Hiding in Plain Sight

mullerSometimes things are too obvious to notice at first glance. Whether it’s your keys, or a key feature of a film you’ve watched a half-dozen times, we’ve all had moments where we finally notice something that was hiding in plain sight.

The same thing happens in theology from time to time.

In his short article, “The Myth of Decretal Theology,” Richard Muller sets about doing what he’s known for–exploding myths about the nature and development of the theology of the Reformation tradition. In this piece, among other points, he tackles the notion that the Reformed Orthodox ‘systems’ of theology begin with the “decree” as an architectonic principle and then “rather than follow a biblical, historical order of doctrine or a cognitive order, ‘abstract decretalism’ moves deductively through the topics of theological system from God, to Creation, human nature, sin, covenant, Christ, salvation, the church, and the last things.”

Muller first shows that, in point of fact, the systems never actually began with the decree as an architectonic or fundamental cognitive principle. In which point, it might be wondered,  “why the Reformed systems follow a ‘deductive’ rather than a ‘biblical’ order.”

The answer to this query is quite simple: The order of system that runs from God and creation, to human nature and sin, promise and covenant, law and gospel, Christ and salvation, church and last things, looks suspiciously like the order of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation [my emphasis]. If there are deductive elements to this order, the predominant model is the biblical and historical order. Indeed, those sixteenth-century theologians who discussed the order of theology, notably Melanchthon and Hyperius, emphasized the historical order of the theological topics. This order, by the way, is also mirrored to a certain extent in the Apostles’ Creed — which also accounts for the shape of theological systems like Lombard’s Sentences and Calvin’s Institutes in which there are variations away from a strictly historical order. In other words, not only is the order of orthodox Reformed theological system not governed by a process of deduction from the decree, in addition, it is not an order devised by the Reformed orthodox. It is a traditional order of theological system, basic to Western Christianity and followed in fact by monergist and synergist alike. The Reformed system is biblical and historical not purely deductive.

Muller is exactly right. There are various possible ways to order and organize one’s exposition of doctrine, but there’s nothing particularly surprising (or deficient) about the way the theological tradition has typically done so. The reason has been hiding in plain sight between the pages of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria

The God of James

It’s amazing how much theology the NT writers get done in a short space. And not just “theology” in general, but theology proper–teaching on the nature, existence, and character of God. James is an excellent example of this that I only noticed recently. Consider how much we learn of God in the first chapter alone.

First, we are told that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). We very quickly learn, then, that God is generous and the source of wisdom. Indeed, he is not just the source of wisdom alone, but the benevolent One, the heavenly Father, who bestows every good gift upon the world from his bounteous plenty (1:17). To be the source of wisdom and all good things, one must have them and, indeed, be their all-powerful, all-wise source. Indeed, you must transcend them in order to give them.

What’s more, this is who he constantly is, because he is one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17). In other words, God is unchangingly and immutably this all-generous source of all that is. But this divine stability is not just metaphysical, but moral as well. God is also beyond temptation, nor is he a tempter (1:13). It is not only that he is pure from evil, but impervious to evil. His is a moral perfection.

This perfection is executed, not only in his good gifts of wisdom and “every perfect gift”, but in the ultimate gift: salvation. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:19). God is the author of salvation, the one who sovereignly elects to bring forth fruit through the truth of the gospel in the lives of those who had none. God is, therefore, merciful. 

But why does God show this mercy? To bring forth holiness and righteousness, though this righteousness is a particular sort–not the kind that can be produced by man’s anger (1:20). Instead, what God desires, the kind of religion that is pleasing to God the Father, is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). In other words, he aims to produce in creatures an analogical extension of the generosity and purity that marks his own life.

There is more to be said of God, of course–and James does so. But it is remarkable how much he does say in such a short space. It’s always a good reminder for me as a theology student, just how much you can get from applying myself directly to the text of Scripture, and not simply mediating theological texts.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Incomparability and Analogy in Isaiah

isaiah

The doctrine of analogy aims to answer the question of how we can speak of an infinite God who transcends creaturely reality, thought, and language. Instead of saying words apply in exactly the same way to God and creatures (univocity), or that words apply in completely different ways to God and creatures (equivocity), we say they apply analogically in order to capture the reality of similarity and distinction.

Now, there are a number of charges to be made against analogy, but one that occurs with some frequency is that it is an unbiblical doctrine that theologians have come up with under the pressure of an all-too-philosophical theism and not the revelation of Scripture.

And yet, it seems that something like analogy is precisely what the revelation of Isaiah, especially the Lord’s speeches in 40-55, presses us towards. Consider the Lord’s extreme declarations of incomparability:

To whom then will you compare me ?” (40:25):
“Is there any god besides me? There is no rock; I know not one.” (44:8)
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.” (45:18)
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me.” (46:9)
“I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” (48:12)

The Lord declares himself to be without peer, utterly unique, compared to whom the agency of kings, nations, and other so-called gods is nothing at all (41:24). Who else creates light or darkness, weal or woe? (45:6-7) No one and nothing.

And yet, and yet, as Frederick Gaiser points out in his article, “To Whom Then Will You Compare Me? Agency in Second Isaiah,” (Word & World Volume XIX, Number 2 Spring 1999), God is not strictly or absolutely incomparable if that means we can’t use human language and experience to refer to him at all. In fact, “The prophet will require a wealth of images to justice to the wonder of the God he proclaims.”

In his prophecy, God deploys a “variety of images to bear witness to his person and work” drawn “from the realm of creation and human life.” And this is fitting “because the prophet’s question about a “likeness” for Yahweh uses the same term used for the human in Genesis, created in the “likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26).”

Among other things, God is portrayed as redeemer (41:14), savior (43:3), maker or potter (45:9-10), rock (44:8), warrior (42:13), woman in labor (42:14), shepherd (40:11), friend (41:8), helper (41:10), lover (43:4; cf. 49:169), rear guard (52:12), mother (45:10), father (45:10),10 nurse (49:15), husband, hawker (55:l).

Gaiser adds, “not only do these images work, they are apparently necessary–and precisely in their abundance.” The paradox seems to be that without these images and comparisons drawn from creation, we would not be able to express the incomparability of the Lord.

He calls attention to a key description of the Lord after the acclamation, “Here is your God!” (40:9):

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. (40:10-11)

The Lord is described as a warrior (10) and a shepherd (11). With the same arm he strikes down the foe and “gather the lambs” (11). “Despite the differing pictures, they portray one God. It is not that sometimes God is strong and sometimes God is tender: God’s strength is God’s tenderness, God’s tenderness is also God’s strength. In bringing these images together, the warrior image especially is sharply redefined.” (Simplicity alert!) Gaiser continues to note comparison after comparison, juxtapositions, and surprising redefinitions, which keep us from understanding these comparisons as operating in a simply univocal fashion.

We could keep going, but important point I think we ought to see here is that against a radical skepticism, God is able to take up language from the created realm as a vehicle of revelation. They point us to the truth of God. And, at the same time, their bewildering and overpowering variety attests to their insufficiency and inadequacy at capturing his infinitely more glorious essence.

All of which is to say, while the formal fine-tuning of the doctrine of analogy may be influenced and guided by philosophical considerations, its instinct is a thoroughly biblical one.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Does a Neo-Apollinarian Christology Even Work?

chalcedonian

So, brief preface: I have been, and in many respects always will be, a fan and student of William Lane Craig. Any kid who was into apologetics and contemporary philosophy of religion had to be.

That said, like others, I’ve recently had to come to grips with some of the odder aspects of his theology proper and Christology, which appear to be less than orthodox. Nick Batzig calls attention one element which has been raising eyebrows in some circles, of late: his “Neo-Apollinarian” Christology.

Now, I’d heard something about it before, but never looked deeply into the matter until now. He goes into it and clarifies his position in this podcast transcript. In a nutshell:

1. We agree with the Council of Chalcedon that in Christ we have one person with two natures – human and divine.

2. The soul of the human nature of Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Logos. The human nature of Christ is composed of the Logos and a human body.

3. The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity. The waking consciousness was typically human.

The aim is to affirm the two natures of Christ, but avoid the possible Nestorianism (in his view) of the Chalcedonian definition. So he takes the heretic Apollinaris and gives him a tune-up:

Apollinarius’ original view was that Christ didn’t have a complete human nature. He had a human body but he didn’t have a human soul. He didn’t have a human nature. As a result he wasn’t really truly human. That calls into question the reality of the incarnation and also the effectiveness of Christ’s death on our behalf since he did not share our nature.

What I argue in my Neo-Apollinarian proposal is that the Logos brought to the human body just those properties which would make it a complete human nature – things like rationality, self-consciousness, freedom of the will, and so forth. Christ already possessed those in his divine nature, and it is in virtue of those that we are created in the image of God. So when he brought those properties to the animal body – the human body – it completes it and makes it a human nature. Against Apollinarius, I want to say that Christ did have a complete human nature. He was truly God and truly man. Therefore his death on our behalf as our representative before God was efficacious.

So what you end up having, as I understand it, is a sort of overlapping Venn diagram of two sets of properties. The first circle represents the divine nature and its properties, and the second the human nature. Though, here, instead of merging two complete circles so that you get a doubling up on the overlap on those components that make up the human soul (two wills, two minds, etc.), you instead add a circle with a chunk shaved off (the human nature) that happens to fit the outline of the divine nature, sort of like a perfectly-fitted puzzle piece. Put them together and both natures have all the sets of properties they need.

Now, it seems there are several problems with this, but the first one that struck me is the issue of Jesus’s consciousness. He says, “The divine aspects of the Logos are largely concealed in Christ’s subconsciousness so that he had a waking conscious life that would be typical of any human being and that like the mass of an iceberg submerged beneath the surface so in his divine subconsciousness there lay the fullness of divinity.”

What I want to know is how is that supposed to work? Absent a distinct human soul, a human mind that interacts/supervenes on a human brain, etc. how are we arriving at this split-level consciousness? If all we have is a divine Person with an infinite, divine mind and a divine will, rationality, freedom, etc. plus a human body, are we saying that the Son’s divine consciousness takes on dimensions and levels it did not have before in its interaction with a human body? Does that represent change in the divine nature, then? Or are these levels of consciousness now possible because of the interaction between the Logos and the “meat” of the human brain, so to speak?

I looked up the discussion of the problem in Craig and Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview (1st Ed.) and I have to say, that while expanded, the discussion wasn’t much clearer at this point. Pardon the large block-quote:

We postulate that the divine aspects of Jesus’ personality were largely subliminal during his state of humiliation. We suggest that what William James called the “subliminal self” is the primary locus of the superhuman elements in the consciousness of the incarnate Logos. Thus Jesus possessed a normal human conscious experience. But the human consciousness of Jesus was underlain, as it were, by a divine subconsciousness. This understanding of Christ’s personal experience draws on the insight of depth psychology that there is vastly more to a person than waking consciousness. The whole project of psychoanalysis is based on the conviction that some of our behaviors have deep springs of action of which we are only dimly, if at all, aware. Multiple personality disorders furnish a particularly striking example of the eruption of subliminal facets of a single person’s mind into distinct conscious personalities. In some cases there is even a dominant personality who is aware of all the others and who knows what each of them knows but who remains unknown by them. Hypnotism also furnishes a vivid demonstration of the reality of the subliminal. As Charles Harris explains,

a person under hypnosis may be informed of certain facts and then instructed to forget them when he “awakens,” but the knowledge is truly in his mind, and shows itself in unmistakable ways, especially by causing him to perform . . . certain actions, which, but for the possession of this knowledge, he would not have performed. . . . What is still more extraordinary, a sensitive hypnotic subject may be made both to see and not to see the same object at the same moment. For example, he may be told not to see a lamp-post, whereupon he becomes (in the ordinary sense) quite unable to see it. Nevertheless, he does see it, because he avoids it and cannot be induced to precipitate himself against it.

Similarly, in the Incarnation—at least during his state of humiliation—the
Logos allowed only those facets of his person to be part of Christ’s waking consciousness which were compatible with typical human experience, while the bulk of his knowledge and other cognitive perfections, like an iceberg beneath the water’s surface, lay submerged in his subconscious. On the model we propose, Christ is thus one person, but in that person conscious and subconscious elements are differentiated in a theologically significant way. Unlike Nestorianism our view does not imply that there are two persons, anymore than the conscious aspects of one’s life and the subconscious aspects of one’s life constitute two persons. (610-611)

Leave aside the propriety of appealing to split personalities as a suitable analogy for the mental life of our Lord, depth psychology could really be helpful in considering these issues in Christology more generally. But what I’m failing to see is the way this works out in Craig’s formulation.

Because on Craig’s view, it seems there is only the one, divine mind which is now, somehow, also the site of the distinctions and levels and subliminal layers which form Christ’s human, conscious life. Now, I know they reject, or at least propose to modify divine simplicity (Craig and Moreland, 526), but even in that discussion, they seem sympathetic to William Alston’s view that at least the divine knowledge is simple.

So has there been a change to the divine nature such that what was once simple, now becomes complex in the act of the incarnation? Craig describes the incarnation as a matter of addition, rather than subtraction–which is right:

Rather it is a matter of addition – taking on in addition to the divine nature he already had a human nature with all of its essential properties. So we should think of the incarnation not as a matter of subtraction but of addition.

But the addition of layers of consciousness to the divine mind is not the logic of addition which the Fathers at Chalcedon had in mind. They saw the Logos assuming humanity to himself leaving the divine nature unchanged. But it is hard to see the Logos remaining unchanged in his becoming the soul of the body of Christ, if this is now adding layers of self-consciousness to the single mind he has/is.

If so, then along with the rejection of the assumption of a human soul, this would be to contradict Chalcedon at another point. For it would seem to be a denial of divine immutability. But I don’t see them wanting to do that.

Now, for myself, I don’t think the Chalcedonian definition and classical Christology of the Church is Nestorian. But even if I did, contrary to solving any questions, Craig’s un-Orthodox Christology just seems to leave us with more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why We Should Have Utter Confidence in Prayer

compendiumAt the tail-end of his uncompleted Compendium of Theology Aquinas treats the question of why we must pray to God for what we hope. First, he notes that we belong to him as an effect does to a cause. He has made us with a purpose in mind which it is his aim to see fulfilled. If a pot were rational and could hope, it should hope in the potter who shaped him. “Thus we are told in Jeremiah 18:6: ‘As clay is in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.'”

But Aquinas does not simply want us to know that we should pray to God our Maker, but how we should pray to God: with complete and utter confidence.

The confidence which man has in God ought to be most certain. As we just intimated, a cause does not refrain from rightly controlling its product unless it labors under some defect. But no defect or ignorance can occur in God, because “all things are naked and open to His eyes,” as is said in Hebrews 4:13. Nor does He lack power, for “the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save,” as we read in Isaiah 59:1. Nor is He wanting in good will, for “the Lord is good to those who hope in Him, to the soul that seeks Him,” as we are reminded in Lamentations 3:25. Therefore the hope with which a person trusts in God does not confound him that hopes, as is said in Romans 5:5. (Compendium 2.4)

Why should we have utter confidence in prayer? As it always seems to be with Aquinas, because God, that’s why.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Simplicity of God and the Diversity of Creation

compendium

I’ve been working my way through Aquinas’s late, brief summary of his system, Compendium Theologiae, and it’s been a dense, instructive dive so far.

Early in his series of questions on creation, he treats the matter of why there is plurality, or a diversity of things in creation. Why are there trees and monkeys and mountains and starfish, instead of only, say perfectly spiritual beings like angels? Why stars of various shapes, colors, and sizes, instead of one, perfect, massive orb? Why diversity instead of simple, orderly, uniformity?

Well, as with most things in Aquinas, he finds the answer in God who is their creating and sustaining cause. Even more than that, he roots this diversity in the simplicity of God.

How so?

Any active cause must produce its like, so far as this is possible. The things produced by God could not be endowed with a likeness of the divine goodness in the simplicity in which that goodness is found in God. Hence what is one and simple in God had to be represented in the produced things in a variety of dissimilar ways. There had to be diversity in the things produced by God, in order that the divine perfection might in some fashion be imitated in the variety found in things.

Furthermore, whatever is caused is finite, since only God’s essence is infinite, as was demonstrated above. The finite is rendered more perfect by the addition of other elements. Hence it was better to have diversity in created things, and thus to have good objects in greater number, than to have but a single kind of beings produced by God. For the best cause appropriately produces the best effects. Therefore it was fitting for God to produce variety in things. (1:72)

One might think that the indivisible, simple being of God would stifle diversity. Thomas reminds us, though, that the simple being of God is infinite. A mere repetition of the same finite effects will not do. In order to begin to communicate the fullness of his refulgent glory by way of finite creaturely reality will require a diversity of finite causes!

Despite it’s philosophical garb, I think this really functions as a metaphysical gloss on Scriptural teaching. Consider what the Psalmist tells us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)

Or again:

How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. (Ps. 104:24-25)

Thomas tells us that all this marvelous diversity is a reflection, a testimony to the wisdom, glory. and beauty of the simple God. In the creation of diverse effects, it is as if the pure, undivided brightness of the infinite divine light is refracted before our eyes as through a prism as broad and as wide as the universe itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).