Christ Eastern Thought: Maximus (7)

“Being implies movement, but gives to that movement an opposite direction; movement does not consist in a fall, as in Origen, but of a movement upward toward God” (133-134).

Man’s will:  possesses a natural will, and that will is a freedom of nature in conformity with divine freedom and unable to lead to anything but the Good (137).

“For Maximus, and for the monastic tradition he represented on that point…the enjoyment of the senses is now more or less identified with the idea of sexual pleasure, and as such expresses what is corrupted in human nature from the moment of sin” (142).

Logos-tropos distinction:  every being posseses in himself a natural law but concretely exists only according to a mode of existence (145).

Gnomic will:  gnome reflects hypostasis or will, but Maximus is not saying that will is hypostatic.  It is the free will of created hypostases.  It is on a level with movement.  The point he wants to make is that sin is a personal action, not a natural one.  Christ did not possess a gnomic will (which raises the question, is he really consubstantial with our humanity?).

Alarmingly, Maximus writes, “Our salvation depends on our will” (149, Liber Asceticus, col. 953b).  “Spiritual life…supposes the transformation of our gnomic will into a ‘divine and angelic gnome'” (149).  Maximus goes on to say that union with God is natural to man, meaning that our nature points to it.


It’s a beautiful metaphysics, maybe the most beautiful.   While he did cut Origenism off at the knees, the spectre of Neo-Platonism and Ps. Dionysius haunts the realm.   We hear absolutely nothing of the gospel proclamation extra nos.  Meyendorff is quick to assure us that Maximus is no Pelagian.  Fair enough (though see comments by Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 17), but is he a semi-Pelagian?


Christ in Eastern Thought: Monophysitism (2)

Main idea:  Chalcedonian terminology created a problem.  Given the sharp distinction between person and nature, if we say that God truly suffered in the flesh, how does one maintain divine impassibility?  Simply saying the divine person suffered in his human nature only removes the problem a step.  It does not solve it, for the divine nature remains untouched.  But given the strong union language used by the East, it seems unlikely that the divine nature should remain so untouched.   This leads us to ask:  are they really that far from Nestorius?  In both cases there seems to be a “gap” between the divine nature and the human nature.

This is why earlier writers like Athanasius and Apollonarius saw the human nature of Christ as an instrument of the eternal Logos.

The rest of the chapter summarizes the debates centering around Severus of Antioch.  They are interesting for the specialist but not many else.

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.

Person-Nature, a summary and footnote

I never expected any blog post of mine to get 100 comments.  I don’t write about politics (much) or sex (at all), so who would care?   I’ve been criticized over the past four months by some Anchorites for running my mouth and not listening to my elders.   In actual fact, all I’ve done is simply voice some difficulties with anchoretic triadology  that I’ve had for three years. (What’s funny is that when I was writing all these essays against absolute divine simplicity, I was praised and no one said a word; even today, I still get email requests to access the old Tsar Lazar site.  Unfortunately, I forgot both the username and password; I can’t even access it). Here are some of the difficulties:

  1. I still agree with Damascene that distinguishing between person and nature is important.
  2. However, is there an ontological distinction or a logical/rhetorical?  If the former, then we have a quaternity.  If the latter, then we really lose the force of Damascene’s statement.
  3. I then asked my friends to define both “person” and “nature,” particularly “person.”   Several did not even try.  One got on to what I was asking and said it was impossible on a patristic gloss (he is correct).  He went on to say that apophatic theology precludes such a task.  He is correct.  I then came to the conclusion that one can either have apophatic theology or use the “person/nature” distinction as a kritique of Calvinism, but one may not do both.  The point is quite simple:  if you cannot define “person” then by a simple definition of terms and logic, you cannot accuse the other of confusing the two!
  4. However, even if you are successful at (3), we still have the problem of (2):  either a quaternity or at least some kind of confusion.
  5. No wonder Fr Sergius Bulgakov got into trouble.  He tried to answer both (2) and (3).

Doctrine of Corporate Person Defended

One of the newer weapons in the arsenal of some convert apologists is the “person-nature” distinction.  It basically argues that the person is the “who” that does the action.  The nature is the “what.”  On the most basic level it is a fine distinction.  One has to use it in Trinitarian theology.  Person isn’t nature, otherwise the Trinity falls apart.  Many Easterners, however, use this distinction as an architectonic template for all of theology.  Admittedly, it is quite attractive.  The most cogent defense of it is by Joseph Farrell (see the one on Babylon’s Banksters, Part Six–roughly 25 minutes into it).  In short, it goes like this:

  • The doctrine of the corporate person (by that he means something akin what the West teaches about all of man’s representation in Adam) confuses the person nature distinction.  It is defined by a group of persons who unite into one larger group of “person” by their respectivefunctions.
  • Obviously, this is the foundation for the medieval notion of the corporation.
  • Directly tied to Western conception of original sin.
  • The cash-value aspect of this is that I can’t be responsible for what another person does.

There is much wisdom in the above and the West certainly took the idea of the corporate person in extremely deleterious ways.  However, to say that it isn’t “biblical” or that it is “unfair” goes too far.  Let’s look at some texts.  I am deliberately leaving off Romans 5:12.  In 2 Samuel 21 David is being punished for Saul’s sin against the Gibeonites.  On a surface level at least, this is the clearest rebuttal to the idea that Federal Representation is unbiblical and unjust.  In 1 Corinthians 12:14-20, we see something akin to the body being defined by the functions of the members.  Granted, it’s not a 1:1 correlation of the corporate person.

While those who reject Federal Headship in Romans 5:12 can still do so on some exegetical grounds, I hope the above texts remove the objection that the idea of Federal Headship is unjust.  One man’s actions, so we see, can represent another’s.