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 ( 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.