Notes on Ricoeur

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter analysis of Figuring the Sacred.  Not every chapter was equally good.   Some of his musings on Heidegger and Kant were interesting but not germane to narrative theology.

“Philosophy and Religious Language”

Understanding a text is always something more than the summation of partial meanings; the text as a whole has to be considered as a hierarchy of topics” (Ricoeur 38).

This makes me think of chiasms.  The structure of a chiasm reinforces meaning.  Meaning unfolds from narrative.

“Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance.  Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek Philosophy” (40).

I’ve long expected the above paragraph to anger Anchorites.  I was surprised when it started angering Reformed folk.

Manifestation and Proclamation

This is the most important essay in the book and the one that causes much offense.   Ricoeur opposes a philosophy of manifestation (ontotheology) with a philosophy of proclamation (Yahweh speaks).

Manifestation

The “numinous” element of the sacred has nothing to do with language (49).  Another key element is theophany–not moments in the biblical narrative, but anything by which the sacred shows itself (icons, relics, holy places).   This means that reality is something other than itself while remaining itself.

There is a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm (54).  This brings to mind the Luciferian “as above, so below” dictum.  In short, ontologies of manifestation always focus on “reality/grace/etc” emanating from the thing or the place.

Proclamation

There is a rupture–violent in the case of the prophets’ war against Baalism–between manifestation and proclamation.  The word outweighs the numinous (56).  Israel’s whole theology–and identity–was formed around discourses.

Per idols and icons:  “We may say that within the Hebraic domain they (hierophanies) withdraw to the extent that instruction through Torah overcomes any manifestation through an image.  A Theology of the Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol…Hearing the word has taken the place of vision of signs” (56).  God’s pesel is the Ten Words. It is the only pesel he commanded.

Communal Readings

In “The ‘Sacred’ Text and the Community” Ricoeur gives a neat deconstruction of the concept “sacred,” especially when applied with a book.

For us, manifestation is not be necessity linked to language.  The word ‘sacred’ belongs to the side of manifestation, not to the side of proclamation, because many things may be sacred without being a text (71)

Ricoeur the Hermeneut

His reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is interesting, but more for the method than the conclusions. His essay on the Imagination is quite valuable in showing what “goes on” in a narrative.   Many narratives in the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, employ intertextuality which always forces an expansion of meaning from the text. In other words, it is “an object with surplus value” (152).  Assuming that the Holy Spirit didn’t write chaotically and randomly, isolated texts are now seen in a pattern and signify something else, something more (161).

Ricoeur then moves to a section on biblical time, which is useful for meditation.  He summarizes von Rad, Cullman, and others.  I won’t belabor the point.

His essay “Interpretive Narrative” offers his famous distinction between “idem” identity (the god of sameness, the god of Greek metaphysics) and ipse identity (the God who is constant to the Covenant).  He expands this motif in “Naming God.”  God’s identity is seen in his historic acts.

Conclusion

While magnificent, it is in many ways a difficult read.  He assumes a familiarity with Continental Philosophy (itself a daunting task) and even then some essays don’t seem to have a point.  But when he unloads on narrative he truly delivers.

Vanhoozer’s First Theology

Kevin Vanhoozer (KV) bases this prolegomena off of speech-act theory.   He is working from several methodological presuppositions, all of which I think are sound:  our understanding of God and our understanding of Scripture presuppose one another (or are correlates). This is helpful because it alleviates the problem of whether we need to start with God or Scripture.

His book has three parts:  God, Scripture, and (Cultural) Hermeneutics.

God

KV raises the problem of whether the Trinity belongs in a philosophy of religions.  He advances the standard claims against pluralism: whenever a pluralist defines a “core” of all religious beliefs, that core is inevitably exclusivistic–it excludes other categories (57).

Drawing from themes by Robert W. Jenson, KV places God’s identity in his self-identifying acts as the God of Israel.   Before that he notes the problem of the term “identity.”  Does it mean ontological sameness or self-constancy in the case of God?  According to Paul Ricoeur, the God of the Philosophers is the God of idem-identity (bare essence; ground of being, the ineffable One swallowing the Many).  This makes differentiation of any sorts (persons, relations) a movement towards non-being. By contrast, the God of Israel is the God of ipse-identity (constancy, covenantal fidelity).  God identifies himself as Israel’s God and ties his name to a promise.  This is not the god of the philosophers.  Very fine section.

Effectual Call as Case Study

KV perceptively notes that the doctrine of effectual call is simply an example of the problem of the God-world nexus. Does God operate on the world in a causal manner merely, or is the relation one of calling, speech?  As Descartes noted, the God-world nexus is seen in the following problem:  how does the mental (God, mind, spiritual, etc) have any effect on the physical?

KV proposes we see this relationship in communicative categories.  If there is a God-world nexus, the “calling” is the “communicative joint” (118).  The Word that summons has both content and illocutionary force (energy).

Speech Act Terminology

Before continuing it will be helpful to explain key speech-act terms.  A perlocution is what one brings about by one’s speech act (120).  Locution is the speaking (154).  Illocution is the content and intent of the Locution.

Scripture as Speech-Act

KV proposes that speech-act theory allows us to transcend the debate between revelation as content and revelation as act, since Speech-Act includes both (130).

He has some good responses to high-church readings of Scripture and tradition:  “I see no reason that cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual” (223).   He notes the Anabaptist claim to “read in community” is not that materially different from the Romanist/EO claim that the Church reads the Bible.

This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).

Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right.  One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)

And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions:  how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture?  If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary:  the church’s interpretation is what counts.  But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly?  The Holy Spirit will guide it.  Well, what about Heira?  That doesn’t count.

It’s kind of like the definition of pornography:  I’ll know it when I see it.

Conclusion

The book is mostly magnificent.  The final sections on Cultural Hermeneutics have promise, but only if you are already interested in that topic.

Luther and Speech-Act

“God’s word, according to Luther, is a “Deed-Word,” which not only names but effects what it signifies.   Adam looks around him and says, ‘This is a cow and an owl and a horse and a mosquito.’  But God looks around him and says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light.”

“God’s word creates new possibilities where no possibilities existed before.  The Word of God is a Word that enriches the poor, releases captives, gives sight to the blind, and sets at liberty those who are oppressed.  It is a Word that meets men and women at the point of their greatest need and sets them free” (115).

“Preeminently for Luther it is Jesus Christ who is the Deed-Word of God.  It is he and no one else who has been anointed to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (116).

David Steinmetz, Luther in Context.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Lord and Servant

This is Mike Horton’s second installment in his Covenant series.  He reframes Christology around “covenant” and is stunningly successful.  His genius is in using the covenant to contrast two ontologies:  overcoming estrangement (classical metaphysics) and meeting a Stranger.

Similar to proposals by Robert Jenson, Horton shows how we meet the Stranger by his own revealing himself to us, and doing so “by strong verbs” (23, 55).  The noun (God) is revealed by the verb (his actions).  From this Horton draws the brilliant conclusion about Speech-Act:  speech is an act.  There is no dilemma between word-revelation (Propositional Protestants) and Act-Revelation (the truth at what Barth was aiming, if not fully getting there).

This segues into God’s freedom (and freedom in general).  Horton refuses to see freedom in the abstract.   We do not abstract God’s will from his nature.  Freedom (of any sort) is a natured freedom and if our ousia is a covenanted ousia, then we have a covenantal freedom (this is much more concrete and refreshing than discussions about “Free will,” whatever that means).

The next theological locus is creation.  Contra Anchoretism, the covenant allows us to view creation in its integrity.  It is neither divine nor demonic, rather “Nature has capacities for answering back to the creative speech-act of God” (66).  (While Horton doesn’t draw out the implications, this could explain how the land is said to be defiled by man’s sin).

Horton suggests that the covenant is the nexus between transcendence and immanence.  The God-world bond is covenantal relation (I realize that Aristotle used “relation” as a thinner form of essence; I am not using it in that sense).

Anthropology

Horton does a wonderful job in establishing the “federal-ness” of Adamic humanity.  Horton will contrast his model with the Platonic paradigm (Overcoming Estrangement).  Continuing with the covenantal paradigm, Horton sees the imago dei as:

Sonship/ Royal Dominion:  Adam was invested with kingship as the imaged-son on the Sabbath day.  In Christ this dominion is restored.  Shades of Rushdoony!

Representation:  We are God’s embassy to the world.

Glory:  The glory is ethical-eschatological, rather than essential.

Prophetic Witness:

All of this is recapitulated in Christ.   Interestingly enough, Horton rightly points out that Scripture never speaks of anthropology in the abstract, but always in the covenant.

Christology Proper

Horton gives a brief and lucid description of Reformed Christology against Lutheranism, particularly in the non capax.  He has a very interesting suggestion that the debate between Alexandrians (Divinized humanity) and Antiocheans (Schizo Jesus) is because neither could locate Jesus as he is given for us in the covenant (166).

Atonement

The basic challenge he gives to anyone who rejects penal substitution:  on said gloss, how is the work of Christ appropriated pro nobis?  How does “defeating Satan” (or any such Christus Victor, political liberation variant) become actual for us?

Conclusion

It’s hard to say which one is better, this book or the one on soteriology.  Both are magnificent.  I think Horton’s use of the covenant model is more tightly argued in this book.

Ontology is chiastic

Much of my project consists in rejecting the view that there is an entity behind the entity that is the real entity.  When played out in terms of creation and soteriology, this means that deliverance is the overcoming of estrangement (Tillich/Horton) and the rescue from finitude. (I would quote some examples from Orthodox Bridge where they say precisely this, but people would then call shenannigans since it isn’t a scholarly venue.  Fair enough)   A narratival ontology by contrast is dynamic, forward-moving, and is redeemed by the spoken word whose echoes (literally, since sound is the vibration of air) redeem the cosmos.

Another interesting thought:  narrative and covenant are related.  We really can’t know the existence of a covenant pact except in the narrative from which it arises. Have we not also seen that covenant is a category that can also answer ontological questions?  Which model is more relevant to biblical life, participationist schemes or narratival schemes?  Ontologians (forgive the neologism) speak of ousias, overcoming the carapaces of embodiment (Milbank), entities behind the ousia, etc.   A covenantal narrative speaks of blood, cutting, hair, flesh, presence, and genital emissions.   Which model is relevant not only to the biblical narrative but also to real life?

Reformed theology is accused of being nominalist.  It’s hard to see how this is so.  On the other hand, it is not immediately clear why we should favor philosophical realism in its ancient or medieval forms.   The contrast between these two systems allows the Reformed to posit a more robust ontology:  verbalism.   Realism, whether Platonic or Thomist, sees the forms as extra/intra mental realities.   That’s well and good, but at the end of the day the forms are either still in my mind or in Plato’s world above the world. And that’s it.  The Covenantalist sees ultimate reality in the spoken Word.    Imaging Creator Yahweh, our words, whether good or bad, create new situations and new realities.  To be sure, we can’t create physical entities ex nihilo, but the situations are no less real because of that.   In terms of salvation, these spoken realities approach us extra nos.

(Recommended reading:)
Horton, Michael, Four Volume Series on Covenant
Leithart, Peter.  Brightest Heaven of Invention, pp. 223ff

In Practice

  • A participationist model will approach the Lord’s Feast asking how the elements change.  A covenantalist will ask is this not a manifestation of the joy of the kingdom and of Yahweh’s victory?  A covenantalist approach let’s Yahweh feed us and isn’t worried about the elements changing our ontological status.
  • A participationist model is vertical.  It is more interested in the Forms and in moving to a higher degree of finitude (which will ultimately be overcome).  A covenantalist is horizontal:  it is focused on the in-breaking of Yahweh’s kingdom in history.  I understand that the anchorites speak of Kingdom in their eucharistic services.  That may be so, but it is ultimately dwarfed by a focus on what the elements do.  Incidentally, this is the real value of what the word “rite” really meant.  When Yahweh spoke of signs, it usually meant “sit back and watch this.”  It meant Yahweh was acting mightily for his people’s deliverance.

Nota Bene:   is not the idea (oops) of Sign eschatological?  It points to the final reality but is not the final reality; yet, the final reality is in some small way present in the sign.  Never lose the tension between the sign and the thing signified, for that tension is in its essence eschatological.

Pre notes on Horton’s Peolpe and Place

Horton finishes his unique project by examining the role that “covenant” plays in ecclesial discussions, yet the book is not simply another exercise in “how covenant theology proves infant baptism.”  It is much more nuanced and detailed.  Horton has demonstrated more than any other recent Reformed theologian in capably responding to recent movements in theology from Radical Orthodoxy, a renewed Eastern Orthodox apologetics, and the contributions from more anabaptistic thinkers.

Horton’s whole project is taken from a line of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion (Horton is simply illustrating a point, not using Tillich’s theology!).  Tillich saw two ways of “doing religion:” overcoming estrangement (varieties of Platonism) and meeting a stranger (Horton’s more covenantal approach.  Horton continues this analysis into the church and shows us an ecclesiology that is based off the announcement of the Ascended Lord.

While it is common to assert that the Church is a creature of the Word, Horton points out the similarities between this position and speech-act theory.   God’s word is not only pedagogical, but performative:  it (He!) creates the Church (Horton 39 n.3).  This theory helps us overcome the (supposed) impasse between actual reality and forensic declaration (which lies at the heart of critiques of justification by faith alone as legal fiction):  “When God declares something to be so, the Spirit brings about a corresponding reality within us” (45).  This means, as Horton puts it, that reality’s character is “linguistically mediated” and that speech is effectual.

If we see the Word as a creation of the Church, then we can’t avoid the conclusion: “Wherever the totus Christus idea conflates Christ as head with his ecclesial body, Christ’s external word to his church can easily become an instance of the church simply talking to itself” (84).  Horton then draws the devastating conclusion: “And since we are dealing wtih speech about salvation, can this mean anything other than the church saving itself (and perhaps the world?) by its good praxis?”   Further, quoting Laura Smit elsewhere, the question is asked, “How can Christ return and judge the church if he is identical with the Church’s eucharistic body” (Horton 152).

Ratifying the Treaty: Signs and Seals

The Bible does not speak of sacraments in metaphysical language but in language that connotes eschatological presence.

  1. Words and signs create a covenant.  They do not “fuse” essences (101).

  2. There is no nature-grace problem but a sin-grace problem.

  3. Eschatology creates a tension:  we have a foretaste of the future feast now, which creates in us a painful longing for the Age to Come.   Eschatological presence intensifies Jesus’s ascended absence.  This actually helps us on the doctrine of assurance.  Assurance is mercilessly attacked by Anchoretic traditions (Trent even condemns to hell any who speak of it), since how can we, as finite humans, “infallibly” know something in the future?   Eschatology and a covenantal ontology can help.  Who are we to ridicule assurance when the King of heaven feeds us from his banquet and promises to strengthen our faith?  Any questioning of assurance is merely treason against the King.  Because of eschatology, assurance will remain in tension–but it is still real assurance because God says it is! (Speech-Act theory).

Poignant remarks:

Low church versions confuse Christ with the believer, while high church versions collapse Christ into the community (92).

Webb:  Words could spring forth as praise because God has already said the Word that releases us from our sin (The Divine Voice, 107).

Instead of Plato’s two worlds we have St Paul’s Two Ages (3).

Some critical remarks:

Horton tries to read Jenson as a thorough Hegelian because Jenson denies our participation in God is not an instantiation of an eternal form but rather a vehicle for the divine (92-93).  Granted, Jenson’s Hegelian language isn’t the best, but Horton’s critique is odd since Jenson seems to be criticizing the same Platonism as Horton is.

Horton tries to employ the East’s essence/energies distinction, and it is certainly superior to Thomist and modern models.  I don’t disagree with him, but Gregory Palamas’s metaphysics is infinitely more nuanced than Horton is presenting (and ironically, I think Palamas is ultimately susceptible to the same critique of substance ontologies that Horton gives.  In defining God as hyperousia, both essence and Persons, Palamas can only allow that the energies are present.  The persons in the divine drama have since been eclipsed; only the energies remain).