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.

Christ in Eastern Thought: Suffered in flesh (4)

At stake was Christ’s identity and the nature of the union (70).  Since all agreed that the divine nature was impassible, this necessitated a hard distinction between person and nature.

Sidenote:  Gregory of Nyssa saw the image of God not applying to every individual but to the whole of mankind (74).

Leontius of Jerusaelm:  the hypostasis of Christ is the archetype of the whole of mankind (ibid).  If this is true, as JM notes, how can Christ have a concrete manhood?

Was Christ really human?  “Most Byzantine writers, however, have refused to recognize in Christ any ignorance, and explained such passages as Lk. 2:52 as a pedagogical tactic on the part of Christ” (87).  Whatever faults Reformed Christology may have, it does not have this fault.  Here we make a clean and healthy break with Byzantine Christology.

Their reasoning why is interesting.   “There was also a certain philosophy of gnosis, which made knowledge the sign par excellence of unfallen nature” (87).  Back to chain-of-being ontology.  Ignorance, or lack, is sin.

The Cappadocians and the Divine Life

Notes Jenson:

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

Jenson, Systematic Theology, 153.

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

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

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

Against Eunomius 1.17.

We can draw a number of conclusions:

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

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

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

The reason I focus on Eastern Orthodoxy

I know I seem myopic on this point, and I don’t want to just “beat up” on Eastern Orthodoxy (though they have no problem with the ubiquitous calling Protestants heretics).  I focus on rebutting Eastern Orthodoxy because so much of it is actually true.  Take their triadology, for instance.  While it dead-ends in many ways, it is still valuable and essential reading.   The Platonic background is beautiful.   I cannot agree with the Platonic metaphysics of Gregory of Nyssa and Company, but who can deny its utter beauty?

The Filioque

I understand when Reformed people first read the Filioque and immediately think that Rome screwed the world over.  It’s hard to avoid that conclusion.  Politically speaking, Byzantium has a case.  I disagree with Eastern Orthodoxy’s reading of ek monou Patrou.  But I understand why they hold to it.  I think the whole debate is flawed and both sides read the terms in the same problematic.

Participation Ontologies

Their Platonic metaphysics is simply beautiful.  When I listen to Matt Johnson lecture on Nyssa, Eurigena, and Logos-theology, I am simply in awe.  However, beautiful though it might be, it simply cannot mesh 100% with Scripture.   Eschatology and Federalism offer a better ontology.

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–OA] 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.


Critiques of icons aside, I understand why people would prefer the Eastern view of iconography over the Western statuesque view.  I was never tempted to venerate Roman statues.  They were simply ugly.  Still, I have to wonder:  are we not literally playing with fire?  Indeed, Yahweh is the voice from the fire (Dt 4). Yahweh brought fire and death to Jerusalem and Samaria for syncretistic religion.  I have no problem with iconographic representations of saints, provided people aren’t talking with the dead or kissing the image.

Introduction to reading St Gregory Nyssa’s Against Eunomius

While I didn’t plan it this way, every year towards May I begin (re)reading the Cappadocian Fathers. In May 2008 I was reading Gregory Nazianzus’s Five Theological Orations. I had no idea at first why I wanted to read it. I had just finished Reformed theologian Robert Letham’s book on the Trinity, and he said Nazianzus was good, and so I bought it on the cheap. And it was a good read, albeit at first a bit foreign to my thinking.

Fast-forward a year later. I decided to reread Nazianzus. I picked up a lot more of it this time and it truly was a rewarding read. Now, I am reading through St Gregory of Nyssa’s Against Eunomius, one of the milestones in Trinitarian theology. I had long wanted to read Nyssa because David Bentley Hart long has championed Nyssa as a Patristic response to both rationalism and post-modernism, and since Hart has a beautiful writing style, I assumed so would Nyssa.
I was wrong. I’ve been trying to read Book 1 of Against Eunomius for six months. I just couldn’t get into it. A few months ago I decided I simply wasn’t ready for Nyssa (and to be fair, it is rather intimidating: 300 double-columned pages of relatively small print!). In the meanwhile I began reading background studies and debates concerning the Cappadocian Fathers. I read (at least the first 425 pages of it–all that was available on Google Books) Joseph Farrell’s God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes. Farrell helpfully summarized the issues and themes that Nyssa dealt with. That helped a lot. I also read parts of Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology, especially where Meyendorff dealt with the essence and energies of God. (you can get Meyendorff for free, here).
Having done all that, I picked Nyssa up again. And no surprise, it was relatively easier. So I am going to use my reading of Nyssa to summarize some of the Trinitarian issues at stake over the next month or so.