Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Power of Words

lI am always am disquieted when I hear theologians talk confidently about the "power" of the Biblical word and then go on to claim that Biblical language is not referential, but rather performative. The reason for my disquiet is simply that such an understanding of language does not distinguish well between the performance itself, and the context in which that performance must perform.

Think about Julie saying to Bob, "I love you." This certainly can be said in a number of different instances. But to really empower Bob, the hearer of the word, there must be some sense in which Julie's remarks aptly display what psychological states she is in. If Julie tells Bob that she loves him, it is all-important to Bob that there is a Julie and she actually possesses the property of having love towards Bob. It is highly unlikely for Bob to be empowered by the words, 'I love you', when there is no Julie possessing an attitude of love toward Bob. There must be some basis upon which the locution empowers. It just does not make sense for human beings that performative utterances nakedly empower. A computer program spitting out 'I love you' fails to empower because we do not believe the program is an agent that could possess the relevant propositional attitudes that would make the locution even relevant.

So how can it be that so many theologians want to talk about the powerful effect of words without supposing that those words refer? The answer is quite simple. If one begins with the presupposition that God cannot be an entity causally involved in the life of the universe, then one's semantics must be adjusted accordingly. Words cannot refer because there is nothing to which those words can refer. What they can do is empower; they can free us; they can heal us; they can give us life; they can open up for us new possibilites. The theological trajectory that assumes a power in the words without a reference is a trajectory that allows for very good preaching, and a very good bedside manner.

The problem, of course, is that one cannot come clean on one's semantics to those with whom one speaks. The problem is that the man and woman in the pew are likely being empowered by the words only because they are assuming a referential, and not donational, semantics. One must have a high degree of existential sophistication, I suppose, to be empowred by a naked 'I love you' from a Julie who is not an agent and cannot have any propositional states. It may not be impossible to find some Bob so empowered, but his kind are clearly not found in abundance. In a parallel fashion, I suppose it would take a high level of theological sophistication to be empowered by 'You are saved by grace because of Christ's love,' in the absence of there being any God with a propositional attitude of wrath from whom to be saved. It is a rare bird whose existential anxieties are quelled by 'God loves you' who nonetheless believes that God is not an agent that can in principle possess a propositional attitude, or even an intent towards human beings.

Is it not time that we think deeply about these presuppositions in theology that allow us to use the language of a sacred canopy long after we have come of age to the fact that the skies are forever black? Maybe it is time to either eliminate the discourse or give it robust truth-conditions. Maybe the time is long overdo that we take God-talk very seriously.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nomological Confusions

Lutheran theology classically distinguishes the first and second use of the law. The first use is civil. Here the law works to keep human beings from descending into lawless chaos. The law in its first use functions to order society and to establish those requisite structures that make possible human life together. While this law is a curb, the second use of the law functions as a mirror so that we can see our waywardness and be driven by this realization to the foot of the cross. This theological use of the law was clearly thematized during the Reformation.

Lately there has been confusion in some otherwise solid Lutheran quarters about how the first and second use of the law connect to one another. Some have argued that human reason alone can establish the content established by the first use of the law. They have claimed that reason can establish that both homosexuality and mendacity are wrong. This reading claims, in nfact, that some ethical theory can provide solid grounds as to what is good and bad, right and wrong. For instance, instead of looking at divine proscription, they would argue that homosexuality is wrong on either an act or rule utilitarian perspective. The argument goes this way:

1) One ought to do those actions which conduce to the greatest happiness.
2) Homosexual actions cause physical and mental pain for the participants and their families.
3) Thus, one ought not to do homosexual actions.

The thing to notice about this argument is its consequentialism. It is, of course, the nature of a consequentialist argument to disagree about what consequences will likely follow from an act. To say that a homosexual act is wrong because it has a greater likelihood of causing medical problems in the participants, that it comcomittantly places a greater strain on medical resources, and that those so inclined to homosexual action would suffer more pain from engaging in the action than not engaging is to take part in a thoroughgoingly hermeneutical task. It is a question of the horizon of one's interpretation. Two intelligent people, equally well-trained in philosophy could disagree as to the extent that homosexual actions cause physical and mental pain. In such a case, as is well known, one's motivation for finding things to be a certain way can determine the way that one finds thing. Interpretations, after all, are entirely human matters. An interpretation is, in fact, in many ways like an artefact: One's motive partially manufactures it. An interpretation does not depend upon that which lies outside the self, rather it is autonomously produced by the self.

Now the rub comes. If an interpretation is a human artefact, and interpretations can be changed by the interpretants, then the material content of the first use of the law is determined by human reason. But how can that which is identified (and constructed) by human reason ever drive someone to the foot of the cross? Surely, to be driven to the foot of the cross presupposes that one is not who one ultimately should be, and that someone in power is upset by this. It seems to me that only if one deeply knows that he is not whom he should be could he ever be driven to the foot of the cross. Thus arises repentance and contrition, and the perceived need for the saving grace of the gospel.

Making the material content of the first use depend upon human autonomy, and the material content of the second upon divine heteronomy, clearly destroys the unity of the law and leads to nomological confusions. Within the context of such confusion, the old temptation of antinomianism flourishes alive and well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Authority of Scripture

Many people are concerned about the problem of the authority of scripture. But how can the Bible have such authority when seeming textual authority has been undermined by various methods that penetrate beyond the text and claim to recover deeper meaning? Moreover, how is scriptural authority possible when the homogeneity of hermeneutical method and stance has been broken?

In the early Christian tradition monks slavishly labored to copy perfectly Holy Scripture so as to preserve its syntax. Not always knowledgable about the truth and meaning of the text, these scribes were interested in preserving the text's form and structure. Developing normative canons for syntactic probity, it was relatively easy to diagnose deviant syntactic trajectories. Authority could be defined structurally in terms of proper and improper strings.

But the authority of syntax has never been as important in Christianity as semantic authority. What the text means is what is important, and for many this textual meaning is thought to be as objective as the syntax which mediates and carries this meaning. Identifying deviant semantic trajectories is thus a task of reporting the willful waywardness of deviant interpreters. What the Bible says is clear, it is thought; what is at issue is the interpretation of what it says.

But we postmoderns are not comfortable asserting an objective or normative semantic configuration tied intrinsically to the text. There is no intrisicality to semantics, we think. The idea that semantics supervenes on syntax - - any two worlds indiscernible with respect to their syntactic distributions are indiscernible with respect to their semantic distributions - - is problematic. Any supervenience of semantics upon syntax must presuppose an extrisnsicality of the former not needed for the latter. But when such semantic extrinsicality is admitted, then what becomes of textual authority? Does it finally not devolve to the relatum of textual extrinsicality, to the interpreter himself/herself? But if this is so, then is it not merely an instance of power? The text has a particular semantic normativity because there is a capriousness and arbitrariness of interpretation powerfully supported by the community. The text is given a particular normative semantic interpretation because of the power of the community to enforce its reading. Normativity of interpretation thus becomes a function of communal sanction.

All of this just points out the problem if Scriptural authority somehow gets conceived as a relationship of text to semantic interpretation, or text to that interpretation which is related to community enforcement. Clearly, scriptural authority must finally become merely a projection of a community's will to power. The authority of Scripture is reduced to the authority of the community to whom the text is authoratative. Those wanting to argue divine scriptural authority are marginalized because they do not know the true springs of that authority: human community.

If we are to make progress on the problem of Scriptural authority, we cannot start within the problematic of an innocuous intrinsicality hiding a nefarious extrinsicality. What is needed, of course, is recourse to the benign extrinsicality of the Holy Spirit. The Bible must interpret itself, and the wings of that interpretation must be the activity of the Holy Spirit. Just as postmodernity recognizes that the power of human community drives the semantics of the Biblical text, so too must it recognize that the power of the Holy Spirit also drives the interpretation of the text. The extrinsic moment within the dynamics of interpretation is God's own!

Thus, I do not see how Scriptural authority can be grounded apart from the activity of the Spirit. It is this divine breath of God that determines the contour of scriptural semantics, and ultimately the authority of Scripture itself.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On Semantics in Theology

I am convinced that the mainline denominations are dying because they have violated semantic probity. While there seems to be some prima facie absurdity in this, I think that it is so. I believe that people who are profoundly interested in Christianity think that the language of Christianity somehow makes truth claims. That is not to say that every interested Christian is a naive realist. It is to say, however, that an understanding of religious and theological language that construes the specificity of that language as due entirely to human experience is problematic. The crucial realist question is simply this: If there were no human sentience, could one still affirm, in principle, the reality of God? Does it make sense to speak about God's existence apart from the human self/world structure? If there is no possible world - - no self-consistent description of how the world could have gone - - in which God is apart from human conciousness, then God must be causally inert.

The causal impotence of God is related to the internal relatedness of God to the world. If the concept of God is such that God must be related to that which is not God in order for God to be God, then we cannot affirm an intrinsicality to God that could, in principle, retain causal powers. But a God without robust causal powers simply cannot be God - - or so I would argue. The reason is simply that conceptually God must be construed as that which none greater can be thought. But clearly a God with causal power is greater than a God without it. Thus, in order for God to be God, God must have causal power. This is such a basic insight, that I am surprised many theologians no longer find it important to even ask the question of divine causality. For many, in fact, the notion that God can cause anything is taken to be a category mistake, like saying, with Ryle, that she left in a sedan and came home in a rage. This is unfortunate, and tips the theological hat since Kant in a decidedly Platonic direction, though most have not seen this. Just as Plato believed that coneptual analysis in the order of being gets at knowledge more than an examination of cause and effect within the spatio-temporal order, so too have theologians since Kant assumed that thinking about God, or reporting the experience of the divine aims at truth more than examining how God might actually causally relate to the word.

The problem for the last 200+ years is that the use of religious and theological language has continued unabated and that most outside the initiate have no idea that when the preacher uses theological and religious language, he or she does not mean what the unitiate think is meant. Because of this "semantic shift" in religious and theological language, even the "cultured despisers" of religion are put out of work. One does not know what precisely is meant by the language; one can specify no states of affairs making the putative assertions false. How can one talk meaningfully about what cannot be unambiguously and clearly stated?

Monday, April 09, 2007

On Contra-Causal Freedom to Accept of Reject Grace

I received a very thought-provoking response which asked me to rethink my "Fundamental Seven" (http://www.wordalone.org/docs/wa-fundamentals.shtml) saying that "The Holy Spirit works monergistically, not synergistically, upon sinners effecting saving grace." The response said that I had perhaps been not as precisely confessional as I should have been because my description of this tends to deemphasize the role of human acceptance and denial of grace, something that Lutherans have traditionally understood as important. I am quoting my reply to this response below because I think it gets at a very important issue:

"The material question you ask is a very important one. Know that I readily affirm that human beings cooperate with grace. This is done, of course, out of their own phenomenological freedom. The question is, of course, whether human beings have any contra-causal agency with respect to the divine. That is to say, do human beings qua human beings have an intrinsic causal power to accept grace were it not for the agency of the divine already at work in that acceptance? The test for ascertaining contra-causal agency is this: X is contra-causally efficacious in producing Y if and only if in an exactly similar causal situation where X had not occurred, then Y would not have occurred either. Thus, human free-will is causally efficacious in the reception of grace if and only if, in an exactly similar causal situation, were human free-will not to have been present in receiving grace, grace would not have been received. When I speak of ‘an exactly similar causal situation’ I mean that the descriptions of the two situations are exactly the same (including the same state of divine grace, and the same state of all causal features external to the putative human free-will). [I shall leave open for now the question whether or not the human act of free-will is realized by underlying neurophysiological causal forces sufficient for producing the allegedly free act.] I think we agree on these matters, so, as you say, it is a question of a possible misunderstanding of the fundamental to mean that salvation is wholly external and finally magical. Luther always rejected ex opere operatum accounts of grace, and would surely reject Fundamental Seven if he thought it would me misunderstood as compatible with such an account."

In my opinion, Lutherans have not been as courageously clear as they should be about the causal situation with respect to salvation. While Luther follows Augustine on operant grace, does he follow him on cooperant grace? Is there some power in human beings to either accept or reject the grace available to human beings in Christ?

A close reading of Luther and the Confessions convinces me that there is no efficacious causal power in the human such that divine grace can be accepted. While we might say that the human will is causally relevant in accepting grace, we must deny that it is causally efficacious in accepting grace. One could say that human free-will would not accept grace unless the human being is regenerated by the Holy Spirit. This would be to say, 'If the Holy Spirit had not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, the human free-will would not accept grace'. This is also to say, 'If the free-will accepts grace, the human being has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit'. Accordingly, one might claim that because the free-will accepting grace is sufficient for the human being being regenerate by the Holy Spirit, the free-will accepting grace is causally relevant for the mediation of such grace. But while 'causal relevance' is grounded in conceptual linkages, 'causal efficacy' depends upon the actual causal situation. While much more work needs to be done to clarify above the notion of 'causal situation', I think we are on the right track to use that concept in understanding divine causal efficacy.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Theological Doctrine as Grammar: The Meaning as Use Ruse

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to assert the great doctrines of the Church without having actually to violate one’s ontological scruples about there being states of affairs referred to by these doctrines? What if one were to claim that the Lutherans and the Catholics actually pretty much agree on justification, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification declared, without either party actually having to change its very different understanding of the notion, an understanding that has separated the two groups for almost five centuries? What if one were to claim that there is an identity in difference, an identity sufficient for ecumenical agreement even when the groups have understood themselves in the difference? What if one could claim a unity without a change in the interpretation either side gives to its language? Would this not be too good to be true for proponents of contemporary ecumenicity?

Take the following sentence: ‘We are justified by grace alone through faith.” As it stands, it has an everyday meaning due to inchoate interpretations used both by Catholics and Lutherans. For Lutherans, the sentence has been regarded as true; for Catholics, it is false. It is true for Lutherans because God is the agent by which grace is given to the believer in faith. The Christian who is justified in faith automatically acts out of that faith, for a good tree must bear good fruit. In the Catholic tradition, faith must be formed by love; one is justified by grace through faith issuing in works of love. Catholics and Lutherans could disagree about how ‘faith’ connects to love. Lutherans tend to regard love as analytically entailed by faith, while Catholics deny this. (I am being very general here.)

One could, I suppose, count agreement between Lutherans and Catholics if the same sentence were uttered by each in relevant contexts with suitable linguistic cues. In other words, one could understand the sentence behaviorally. The sentence has the same meaning for two users if and only if the proclivity to utter it is similar given suitably similar linguistic cues. One might even claim that because the sentence is used the same way by the two different communities, thus the two theological communities assign to it the same meaning.

But this is, of course, a deeply unsatisfactory way for two different linguistic communities to affirm the same statement. After all, it is not the use to which it is put that gives the sentence the same meaning, but it is rather that both have a common meaning, and thus the sentences are used in similar ways. Clearly, in order for Catholics and Lutherans to agree on the statement, something more than merely uttering the statement in similar linguistic contexts is necessary.

It is standard in logic and semantics that an interpretation be assigned individuals and predicates of the language (non-logical terms) so that it can be determined what models of a sentence or groups of sentences satisfy them. See how this clarifies statements like ‘S is justified by grace through faith’ and ‘S is justified by grace through faith issuing in acts of love’. The first could be rendered as follows ‘(some x)(some y)[(Gx & Fy) & Jsxy]’ read as ‘there is something which is grace, and something which is faith, such that s is justified by that which is grace through that which is faith’. However, given that love issues from faith, we might add, ‘(some x)(some y){(Gx & Fy) & (Ly & Jsxy)]’ read as ‘there is something that is grace, and something that is faith issuing in love, such that s is justified by that which is grace through that which is faith’. Now notice that the same string can be used to capture the Catholic view, that we are justified by grace, through faith issuing in love. Clearly, both have the same model, {(some x) is a member of {x : x has G}, (some y) is a member of [{y : y has faith} intersects {y : y issues in love}], (s, some x, some y) is a member of {(x, y, z) : x is justified by y through z}}. The two sentences are not only compatible by having a common model, they are equivalent because they are satisfied by exactly the same set of models. They have a common model-structure.

Ecumenical conversations would be greatly improved, in my opinion, if the dialogue partners were to pay profound attention to what is meant by the phrases they use. If both sides were disciplined in providing formal interpretations for their statements, it would become quite clear what, if anything, are the significant differences of meaning between the two.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Theological Semantics and the Problem of Interpretation

The sentence 'the cat is on the mat' is meaningless until it has been given an interpretation. We define a function from the sentence to objects within a domain. Standardly, we should say that 'cat' refers to {x: x is a cat}, 'mat' refers to the {x: x is a mat} and 'is on' refers to { (x, y) : x is on y} . Thus, we say that there is some member of the first set a, some member of the second set b, such that is a member of { (x, y) : x is on y}. To give an interpretation is to define a function from relevant linguistic units in the language to things in the world, such that the objects in the world form a functional image f* of the language. Thus, 'the cat is on the mat' is given by f*(cat), f*(mat), and f*(cat, mat) is a member of {(x, y) : x is on y}.

Now imagine providing such an interpretation for Trinitarian discourse. 'God is the Father', 'God is the Son', and 'God is the Holy Spirit', 'the Father generates the Son', and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son'. One could say that f*(Father) is a member of f*(God), f*(Son) is a member of f*(God), f*(Holy Spirit) is a member of f*(God), and that {x : x is God} has one member g. Thus f*(Father) = f*(Son) = f*(Holy Spirit) = g. 'The Father generates the Son' is thus f*(Father, Son) is a member of f*{(x, y) : x generates y}. Accordingly, 'The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son' is given by f*(Father, Holy Spirit) and f*(Son, Holy Spirit) is a member of {(x, y) : x proceeds y}. What follows, of course, is that it is a member of {(x, y) : x generates y}.

Now, taking 'G' to be "generates", we have that Ggg. Lombard and the Fourth Lateran Council reject Ggg because ascribing the reflexivity of generation to the individual g seems to deny simplicity, for there seems to be no possible world in which something can generate itself without dividing itself. (Notice how one can know oneself or think oneself without dividing oneself - - if one has intuitive, nondiscursive knowledge as has traditionally been thought to be true of God.)

Martin Luther, however, had no problem affirming the propriety of "the divine essence generates the divine essence'. When he said this, he meant that the Father generates the Son. If the Father is the divine essence, and the Son is the divine essence, and the Father generates the Son, then the divine essence generates itself, Ggg. He seems to have no problems with this because if Plato is a man, and Aristotle is a man, and Plato is a teacher of Aristotle, then it is proper to say that man is a teacher of man. Of course, the set M = {x : x is a man} is not a singleton set as is D = {x : x is God}. D has one member g, but M has billions of members.

When thinking the divine essence, one must not only subscribe to it a as a general essence, but one must claim a single instantiation, for if there was more than one instantiation, there would be a compromise of monotheism.

In order to make progress on the various claims in the late medieval period, we must be able to state clearly the ontological situation of the Trinity in the most perspicuous language we possess: first-order predicate logic with identity.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

On the Theological Equivalency of East/West Trinitarin Models

Theologians are oftentimes too lax in getting clear on the types of claims they make. Take, for instance, the claim that the East and West made theologically equivalent claims about the Trinity, although they divided philosophically in their conceptuality about universals: The East assuming that a universal could be numerically one and multiply instantiatable, and the West denying this. Is it indeed true that the East and West make equivalent trinitarian claims?

Theoretical equivalency is understood differently on syntactical and semantic approaches. According to syntactical approaches, theories T1 and T2 are equivalent if they have, as their extension, the same or equivalent set of models. This syntactical approach to understanding theories and their equivalency was dominant through much of the twentieth century, and is oftentimes referred to as "the classical view" or "the received view." On this approach, a theory is a set of uninterpreted axioms in a specified formal language using a set of correspondence rules that provide a partial empirical interpretation to the theory by linking observable entities and processes to particular non-logical terms. A theory is true just in case its interpreted axioms are all true.

The semantic approach to understanding theories and their equivalency has developed over the last four decades. While syntactic approaches are interested in deducibility from axioms, semantic approaches focus upon the notion of "satisfaction." Objects which satisfy the axioms are models of those axioms. According to the semantic approach, the axioms comprise part of a theoretical definition. Whether or not such a definition is true of the world depends upon theoretical hypotheses. A theory is true just in case all of its associated hypotheses are true. In the words of F. Suppe, the semantic view "construes theories as what their formulations refer to when the formulations are given a formal (semantic) interpretation" (Suppe, The Semantic Conception of Theories and Scientific Realism, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, p. 4). This model-theoretic view identifies theories with the set of models that satisfies the theoretical laws of the theories. The models can be understood as being a pure structure: abstract entities and relations. Theories T1 and T2 are equivalent if and only if they are satisfied by sets if models M1 and M2 respectively, such that M1 and M2 are isomorphic to each other.

Applying this to the Trinitarian question, we might say that sentence "God is both one and three" is satisfied by two different sets of models, one employing a multiply instantiable universal, the other a property particular overlapping the compresent bundles of properties constituting the persons. If two separate sets of model structures satisfy the same set of Trinitarian propositions, these structures are equivalent and they are isomorphic with respect to each other.

It is ironic to find that East and West Trinitarian controversies may have been argued by people holding equivalent or almost equivalent Trinitarian views. Perhaps one is not making a different theological claim at all when "starting with the persons" or "starting with the essence." Maybe, in fact, the new social Trinitarianism is finally equivalent to older, more traditional Trinitarian positions.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Trinitarian Confusions between East and West?

Richard Cross has argued that the East and West do not really "adopt radically divergent accounts of the Trinity" (Richard Cross, "Two Models of the Trinity," HeyJ XLIII (2002) 275-294). I believe Cross is fundamentally correct, though I do have some observations.

It is often claimed that the Eastern view (following the Cappadocian Fathers) starts from the diversity of the persons and then moves to account for the unity of the essence, while the Western view (following Augustine) starts from the unity of the divine essence and then attempts to account for the diversity of the persons. Clearly, much has been made of this distinction in the secondary literature. One finds characterizations of the difference between East and West such as the following: The Thomistic tradition originating in Augustine assumes this order of logical priority: Relation, Person, and the Processions; the Cappodocian tradition understands the logical priority this way: Processions, Person, the Relations. (e.g., See Knuuttila & Saarinen, "Innertrinitarishe Theologie in der Scholastik und bei Luther, " pp. 243-264, Caritas Dei: Beitraege zum Verstaendnis Luthers und der gegenwaertigen Oekumene.) Cross argues persuasively that the difference between the Eastern and Western traditions has little to do with theology, but everything to do with different philosophical assumptions operating in the East and West. "The Eastern view does, and the Western view does not, generally accept a sense in which the divine essence is a shared universal" (275). Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, claims that the divine essence is a singular multiply-instantiatable universal; Augustine denies this.

Cross begins his analysis by giving the standard metaphysical options on universals and particulars. He first distinguishes the substrate/property view of the constitution of substance from that of a congeries of properties having what Russell called "compresence." Secondly, he distinguishes properties as particulars from properties as universals. Accordingly, if properties are particulars, then the indiscernible properties of numerically distinct substances are themselves numerically distinct. However, if properties are universals, then the indiscernible properties of numerically distinct substances are identical (and thus by Leibniz's law) the same property. If two particulars have the same shade of blue and if these shades of blue are particulars - - one shade of blue is exactly like the other - - , then the shades of blue are numerically diverse. However, if the two particulars have the same shade of blue and the shades of blue are literally the same shade, then the blue is a universal. A universal is, by definition, a property that can be a constituent in more than one substance. Particular properties, by definition, cannot be constituents in more than one substance. Accordingly, the only real metaphysical possibility for overlapping substances on a bundle theory (the view that a substance is a compresence of properties) is that there are universal properties that are ingredient in each and every compresence.

This insight is crucial for understanding the putative divergence between the Eastern and Western views. For purposes of analysis, allow 'substance', 'hypostasis' and 'person' to be used interchangeably, and futher assume that 'divine essence' is an overlapping property (a property common to the three substances), and must thus be, on the previous analyis, a universal. This divine essence is termed the 'ousia' by the East. As to the question of whether this divine essence is one simple universal property, or a bundle of such properties, Cross follows Augustine: "God however is indeed called in multiple ways great, good, wise, blessed, true and anything else that seems not to be unworthy of him; but his greatness is identical with his wisdom . . . and his goodness is identical with his wisdom and greatness, and his truth is identical with them all; and with him being blessed is not one thing, and being great or wise or true or good, or just simply being (esse), another" (Trin. 6.7.8 CCSI., I, 237).

Gregory of Nyssa clearly articulates the view that the universal divine essene (ousia) is a unviversal that is multiply instantiated in the three divine persons:

"If now of two or more who are [man] in the same way, like Paul and Silas and Timothy an account of the ousia of men is sought, one will not give on account of the ousia of Paul, another one of Silas andd again another one of Timothy; but by whatever terms the ousia of Paul is shown, these same will fit the others as well. And those are homoousioi to each other, who are described by the same fomular of being" ("Human Nature in Gregy of Nyssa: Philosophical Background and Theological Singnificance," Supplements to Vigilae Christianae, 46, p. 709, p. 70).

The universal which is the divine essence is clearly numerically singular:

"But the nature is one, united to itself and a precisely undivided unit (monas), not increased through addition, not decreased through subtraction, but being and remaining one (even if it were to appear in a multitude), undivided, continuous, perfect, and not divided by the individuals who participate in it" (Gregory, Abl. GNO, III/I, 40.24-41.7).

Cross points out, however, that Gregory's universal is not ante rem. The divine essence does not exist uninstantiated, but is rather immanent in the persons; it is that "of which" the persons are (Cross, 281). The divine essence is shared by the persons, but the divine persons as overlapping bundles of properties do not share their own personal properties.

According to Cross, the Western theologians implicitly accept the view of the shareability of the divine essence by the persons even though they explicitly criticize this position. The western theologians deny that the divine essence is a universal "in the sense of 'universal' accepted by the West, not the sense accepted by the East" (Cross, 281). Though they deny this, they accept that the essence is shared by the persons. Augustine writes:

"In the simple Trinity one is as much as three are together, and two are not more than one, and in themselves they are infinite. So they are each in each and all in each, and each in all and all in all, and all are one" (Trin. 6.10.12, CCSL, L, 243).

Over eight centuries later, Aquinas echoes Augustine:

"In God, the essence is really identical with a [viz., each] person, even though the persons are really distinct from each other" (ST 1.39.1, c).

Yet the western theologians explicitly reject Nyssa's view on universals. Quoting Augustine again:

"If essence is species, like man, and those which we call substances or persons are three, then they have the same species in common, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have in common the species which is called 'man'; and if while man can be subdivided into Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it does not mean that one man can be subdivided into several single men - - obviously he cannot, because one man is already a single man - - then how can one essence be subdivided into three substances or persons? For if essence, like man, is a species, then one essence is like one man" (Trin. 7.6.11, CSSL, L, 236).

Augustine's criticism assumes that if the divine essence is a species, and if a species is divisible, then the divine essence is divisible. But since this cannot be so, he concludes that the divine essence is not a species. But if it is not a species, then it is not a universal at all. Cross believes that Augustine holds that a universal (species) is divisible because he assumes that Neoplatonic notion of in re universals. Neoplatonists are nominalists here; they claim that universals (species) are merely aggregates of particulars.

Although Aquinas is not a Neoplatonic nominalist, his Aristotelian realism agrees on this point: "No universal is numerically the same in the things beneath it" (Scriptum super Libros Sententiarum Cross concludes: "Unlike the Eastern tradition, . . . the Western tradition accepts - - as a matter of philosophical fact - - that universals, even in re universals, are not such that they are numerically identical in each exemplification" (Cross, 284). Thus, while the Cappadocians assumed that all universals, not just the divine essence, "are numerically singular, and . . . the particulars are collections of such universals" the Western tradition rejected the claim of the numerical singularity of universals and the consitution of particulars from universals (ibid.). While both the East and the West claimed that the divine essence is a singular property formed by the intersection of the properties of the persons, the West disagreed with the East in claiming that this intersection could be accounted for by claiming the existence of a numerically identical universal. The divine essence as a universal in re is not logically or metaphysically prior to the persons, but dependent and posterior to the persons. Yet, this essence is something more than its instantiations in the persons; for this essence is what makes possible the identity of these persons.

To the objection that Eastern and Western views must be theologically distinct because social trinitarian views can be grounded in the former and not via the latter, Cross claims that such views actually cannot be grounded in one tradition more properly than the other. It is just not the case that the Western view adopts a Trinity of subsistent relations between persons disallowing a social trinitarian approach, and the East a theory of personal processions completely compatible with a robust social trinitarianism.

The Western notion of subsistent relations claims that the persons are individuated with respect to dyadic relations holding between the persons. These dyadic relations are not constitutive of the persons themselves; they do not inhere in things, but somehow "hang between" their relata. Aquinas writes:

"Distinction in God arieses only through relations of origin . . . But a relation in God is not like an accident inherent in a subject, but is the divine essence itself. So it is subsistent just as the divine essence is subsistent. Just as, therefore, the Godhead is God, so the divine paternity is God the Father, who is a divine person. Therefore 'divine persons' signifies a relation as subsistent" (ST 1.28.1, c).

Cross points to Augustine as the source of this view, for it was Augustine who denied that God can be a subject for accidents, and thus rejecting accidents, identifies relations as the non-inherent "things" whose distinction does not entail a distinction in substance: "What is stated relationally does not designate substance. So although begotten differs from unbegotten, it does not indicate a different substance" (Trin. 5.5.6, CCSL., I, 210). Because accidents require a substrate, and because the presence of a substrate is incompatible with simplicity, the assertion of simplicity requires a denial of accidental personal properties. However, "a divine person can include a relation without that relation thereby entailing composition" (287). Thus, for the West, the divine persons cannot be pyschological subjects, for such psychological subjects are necessarily individuated by their non-relational properties.

Cross believes that Gregory of Nyssa effectively also embraced the category of subsistent relations. In the following quote, the distinguishing features of the persons are clearly the causal relations they possess with respect to each other:

"While confessing that the nature is undifferentiated, we do not deny a distinction in causality, by which alone we seize the distinction of the one from the other: that is, by believing that one is the cuse and the other is from the cause. There is the one which depends on the first, and there is that one which is through that which depends on the first" (Abl. GNO, III/I, 55.24 - 56.6).

So, as it turns out, the East is close to a doctrine of subsistent relations, and the West assumes that the divine essence is shareable among the three persons. Accordingly, both East and West deny social trinitarian accounts which hold the three persons as distinct pyschological subjects. While Eastern and Western views are consistent with social accounts of the Trinity - - a shareable divine essence among persons clearly allows for pyschologically distinct subjects - - both reject those accounts because of the need to individuate persons on the basis of something other than the accidental (non-relational) properties of the persons (Cross, 288).

What is to be said of this analysis? Clearly Cross has clarified matters greatly. That God is one and three, does seem to entail that the divine essence can be shared by persons. The Western view, that this essence is a numerically singular property shared by the persons, is not at all incompatible with the Eastern view that this essence is a universal that, while it is immanent in the persons, is none the less numerically one and multiply instantiatable in them. If this is so, then the unity from which the West begins is just the shareable property/universal. While the West might ground their talk of personal diversity upon the ground of divine unity, the shareable property of divine unity is nontheless dependent upon the bundled properties constituting the persons. Alternately, while the East might ground their talk of divine unity upon the grounds personal distinctiveness, this unity clearly, like the West, remains dependent upon the existence of the persons.

Cross's analysis, if true, suggests that while the Eastern and Western views have their own metaphysical models, each satisfies the same set of theological propositions. If this is so, then there is no theological differences between the two.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Confusing the Epistemic and Semantic Primacy of Christ

As some may know, I am the author of the so-called “WordAlone Fundamentals,” a set of affirmations that I think get at the heart of some basic agreements and differences within contemporary Lutheran theology (http://www.wordalone.org/docs/wa-fundamentals.shtml). I conceive these “fundamentals” really as proto-principles for Lutheran theological engagement. Given the centrality of the cross within Lutheran theology - - and the accents of law/gospel, the theology of the cross, the simul iustus et peccato, and the infinite being carried by the finite - - why is there such a plethora of methods and approaches (even real differences) within contemporary Lutheran theology? Why is the “real working theology” of the LCMS so very different from that of the ELCA? How does the working theology of the WordAlone Network differ from that encountered within many ELCA churches?

The “fundamentals” acknowledge a real parting of the ways within the Lutheran theological ethos, and locate that parting with respect to the following assertions:

1) Theological Realism: God exists and His existence and nature are logically independent from human awareness, perception, conception and language.

2) Semantic Realism: Assertions about the divine have definite truth-conditions. Language about the divine is not merely expressive of the individual uttering it, or merely rule-governed linguistic customs of a community.

3) Theophysical Causation: There is a causal connection between God and the universe. It is logically and metaphysically possible for God to bring about an event in the universe that would not have occurred had God not brought it about.

It is important to note that the tradition of theological reflection beginning with Kant, if consistent, must deny all three of these assertions. For Kant, God is an idea of human reason, and not an “empirical concept of the understanding.” Accordingly, God cannot be conceived as a substance sustaining causal connections with events within the universe. Post-Kantian options within theology begin with the assumption that theological language cannot have truth-conditions where God is figured as a substance sustaining properties, some of which are relational causal properties. Accordingly, theological language must be “doing something else.” It must be a discourse expressive or disclosive of human feeling (Schleiermacher), thinking (Hegel), or doing (late 19th century Protestantism).

To speak of these “fundamentals” as fundamental assertions within a Lutheran context, however, immediately brings charges that one has become “un-Lutheran.” A recent e-mail says that I have committed the cardinal transgression of not beginning my theology with the revealed God - - Jesus Christ. It says that if one starts with the existence of God without clarifying the nature of God, then one might end up with a “definition of God that then shapes what we can say about Christ.” It goes on to declare that things should be the other way around: Christ should determine “what we can know and say about God.” We must start theology where God wants himself to be known: the revelation of Jesus Christ.

In responding to this charge it is critically important to distinguish ontology, epistemology and semantics. I agree with the claim that Lutheran theology must begin with God as revealed in Christ. No Lutheran would want to deny Luther’s contention in The Bondage of the Will that God remains hidden in His aseity and that human beings gazing upon this deus absconditus shall be deeply perplexed and thrown into despair.

Yet this epistemic priority of Christ ought not be confused with ontological priority. Luther’s Trinitarian thought is continuous with that of western theology generally; he holds timeless eternity of the three persons within the inner-Trinity. Christ has epistemic priority for the believer, even though Christ does not have ontological priority with respect to God Himself.

Moreover, this epistemic priority of Christ must not be confused with a semantic priority. I deny any “theological atomism” which can find isolate meaning in the Christ event disconnected entirely from the semantic context within which that event arose. Years ago Pannenberg, in Jesus, God and Man, detailed the importance of the horizon of late Jewish apocalyptic thinking for the original understanding of who Christ was. The original event of Christ took place over and against a background of beliefs and values making possible the identification of Jesus with the Christ. (I speak here of necessary, not sufficient conditions for the identification.) Clearly, the epistemic priority of Christ is compatible with a semantic dependency upon context.

My claim is that, for Luther, Christ has epistemic primacy even though the identity of Christ is dialectically relatable to the hidden God whom Christ reveals. For Luther, what Christ means is conceptually linked to the God that stands over and against him, the God whom he fears. Luther’s question is this: How can I find a gracious God? That this God is revealed in Christ in no way undercuts the claim that there is first presupposed a meaningful category of ‘gracious God” conceptually linked to God as transcendent of human finitude.

Imagine what it would be like were Christ to have both semantic and epistemic priority. Presumably, humans confronting Christ would for the first time think about the dialectic of time and eternity, i.e., the very notion of the dialectic of time and eternity would flow from the encounter with Christ. Moreover, the notion that God is hidden in His aseity would have to arise, as would all thoughts of the divine, in the existential encounter with Jesus the Christ. But this would be to entirely reject any category of general revelation in Luther. There would be no human experience of order, history, goodness or beauty that would allow formation of the “God concept” independently of encounter with Christ. Furthermore, were this true, the witness of the various religious traditions with respect to the finite and infinite would have somehow themselves to be grounded in the revelation of Christ. (This would make the very notion of theism somehow dependent upon the revelation of Christ. But this is a falsifiable position because theism was around long before Christ was revealed.)

The assertion of theological realism and theophysical causation are meant only to recover the “God concept” Luther presupposed in his assertion of the epistemic primacy of Christ. Knowing a thing to be is quite a different thing than to have the semantic capacity to know the thing to be. My claim is this: There has been a gradual shift over the last two centuries in the concept of God, in the very meaning of ‘God’. This change has brought with it a shift in the underlying implicit “theory” upon which the discovery of Christ as Savior is possible. For moderns and postmoderns, Christ does not, and cannot mean the same thing as was meant in Luther’s time. (I speak of the meaning of Christ, but should this be problematic, one can easily construe it as the meaning of statements about Christ.) The upshot of all of this is that we now say the same things about Christ, but really mean quite different things about Him. In other words, our ontological claims are a function of the semantic fields we inhabit when making these claims. This state of affairs is fully compatible with the assertion of the epistemic primacy of Christ.

So why is it that the ELCA and LCMS divide when they seemingly make the same confession? Why is WordAlone theology “different” than that currently regnant within the ELCA? My claim is that different notions of God, of time and eternity, lurk in the background, determining the content (Gehalt) of Christ as “that which shows itself as itself.” Simply put, the identity conditions of Christ are not wholly established by the phenomenon of Christ Himself, but are partly determined by the background theory upon which the “observation” of Christ occurs. The “fundamentals” humbly wish to bring to the light this background theory so that there can be some continuity within Lutheran theology as to the most important thing: the reality of Christ and Him Crucified.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Luther and Ontology I

Metaphysics was clearly a going concern in the late Middle Ages. There was controversy of many kinds related, of course, to issues within medieval semantics. The common belief was that there must be a most general structure of the world presupposed by the categories within language itself. Important questions included the following: What is the nature of wholes and how are they related to parts (mereology)? What is the nature, and ontological status, of relations? How do essence and existence relate (especially within divine reality), and what ontological status does each have? Are there such things as universals, and, if so, in what do they consist? What is being in its most general nature? Is it univocal? Finally, and most importantly, what is the being of God? What does it mean to say that the divine has properties? Are these traditional divine properties compatible?

It would be odd to think that Luther burst on the scene in the early sixteenth century with a sophisticated theological vocabulary and theory that profoundly addressed the human existential situation and yet somehow circumvented (and was hence disconnected from) the traditional metaphysical problems. Unfortunately, although this would be odd, it is exactly what much post-Kantian Luther interpretation has seemed to assume. It has presupposed that the really interesting questions within Luther scholarship are questions as to how Luther's theological language connects to human existence lived coram deo and within the reality of God's promise. That this is important for Luther goes without saying. He did stress the power of the living Word, and emphasized what might be called the "performative" characteristics of language of the divine.

However, Luther always assumed that theological language has truth conditions, that propositions are true or false in so far as the state what is, or what is not, the case. Theological language is constative, not merely performative. God, for Luther, is really triune; there actually are two disconsonant natures within Christ; the physical Body of Christ is really present in the bread and wine at the communion table. The infinite really is somehow in the finite in such a way that the infinite remains infinite while the finite remains finite. What is more, Christ really is present in the Christian such that one can speak of "ein Kuchen." As is the case in the history of theology generally, there is a "unity" or "identity in difference" presupposed within key theological loci. While Luther understood that the assertion of the existence of such identities was justified finally on the basis of revelation, he did not skrink away from calling such such assertions true, and supposing that they are true because they state some state of affairs that actually obtains.

The question is how to conceive these identities. Clearly, Luther believed that Aristotle was a great enemy to theology, and much preferred Plato to his even more precocious student. But what metaphysics is presupposed if the substance/accident metaphysics of Aristotle is incapable of conceiving the res ineffabilis of the two natures of Christ or the three persons of the Trinity? Should one simply assume that there is no way things ultimately stand that make true dogmatic theological propositions? Would one be better off construing dogmatic theological propositions relationally, that is, as expressing or specifying human experience in relation to divine reality. If Kant is right, of course, theological expressions must finally be construed as being about human experience (thinking, feeling, or doing), and about the phenomena of "limit points" within that experience. If Kant is right, then the truth of theological expressions, for Luther, simply can't be determined by objectively existing states of affairs.

But, I would argue, Kant is precisely wrong as an interpreter of Luther. Luther must be understood within his context as an Augustinian trained in the nominalist tradition, an Augustinian knowing standard nominalist semantic theory and metaphysics, an Augustinian who, however, is so moved by the incomprehensibility and ultimate significance of the res ineffabilis that he is willing to be innovative both semantically and metaphysically. About this, I shall have much more to say in subsequent posts.