Theological “n-words” don’t bother me anymore

One quick way of dismissing classical Protestantism is just to label it as “Nestorian” or “Nominalist.”  The Nestorian charge can be dismissed quite quickly.  I will simply respond, quite rightly, that my opponents are monophysites (e.g., “One nature of the incarnate Logos”).  The nominalist charge takes a bit more explaining.  At its most basic, nominalism is the denial that there are real univerals.    If such is the (admittedly brief) definition, it’s hard to see how Protestant teaching on the Lord’s Supper is nominalist.

One charge that was initially made famous by the Radical Orthodoxy crowd was that the Protestant view of the Supper “de-enchanted” the cosmos (this charge makes more sense at Reformed than at Lutherans).  I will highlight two responses, one by Scott Clark and the other by myself.   When convertskii charge that the Reformation “dis-enchanted the world,” they are exactly right.

Clark notes, ” to “enchant” the world, to make creation per se more than it is, to make the world sacramental and to endow it with power to communicate divinity to us….The medieval church made the world a magical place by endowing with power, either by nature or by divine fiat. In short, the medieval church tended to an over-realized eschatology

The “magic” that Jesus encountered in his earthly ministry was very dark indeed. It is a mark of the gospels that Jesus is confronted by genuine spiritual evil repeatedly. He defeats that evil not by harnessing the latent magical power in creation but by asserting his divine power and divine right as king and Creator.

My response is inspired by William Cunningham.   While many castigate Zwingli on the sacraments, the truth is he saw all of the superstition around him and asked, contra the practice of the Fathers, who used their imagination to think of the most outlandish parallels regarding the sacraments, “What did Scripture actually say about the sacraments?”

And if you keep bringing up the nominalist charge, I will bring up some problems with realism.

The problem with simply reading Calvin…

Most do not realize that John Calvin’s Institutes, while a fine read, were originally meant for beginners in the ministry.  It is merely a guidebook for young pastors navigating through Scripture.  Yes, Calvin made important breakthroughs in epistemology and political theory, but even as incisive and advanced as they are, they are still elementary and surface-level.  This raises a problem with those who “convert” out of the Reformed faith to some other tradition.  Does simply reading Calvin make you an expert on the pros and cons of Reformed theology (this assumes that the interlocutor has even read through the Institutes; I know for a fact that this is rarely the case)?

One might reply, “Surely you can’t expect everyone to read everything before making a life-changing, heaven-and-hell decision?”   True, I don’t expect Aunt Lula May to read through all of Reformed scholasticism before evaluating whether the Reformed faith is true.   But admittedly, Aunt Lula May doesn’t consider herself an apologist and theologian. She doesn’t spend all day on the internet picking fights on blogs (and I rarely comment on other blogs myself).  She is held to a different standard.  For the convertskii who begins to attack Reformed theology, I do hold him to a different standard. It’s only fair.  If someone wants to “convert” out of Reformed theology because he finds inner peace or whatever in another system, I have no comment. That’s between him and God.  Every man stands or falls before his own master.  But if someone posits that the Reformed faith is categorically wrong and begins to offer what he thinks are systemic reasons, then I expect him to have read the best Reformed faith has to offer.  Let’s begin:

  1. If Protestantism is simply nominalism ala Gabriel Biel, then how come Biel’s system of salvation is virtually identical with the congruent merit schemes of Rome?
  2. If Protestantism is simply nominalism, then how do we account for the fact that Vermigli and Bucer were Thomistic realists?
  3. Are you familiar with Muller’s thesis? Which Muller works have you read? 1/3 of these articles can be found online; another five can be found on EBSCO. This is an important point, for once I started reading Muller, I realized my entire narrative about Reformation theology was wrong.
  4. Have you read Turretin?   Turretin’s genius is in precisely identifying the question at stake.  I wager few people have read Turretin (part of the blame lies with the seminary system).  You don’t even have to read all three volumes. Just read volume 1.
  5. Briefly discuss Aristotle’s causality scheme and how the Reformed modified and utilized it on the question of justification.  Explain why that is important.
  6. What do the Reformed mean by principium essendi and principium cognoscendi?
  7. What is the distinction between necessity of consequence and the necessity of the consequent thing?
  8. (Advanced) If the Scotist view of synchronic contingency was used by the Reformed, which essentially admits a free will (of sorts), then how can the charge of mono-energism stick?

The nominalist charge has to go

One of the more common canards against Protestantism is that the Reformation sprung out of the philosophical nominalism of the late Middle Ages.  Mind you, this charge has weight only to people who have taken some classes in philosophy.  The average Reformed layperson will probably laugh at its irrelevancy (and good for them).  The problem with this charge, though, is that it is almost entirely false and rejected by the facts.  Most of the Reformed scholastics adopted their model of theology (if rejecting the content) from Thomas Aquinas, who was a realist–whose model entailed philosophical realism.  With the exception of maybe one Protestant Scholastic, all of them identified nominalism to reject it.

Ah, but they can say one thing, an objector might add, only to reject it with their actual beliefs.  Fair enough. You are then obligated to demonstrate that.  This is where it gets hard.  Only one such possible example exists:  the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.   One could say that it is nominalism because God is declaring something to be the case (we are righteous) when it is not the case (we are guilty).  There are two responses to this:

  1. The proposition, “I am righteous because of Christ’s work” is a true proposition in the mind of God.
  2. Imputation is grounded in our union with Christ.   I have a real relationship with Christ.  I am united to him.  His life flows into mine.

Nominalism redirected

When the Anchorite says that we can’t know the Bible unless we read it in the light of the Fathers (still waiting on a good definition of the Patrum Consensus), we have to realize a few things:

  1. He is essentially saying, “We can’t know what a verse means unless we read it in the context of the Fathers.”
    1a.  The problem is that he has never given us the proper criteria for the “context of the Fathers.”
  2. What do we do when a bible verse says “Christ bore our sins in his body” which plainly suggests penal substitution, yet the Fathers reject that doctrine?  Simply opting for the Fathers’ position is intellectually dishonest.
  3. Ultimately, it comes down to this proposition:  The Bible means only what we say it means.  This is no different from medieval nominalism.   Things are what they are simply because we name them such.   They have no real, independent meaning.  That is nominalism.

A communitarian reading?

Can texts be understood outside of the community which (supposedly) formed it?  For many years I was sympathetic to this line of thinking, and it does retain an element of truth.   However, it is also open to some philosophical dangers.  Let’s take the Bible and Traditional Community A (TCa).  TCa will assert that one can’t understand the Bible apart from TCa (which allegedly gave us the Bible).  But stop and think about that claim for a second.  Let’s take Genesis 1

And God created the heavens and the earth.

Multiple choice quiz.  Who created the heavens and the earth?
a. God
B. Satan
C.  Both (A) and (B)

The bible can be clear.   “But what about the hard to understand sections?”  Surely you don’t deny the Bible has those?  What do you do when you can’t reach an understanding in those sections? A lot of times I simply accept that I don’t understand it and leave it at that (for the moment).  I am honestly not bothered by that.   The advocate of TCa will say, “At least we can go to the Fathers (or the Pope) and get the answer.”   To which I respond, “No, you can’t.”   If for no other reason than half the time the Fathers don’t even deal with the texts that we consider “difficult.”  Read the Christological exegesis in Athanasius, Augustine, and the Cappadocians.  It is simply read in a non-Arian manner which isn’t that hard to follow.    That accounts for a large variety of the text.

If you want something like a handbook of interpreted texts, you won’t find it.   Yes, I am aware of Oden’s project.  I hope we are also seeing the irony in that Oden is a Protestant.

Let’s take another example.  Romans 5:12 clearly teaches a form of federal representation.    Even if you take the Orthodox reading that all man inherits is death (which is open to doubt), the fact remains that Adam represented me in some way.   Many who follow Romanides and Farrell will say “that just can’t be true.”  Well, does the text say it or no?

Let’s park it in the barn.  Does the text have an internal meaning or no?  If yes, excellent.  If no, then one must accept the premise that “We, the TCa, give the text its meaning.”  This, however, is nominalism.  There is no inherent truth until we assign it.

Christ and the Decree

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

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

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

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

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

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

Criticisms of Calvin’s Christology

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

The Problems of Triadology and Christology are Inter-connected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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