Monday, November 29, 2010

Theory Construction in Theology

For sometime now I have had the reoccurring thought that theology employs theories in much the same way as the natural sciences. Of course, with the natural sciences, theory construction and disconfirmation is patent. We know that if theory T has as a logical consequence P, and if ~P actually turns out true empirically, then there is something wrong with theory T. (Assuming, of course, that one's inferences are in fact deducible theorems of T.) It is all rather straightforward for the scientist - - or at least it seems prima facie so.

A number of years ago I was excited by some of the similarities I found between scientific theory construction and theological construction. It was to me then rather exciting to think that somehow theology uses theories. (I confess to having a bit of the natural theologian in me in those days.) But something has happened. While it is true that I am no longer much excited by the similarities between scientific and theological theory construction, it is not because the seeming similarities have faded for me. No - - it is because it seems to me now patently obvious, and not at all surprising, that theological theory and scientific theory have the same structure. The excitement has faded because there is no longer anything creative in the thought. They just are of the same kind. Let me explain with an example that is not that of natural theology at all.

I am rereading some of the Finnish work on Luther in teaching 'Luther, Justification and Deification' in the Institute of Lutheran Theology Masters of Theology program. Among the many claims made by the Finns is that Luther employs the notion of theosis as a central motif within his theology, that his notion of justification presupposes the unio cum Christo. The way that this is argued is to take a number of themes in Luther, chart the interrelationship between these themes, and then go to the Luther texts to see if perusal experience is consistent with the theory built out of the interrelationship of these themes.

For instance, they argue that the inhabitatio Christi grounds both forensic and effective justification, that the imputational notion of justification is the divine favor or gratia, while the effective notion is the divine donum or gift. While the favor of God addresses the wrath of God, the gift of God pertains to the corruption of our natures. Just as favor of God undergirds the gift of God, so the gift of God grounds the favor of God. For Luther, justification is a unitary process that includes what is often regarded by the Reformation traditions to be sanctification. God gives Himself to His creation in love, and thus all of creation is butressed by the indwelling God. But fallen creation groans in travail for salvation. This salvation is available through the gift of divine love which is the presence of Christ in the believer grasped through faith. Thus, 'x has faith' and 'x has the presence of Christ' are materially equivalent. (I thought about claiming that they were conceptually equivalent, but I can imagine x having faith without x having the presence of Christ. How is this possible? It seems that much of Lutheran Orthodoxy was quite capable of asserting the truth of the former without asserting the truth of the latter.)

Now these general assertions could be clearly stated as propositions of a theory. One would start with some statement such as 'x has the indwelling of Christ if and only if Christ gives himself to x'. One might say then that 'for any divine property P had by D, if x has P, then x has D itself''. After such definitions, one might declare as theoretical postulates that 'for any x, if x has the presence of Christ, then x is justified', and 'for all x, if x is justified, then x is both declared righteous by divine favor, and made righteous by divine gift'. That this would be tedious work, is readily granted; that it would succeed in laying bare the structure of a class of theoretical assertions is only hoped for.

Given that a theory could be structured in which the logical and conceptual relationships between the assertions of the theory were aptly displayed, the question arises as to the applicability. Is this theory applicable to theological reality itself? Is it applicable to a class of texts written within a tradition, or written by a single author? Is it applicable to the Luther texts? Here is seems that what the theory would have to have besides the internal marks of consistency and coherency, are the external characteristics of applicability, adequacy, and fecundity. I shall treat each in turn.

Theory T would be applicable to a class of texts C if and only if it were not disconfirmed by any particular assertions found within C. Theory T would be adequate to a class of texts C if there were not assertions of C that T could not in principle handle. Theory T would be fecund with respect to C if it generated a continuing program of fruitful and creative insights concerning the relationship of T to other theories.

What is different between scientific theory construction and this theological theory construction is what Heidegger called the Befragte, that which is asked questions on the basis of the theory. In natural science theory construction, nature is the Befragte; in theological theory construction it is most often a class of texts that are questioned. To find out what view Luther held, one must be content to advance theoretical models, some of which are contradicted by the texts and some of which are not, some which fit nicely into other overarching theories, and some which do not. Just as we cannot know the Ding an Sich in nature, but must model nature and build a sustainable "take" on nature given our experience with it, so too in theology, we cannot know the mens auctoritatis (mind of the author), but content ourselves with sustainable "reads" on the basis of the Luther texts themselves. Moreover, just as traditional scientific theory must not be easily discarded in favor of newer scientific theory, but generally regarded as authoritative unless directly contradicted by new empirical evidence, so too should newer theological theory not supplant traditional readings unless there is a compelling reason to do so - - a reason arising from a straightforward experience with the Luther texts themselves.

So I find these days in theology that some statements are "more theoretical" and some "less theoretical" on the basis of whether the first are "further removed" from the primary literary experience of reading the text. So too are some theological terms "more concrete" or "less concrete" as to how they cash on the basis of the particular texts. Accordingly, oftentimes the most "theoretical" of terms are those that are presupposed everywhere in our perusal experience without being asserted directly very many times at all! It is of this latter nature, it seems, that the Finnish Lutheran notion of divinization participates.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Normativity and Theology

Some distinctions are so basic and simple that we denizens of North America tend, in general, to forget them. One such distinction is between the normative and the descriptive. While Hume famously taught that one cannot derive an "ought" from and "is," many no longer can grasp that statements about what is the case cannot entail statements about what must be the case. The only way, in fact, to get the "ought" from the "is" is to describe what is in such ways that there is an implied ought. But then one merely derives an "ought" from another "ought."

I taught for many years at a state university. Students came to there first or second class in philosophy assuming that how people behave somehow entails how they ought to behave. Perhaps the problem is the ambiguity in the word 'norm' itself. What is "normal" for human beings is that which falls within a spectrum of human behaviors. While what 85% of people do is "normal," clearly at least 5-10% is not. What is "normal" is what human beings normally do. This becomes a norm for human behavior for many, for they have never thought through the fact that normal behavior does not the normative make. Just because 90% or more of humans do a certain thing does not entail that they should do that thing. One simply cannot get an "ought" from an "is," even if what "is" is normal for human beings.

The loss of the "ought" probably is inevitable in a democratic equalitarian culture where one voice is prized as highly as the next. Clearly, the loss of the "ought" is connected with relativism with respect to truth. If one "ought" not hold one position more so than the next, it is difficult to understand the semantic field for truth. When doing mathematics one solves the equation is properly and truly or improperly and wrongly. Those who do it wrong "ought" to have done it properly. Grading mathematics examinations presupposes that the student "ought" to solve the problem this way and not this way.

Maybe it is because the natural shows "no echo of the normative" (Davidson) that we present-day devotees of naturalism have such a difficult time with truth. And if truth in mathematics is problematic for contemporary naturalism, how much more is truth in theology. How can it be so, for instance, that a notion of justification within theology thought and taught these last 1000 years is the position that one "ought" to hold. Given that Augustine, Thomas and Luther taught differently on justification, which one, or which elements of these thinkers views are right, are what rational agents ought to hold true? Surely serious work in theology must eschew the descriptive in favor of the normative. It is not merely that A taught x and B aught y and C taught z, and we must document this, but rather that A wrongly taught x, while B rightly taught y. Theology is thoroughly normative. To give up on the normative makes the descriptive task of church history merely one of reporting. While the historian in this case might say the C agreed with D, she cannot say that D rightly agreed with C.

Theology must always include the normative. Like philosophy, theology survives as a remnant to a by-gone era before statistical methods and the new "science of man" turned questions to human regularities (norms) of behavior. Theology, in its commitment to "oughts," does indeed suggest that the natural is not all that there is. There must be, besides are world, a world of the "should have been," a world of what would be ideal and beneficent, a world of the very Created Order of God, a world mirroring the ultimate design features of deity prior to its dissolution into what is, before its Fall into existence. That we only catch glimpses of this world seems reasonable to we creatures of this Fall.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Luther: Justification and/or Deification?

In 1988 I attended my first Luther Congress. We met in Oslo, Norway. While there I met a young Finn named Risto Saarinen who gave me a copy of the book Thesarus Lutheri. Later I was given a copy of Luther und Theosis and I began to read.

In the early 1990s, I became quite interested in whether or not Luther was a theologian of theosis (or deification). I remember standing up at the Lutheran gathering at the American Academy of Religion one year, and talking about the new Finnish research. It was new and exciting research in America. At the next Luther Congress in St. Paul in 1993, I was in Mannermaa's seminar. I found him to be an immensely likable man, someone who was willing to question his own research, someone who would genuinely dialogue. I got to know some of the other young scholars in Mannermaa's group. They were intensely interested in theological conversation.

When working through Simo Peura's Mehr als ein Mensch, my uneasiness with the way that the Finns were reading Luther grew. It seemed to me that so much of the thesis of deification depended upon a rather small group of passages, and these mostly from the early Luther. Moreover, as I read a bit more of Augustine (and those that know Augustine), it seemed to me that deification imagery was palpable in the Augustinian tradition. I concluded that in order to show that Luther was a theologian of deification, one would have thereby to establish that he was using the imagery of deification differently from how it was employed by theologians who have generally been thought to uphold justification, not deification, as their central salvific notion.

As I considered the historical question of Luther's adherence to deification, I quickly determined that I would need to know what deification is if I were to be able to determine whether Luther held to it. I looked at the question of what deification is both semantically and ontologically. Firstly, I wanted to know the identity conditions of 'deification' so that the term could be properly applied. Secondly, I wanted to know what state of affairs would make true the claim that deification was present.

My contribution to the Mannermaa Festschrift in 1997 considered the ontology of deification. What claim could we be making about the divine/human reltionship when asserting that person p is deified? While the essay was itself speculative and inconclusive, the exercise was useful to me, for I found how little textual evidence there was to adjudicate among senses of 'deification', and I discerned that some notions of justification were not entirely unlike some notions of deification. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the boundary between 'justification' and 'deification' was becoming porous. What began as a seemingly firm distinction dissolved upon deeper reflection.

Beginning in two weeks, I will present a course entitled 'Luther: Justification and/or Deification'. The course will, as the title suggests, try to get clear on the claim that Luther is a theologian of theosis, by getting clear about what state of affairs would make true a statement about the deification of a person. Accordingly, we shall start in the course by understanding justification in the tradition generally, and the late medieval options on justification. After this we shall read some of what the Finns claim about deification. Looking specifically at the Luther texts, we shall try to answer this question: Was Luther, as Mannermaa has suggested, a theologian of theosis? Please visit the Institute of Lutheran Theology web page at www.ilt.org for details. The course is in the new ILT Masters of Theology program. This degree is designed for those wishing to study theology beyond the M. Div. level. All are welcome. Any takers?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singular Divine Causal Statements

To say that 'John wrecked the car' is to make a causal statement. It is to say that 'John caused the wrecking of the car'. To make such causal statements truthfully demands that there is some state of affairs (or some states of affairs), on the basis of which, it is true that 'John caused the wrecking of the car.' So what is the "stuff" that makes true the statement? What are the truth-conditions of 'John caused the wrecking of the car'?

One answer is to say that there is a substance (object or entity) John who has a particular set of properties necessary (or necessary and sufficient) for the existence of the set of properties the car has. Here the basic ontological category is that of substance, with the change of properties that substances have being causally determined by the properties other substances possess. The properties of the relevant entities can include times and places such that 'A causes B' is true on the basis of some substance S having property set P - - picked out by 'A' - - being necessary and sufficient for some substance S* having property set P* - - picked out by 'B'.

An alternate analysis construes the basic ontological facts of causation as a relation of events. On this view 'John causes the wrecking of the car' is really elliptical for something like 'John doing x causes the wrecking of the car'. Accordingly there is event E (John doing x) and event E* (the car wrecking) such that E causes E*.

One of the problems of understanding causality has been our infatuation with the Humean account of causation and the "covering law" models that derive from him. Famously, Hume argued that a statement like 'John doing x caused the wrecking of the car' must be analyzed in this way: i) John doing x temporally proceeded the wrecking of the car; ii) John doing x is contiguous with the wrecking of the car; iii) and events (or substances having properties) like John doing x are constantly conjoined with events (or substances having properties) like the car wrecking. This regularity theory of causation was regnant through much of the last century, giving rise to the notion of "covering laws." Accordingly E causes E* if and only if there is a universal generalization to the effect that 'for all y if y instantiates E then y instantiates E*. This cannot merely be an accidental universal generalization, however. It must be a nomic regularity. It must carry the force of necessity of a particular kind.

Ignoring all the important details, one might claim that the analysis of a singular causal statement presupposes universal hypotheticals, on the basis of which the singular causal statement is true. Accordingly, singular statement S is true if and only if S can somehow be seen as an instance of L: S is true by virtue of L. Of course, the standard Humean regularity theorist wants to go no further than the existence of the regularity. It is unexceptional that force between two objects equals the gravitational constant times the product of the mass of those objects over the square of their distance. This is a bare fact about the universe. That in some particular instance referred to by singular causal statement S, the mass of the two objects times the gravitation constant over the square of their distance gives the observed force is not surprising because, of course, this happens all of the time and this situation is an instance of what happens all of the time.

There are many problems with Humean accounts, but they are still held in favor by very empirically-minded philosophers who are not wont to ascribe ontological status to those entities quantified over in their theories. Anti-realists here can simply point to the fact that "this happens." This is the way that things are, and while we can have theories that might explain how those things are, those things will finally reference other "brute facts" about the way that things are. Of course, any one seriously interested in allowing 'God' to be a term in a singular causal statement cannot subscribe to a Humean or neo-Humean position on causation. If it is true that 'God caused the universe to be', this is a singular event. There is no covering law that this statement can instance. When it comes to talking about God and God's relationship to the world, we must - - if we allow truth-conditions at all to such statements - - understand the statements as both irreducibly singular and causal.

So to say that 'God's word caused the universe to be' is to claim that some state of affairs exists such that that statement is true. This state of affairs seems, plausibly, either to have to be the existence of a divine substance with properties, or an irreducible event. But clearly, God speaking cannot be ingredient in an event, if we mean by 'event' what is standardly meant by 'event'. Presumably, time began with the creation of the universe. Accordingly, so did events. Before time there could not have been events - - whatever could be meant here by 'before' - - for the precondition for eventhood was not present. Thus, it seems, we must give an analysis of the divine in terms of substance and properties. There seems to be no other way than this to proceed.

So to say that 'God spoke the universe into being' is to say that 'God's speaking caused the universe to be', and this is to presuppose as truth-conditions a substance God having the property of speaking - - whatever might be meant by that - - the existence of which is both necessary and sufficient for the world to be. This view nicely supports the counterfactual that if there were not a universe, God would not have spoken it into being.

Of course, in the contemporary theological discussion, few want any longer to analyze the semantic conditions of 'God created the heavens and the earth' in the way I have just suggested. While many would talk about the meaningfulness of the statement, they would have difficulty in specifying precisely the conditions that would make it true or false. But meaning and truth stand together. One can't have one without the other, it seems. To the degree that theologians have divorced the two, to that degree the language of theology has become, to use Wittgenstein's phrase - - a "wheel idly turning.'

The necessary condition of theological language not becoming moribund is for it to reassert its traditional commitment to truth-conditions. Such a recommitment to truth presupposes a determinate ontological situation, and it is this situation that must be investigated. What I have suggested here is very simple: To claim that "God created the heavens and the earth' is true is to claim that there is some being God exhibiting certain properties on the basis of which the universe, which might have not existed, does indeed exist. But making assertions like this takes considerable courage. Lamentably, there has been far too little courage in recent decades on the part of those within the theological guild.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Evaluation of Bayer's Luther Book

Oswald Bayer's Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation is must reading for anyone interested in Luther and Lutheran theology generally. Ably translated by Thomas Trapp, this work was originally 30 hours of lectures for a general studies course at the University of Tuebingen in the Winter Semester 2001/2002. Bayer compares his work to a documentary film drawing on a deep repository of archival footage to present a topic from multiple perspectives. Like all documentaries, sustained scholarly examination must sometimes be sacrificed to achieve an orderly, organic presentation.

Bayer claims that he is bringing Luther into a conversation with other truth-seekers, e.g., Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher (xx); he declares he is asking the questions: "What is true? Likewise: What has enduring value within the river of historical change? (xix) Accordingly, "his contemporary interpretation" is a "re-presentation in the double sense of the phrase." Firstly, the "historical subject matter,"which has determined the modern consciousness, must be brought again into modern consciousness; secondly, this subject matter must be examined from the perspective of its truth. Bayer's exploration relies upon over forty years of research into Luther texts of various genres: "sermons, treatises, written polemics, table talks, lectures and dispositions; predominant are the three genres of catechisms, prefaces to biblical books, and hymns" (xix). As expected, Bayer does not disappoint: his work with Luther is masterful, and his systematic theological emphasis is everywhere apparent. Moreover, the book is highly engaging; easily readable by those who read neither Luther monographs are systematic theology tomes for a living!

Bayer divides his presentation into an Introduction presenting the "Rupture between Ages" of the old and new eon, a four chapter presentation on Basic Themes (e.g., Luther's understanding of theology, his understanding of the sinful human before the justifying God, the Reformational turning point in his theology, his understanding of the authority of the Holy Scriptures), and finally 12 chapters dealing with Individual Themes (e.g., creation, human being, sin, Christ, Holy Spirit, church, faith, the two realms, eschatology). Everywhere Bayer emphasizes the divine promissio, the promise made and kept by God, and the content and contour of private and corporate life lived on the basis of that promise.

There is so much to be praised in this book, and I am sure that most readers will be as thrilled by its publication as the both Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson are, both of whom are capable theologians contributing endorsements on the text's back cover. I enjoyed reading the book, and I learned from it as well. Bayer does succeed, I think, in combining sound Luther research with systematic theological investigation. But frankly Bayer's own question haunted me in the reading of the text: Is his interpretation true? What of sixteenth century are we leaving behind in finding that of "enduring value within historical change"? Moreover, is Bayer's own systematic program true? Is it internally coherent and consistent, externally applicable and adequate, and sufficiently fruitful for further research? I have lately been quite fascinated by the realization of the dissimilarity between the ontological and semantic presuppositions of theology in Luther's time, and the ontological and semantic presuppositions of interpreters of Luther's theology in our own time. I believe, in fact, that the emergence of the Kantian paradigm in theology over the last two centuries has made it difficult sometimes to understand Luther's theological work on its own terms. More importantly, however, the hegemony of that paradigm has made it difficult for contemporary theologians to engage deeply the fundamental questions of theology, questions that go to the heart of the question of whether or not theological language has truth-conditions.

With respect to this text, I wish to offer constructively four questions, questions that arise for most Christian believers today who have not learned the standard theological moves routinely practiced by theological practitioners downstream in the Kantian tradition. The four are these:

  • Is it possible to build systematic theology and a Luther interpretation on the basis of the primary use of theological language being performative?
  • Is it possible to account for the authority of Holy Scriptures in terms of the existential effect the texts have upon their readers?
  • Is it possible to deal with creation, either systematically or in Luther interpretation, without raising explicitly the causal question?
  • Is it possible to have Christian faith, (e.g., the faith of Luther), in the absence of explicit metaphysical commitments?

All of these questions are weighty, challenging, and clearly take us beyond what would normally be discussed in a review. However, each is incredibly important to evaluating the ultimate success of Bayer's Luther interpretation. If, as Bayer and many assume, existence is linguistically-constituted, then divine promises make all the difference in the world, not only to who we ultimately are, but to whom God ultimately is. If the being of the Word is a function of what the Word does, then one needs to be excruciatingly clear about the identity conditions of what the Word does, and those conditions that merely accompany, but do not determine, what the Word does. But seemingly, what the Word does is deeply dependent upon the cultural horizon of the time, a horizon itself constitute by presuppostional ontological, semantic and epistemological commitments. It is simply obvious that the Word will strike the heart differently if the auditor believes that there is actually a God that exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, a God who cares, who loves, and who ultimately is causally efficacious in salvation.

Perhaps this is enough said for now. I whole-heartedly recommend Bayer's book for general reading, and for use both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bayer on What Makes the Bible become Holy Scripture

Bayer believes that Luther's foundational thesis, Sacra scriptura "sui ipsius interpres," is not primarily a claim of the hermeneutical circle: the parts interpret the whole, and the whole interprets the parts. It is instead a statement of the effect the text has on one reading, hearing and interpreting it. Bayer, in fact, the text is best translated as, "the text itself causes one to pay attention" (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Introduction, p. 68). Bayer writes:
"The authority of Scripture is not formal but is highly material and is content driven. It is the voice of its author, who gives; who allows for astonishment, lament, and praise; who demands and fulfills. Scripture can in no wise be confirmed as having formal authority in advance, so that the content becomes important only as a second stage of the process. The text in its many different forms - - particularly in the law's demand and the gospel's promises - - uses this material way of doing business to validate its authority" (69).

This statement accords well, of course, with Bayer's claim that the Word is what it does. Bayer is stating that which to many contemporary theologians is obvious: There are no properties of the text that establish its reliability outside of the meaning of the text. That is to say, there are not syntactical or causal facts about the text considered apart from its meaning, that would properly dispose one to believe that what the text announces is true.

Bayer labors, of course, to defend the text's autonomy. The meaning of the text is not established or constituted in the act of interpreting it. The external meaning of the text confronts the reader and transforms her. The Bible is the Holy Scripture because of the power the Bible has to, as Luther says, "draw the individual into itself, and into its own power" (71).

Bayer thus makes the following claims:
  1. The authority of the text is wholly constituted in the meaning the text has with respect to my life.
  2. The meaning of the text is objective; it exists apart from my act of interpretation.
  3. The Spirit is involved in the delivery of the meaning of the text to me.

Notger Slenczka sums it up very well when talking about the normativity of the text: "The normative function of Scripture demonstrates its claim to be normative by basing it on the way it is existentially verified when it interprets itself, in the way Scripture conveys its own intended meanings" (quoted in Bayer, 77).

Generally, I am sympathetic with what Bayer, Slenzka, and many contemporary theologians suppose: The authority of the text is established by its effect on its reader. I am sympathetic because I know the problems of trying to argue for an artificer/artifact causal relationship between God and the text. However, if one could trace some kind of causal chain back from the text to God, as was done in former years, then some type of authority would be established such that the text's claims might be deemed reliable. When I say 'reliable' I am not claiming that each and every proposition of Scripture is timelessly true - - however, we might want to unpack that - - but simply that there is some epistemic warrant for regarding the text as saying what is generally the case with respect to the divine and God's relationship to human beings. My reflections often take me in this direction:

Imagine two texts s and p. (We shall allow s to be the bible and p to be some other text.) Now imagine cultural context c, such that s in c is part of a sufficient condition for bringing about existential meaning m, meaning that is of a life and death matter to me. (We can surely admit that the Holy Spirit does most of the causal lifting in this.) Now imagine p in c*. Clearly, there is no reason that p should not form part of a sufficient condition for m apart from the de facto non-operation of the Holy Spirit. It seems, thus, that Bayer's position, and that of all who suppose this way of moving forward, presupposes that as a matter of fact, the Holy Spirit will not provide casual input for p, even if He does so for s. The reason that the Bible is the Holy Scriptures, instead of some other book, is that the Holy Spirit is effective in it for realizing m, but not for the other book.

When one thinks somewhat carefully about these matters, one must thus distinguish between the descriptive observation that the Bible, and many other books, can strike readers with existential truth, and the prescriptive claim that the Bible ought so to strike one as having existential truth. Until we can give an analysis of why the Bible ought so to strike one as donating being and the meaning of one's being, we have not engaged the issue of what the claim to formal authority was trying to answer.

I can well imagine a time where the Bible does not strike many people as giving existential truth. This time has indeed happened in much of the first world. In what position is then the theologian left who has rejected all claims to establish the text's normative status solely in its effects upon people? Theologically, one must then say that the Bible is not the Holy Scriptures any longer, that it no longer has a normative claim upon us. One must wait then for new books that can engage the salvific situation of humankind. Those books, like those before, will be evaluated by their effects upon us, and thus new truths - - whatever we might now mean - - will be laid before us.

It is a tough time to be a theologian. It is important that we always realize how much is lost when we move forward in ways meant to avoid the problematics of Modernity.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Signum Philosophicum est Nota Absentis Rei, Signum Theologicum est Nota Praesentis Rei."

The words mean "the philosophical sign is a mark of an absent thing; the theological sign is a mark of a present thing." The proposition is recorded in the Tischreden of Luther (WATR 4.6666.8f), and it is used by Oswald Bayer (Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Introduction to state a general principle in Luther's semantics: "The signum itself is already the res; the linguistic sign is already the matter itself (52). For Bayer, the promissio that is the center of Luther's theology is unpacked by equating the word in language with the reality itself. In promises, words are not given either extensional (or even intensional) interpretations, but themselves are their own reality. This view of things - - which I have elsewhere termed the donational view of language - - is thought by Bayer to be the deepest presupposition of Luther's theological semantics, a view which Bayer claims is akin to the view countenanced by Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures later published as How to Do Things with Words: the notion of performative language. Bayer writes:

"In contrast to every metaphysical set of statements that teach about the deity, this assertion [e.g. "To you is born this day a Savior"] declares that God's truth and will are not abstract entities, but are directed verbally and publicly as a concrete promise to a particular hearer in a specific situation. 'God' is apprehended as the one who makes a promise to a human being in such a way that the person who hears it can have full confidence in it" (53).

In evaluating this we must remember, of course, that it has proven difficult in practice actually to distinguish clearly performative and constative assertions. Bayer's position, however, supposes they can be compartmentalized. He goes on to say, in fact, that the performative sentences of promissio, for Luther, must be sharply distinguished either from the descriptive or the imperative. Quoting again:

" . . . one cannot take the promise, which is not a descriptive statement, and transform it into a descriptive statement. Secondly, one cannot take the promise, which is not in the form of a statement that shows how something ought to be done, and transform it into an imperative. . . . the truth of the promise . . . .is to be determined only at the very place that the promise was concluded; more accurately, where it was constituted. This means it is located within the relationship of the one who is speaking . . . . and the one who hears. . . . If it is correct that the one individual is in the position of hearer in the relationship that is constituted by this promise, and if that is verified, it excludes the possibility that he himself can verify the promise. . . . To seek to verify this oneself would be atheism; it would be no different than for me to try to verify myself in my own subjective piety or if I would seek to verify myself by means of a defined atheism. In such situations a human being wants to speak his own truth about himself, but he makes God into a liar in the process" (54-55).

There are a number of claims made here that must carefully be distinguished and examined. That there are such statements as "I promise to pay you $1000" is, of course, true. That such statements cannot be fully analyzed into a set of descriptive statements is true as well. Reporting is a different linguistic activity than promising. And that such statements are not themselves reductively analyzable into a set of imperative statements is true also. However, one must distinguish between a reduction of the performative to the descriptive and the imperative, and an unpacking of the palpable presuppositions that the performative has, presuppositions that are statable in terms of the descriptive and imperative.

In "I promise to pay $1000", the following statements are putatively presupposed: "I exist," "you exist," "$1000 exists," "I ought to pay you $1000." The first three sentences are descriptive, and the fourth imperative. Now notice that here the verba of the sentence do not themselves constitute the rem, but presuppose definite res: the existence of two agents, and the taking on of an obligation. This is not to say that 'x promises z to y' can be reduced to the existence of x, y and z, and a set of imperative statements concerning the three. There is more to promising than the taking on of an obligation. However, an obligation is nonetheless presupposed in the promising.

With regard to the promise of salvation "to me," it would seem that the same structure of presuppositions obtain: God exists, I exist, and some state of affairs to which 'salvation' properly applies exists (at least in a possible world) such that God is under obligation to bring about salvation to me. (This is rather jarring, of course, to think of God being under obligation, but it does seem like promising demands it. Maybe it is "analogical obligation" . . . . It seems that if God were to retain impassibility, promising could maybe not be attributed to God at all.)

But let us examine more close what Bayer has to say about truth and verification. He claims that the "truth of the promise is determined where it is constituted," in the one speaking and hearing. But what exactly, is this to mean? Clearly, Bayer here is not talking about a correspondence, coherence, or even pragmatic notion of truth. In fact, we are told, that the individual cannot verify the truth of the promise. To do so, moreover, would involve one in atheism. This claim demands analysis.

If 'Bob promises to pay me $1000 on April 1' and does not do so, he has broken his promise. This much is clear. Moreover, we would not normally say that his promise is true or false. It was, to use Austin's language, an "infelicitous' performative utterance, but it was not false. Truth or falsity does not append to promises qua promises. So it is not clear what the "truth of the promise" is supposed to mean. One could say that the promise was made, the promised being kept presupposed some state of affairs S, such that if S does not obtain then the promise is broken. Or alternately, one might say that the descriptively-stated presupposition for the keeping of the promise did not obtain such that that statement is not true. But this is not to say that the promise was false; it merely was not broken. One could then state whether it was true that the promise was broken. Such statements about promises have definite truth conditions; we can easily verify when they might be true or false. Bayer does not seem interested, however, in the truth-value of statements about felicitous performative promise statements, but rather about promises themselves.

Bayer's discussion of verification is quite an independent issue from putative presuppositions of promise-making. It might be atheism, I suppose, to claim that we can verify the truth of the descriptive statements that state of affairs S obtains such that S makes true the truth of the statement, 'God has kept promise P'. But I am not sure anything could finally count against the claim that God's promises are kept. One might, in fact, claim this as an analytical truth, or better, a rule by which we play the language-game of the Christian God. Clearly, there are a number of issues that Bayer needs to clarify.

Personally, I have always been chary of the move to an exclusive analysis of fundamental theological assertions in terms of performative utterances, a move that does not presuppose metaphysical and philosophical assertions like these:

  • There is a God
  • This God has intentionality towards His creation
  • One attitude of divine intentionality is promising, and promising keeping
  • Agents exist who are so constituted as to be cable of being promised to by God.
  • The ontological and semantic situations are different than epistemological one: Truth is logically distinct from verification
I invite others to post comments on this issue. I want someone to give me an example of a performative utterance that presupposes neither descriptive nor imperative utterances. It seems like this is necessary before one gets too excited about an analysis Austin gave for certain kind of utterances in 1955.

What Luther was talking about in the Tischreden concerns the ontological situation, not the semantic one. Luther knows that the language of theology must always refer to that which is present because, God truly is ubiquitously present in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Later in the text, Bayer makes clear, for Luther, that philosophy knows neither the efficient or final cause of this world. Perhaps Luther's statement quoted at the beginning of this post has more to do with this, than a general denial of extra-linguistic signification in the primary assertions of theology.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On the Performative, the Constative, and a Peculiar Move within Lutheran Theology

It has become commonplace within Lutheran theology to downplay the notion and use of descriptive true/false statements. While it is true that in natural languages we regularly assign both intensions and extensions to account for meaning and truth-conditions, there is a strong recent tradition in Lutheran theology that does not want to do this. Here we are told confidently that much of the language of Scripture is playing quite a different kind of game entirely, quite a different kind of game than uttering statements having truth-conditions. Citing How to do Things with Words, John Austin' text from over 60 years ago, some theologians find in performative utterances the key to unlock what it is that theology is doing when it is doing what it is doing most fundamentally.

The idea is simple enough: Constative utterances say something and performative utterances do something. Theological utterances are uttered between the demand of the law and grace of the gospel in the concrete existential situation of the believer before God. Thus, instead of the language about God being about truth and falsity, it is at best "felicitous or infelicitous.' For Austin, the marks of felicitous performative utterances include:

  • The existence of conventional procedure governing the utterance of certain words in certain situations;
  • The situations being appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked;
  • The procedure being executable by the participants correctly and completely;
  • Where to inaugurate the procedure depends upon the person inaugurating it to have certain thoughts and feelings, the person so inaugurating it must have certain thoughts and feelings, and all the participants involved must have the appropriate thoughts and feelings;
  • The participants conducting themselves accordingly.
If one or more of these conditions are not met. The performative utterance will be unhappy. Austin makes use of some examples:

  • 'I do' - - as in the course of a marriage ceremony.
  • 'I name the ship the Queen Elizabeth' - - as uttered when smashing the bottle against the hull.
  • 'I give and bequeath my watch to my brother' - - as occurring in a will.
  • 'I bet you a sixpence if it will rain tomorrow.'
For Austin, it is not merely the words themselves, but the words in the appropriate circumstances, with appropriate motivations, and appropriate conventions that bring about the happy performance. Presumably, the same is to obtain in theology as well - - though the conditions are not explicitly worked out.

Of course, Austin himself knew that the distinction between the constative and performative was difficult to maintain. Take for instance the claim, 'there is a dangerous animal here.' While it seems structured as a constative, in certain circumstances is it not elliptical for the putative performances: 'I bet there is a dangerous animal here'; 'I guarantee that there is a dangerous animal here'; or 'I warn you that there is a dangerous animal here'?

Because of this problem, Austin was working at his death upon clarifying the distinction between the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary as a substitute for the previous distinction. In stating what is by means of a locution, one is doing so with illocutionary force, that is, one is normally assuring, or warning, or ordering, or expressing an intention. The perlocutionary subsequently deals with the effects of the illocution in the feelings, thinkings, or actions of the audience, speaker, or other person.

We could at this point talk about how Searle revised his teacher's theory, but for our purposes what is important is to see that illuctionary acts make use of locutions in order to bring about a perlocution. That is to say - - using the early vocabulary - - a performative utterance has propositional content, an intensional or extensional meaning. Furthermore, the utterance presupposes facts and conventions, many of which can be explicated if one were to take the time. For instance, to say 'I bequeath my watch to my brother' with sincerity, presupposes that I have a watch, that I have a brother, that I intend a situation of my brother having a watch, and that there is a social convention whereby of bequeathing such that the state of affairs of my having my watch will give way to my brother legally possessing it.

Within some of these quarters of Lutheran theology an explication of religious and theological statements is given in terms of performative utterances in order, I believe, to escape the thorny question of truth. Thus, to say that "I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins in the name of Christ Jesus' is not thus to commit oneself to any specifiable ontological situation involving divine states of affairs, relations, properties, and events. It is rather a performance that, to use Austin's later terminology, has a perlocution. The hope is that the utterances can existentially empower without suggesting any "death-dealing metaphysics."

But a moment's reflection shows how wrong-headed it is to think that perlocutions are somehow psychologically independent of what is being asserted. If one has a social convention of bequeathal, it makes all the difference in the world to the perlocutions generated in the inheriting brother by this illocutionary act, whether he does have, in fact, a brother, and whether or not the brother has something to bequeath.

Analogously, having one's feeling and emotions affected by the declaration of forgiveness of sins has everything to do with whether one believes one has sins, and whether or not Christ is thought to be the kind of being that could in principle forgive them.

While Scripture is filled with what Austin would have at one time called performative utterances, this does not mean that one can escape the truth game. Truth pro me is still truth. I will be dealing with some concrete texts in coming posts. My purposes are entirely constructive. We must as theologians grasp the contemporary philosophical situation with respect to the philosophy of language, if we are going to be making moves in the philosophy of language that are to accomplish such heavy theological work.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

'God', Descriptivism, and Reference

In the last two blog posts, I have discussed some possible advantages to understanding 'God' as used by Christians as a rigid designator. Spurning the descriptivist view that 'God' just means 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit', I have suggested we might move forward theologically by delimiting the semantic content of the term. In this post, I want to discuss the descriptivist theory of naming generally and some of its well-known flaws. After briefly discussing the causal theory of reference, I will describe problems arising when when 'God' is regarded as a disguised definite description. Finally, I will discuss how it might be semantically fruitful causally to fix the reference of 'God' over various possible worlds.

When considering phrases like 'Frege is the author of the Begriffschrift', we can distinguish among the following:

  • The mechanism by which the word 'Frege' might attach to a particular object in the world.
  • The meaning of the term - - either construed as the mechanism by which reference is established or perhaps as the reference of the term.
  • The relation between the mechanism by which reference is established, or perhaps reference, and the truth-conditions of assertive sentences containing the term.
The question is this: How do singular terms, particularly proper names refer? What is the mechanism by which 'God' refers; what meaning does the term have, and how might assertions containing the term be either true or false?

Descriptivist theories of proper names claim a proper name like 'Frege' has an associated description - - which can vary from speaker to speaker and over time - - by which reference is accomplished. The mechanism on the basis of which reference is fixed forms, on the descriptivist theory, the meaning of the term or expression at hand.

Descriptivist views developed in opposition to Millian theories of naming, whereby the name was regarded to have no semantic content. Frege famously argued that 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star' gives informative content. Accordingly, material identity statements seem to cry out for an analysis in terms of descriptive content. 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' seem to mean different things, though they have a common reference. If the meaning of a term were simply its reference, then an informative identity statement is seemingly impossible. But it seems that informative identity statements are possible, therefore, by modus tollens, the meaning of a term cannot be its reference.

Or take 'Fred Flintstone does not exist'. If the meaning of 'Fred Flintstone' is its referent, than how can 'Fred Flintstone does not exist' have meaning, for the necessary condition for meaningfulness clearly does not obtain?

Or take 'Janet believes that Melanchthon, but not the author of the 1521 Loci Communes, wrote on rhetoric'. If 'Melanchthon' and 'the author of the 1521 Loci Communes' have the same referent, how can Janet, a supposed rational agent, hold the statement to be true?

On a descriptivist view, these problems seem to dissolve. For instance, it is different semantic content that makes 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star' informative. In 'Fred Flintstone does not exist', 'Fred Flintstone functions as a description that is not satisfied. In 'Janet believes that Melanchthon wrote on rhetoric, but not the author of the 1521 Loci Communes', it is because Janet associates different semantic content to each of the terms that the statement is true.

But Ruth Barcan Marcus, and later Saul Kripke, argue subsequently (and persuasively) that names do not have semantic content after all, and thus are not semantically equivalent to any description. For both thinkers, proper names refer directly without mediation of an associated description. For Kripke, not only proper names, but also definite descriptions and natural kind terms (e.g., sheep) rigidly designate their bearers. Kripke points to three problems with descriptivist views: the epistemic problem, the modal problem, and the semantic problem.

The epistemic problem is the problem of unwanted necessity. Suppose that Bob knows that the Morning Star is the Evening Star because he knows they refer to the same thing. Then to Bob, adjusting his associated descriptions, it would seem that 'Morning Star is Evening Star' is necessary. But clearly this is not necessary, thus a descriptivist account is false.

The modal problem arises when the application of descriptive content to names produces absurdities in counterfactual situations. Imagine that to the word 'Fred Flintstone' we associate the greatest cartoon figure of the 1960s. Then were Fred Flintstone not to have been invented, 'Popeye the sailor lived in Bedrock' would be true - - if the description 'greatest cartoon figure of the 1960s were now satisfied by Popeye the sailor.

The semantic problem emerges when a description is falsely associated with a name. Take, for instance, the description 'the author of the Speculative Grammar'. Tradition has it that Duns Scotus was the author. But it may have been Thomas Bradwardine. Thus, if one were to say 'Duns Scotus died in 1308' and have as the associated description 'the author of the Speculative grammar', then the statement would be false because Thomas Bradwardine died in 1349.

The fact that names have no semantic content is consistent with a causal theory of reference, a theory that allows for a neo-Millian approach to proper names. According to the theory, in a reference-fixing event there is a dubbing of a name to a bearer, a relationship that is then causally transmitted linguistically. 'Aristotle' thus names the individual writing the Metaphysics in this world, while it names the same person in other possible worlds who did not write the Metaphysics. Instead of demanding a criterion of transworld identification that would pick out the same individual in different possible worlds, the proper name rigidly designates the same individual in all possible worlds - - not by virtue of a description, but through causal reference.

How does the descriptivist account fare with respect to the term 'God'? Plausibly, we might claim an associated description of 'God' as the sum total of all positive properties to the infinite degree. Accordingly, 'God' would pick out in each and every world that being that has the available properties and degrees instantiatable in that world. Obviously, a world in which there is neither goodness, love, nor even thought would have a very different being satisfying the description 'God'. To say, 'God could have created a world without goodness' demands that this God is instantiated in possible worlds without goodness, not simply that some being or other fulfills the suitable description in other possible worlds - - some without either matter or thought.

Of course, the idea that 'God' names the same being in all possible worlds in which He exists suggests that there is some ontological contour to God, a contour projectible across possible worlds. While this individual divine essence cannot be wholly specified, the fact that one names this God rather than that one suggests an ontological contour to the divine. More to the point, to say that 'God is good' is to say that the individual referred to by 'God' in all possible worlds in which that individual exists is identical to the instantiation of goodness - - whatever "the instantiation of goodness" quite means. All properties of God are accordingly essential to God, and they apply to God necessarily.

It is critically important to disambiguate logical, conceptual and metaphysical necessity here. While the freedom of God implies that God could have done other than what God did in fact do (and thus that 'God is good' is neither a logical nor conceptual truth), the way that God is constitutes God's essence in this world and in every world where this God is. Given the choice God has made for human beings, God's contour is metaphysically necessary for God to be God. From the standpoint of the reference of 'God', God could still have been other than good, for it is logically possible for God to have done other that what God did. While human beings generally know God as 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit', in salvation history the reference of 'God' is accordingly fixed such that it is now metaphysically necessary for God to be good. This necessity, however, is intraworldly, it applies to those world's in which the conditional 'God established covenant x' is true.

Another way of saying this is that God is identical to love and goodness in all metaphysically possible worlds, but not so in all logically or conceptually possible worlds. The set of metaphysically necessary worlds is a subset of the set of logically necessary worlds. There are worlds in which God could do x that are not metaphysically accessible by the God who is who He is, and will be who He will be. The question concerns now the "bare particularity" of the divine, the One who in being other than who He is, could have still be somehow still Himself.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Luther, Ontology and Rigid Designation

I had a conversation yesterday with someone following this blog about whether or not yesterday's post Luther, God, and Rigid Designation, somehow was in conflict with the things I have earlier said about Luther and ontology. I want to clarify. Italic

To say that the locution 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit' fails to conform to the semantic situation presupposed by the potentia dei absoluta, is not to argue a different metaphysical or ontological point than I have previously made. We must distinguish from divine states of affairs and how they states of affairs are referred to or picked out. My point was that 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitare possit' fails to allow projections of this God of Christianity into counterfactual situations like the following: 'God might have not willed theft to be a sin'. Clearly, the Nominalist insight is that it is of the nature of God that He could have done other than what He in fact did do. Accordingly, it is not necessary that God would have established a covenant with his Chosen People. It is precisely this radical contingency within the deus nudus that forms part of the experience, I think, of the deus absconditus. God in his awe-full majesty is at work in the apparent contingency of the world. The contour of His unbridled, but hidden will, cannot be domesticated by human thought and rationality.

This being said, God has from among possible worlds actualized this world, a world in which He is present in Christ as provident and beneficient. It is in this world that God is known to be constituted as Trinity. But once this fact is known, we can claim that this God is a Trinitarian God in all possible worlds. While 'that which none greater can be thought' picks out the Trinitarian God contingently, the locution does not constitute the essence of this God. Analogous to Kripke on the essence of water, we might say that the essence of God is to be Trinitarian, and mean by that that in possible worlds where Trinity is not established, neither is God, that is to say, in all possible worlds, the Trinity is instantiated if and only if God is instantiated.

None of what I say here undercuts that claim that God has a particular nature, an ontological contour, and that the truth-conditions of theological language, with appropriate qualification, allow for this contour either to be rightly or wrongly stated. In other words, the notion that 'God' could be understood as a rigid designator is fully consonant with the assertion that Luther was both a theological and semantic realist, that he held that God exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and that language about this God is in principle capable of being true or false. What is lost in the semantic content of rigid designation is, in fact, gained in the metaphysical situation. Ontologically, one can be as robust as one wants, as long as 'necessity' as applied to God is not understood as logical or conceptual necessity, but as an intraworldly metaphysical necessity.

In other words, what I was trying to suggest in Luther, God and Rigid Designation is that the semantic notion of a rigid designator might be helpful in thinking through the radical freedom of God presupposed in late medieval Nominalism, and insofar as that divine freedom was, in fact, presupposed by Luther. I still claim that Luther is not a radical nominalist when it comes to his thinking about God, particularly his Christological thinking. Here, it does seem to me, that he needs to grant ontological status to natures, and cannot merely reduce them adverbially to ways in which the one divine-human entity is constituted or behaves.

I hope this clarifies the matter.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Luther, God, and Rigid Designation

Famously, Luther differed from Thomas in holding that God's power extended over the laws of logic. Thus, while Thomas could so that not even God could make a square circle, Luther denied this, holding that if God truly is an infinite being with infinite power, the laws of logic cannot dictate what God can do, or how God might be. Here Luther shows his indebtedness to late Medieval nominalism. That tradition had distinguished between the potentia dei absoluta and the potentia dei ordinata, between God considered with regard to his absolute power, and God considered in so far as he has covenanted to relate to human beings in certain ways. While Anselm had confidently defined (or described) God as "aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit" ("that which none greater can be thought") the nominalists of the via moderna understood that this view necessarily limits the being and action of God to that which human must think when thinking God. Why indeed must God be the way humans think God? Do we not limit God's being when we think the Being of God must be the way that humans think God?

Luther follows the nominalists here in understanding that God is not merely an abstract entity. While it is characteristic of abstract entities to have the being that they have for human thinking, it is not so for living, concrete entities. Take, for example, the number '3'. If Russell is correct, and '3' really is 'the set of all triples', then the essence of '3' has been clearly, statically, and eternally been discerned and asserted. (Please excuse the use of 'essence' talk here!) In the same key, to say that 'God' just means 'aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit' is to clearly, statically and eternally uncover the essentiality of God in God's very Being. The problem, of course, is that God is unlike the number '3' in being alive: God is a dynamic, living, causally-efficacious being. To have causal powers, to enter into causal relations, and to actually live in time suggests a disanalogy with an a priori essentialist account of God. (Luther seems to follow the tradition in holding that all of time is eternally present in God.)

To say that there is a potentia dei absoluta is to say that there are things about God that might not neatly fall under the description aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari possit. If God is God, after all, God's being is logically prior to our thinking of God. This means, among other things, that God possesses a fundamental freedom that might not be able to be rationally described by human beings. A fundamental commitment to this voluntaristic insight underlies Luther's thinking on God. If God is God, then God is free to be whoever God wants to be. God's freedom is not found, pace Spinoza, in His necessary conformity to His divine essence, but in His will. It is the nature of divine will to be radically free, for if God is omnipotent, God can do whatever God wants to do whenever God wants to do it. Accordingly, to reidentify God across possible worlds cannot be grounded upon what God happens to do in any actual world. God's power and freedom strips away the logic of perfection advocated by Anselm and presupposed by Thomas. All such attempts at a "divine grammar" must be viewed only in regard to how actually God has chosen to act with respect to His creation. A logic of perfection must be a conditional logic, one granting the antecedent, "Since God has shown himself to be X, then we can conclude . . . " It is, of course, a ramification of the hiddeness of God that no conceptualist transworld identity is possible.

So how does one refer to the Deus Absconditus, the God hidden whom courses through all things, and without which things would not be as they are? What semantic and metaphysical theory of the divine is actually consistent with what Luther says in The Bondage of the Will and other places; what metaphysics of God conforms to the demands of the deus absconditus, the hidden God?

Many Lutherans have simply rejected thinking about the hiddenness of God because Luther has advised that one must keep one's eyes upon the deus revelatus, the God revealed in Christ, and that reflection on the hiddenness of God will necessarily take one's eyes off of the Sache, off of the wonderful gift that God has given His people in Christ. While properly theologically motivated, the problem with this approach is that for many today it is precisely the hiddenness of God that must be thought in order for it to be understood to be a good thing to avert one's eyes from this God. The locution 'hiddenness of God' is not merely metaphorical, but it is a description of a reality, the reality of a God who can do other than what he does, and who apparently often acts in ways dissonant from what a human logic of perfection would predict. In other words, God does not behave in ways seemingly in accord with what a confident unpacking of His divine nature would assume. (It is characteristic of living beings to be this way, I think.) So how to think about this hiddenness of God?

I think it plausible here to use the notion of rigid designation in referring to a God who in His absolute power has taken very different attitudes towards us in other possible worlds. The idea would be this. The ancient Jews encountered a God through an initial baptism in experiences like the burning bush. This God of the "I am who I am" was the God that brought them out of the House of Egypt, who gave them Torah, who spoke through their prophets. This God whom they encountered is not a God for whom a criterion of transworld individuation could easily have been given. The ancient Israelites were waiting to see how this God who was would be toward them; they were waiting for his revelation of himself to them.

It is this God whom Jesus called "my Father," and it is this God then who is named by the Triune formula. However, just as water was water before its essence was known to be H2O, and just as it is now impossible to identify water apart from its identification with H2O, so was God, truly God prior to it being known that God is the Father of Christ - - even though it is now not possible to identify God apart from his identification as the Father of Jesus Christ. God being the Father of Christ is an a posteriori necessity in the same sense as 'water is H2O'. Just as 'water' and 'H2O' rigidly identify in all possible worlds such that 'water is H2O' is a necessary identity statement, so do 'God' and 'the Father of Christ' rigidly designate in all possible worlds such that there is no world where the identity 'God is the Father of Christ' does not hold. In the same way it might seem counterintuitive the water must be H2O, so does it seem counterintuitive to hold that God must be the Father of Christ. But the counterintuitivity abates when one realizes that in one cannot meaningfully claim that 'water is not H2O' because then water would, of course, not be water. The same is true of God.

The upshot of all of this is that if one is to think about the essence of God at all, this essence is not going to be found in filling in 'that which none greater can be thought'. (This God would be pretty average anyway in ontologically impoverished worlds.) Rather, God's essence is to be the Father of Jesus the Christ. Now making this identification does not compromise the potentia dei absoluta because the Triune God could not have not been identified as the Father of Christ. If God is triune, then not being the Father of Christ is not an option in any possible world.

This God that is essentially Triune is not reidentifiable by a description or a cluster of concepts applied from world to world. This God is ontologically prior to description, because all description presupposes the conceptual machinery of this world and cannot describe or apply to the Being of God in God's self, that Being that is within God's power alone, a power that extends beyond the language and categories humans have to think it.

Experience of the hidden God presupposes that humans can refer to such a God. Understanding 'God' as a rigid designator makes such reference possible.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Identity and God

We often make identity statements where those things seemingly identified could have existed without being so identified. A putative example is 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star'. Presumably the identity here is contingent; while it is true that 'Morning Star' and 'Evening Star' pick out the same object, this is only contingently so. Presumably, there are possible worlds where 'Morning Star' picks out another object than Venus, and thus cannot be a co-referential expression with 'Evening Star'.

As is well-known, Saul Kripke argued four decades ago that we must in situations like this disentangle the relevant epistemic, metaphysical and semantic notions. Starting from the simple metaphysical and logical truth that identity is reflexive - - each and ever object and each and every term is identical to itself - - he argued that necessity applies to identity in the nature of the case. Each thing that is is necessarily identical to itself. I can imagine no possible word in which an object is not itself. I can not imagine a kind of thing not being the kind of thing it is, and I cannot imagine an individual thing not being the individual thing that it is.

Famously, Kripke argued that terms are "initially baptized" such as to apply to objects. Sometimes realization of this baptism takes time. 'Morning Star' was baptized to apply to the object in the sky that turned out to be Venus. The same is the case with "Evening Star'. So the truth of 'The Morning Star is the Evening Star" has the same logical and metaphysical status as the truth 'Venus is Venus'. Because of this, the two statements have the same modality; both statements are necessary.

Kripke terms words that pick out the same object in all possible worlds "rigid designators." Names are, accordingly, rigid designators. This is true of proper names like 'Hesperus' as well as common names like 'heat' or 'mean molecular kinetic energy'. Because 'heat' rigidly designates the same objective state of affairs as 'mean molecular kinetic motion', the statement that 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' has the same modal status as the statement 'the state of affairs designated both by 'heat' and 'mean molecular kinetic motion' is identical to itself'. While 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' is true in all possible worlds, it is not true that P's sensation of heat is identical to mean moleuclar kinetic energy. How heat is sensed is merely a contingent matter. Heat could have been sensed in such a way as not to feel hot, to feel loud, or not to be felt at all. Sensing by contingent beings does not change the objective reality of heat, or the objective fact that it is just mean molecular kinetic motion.

Kripke argues quite plausibly that if theoretical reductions like 'heat is mean molecular kinetic energy' are necessarily identical, if they are identical at all, then any putative theoretical reduction of pain to a particular brain state would involve a necessary, not merely contingent identity statement. Pain of type x would be thus be necessarily identical to neurophysiological actualization of type C. Moreover, it would seem, that the tokening of type x would be necessarily identical to the tokening of type C. Because the instantiation of the pain state x essentially involves its sensation, identities between pain and brain states are disanalogous to other kinds of theoretical identities. Whereas one can distinguish the sensation of heat from heat, one cannot distinguish the sensation of pain from pain. While it is a contingent fact that the sensation of heat has been correlated with heat by human percipients, there is no possibility of any contingency between the sensation of pain and pain. While the seeming contingency of statements like 'heat is mean molecular kinetic motion' can be explained by the fact that heat and the sensation of heat are only contingently correlated, there is no analogous method allowing identification of pain and the sensation of pain. In sum, to say that 'pain x' is brain-state y' is to utter a statement that we have no explanation whatsoever of how we could have failed to know it!

The question for the theologian is, of course, is the term 'God' a definite description like 'the inventor of bifocals' and thus something that picks out different objects in different worlds, or is 'God' a rigid designator? Do we not want to say that 'God' must be distinguished from our experience of God and surely the conceptual machinery we employ in picking out God? Has not the tradition's emphasis on the incomprehensibility of God presupposed that we are yet talking about something even when we have only a very inadequate conception of what it is that we are talking about?

It seems that we must perhaps claim an initial baptism of 'God' with that being who did a number of salvific things for His people, including being the Father of Jesus the Christ. Making this identification rigidly means that 'God is the Father of Jesus the Christ' is necessarily true in the same way the 'Morning Star is the Evening Star' is necessarily true. The question of human experience of God, and even the human conceptual apparatus to identify God - - I am thinking here about 'that which none greater can be thought' - - is a question that involves contingency. It is perhaps contingently true that 'God is that which none greater can be thought'. It is perhaps necessarily true that 'God is the Father of Jesus the Christ'. This is an interesting way to think about old terrain that all of us have felt has been well-established for a very long time indeed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On the Existence of God

One can talk about many things without claiming that those things exist. For instance, one can speak about imagined things (e.g., unicorns), fictitious characters (e.g, Sherlock Holmes), or even theoretical entities (e.g., charmed quarks). One can also talk about things that exist, but not in the way we might say other things exist (e.g., the set of all triples, the average American taxpayer, or the spirit of the Renaissance.)

In theology, it has become quite common to speak about God, or the being of God, without claiming that there is a being, God, that is. Theologians are quite adept, as it turns out, in talking about God - - even if they are not always able to specify what exactly they are speaking about in such talking. This has been true of philosophers as well, and was clearly true of that philosopher who in many ways set the stage for modern philosophy, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

It is clearly true that the secondary literature has been divided on whether or not Hobbes believed that God exists. While some see him as a defender of Orthodox Christianity, others find him to be the consummate atheist. In reading Hobbes, one often wonders if many doing constructive work in theology would actually disagree with much of what he says.

Like many theologians, Hobbes admits that theology deals with things "outside philosophy" and thus with things outside the realm of causal explanation. Moreover, he claims repeatedly that of such a God, we can have no conception, for the only way to have a conception of a thing is to first have empirical impressions of it, impressions from which there is a decaying sense of imagination, and upon which conception is built.

As with many theologians, Hobbes believes that supposed revelatory experience is not caused by an divine object. In fact, in The Leviathan he seemingly grants no possibility that such visionary experience can be in principle veridical of something external to the experiencer. Speaking of that to which the name 'religion' applies, Hobbes writes:

"'Fear' of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publicly allowed, [is called] 'religion', not allowed, 'superstition'. "

He points out that dreams in stressful circumstances, when one is sleeping briefly, are visions - - whether they be visions of ghosts, goblins, or God. Hobbes further writes:

"To say he [God] hath spoken to him in a dream is no more than to say that he dreamed God spake to him, which is not of force to win belief from any man that knows dreams are for the most part natural and may proceed from former thoughts … To say he hath seen a vision, or heard a voice, is to say that he hath dreamed between sleeping and waking; for in such a manner a man doth many times naturally take his dream for a vision, as not having well observed his own slumbering" (Leviathan 32.6).

The important point, of course, is that Hobbes is offering a natural causal explanation for the existence of putative divine encounter. The supposed vision is, at root, the causal effect of antecedent and concurrent mechanical motions. While there could still be a God that one's putative knowledge could be about, this supposed act of knowing can trace no causal sequence back to an object that the supposed knowing purports to be about.

There could also be a God, even though Hobbes gives solid grounds upon which to base a causal story of why men and women are religious. In Leviathan Chapter XII (On Religion), Hobbes makes the following claims:
  1. Human beings are naturally inquisitive into the causes of things.
  2. We naturally assume something like the principle of sufficient reason, for anything that is, there must be some cause why that thing is.
  3. But humans cannot discern what are the causes of those most important things of life, thus they concoct such causes of them "as their fancy suggests," or as they find that other men and women suggest, who are deemed to be "wiser than [they] themselves."
  4. Men and women are thus in a state of perpetual anxiety in trying to figure a way to avoid the evils (that which they do not desire), and acquire goods (that which they do desire).
  5. The fear that men and women have because of their ignorance of the causes of things has driven them to embrace the ultimate object of fear: God.
  6. However, in Christianity it has not just been fear that has driven human beings to God, but also the desire to know the causes of "natural bodies, their virtues and operations." This has driven men and women to assert that "there must be . . . one first mover, that is, a first and an eternal cause of all things, which is that which men mean by the name of 'God'. . .
  7. The "spirit incorporeal" that human beings claim as the cause of things, about that they can form no image. The very incomprehensibility of the notion has led them not to reject the notion as unintelligible, but rather to worship it.
  8. This incorporeal substance, which men and women cannot think, has subsequently been borrowed in conceiving their own souls.
  9. Religion has emerged because of natural human ignorance of what causes things most important to human beings, from devotion to what is ultimately feared, and from a natural tendency to project causal connection improperly upon the universe, a projection that gives rise to putative prognostication.
While natural science explains and predicts quotidian phenomena properly and rightly, religion explains and predicts the most important and significant phenomena of human life improperly, and wrongly.

I have labored a bit to present Hobbes' views simply because they are not something that many theologians would reject, though they may not be comfortable in speaking as forthrightly as Hobbes. Theologians often begin their work not with a rejection of the prophets of post-modernity (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), but with a tacit acceptance of their central argument. Human beings project the notion of God on the cosmos in order to buttress themselves in the face of their radical ontological insecurities. The radical contingency of human existence leads humans to search for religion as a way to either deny or cover-up this basic existential insecurity. Constructive theologians then move to embrace an assertion of God consistent with an underlying commitment to the causal closure of the physical, to the assertion that for all x, if x is a natural event, then there was some y, such that y is a natural event causing y, and that for all natural events x, if x is to cause any other event, that event caused must itself be a natural event.

I think that commitment to an underlying naturalism while yet espousing the power of the Word to save and transform is finally a commitment to an unintelligible intellectual position. It may be that Hobbes was no more bloated in his ontological inventory of the divine than many contemporary theological thinkers. Perhaps he just was more honest.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Certain Confusions Concerning Faith

To the question, "How do I know that my Redeemer lives?" some facilely respond "by faith." But what is this "by faith" whereby they know that there Redeemer lives? This is a question perhaps we have not explored deeply enough - - or at least not deeply enough in those areas which are by nature rather deep.

Lamentably, those responding to the question often make a fundamental kind of error, somehow believing that faith itself forms some perceptual-revelatory content whereby they are put in touch with the objectivity of the Word. The Word is imagined to be a content for thinking, willing, and doing, a content that faith somehow displays. Lutherans, of course, have always stressed the externality of the Word over and against its subjective appropriation. Because the Lutheran theological tradition has thematized externality, one would think it difficult were it to cast its eyes upon those having faith, were it to look upon the contour of faith rather than what faith is about. Clearly, for Lutherans, the reification of faith must be averted.

For this reason, believe, is perhaps helpful to think of faith adverbially. Like the adverbial theory of perception, an adverbial theory of faith would understand its subject as a way of being given, rather than as a content of givenness. In order to see this, let us review the distinction between the phenomenological experience of the subject's sense-data, and the way that the subject might know objects in the world.

Classically, sense-datum theorists claimed that there was something definite that was known perceptually, a phenomenological content that then could be judged as to how it related to the world. Accordingly, the world is conceived to have a definiteness to which the sense datum is related. Sometimes called an "act-object" theory of perception, the problem easily became how how to connect the givenness of the object of the act of givenness to the external world. It seems, in fact, that a type of perceptual dualism can easily arise, a dualism that holds between the sense-datum objects, and the putative mind-independent objects somehow causing them.

Adverbial theorists, however, take another avenue entirely. Instead of claiming that there are mind-dependent sense-datum objects interposed between the act of perception and the mind-independent external order, the adverbial theory declares that perception is of the external world, and that the thing putatively experienced, according to the sense-datum view, is merely a way in which the mind-independent world is experienced. It is not the experience of X that is present for an act of cognition or perception, but that the act of cognition or perception is a way of experiencing the world in a X-ly fashion.

An example might be helpful. According to a sense-datum theory, I can be given a red spot - - whether or not there is such a spot in the world. What appears to me is a red spot. The adverbial theory, alternatively, claims that I am experiencing the external world in a red-spottedly way, that is to say, I am being appeared to red-spottedly. While the theory successively opposes ontologizing perceptual content, it unfortunately does not adequately deal with the what exactly it is to be appeared to red-spottedly. While there is now no mystery how to get to the mind-independent world from an act of consciousness, there is great mystery in knowing precisely what the act of consciousness is by which one knows the world.

While neither the sense-datum and adverbial theories are cutting-edge these days in the philosophy of perception. their existence is useful for thinking through the nature of faith.

One might claim that faith provides a content in being "interposed" between the Word grasped and the subject grasping the Word. Accordingly, faith has a content that can be encountered, a content present to the subject that is in some way "caused" by the Word. Just as the mind-independent external object causes the putative sense-datum that is itself the object of the act of percepient's perceptual act, so too does the Word cause the content of faith, a content that is itself the object of the believer's act. Accordingly, there is an ontological priority to the Word over what the Word creates: the believer's faith. On this view, faith is made a substance, it is ontologized to become a thing existing between the believer and the Word.

But Lutherans would do best not to go down this track. Instead, it is far better to think of faith as a "way-of-being" the believer, as the way that Word is grasped by the believer. The Word is not available to us as a perceptual/conceptual content of the act of the believer's consciousness, but rather we are appeared to Word-ly. Faith is not an apprehension of the Word, but rather the Word's apprehension in us. Through faith we are appeared to Word-ly. Our experience of the Word is not a state in us that we can know, but rather is that by which the Word is itself known. Faith is not a theological reality, but the way in which theological reality is grasped. Accordingly, we are justified by grace not because of faith, but because our justification by grace happens faithfully. We are justified propter Christum, not propter fidem - - less anyone should grow confused.