Monday, November 27, 2006

Trinitarian Reflections

One can claim that in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries two different Trinitarian traditions developed in the west. The first, grounded in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, claimed that relations themselves individuate the persons of the Trinity. On this view, the Father is the Father because he bears a particular relation to the Son. The second, developing in and through the work of Duns Scotus and others, claims an emanationalist model where origins individuate the persons of the trinity. The person of the Father is innascible, and by virtue of this innascibility, is the Father. On the first model, bare relations individuate the Trinitarian persons. According to the second model, particular monadic properties are possessed by the persons, properties, on the basis of which, relations among the persons are established.

With regard to the Son being the Word, the first view, because it is committed to individuation through bare relations, understands 'Word' metaphorically. It is because that the Son bares sonship to the Father that the Son is the Son. Word can be spoken of this Son metaphorically because the Son is "like a Word" in being an expression (issue) of the one who expresses (issues) it. On the other hand, the emanationalist view can regard 'Word' as specifying more or less the individuating property of the Second Person. Because the Second Person is Word, He is called the Son of God.

The distinction between internal and external relations may be helpful here in understanding the distinction. An external relation R holds of a with respect to b if and only if R does not change the entity which a is in relation to b. For example, I am externally related to my son because I remain exactly who and what I am genetically regardless of whether the relation of being the parent of b obtains or not. An internal relation R' holds of a with respect to b, however, if and only if R obtaining changes what a is in relation to b. For example, my son is internally related to me because his genetic material varies as a function of whether the relation 'being a son of me' holds or not. An external relation does not change the being of the one related to another; an internal relation does change the being of the one related to the other.

These categories can be helping for thinking about the indiviudation of persons within the Trinity. On the Fransican model, the Trinitarian persons are externally related with respect to 'being the Father of x' because the dyadic relation of Father to Son is grounded on the the existence of nonrelational, mondadic properties like innascability which themselves individuate the persons. According to the Dominican model, however, the persons are internally related with respect to dyadic relational properties like 'being the Father of x', for the Father could not be the person He is apart from the relation in question.

Using the language of logic, the Dominicans claim that the one called 'Father' is the one having two dyadic relations: 'being the Father of the Son' and 'being the one from whom the Spirit proceeds'. For the Fransicans, on the other hand, the one called 'Father' is the one having the nonrelational monadic quality of innascability, a property, on the basis of which, the relation of Father to Son is established. The two dyadic relations individuate the Father on the Dominican model; a single monadic property individuates the Father on the Fransican view.

Now things get difficult when trying to conceive how either account is possible without compromising the unity of the divine essence, or without denying real objective distinctiveness of the persons. For instance, if we say that there are either real relations or real intrinsic qualities in the persons, we seem to be claiming that there is a real ontological consitutent to individuation, a modus essendi, not merely modi intelligendi. But if this is so, it appears that divine simplicity, and hence the divine essence itself, is compromised. On the other hand, if we say that the Trinitarian individuaters are mere modi intelligendi, then the ontological distinctiveness of the Trinitarian persons seems to be undermined. There is one divine essence ontologically, although human beings might, from the standpoint of reason, distinguish that essence into persons. But if this is so, then the Persons seem to be due to human construction.

The third way also sometimes used in the tradition appears unworkable. It claimed a modus se habendi in which no distinction arises when comparing the personal properties to the divine essence, yet a distinction arises when comparing these properties to the properties of the other persons. Lamentably, this is a non-starter because the problem still remains: Are the individuating properties, upon which the persons are individuated, ontologically grounded or not? If yes, then divine simplicity seems difficult to sustain; if no, then divine simplicity is sustained at the expense of their being any real differences among the Trinitarian persons.

The problem of the identity in difference of the Trinitarian persons is a profound one, and it is clearly not solved either in the Dominican or Franciscan traditions.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Realism in Theology

Every discipline has its fundamental assertions and assumptions, those principles without which the discipline cannot proceed as the discipline it is. This is true as well for theology. We find, in fact, that particular fundamental assertions demarcate trajectories of the theological tradition. This is clearly true of what I call the realist fundamental: "God exists independent of human awareness, perception, conception and language." Whether or not one accedes to this fundamental determines the meaning of an entire matrix of theological assertions. Theology can proceed whether or not one postulates the realist fundamental. The point is that the ontologies of realist and antirealist theologies are quite different, even if they both proclaim similar religious and theological statments.

Since the time of Kant, the theological penchant has been towards antirealism generally. Kant famously held that God is merely a regulative ideal of human reason. While thinking God is perhaps inescapable, and while God can function as a postulate of pure practical reason (guaranteeing happiness to the one who does his/her duty), God cannot be a substance entering into causal relations with any other objects in the universe. Kant only grants substance status to those objects which have concomittant sense impressions; he only allows causal relations to hold among substances. Because God is not the kind of object having sense impressions, then God is not a substance causally relatable to entities within the universe, or the universe generally.

The problem for theology after Kant was to try to provide a meaningful account of theological assertions when that referred to by 'God' was not a substance, and that referred to by 'creates' was not a causal relation. Although the theological tradition was not always consistent, it basically asserted that talk of God must be parsed in terms of something besides divine objects, properties, events or states of affairs. Schleiermacher, for instance, spoke of God as the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. Hegel located God in the reflexivity of human thinking. Later liberal Protestantism found God talk most germane to the arena of ethics, of human doing. Even the twentieth-century backlash to liberal theology worked with a basic antirealist notion of God. While theologians talked a great deal about God's "mighty acts in history," God remained unable to causally interact with nature. But how is action in history possible without action in nature?

While neo-reformational theology "preached well," it, and later theological developments, have proved unable to assert robust causal connections between God and the universe. The result has been lamentable for theology, for a causally impotent God is clearly irrelevant for most postmodern men and women. What kind of question is the Christ the answer for when the God, to whom Christ reconciled the world, is causally inert? If God is not connectable to the universe, then Christ becomes merely a symbol for the liberation of human beings from anxiety, despair, and ultimate suffering. Antirealist assumptions lead one into a basic projectionist strategy. The universe is presumably what it is apart from us, but God is "put" into the universe because of human value and interest. Finally, Feurbach is correct at this point: We project God onto the universe. Therefore, God is internally related to us; His being is determined by the relation we assume towards Him. Antirealism is a definite trajectory of theology thinking, a trajectory that has been, in my opinion, the dominant motif in academic theology.

But how different it all becomes if one asserts that there is some being, such that that being has robust divine properties, properties not affected by the relationship humans have towards that God! On the realist assumption, causality is put back on the table. Now one can speak again about God actually creating, actually acting such that something came into being that would not have come into being without that acting. Now one can speak again about real redemption and real sanctification. Now one can speak again about the possibility that God really can act to answer prayer. That the evangelical tradition has tended toward realism, does not mean, of course, that realism entails other evangelical positions. Conversely, while the Lutheran tradition has tended toward antirealism, this does not mean that antirealism entails other Lutheran positions. Of this we shall have much more to say later.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Basic Over-and-Againstness

Much has been written about the law as it was conceived by Luther and the Reformers. Of late, there has been a proclivity within Luther circles to get it wrong. In my opinion, the problem is that we Lutherans have been so enamored with anthropology since the Enlightenment, that we cannot any longer even conceive what terms like 'law' meant in their original Reformation context. We sons and daughters of Luther (viewed through the lens of Kant) quite naturally put a pro nobis behind all of the basic theological loci. But while grace is finally pro nobis, ought one say the same thing about law?

Lately Lutheran theologians have pushed the freedom of the justified from the law to such a point that Christ becomes the "end" of the law in an ontological as well as phenomenological sense. Of course, Christ frees us from the law in that we sinful and justified ones no longer need to build a bridge to the divine upon the basis of human works. The law has no applicability in the order of redemption. We are free indeed.

Unfortunately, this preoccupation on how the law affects us has undermined any thought of what the law is in itself. Traditionally, the law had everything to do with God as a real being apart from human being. The theological tradition asserts that God has a primal intentionality towards His creation, an intentionality that, since the advent of sin, can only confront human being as an ought. The law, ontologically considered, is the expression of divine intention, an intention that appears to man and woman as demand.

In Christ, of course, human beings are set free of the law; they are liberated from living under the onus of demand. This does not mean, or it ought not mean, that there is no longer any primal intentionality. To say that God is the end of the law in an ontological sense, would be to say that God either has a changed intention, has no longer intentionality, or no longer exists. In much of the contemporary discussion, it seems that we cannot talk meaningfully any longer about God apart from the horizon of man and woman.

But look what happens if God and divine law is reduced to phenomena for human being. Instead of human beings revolving about God - - this due to the basic artificer/artifact relationship - - God revolves about human beings; God only "shows up" on the horizon of man and woman. This "Copernican revolution" in theology has been so pervasive these past two centuries, that we no longer remember what it might have been like to have lived at the time of the Reformation. We Lutherans, so in love with Lutheran theology, can't quite imagine what a robust Lutheran theology would even look like.

Dennis Bielfeldt