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 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.