarried, pure in fast and nakedness, and at length a martyr, is a higher idea tha
n that of one of the old Israelites, sitting under his vine and fig-tree, full of temporal goods, surrounded by his sons and grandsons” (Newman, Loss and Gain).

This is chain-of-being ethics in all of its terrible purity. There is a line in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time where wolves will stop what they are doing, even sacrifice the whole pack, to kill a Myrdraal (think goblin bad guy). That’s sort of how I feel about chain of being ontology.

And it is by no means a Greek thing. I have long maintained that the Greeks–Plato–borrowed from Egyptian magic religion. ANd you can find similar horrors in other Eastern religions.

Once you accept chain-of-being as the normative paradigm for getting our thoughts about God, and we see this same paradigm in other religions (and hermetic traditions), then it doens’ tmake any sense to say, “Well, our’s is different.”

I realize it looks like I am equating neo-Platonic magic with all of Hellenism. Allow me to clarify. I see a continuity between neo-Platonism and earlier Hellenisms. Almost all (all?) hold to an ontology of overcoming estrangement. Secondly, neo-Platonism is simply the apex and most beautiful finale of Hellenistic thought. (When the last Magus, Iamblichus, died, NeoPlatonism and Hermeticism (basically the same thing) went underground until the Templars. This lines up with Justinian’s closing the academies and Damasius’s getting back at him by pretending to be Dionysius the Aeropogatie. I pick on NeoPlatonism because most ancient Christian thinkers drew upon some variety of it.

And by the way: I have read DEEPLY into the ancient hermetic, magical, and neo-platonic traditions from a historical standpoint. You can line up Origen and Trismegestus on ontology and it is basically the same thing. I want to consider myself in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets (no, I don’t predict the future). As a result I violently hate all forms of magic. PM me if you want more details. I don’t want to go into it in public.

On not accepting high church authority claims

Musings from various Michael Horton works:

If the church determines the Bible, whether creating its canon or determining its meaning by some “semper ubique”, patrum consensus, or Magisterium, the following entail:

  • The church is no longer a summoned community but in fact has become the Speaker.
  • No longer a summoned community, and yet ministering to its people, is the church in fact just talking to itself?
  • Precisely why does Christ need to return if he is already here bodily (in the Eucharist) and in authority (Infallible magisterium)?  In fact, some Eastern eucharistic liturgies say exactly this.

What is missing from all of this?  Covenant and Eschatology

Towards a Reformed Anthropology

I meant to include this in my post on Answering the Anchorites, but time prevented it.  Often one hears that the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” (TD) is completely alien to the early church.  What do we make of this?   Part of the confusion rests on what TD really is.  When we say TD we are not implying that we see the face of Stalin in our newborn child.  We are not implying that man is utterly sinful.  The original phrase had the word radix in it, implying that sin touches the root of our actions.  This is the most important post I have ever written.

Some Propeudatic Points

Some points to consider (taken from Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms):

  1. Thus sin is not a substance, but a stain (macula) or a fault (reatus) [137]
  2. Will is distinct from intellect (intellectus) [330].  The intellect is that which knows objects, and the will is that which has a desire for them.  Will and intellect are the two highest spiritual powers.  The question immediately arises as to which of these faculties stands prior to the other.  The Protestant Orthodox frequently state the problem of priority without really solving it (but also avoiding Thomist and Scotist difficulties, though I personally lean towards the Thomist reading).  The Reformed acknowledge the relationship between intellect and will and focus on the problem of fallen man.
  3. Will, defined as the appetitive faculty of man, must also be distinguished from choice.  Will is the faculty that chooses.  Arbitrium (choice) is the capacity of will to make a choice or decision.  Thus, the will can be described, even post-fall, as “free” and unconstrained but nonetheless limited by its own capacity to choose particular things.
  4. Charles Hodge, in glossing original sin and nature, writes, “Although original sin corrupts our whole nature, yet the essence or susbstance of the soul is one thing, and original sin another…Original sin is said to be an accidens quod non per se subsistit, sed in aliqua substantia est, et ab ea discerni potest (II: 229, 230)
  5. We deny any “gift” or superadded qualities to man in his original state, purus naturalibus (Turretin I: 463).  It is called this pure nature state by a negative, not positive purity.
  6. The pure nature has a relation of negation, the fallen a relation of privation (Turretin, Ibid).
  7. We say “pure nature” to deny superadded gifts, not to suggest man was created completely neutral, for he was created in the image of God.

Rome and the Superadditum

Rome, pace Bellarmine (“De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29, quoted in Turretin, I:471), viewed in natural man a contest between flesh and spirit, and God’s superadded gift is like a “golden bridle” to reign in the flesh. Endnote 1.   By contrast, Turretin notes that if original righteousness were an added gift, then man’s nature would have been inherently lacking.  Rome places concupiscence before the fall; Protestants place it after the fall.  At this point Rome cannot escape the age-old stereotype that matter is “not quite bad.”  If concupiscence is natural to man’s created state before the fall, then ultimately man’s problem isn’t sin but finitude. (Endnote 2)  The inevitable conclusion is that God made man’s very matter one of disorder (472).   Protestants do believe in concupiscence, though.   We see it as an inclination to sin after the fall. Still, we reject a positive principal of sin in the human nature.   This rejection, plain and simple, precludes any possibility of a so-called Manicheanism.

The Image of God and Human Nature

One of the stronger arguments that anchorites use is that if the Reformed deny a superadditum of God’s image to man’s original nature, but rather place the image of God in man’s nature, then any fall in the garden has to result in either a loss of God’s image or a positive principal of sin in that image, thus the imago satanis of the extreme Lutheran Flacius Illyricus.  (It is true, pace Pelikan, that Luther hinted at such a doctrine and some early Lutherans did espouse it.  They were rebutted by Melanchton and their doctrine was never formally accepted, Pelikan, 145). This is not what the Reformed state, though.  We make several distinctions (which in my reading I never see acknowledged).   Drake notes,

The essential attributes to man’s nature is his rational faculty not his morality. Charles Hodge said,

“While, therefore, the Scriptures make the original moral perfection of man the most prominent element of that likeness to God in which he was created, it is no less true that they recognize man as a child of God in virtue of his rational nature. He is the image of God, and bears and reflects the divine likeness among the inhabitants of the earth, because he is a spirit, an intelligent, voluntary agent; and as such he is rightfully invested with universal dominion. This is what the Reformed theologians were accustomed to call the essential image of God, as distinguished from the accidental. The one consisting in the very nature of the soul, the other in its accidental endowments, that is, such as might be lost without the loss of humanity itself.Systematic Theology Vol 2 pg. 99

Towards a Reformed Psychology

The problem with the term “psychology” is that it has a nasty secular baggage today.  Even on a more neutral reading in theology, few people are willing to spend time on it.  Admittedly, talking about grace is much more exciting. But a faulty psychology, or lacking the tools to defend the Reformed view, will leave one open to a number of potentially penetrating criticisms.  When Jay Dyer and the dreadlords (that is a reference to Robert Jordan; it was a joke, please do not read it in a pejorative manner) began to attack Reformed theology, they didn’t so much focus on predestination and soteriology, but constructed a string of reductios based on a perceived faulty anthropology.  Reformed apologists by and larger were unable to resist the onslaught.  I speak as a survivor.  It is imperative, therefore, to construct a Reformed Psychology, without which a Reformed Anthropology fails, using the best of Protestant Scholasticism and seeking roots in its medieval heritage.

Man’s soul can be divided into two parts (rhetorically speaking, not actually, since the soul is simple): will and intellect.  It is debatable which has priority, as noted above.

A Federal Ontology

Pop apologists often accuse the Reformed of being philosophical nominalists, believing that the forms of things are simply names.   This argument is used to set the stage for the claim that Reformed theology leads to secularism.   The truth, however, is much more complex.   There are both realist and nominalist elements in Reformed theology for good reason: a hard core realism is silly and a hard core nominalism is equally false.  Both, however, can make good, subordinate claims which need to be taken seriously.  For example, did the Logos assume the realist form of human nature, or did he assume a human body?

Michael Horton notes that “A covenantal ontology suggests that this [our union and communion with Christ–BH] is more like the relation of a commonwealth and its monarch…than a fusion of essences” (Horton, 202).  The following are key points of a covenantal (or federal) ontology, taken from Horton:

  1. Mediation is not a principle or process, but a person, Jesus (183).  This explicitly denies participationist ontologies, ladders, chain-of-being, etc.
  2. The relationship which God guarantees to his people by means of Covenant is seen in the term echo, “having” (184).
  3. For example, we have “eternal life” (John 5:24), the Spirit of Christ as the deposit of the consummation.
  4. Our union with Christ is by the Spirit and not a fusion of essences.
  5. Eschatology is the locus of a federal ontology.  It is an announcement of the good news from afar off (Isaiah 52:7ff).   Participation (realist?) ontologies, by contrast, struggle with the concept of good news. Horton writes, “It is unclear how the gospel as good news would figure into his [John Milbank, but also any Dionysian construction–BH] account of redemption, since ‘news’ implies an extrinsic annoucnement of something new, something that does not simply derive from the nature of things (169).  What he means is that those who who hold to participationist ontologies–chain of being–see a continuum between God and man.  Any saving that happens to man happens within that continuum.   The announcement of good news, by contrast, comes from without.   To borrow Horton’s delightful phrase, a federal ontology is meeting a stranger, whereas a participationist ontology is overcoming estrangement.

The issue of a Federal ontology is important to the relation of Christ, human nature, and sin.  The anchorite will ask, “How can Christ have a real, representative human nature if he never sinned and transgressed the law?   Drake has helpfully answered,

The passages in the scripture which mention the fall of mankind and the imputation of Adam’s sin never mention Eve as playing any kind of federal role, they always mention Adam. All the Reformed authors that I have read teach that if Adam had obeyed God and not given into temptation he would have secured justifying life in the covenant of works and given access to the tree of life (The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20 speaks of the tree of life as a pledge). Therefore, we can infer from this that the curse of the covenant of works/original sin is through the male line, not the female. Therefore, Mary could not have passed a sinful soul under the curse of the covenant of works to Jesus but she did pass a mortal body. Therefore, the curse being both physical and spiritual; the physical aspect concerns mortality, the spiritual aspect concerns original sin. In this case only the physical aspects of the curse fall to Jesus, in that he dies and suffers hunger and pain etc.

I would like to add one more point:  Christ really does represent us because he federally represents us (Romans 5:12-21).  This is not a legal fiction because, among other things, it is a real proposition in the mind of God (so if folks want a realism, there it is).   People may object that such a view is false and is not true justice.   If they accept that, then they need to scrap Romans 5 from their Bibles and stop voting in Western legal political systems, both of which are predicated on a federal ontology.


1. This is why the Protestant Orthodox deny that the Covenant of Works had a grace-principle in it.  If the Covenant of Works had grace in it, the question immediately arises:  why did it have grace in it?  Was it because man’s nature was defective (not fallen, mind you, but naturally weak) that it needed grace to hold it up?  This is another area where the Federal Vision inadvertently ends in at Rome.

2.  This sheds light on the theosis debate: who was the first being in history to say that man’s finitude could be solved?


One important point that I did not deal with is the charge that the Reformed view is Nestorian because the Father “cuts off” the Son.   The question is in what sense did the Father cut off the Son?  Admittedly, recent Reformed theologians have done an inadequate job of addressing this.  If the Son is “cut off” in the sense of natural communion with the Father, then it is Nestorianism.  I don’t see the Reformed as obligated to accept this for a number of reasons:

  1. “cutting off” is covenantal language (Genesis 15, 17, passim)
  2. Scripture explicitly says the Messiah is “cut off” (Isaiah 53:8)
  3. The Reformed ontology, as noted above, is neither realist or nominalist, but Federalist.   The complaints of “cutting off” and Nestorianism come from those with a strong realist tradition.

Works Cited

Bellarmine, “De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29.
Hodge, Charles.  Systematic Theology vol. 2.
Horton, Michael.  Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Sources.  Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Turretin, Francis.  Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.

Explorations into Eschatological Options

A while back someone asked me if I were still historic premill.  The answer is “kind of.”  I accept the premillennial claim that Revelation 19-21 must be read sequentially.  I know that most amils say that Revelation recapitulates at several points.  The problem with that claim is that there is no indicator in 20:1 that we are recapitulating back to the beginning of the church age.  Further, all amil scholars admit that the end of chapter 20 throughout the rest of the book must be read literally, sequentially, and futuristically.

Francis Nigel Lee messages

I’ve been particularly blessed by the following series of messages:

The Eschatology of Victory by Dr F. N. Lee.

Dr Lee was able to read and communicate the Dutch theologians and apologists without getting sidetracked on the various debates, all the while remaining true to his Westminster roots.  I don’t particularly care for a specific time-frame on the millennium, and so I would differ wtih Dr Lee in that, but the theology expounded in these lectures is phenomenal.

On what Rob Bell could have said…

No, I haven’t read all the requisite material on the case, nor do I care.   I am not “damning” (no pun intended) Bell’s position.    I realize most of the annoying Calvino-bloggers Gospel Defenders have jumped on the case.  Of those, maybe 1% has read Bell’s work.   (Since when is the gospel ever not under attack in Calvinist circles?)

I don’t really care about the larger part of Bell’s arguments, nor whether he is a universalist.  I doubt he is.   Further, I doubt he is even correct in what he claims.  Unlike the Gospel Defenders I think I know what Bell is “getting at.”

There is a mental problem for many to say that God created most of humanity simply to roast them sadistically for all eternity.  Quite frankly, in perhaps less loaded terminology, this is an undeniable implication of the Calvinist position.  And Bell is correct to say there is just something “wrong with that.”  Further, Bell is theoretically correct to say that God “can” reach people in “different” ways.   And while Bell probably doesn’t mention this, the early church did not go out joyfully proclaiming that the wonderful gates of hell are now open even wider because of Jesus.

Unfortunately for Bell, though, the Church has condemned this facet of Origenism (and unfortunately for Calvinists, they are still Origenists).  Here is what Bell should have said:  I reject the theology that God created most of humanity simply to use for firewood in hell.  Further, I stand with the Church in rejecting Origenist final recapitulationist views.   On the other hand, it is not my business (authority?) to say who can and who cannot go to heaven/hell.

And if he were really bold, he could try to tie in Henri de Lubac’s arguments on Christ uniting humanity in some mystical way with the fact that universalism is condemned (it’s not entirely clear de Lubac was able to manage that).  In any case, that is a far healthier mindset that looking at Buddhist babies and chanting, “Firewood, firewood.”

Communion of–but don’t commune with!

Prayers to the departed saints sounds strange and unbiblical to American ears, but it actually rests on several commonsense and biblical observations.   As Christians were are part of the communion of saints (and confess as much on Sunday morning in most any non-low evangelical church).  Therefore, the next conclusion is that the departed saints are part of the Communion of Saints.  Who will deny that?  Do we ask our (living) Christian brothers to pray for us?  Certainly.   May we also ask the reposed Christian brothers to pray for us?

If the Evangelical says no, he’s forced with several options:

  • He must consider the reposed saints as “off limits,” effectively reducing them to second-class status.    This is absurd, though, for these saints are actually in heaven and have been perfected.
  • Deny on the other hand any sort of division in the communion of saints, but now he has to answer why he refuses to allow intercession to departed saints.