Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Institute of Lutheran Theology's Masters of Sacred Theology

Readers of this blog soon realize that I have theological interests.  This is why I continued to be engaged in the building of the Institute of Lutheran Theology, a new Lutheran School of Theology centered in Jesus Christ which profoundly engages questions of theological truth as they relate to our contemporary intellectual and cultural horizon. 

Did you know that the Institute of Lutheran Theology offers a Masters of Sacred Theology, the Sacrae Theologiae Magister or STM?  This post-M. Div. degree consists of six graduate courses and a thesis (21 hours), and offers tracks in Reformation Theology, Contemporary Lutheran Theology, and Issues in Science/Religion and the Philosophy of Religion.  The STM allows motivated students the opportunity to pursue higher level coursework, either as a preparatory step for study at the doctorate level or as a means of professional development.  

ILT is offering two courses this fall in the STM program, a seminar in Pannenberg taught by Dr. Paul Hinlicky and the required methodology course taught by me. Course descriptions are as follows:
  • HST 590:  Contemporary Lutheran Dogmatics: Pannenberg's Systematic Theology:  This seminar examines all three volumes of Wolfhart Pannenberg's systematic theology. 
  • EPR 580:  Methodology and Approaches to Graduate Study:  This required course introduces graduate students to the standard critical approaches and issues relevant to doing successful and informed work in historical theology, contemporary theology and the philosophy of religion.   Students will read primary sources from both the continental and analytical traditions.  Historical, phenomenological, existential, hermeneutical, analytical, social-scientific and post-structuralist approaches are examined.
Students are expected to possess mastery of verbal and written English for course participation and written work. There are no other specific language requirements for the STM, but students researching particular areas will be expected to have working knowledge of the languages needed to complete their research.  Depending upon the student’s interests and project, this may include knowledge of Greek, Latin, German, French or another modern foreign language.  Because of the importance of primary text reading in the German sources, ILT occasionally offers theological German as a benefit to its students - - though the course does not count towards fulfilling the 21 hour requirement for graduation.

  •   HST 585:  Theological German.  Students wanting to do research in German may take this course which introduces the theological vocabulary and successful techniques of reading theological German.
Students from all religious traditions are invited to study.  All courses are delivered in real time and on-line through our video conferencing platform.  All students see and interact with each other and the professor.  For more information about ILT programming, please visit our website or call 605-692-9337. Students can still apply for fall admission into the STM program.  Our admission requirements are listed below.
  • Prior completion of an M.Div. degree, an M.A. in theology or closely related field of study, or a related degree demonstrating preparation for advanced theological work
  • Completion of application form
  • Three recommendations from individuals with knowledge of likely academic performance
  • Official graduate and undergraduate transcripts must be sent directly to ILT
  • (International applicants only) International applicants are required to submit a score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The score must be 550 or above, with an essayrating of at least 5.0, and cannot be more than one year old.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Semantics of 'Jesus Christ'

Oftentimes we miss the things that are most obvious.  This is true in all areas of life, and in theology especially.  What is obvious, but not often enough clearly thought through, is the way in which the meaning of 'Jesus Christ' has changed in the past couple of centuries.  There are vast differences in the way Bultmann and Irenaeus understand 'Jesus Christ', differences so vast that Irenaeus and Bultmann could best be said to understand 'Jesus Christ' in radically different ways.  Unfortunately, theology has often failed to realize this and to address the fact and nature of the difference.   In order to see this all more clearly, let us reflect upon an example from baseball. 

A pitcher in a baseball game is someone who throws the ball past the batter.   He would not be a pitcher if he were not to do this.   The implicit rule is something like this, "If x is a baseball pitcher, then ceteris paribus x will occupy a position y feet from home plate, and x will attempt to throw the ball over home plate such that the batter will either not hit the ball on three hitable pitches,  or hit the ball in the air such that it can be caught, or on the ground such that a throw can be made to first base prior to the batter reaching first base after hitting the ball."

Now I don't for a moment think this is a very accurate stating of the rule in question, but it should at least show what it is that I am thinking when I say that within the game of baseball, there are clear rules governing the role of pitcher.   If I am talking about the rules governing actual pitchers and batters and actual games, I could be said to be speaking of the rules in the material mode.   However, if I am talking about the way that the term 'pitcher' relates to other terms like 'hitter', 'catcher', 'innings', I could be said to be speaking of the rules in the formal mode.

One of the great advances of twentieth century philosophy was to see that much language we take to be in the material mode can be more deeply studied, and its nature clarified, if we interpret such language to be in the formal mode.   The shift from talk in the material mode of objects and properties to the formal mode of terms and predicates is sometimes termed "semantic ascent."  (For instance, we might cease talking about whether unicorns exist and began talking about whether the word 'unicorn' has any useful role to play in our theory.)  While undertaking a semantic ascent in baseball may have negligible ontological significance, doing so with respect to pi mesons certainly does. How so?

If we are operating in the material mode and say that a pi meson is a hadron with bayron number of 0, we are declaring (probably) that for all x, x is a pi meson just in case x is a hadron with the bayron number of 0, and there is some such x.  In the formal mode, and after taking proper semantic ascent, we claim merely that in our background meta-language the term 'pi meson' can be substituted salve veritate with the locution 'a hadron with the bayron number of 0' and that the term 'pi meson' has a useful role to play in our assumed fundamental particle theory.

I like to talk about simple semantic matters in the philosophy of science as a way into discussion within theology generally.   Take the classic definition of Chalcedon on the two natures of Christ:

"We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten — in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality [hypostasis]. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word [Logos], God, the Lord Jesus Christ."

Now one could regard this to be a class of statements in the object language making a batch of ontological statements about the person of Christ.   According to this interpretation, we must hold that there are such things as 'natures' comprised of classes of properties that append to the person (hypostasis) of Christ.   These natures are distinctive classes of properties that are famously neither confused, transmuted or divided, contrasted, but nonetheless somehow "united" in the one person.  It has be notoriously difficult to try to clarify the ontological situation here.

But one could perform a semantic ascent and place such discourse into the formal mode.   Now the Definition gets read as a specification of the rules by which one will use a particular language.  It is permitted that the term 'human' and term 'divine' both be predicated of the name 'Jesus Christ' even though the term 'human nature' has a set of entailments normally not in the set of entailments from 'divine nature'.   (One could perform this semantic ascent in myriad and sundry ways, so please excuse my clumsiness here.)

In the formal mode, the ontological commitments of material mode interpretation are jettisoned, and the issue devolves to one of proper application of rules.   Can a coherent set of rules be specified which permits the correct Christological affirmations and disallows those termed heretical?   If such rules can be specified, then we are in a position - - with much of the tradition actually - - to talk about a specific theological grammar.   The issue has become one of syntax.   How are the words of theological theory used?

Now I want to introduce another topic that will connect with what I have just said.  Notice how differently one investigates the ontological and the soteriological?   While a causal analysis is not entailed in the first, it is in the second.   Take, for instance, a set of abstract (existing) objects and the relationships that hold between them.   The set of all triples does exist and, for all I know, it may be identical with the number '3'.   One can make ontological assertions about these objects and no causal connection between them - - or between them and me - - is presupposed.   But notice how different it is to speak about Jesus Christ.   Here the very logic of discourse about Christ presupposes a causal connection with humanity - - including me.  Christ could not be Christ without there being a saving causal relationship with respect to me.    (Or at least this was true up until quite recently in the theological tradition.  Clearly a Tillichian could hold that the symbol of the Christ existentially empowers without saying that the symbol has in itself causal power.   The symbol in itself could be causally inert, yet a particular subject could respond to it in a particular way.  This would make the symbol an abstract object.  This understanding of 'Christ' is, I would argue, quite different from that of the tradition.)

Now I wish to introduce a final topic.    Philosophers of science routinely distinguish realist from nonrealist interpretations of scientific theory.   A realist with respect to pi mesons would regard the material mode presentation of pi meson theory - - theory in the object language - - to be making ontological claims about the way that the world is apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language.   An irrealist interpretation would note the way that the object language of the theory behaves and understands that this behavior could have explanatory and predictive power - - in terms of the ways the rules work - - but would nonetheless not want to claim that in the nature of the case the world has such objects, properties and causal relationships specified by the theories.

Finally we come to the point.   The semantics of 'Jesus Christ' at the time of the Definition assumed a material mode reading which was thoroughly soteriological.   As the tradition developed and, in particular, was transformed by the Enlightenment, this original material mode ontological interpretation was increasingly transformed to a formal mode interpretation.   (This argument can be made, I think, though there are a great  many prima facie objections to this generalization that must be met.)  As we moved away from the nineteenth century and its penchant for various forms of reductionism in theology, we entered into a phase of twentieth century theology that would assume - - whether it said so or not - - a regnant  formal mode interpretation of theological language.   What was important was the regular ways in which theological language was employed and the use to which it was put, not the ontology associated with a classical understanding of that language.  (How else could metaphysics become disassociated from theology?)   Theological irrealism could be made completely consistent with the correct use of theological language.  As Wittgenstein trenchantly remarked, "What is important here is that the language-game is played."

The thing that is closest to Lutheran theology is the meaning of 'Jesus is the Christ'.   It is this meaning, I argue, that has been fundamentally changed over the past centuries.   Though the language-game continues to be played, and the rules can remain in principle specifiable, an unnoticed move to the formal mode has in reality happened.   That this has happened is evidenced by how ontology has become divorced from eschatology.   Eschatological/soteriological interpretations of theological language that are confidently assumed to not be ontological clearly evidence that the previous material mode interpretation of theological language has become in actuality a formal mode interpretation.   No longer even is it deemed theologically central that theological realism hold, a realism that would have seemed necessary to the tradition if one were to have any real soteriology.   

What has happened on our watch is that we have allowed the language of theology to remain formally correct while we have come to deem it relevant that it in fact refers!   But clearly in the theological tradition reference was central to the question of the semantics of  theological language.   Unlike irrealist interpretations of scientific theory, realism in theology becomes necessary to hold the semantics of theological language consistent with the theological tradition.  



Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Interpretive Center

People sometimes remark that I oftentimes seem to write about putative philosophical issues rather then staying directly on task and use the theological language of our great Lutheran tradition.   Why would this be?  Is it that I somehow am not interested deeply in the traditional objects of Lutheran theological reflection?

No, this is not true.   I believe that the center of Lutheran theology is the proclamation of the free grace of Jesus Christ appropriated in faith.   When serving in the parish, I preached this each and every week.   I believe that the external Word interprets itself, striking the human heart both as Law and Gospel, and that through this Word we are justified and made free lords before God and dutiful servants to one another.   I believe that the great ecumenical creeds of the Church make definite truth-claims, and I routinely confess their truth.   I believe that Jesus Christ was true God and true man, and believe in Lutheran fashion in the genus maiestaticum, as well as the genus idiomaticum and genus apotelesmaticum.  So why talk about all of the philosophical issues if this theological core of beliefs is at the center of things?

The reason I am interested in discussing philosophical issues (mostly semantic and ontological) is because while Lutherans can still say all of the right things, they don't necessarily mean by these things what Lutherans once meant.

But why should this be a problem if all the same things are confessed?   Surely there can be different philosophischen Rictungen among confessing Lutherans.   After all, did not Wilhelm Hermann famously argue that metaphysics (and its variations) are irrelevant to solid, Lutheran confessional theology?   Did not the young Luther scholar Wilhelm Link, (who died much too soon in the war) argue that Luther claimed the same thing?  Isn't the greatness of Lutheran theology found in the freedom of interpretation in one's confessions?   Surely, we ought not to confuse the left hand and the right hand of God, the hand of reason, law and philosophy, and the hand of faith, grace and theology!

Luther in his various disputations would occasionally quip that what was finally important in disputing was an agreement not merely in speech, but in the things (in res).  An agreement as to what is held or asserted has been crucially important in the development of doctrine generally and within the Lutheran Confessions specifically.   The question is this:  How does this Lutheran commitment to the truth of propositions from the tradition and the Confessions get appropriated in our time?   My considered opinion is that there is a great deal of confusion here, and my fear is that this confusion could be disastrous for the future of Lutheran theology. 

When one plays baseball, one plays by baseball rules.  There are three outs per side, both teams batting once constitutes an inning, and there are nine innings in a game.  (I am thinking about the major and minor leagues with respect to this last point.)   Proper theological language has rules as well.   One must know how to use the word 'Father' and the word 'Son'.  Specifically, one must be able to say 'The Son is God', 'The Father is God', without saying 'The Father is the Son'.  Rules permitting the right expressions in the right linguistic circumstances and prohibiting the wrong ones in the wrong circumstances are notoriously difficult to formulate, but there is little doubt that there exist some set of rules that undergird the modus loquendi theologicus.   

So far so good.   One could in principle formulate a theological game as well as a game of black hole theory.   Within contemporary cosmological theory, certain terms occur in particular statements and not within others.  Prima facie there does not seem to be much different between the formal structure of a Trinitarian language and that language of any heavily theoretical discipline.   There is a proper and improper way of using terms and phrases.   The question now confronts us:  Are the semantics of the two games the same?

On this there is much difference of opinion, of course.    Many would say that there is extra-linguistic set of referents to which the language of black holes is anchored that is not available for the theoretical language of the Trinity.   But why would this be so?   Why would one think there is some res that black hole theory has the theology does not have?    One would not think this - - unless one had previous opinions about what is possible ontologically for the Trinity over and against black holes.

Since the time of the Enlightenment, there has been an increasing sense in the former Christian West that the language of theology does not make truth claims.   While most within popular culture - - I am not talking here about philosophers of science - - would claim that there are clear truth conditions for black hole theory, they would not, if they reflected some, claim easily that there are similar truth conditions in theology.  The reason, of course, is that for tens of millions of people theological language simply can't be making truth claims because such language is an expression of individual and cultural value.  There simply is no realm of theological facts such that the rules of theological language can govern a linguistic usage that can bring the language into contact with a domain of extra-linguistic referents.  The fact/value distinction is wholly enshrined within contemporary culture, and this descendent from the Enlightenment must be dealt with before theological language is afforded the same opportunity to refer as the language of black holes.

My claim has been and continues to be that the interpretive center has been lost within much of Lutheran theology in the first part of the twenty-first century.   The problem has been that a general cultural/intellectual commitment to the Enlightenment paradigm, especially Kant, has led millions to presuppose different semantic possibilities for that language than that which generally characterized the tradition.   I am not saying that much of this is explicit.  (Increasingly few people even know the name 'Kant'.)  But middle school children learn that science is about facts and religion is about values.   They don't know the torturous intellectual history that brought civilization to this "insight."  They are taught this fact/value distinction as if it fell from the heavens.   It is part of the Enlightenment paradigm, a paradigm that functions as the default ontological posit of our time.   What I am saying is this: To continue to divorce theology and metaphysics and to allow the fact/value distinction to stand inviolate, is to allow theological language not to be about truth, and it is thus to allow theological language to assume a different semantics than it previously had.

The Institute of Lutheran Theology is grounded in Scripture and Confessions.   It holds assiduously to classical confessional Lutheran theology.  Professors at ILT are passionate about their commitment to Scriptural truth and authority as it is known and understood through the hermeneutical lens of the Confessions.   While students are exposed to the great Biblical exegetes and the great theologians of the tradition, they learn the most important thing, I believe, that a school of theology can impart: ILT believes that it is true that God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and that because of this truth we have good grounds to preach and teach in His Name.     

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Lutheran School of Theology for our Times

Many of you know that I have been intimately involved with the effort to birth a new Lutheran School of Theology.    It was, in fact, in 2006 that I began in earnest to work with others in forming the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT)It is now six years later and ILT ( has moved from the nascent, through the initial fledgling, and into the mature fledgling stage.  We are a staff of thirteen individuals, some living in Brookings, SD, but others living in places as diverse as Annapolis, New York, and Irvine, CA.   We are a permanent faculty of nine with more than a dozen adjuncts teaching for us regularly.  We are governed by a Board of eight prominent individuals from all parts of North America.  This fall we are are expecting between 40-50 students studying in our degree and pastoral certificate programs.    

ILT has been making strides in building its academic programs.  We now have Masters of Arts degrees in Biblical Studies, in Theology, and in Religion, as well as our Masters of Divinity program.   We are very excited about our Masters of Sacred Theology degree which allows students an opportunity to get a theology degree beyond the Masters of Divinity.   This fall in the STM program, I will be teaching the Methodology course and Dr. Paul Hinlicky will be offering a Seminar on Pannenberg's three volume systematic theology.  While ILT is still in its infancy, it is growing quickly.    

I believe the ILT is a Lutheran School of Theology for our times.  Why?   The answer is simply that it fits nicely the post-modern context in which it finds itself.  Modernity was a time in which the general commitment to the ideals of reason and objectivity tended to push theology in the direction of finding underlying commonalities among traditions.   Notably, in the nineteenth century, attempts were made to ground all religion upon underlying structures of human feeling, morality, will or thinking.  While the anthropological starting point was rejected in the twentieth century generally, it proved clearly difficult to formulate within a modernist paradigm a theory of the "Wholly Other," an account of the otherness of God that nonetheless accepted the Kantian critique.

Within the Lutheran situation in North America, modernity did not until the last 70 years or so, globally undermine the putative objects of religious experience and reflection.  The trajectory of North American Lutheranism was dominated by another more modest and regional modernist impulse: the desire to find commonality in belief and practice and thus to form one large Lutheran denomination.  Lutheran ecumenism seemed to entail structural unity.  If two denominational trajectories could agree upon the same theological and ecclesiological principles, then they should become one trajectory.   Conversely, if two trajectories were not to become one trajectory, they must have determinate theological and ecclesiological differences.  Why else would they not become one?   And if they held determinately different theological and ecclesiological views, then there  must exist theological institutions whose purpose it was, in part, to give legitimacy to the distinctiveness of the disparate trajectories.  Cooperation among seminaries across denominational lines was a risky thing indeed because it tended to undercut the legitimization of the disparate denominations themselves.   Moreover, for different denominational traditions to use the same seminary was to suggest that there was no reason for there to be different denominational traditions in the first place.

But new cultural winds have been blowing, winds that have tended to erode the grounds of universal reason and objectivity upon which modernity was based.   The result has been that increasing numbers of people are comfortable with contextualized, regional rationalities (and pluralism), and perspectivalism.   While in many ways destructive of the traditional intellectual enterprise of the West, in others ways this move to postmodernity has been a move towards intellectual liberation: No longer does a tradition have to seek its legitimacy by arguing against a universal rational yardstick that it has a closer approximation to truth than another tradition.  This externalist perspective is traded in for an internalist viewpoint:  One starts on the inside in a tradition and experiences and reflects upon the world from the inside.   There is no Archimedian view from the top - - a "view from nowhere."   There are only traditions with there traditional ways of interpreting the world.     Our resultant ideology of "inclusiveness in diversity" is built upon a postmodern scaffolding.  Institutions must be inclusive of various diverse traditions, realizing the full complexity of what a tradition is and how a tradition comes to see the world in a particular way.

ILT is not a seminary of any denomination, but is a School of Theology dedicated to serving various denominational traditions.  Its unity is found in its service to diverging theological traditions.  It is not owned by a denomination, but is an independent, Lutheran non-profit entity that safeguards its autonomy and works towards its accreditation.   Grounded in both Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, yet realizing there has been and always will be diverging paths of Lutheran interpretation on both Scripture and Confessions, ILT seeks to connect the best Lutheran professors to the most capable Lutheran students using the latest interactive video-conferencing technology. 

But the unity-in-diversity of ILT does have its limits in its interpretation of Scripture and Confessions.   We believe, in fact, that both sources presuppose the following:
  • There is a God who has its being apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. 
  • Propositions about God and God's relation to the world can be true or false. 
  • God and the world can be (and are) causally related. 
  • God's work in Jesus Christ cannot be confined merely to the realm of value, but also concerns the realm of nature. 
  • Scripture has both an external and internal clarity.  
Using these principles as a lens back to Scripture and Confessions, ILT dares to bring the traditional Lutheran confessional horizon into dialogue with the intellectual and cultural horizons of our day.   We believe that theology concerns truth of the deepest kind, truth that determines our being and non-being, truth that ultimately heals and saves all of humankind.  Jesus Christ is at the center of all we do at ILT.  Gloria ad Deum.    

Friday, May 25, 2012

Living Under the Epistemic Law

Clearly, it is plausible to claim that warrant is what separates true belief and knowledge.   The received view in epistemology is that knowledge just is justified, true belief, and while the post-Gettier literature has tried to tweak this a bit so as to avoid unintended counterinstances, the central idea remains intact: Something more than true belief is needed for knowledge, and this something more is what warrants the epistemic agent holding that true belief at all.  But what is this warrant?

Many hold that warrant connects generally to deontology as follows:  x is warranted for Y if and only if Y concludes x when acting on the basis of properly performing all of his/her epistemic duties.   The idea is that a proper concluding of x is somehow internal to Y-- that the relevant warrant-conferring properties are internal to Y, i.e., that Y's mental states are pertinent in concluding x. There are many ways to be an internalist, but normativity usually figures into to all of them in some way.   If one, broadly speaking, manifests proper doxastic practice, then one will have a greater probability in ascertaining truth.  Acting due to the proper rule or law of proper doxastic formation adds warrant to true belief and thus issues in knowledge.   (I am skipping over many philosophical details here in order to get at the theological issue.)  

Famously, William Clifford argued that it was always wrong everywhere to hold a belief without proper grounds or evidence.  In so arguing, Clifford committed himself to the importance of the epistemic law in achieving knowledge.   One's ship might make it across the ocean or it might not.   To say that one knows that it will do so without having proper evidence - - without properly performing one's pertinent epistemic duties - - is the mark of epistemic waywardness.   One only knows that it will so make it if one has done the relevant research, believes it will make it and it does so.  Absent the relevant research, even if it happens to make it across, one cannot say that one knew it, though one did believe it deeply.  The idea is that one is responsible for what one claims to know.   One cannot know that which one has not examined deeply.  Simply put, it can be clearly irresponsible to say one knows that the ship will make it even if it does, while one might responsibly hold claim to know that the ship will make it even if it does not.  Such epistemic responsibility is tied to the proper performance of epistemic duty.

There is thus a parallel between the proper formation of belief and the proper performance of an action, a parallel eschewing of consequentialism.  Just as the ethical deontologist holds that acting due to a moral principle in performing A clan be right even if the consequences of A are in fact deleterious, so does the epistemic deontologist claim that forming a belief due to properly performing one's epistemic duties is right even if the belief turns out to be false.  Everything rests upon the intentionality of the act.   Was the moral act done solely on the basis of the moral law?  Was the epistemic act done solely on the basis of the epistemic principle?  Deontology in epistemology makes knowing a matter of the law.  One must properly perform one's epistemic duties if one is ever to achieve knowledge.  Simply put, if one is to know x, one must do what one ought to do.   

But human beings have not been successful in doing what they ought to do.   While Bob should act on the basis of moral principle P, he does not so act.  Why?  Christians confess that there is a basic existential disruption that does not allow Bob to act as he ought.   Sin is that which prohibits the total consonance of "is" and "ought."

But what is true of moral action is true also of epistemology.   Why would anyone expect epistemic agent Bob always to act due to the proper epistemic principle?   There same is/ought gap exists in epistemology as it does in moral action generally.   "Oh, sinful epistemic agent that I am, those things I claim to know, I do not really know!"  Descartes famously argued that epistemic turpitude rests upon human beings having freedom to assert P or not assert P, and that unfortunately they do assert one (or the other) without adequate grounds.   (God does not have this failing having always adequate grounds.)   Epistemic waywardness is built into the fabric of human existence.    

Lutherans claim that the nature of the Law is always to accuse.  While I try to live my life in accordance with the proper moral principles, I cannot do so.   Thus, I am guilty.   Similarly and in an epistemic key, while I try to live my life in accordance with proper epistemic duties, I cannot do so.   Thus, I am guilty.

To be guilty is finally not to be who one deeply is.   As sons and daughters of God created in imago dei, we ought always to do that which would properly issue from one created in imago dei.   But we don't so act and thus we aren't so constituted.

Lutheran theology proclaims grace to all who stand guilty before the Law.   While we are not now who we ought to be, in God's sight - - i.e., the highest sight - - we become again who we should be.   The accusing Law is quelled through the effects of God's love of us.   Through Christ we are again who we really are even though, and despite the fact, we are not who we should be.  The way that grace makes us who we truly are, while we yet remain who we are not truly, is a subject of great controversy in the theological tradition.   The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic grace is important in examining these ways.  Is the grace which heals the disrupture something that human beings in some sense have (and on the logical basis of which a divine judgment is proffered), or is it some change of the divine judgment (on the logical basis of which human change is possible?   (We shall not go into all of the views here, but readers of the blog probably are familiar with most.)  

The question, however, of this post is this:  If there is a parallel between the moral and epistemic waywardness of human beings in that both the morality and epistemology ultimately depend upon the law, and if this law always accuses us because we are not the moral (and epistemic agents) we ought to be, and if our healing from the guilt of moral sin is due to grace (however, finally considered), then would it not be important for Christians (of a deontological internalist persuasion) to reflect upon what the contour of what epistemic grace might be?  If we cannot live up to our paridisical epistemic lights, and if living in accordance with these lights is what it is to have true knowledge of truth, then what divine grace might we expect in knowing truth?

On this way of viewing things, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil really symbolizes a fall into the deontological, both moral and epistemic.  Thinking through what knowledge could be before such a Fall is the theme of a later post.   It seems clear, however, that it cannot be a matter of deontology.

Friday, May 04, 2012


I must admit that I have always rather liked the transcendental option.   When the skies seem especially dark, it is tempting to think of divine presence on the transcendental horizon of our own experience.   This way of proceeding supposedly avoids the problems of subjectivism and pyschologism without committing one to finding God as an object among objects in the world and history, or looking for Him in some supernatural transcendent dimension lying out beyond the world and history.

I admit that I have not thought much about the transcendental starting point in recent years.   Instead I have been pondering how it is that in order to avoid an eliminativism of the theological, one must ascribe to it a robust semantics, one that is realist in its orientation. 

I want to relfect here a bit upon transcendentality and the semantic questions that arise when trying to articulate the position.   While the transcendental starting point is prima facie promising in trying to locate a place for God, the position requires a type of realist semantics that is difficult to formulate.   I will try to lay this out nascently below.

Transcendental Thomism was part of a general effort within mid-twentieth century Roman Catholicism to read Aquinas in ways that were not Neo-Scholastic in orientation.    The idea was to retrieve the Augustinian element in Thomas' thinking which would allow God to be found grounding the activity of human intentionality itself. 

Reflect for a moment on the grasping of any being.   The necessary condition for grasping determinate being is, for Karl Rahner - -  the most famous of the Transcendental Thomists - - that one have a pre-understanding, or a fore-grasping of Being in itself.   In every act of knowing any object, there is a transcendental condition consisting in the a horizon of pure being.   This horizon is the term of the Vorgriff, the end point of any fore-grasping.   The idea is very simple and maybe an analogy helps.  In order for a person to know that she is incarcerated in a particular cell, she must grasp beyond the cell to know what area she could be occupying if she were not limited by the cell wall to be in the particular cell she is in.  Without a fore-grasping of the "beyond," the incarcerated one would not know themselves as incarcerated at all.   Whereas Heidegger said that projecting into no-thing was the necessary condition for the thing to be thing - - and hence "nothingness is the face of being" - - Karl Rahner claimed that the totality of Being is the face of being.

The transcendental starting point fits nicely within the Augustinian key, within the general orientation of "the ontological thirst," that is, the thematization of the assertion that "my heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in Thee, O Lord."   Human beings are a dynamism towards Being.   This dynamism towards Being is the transcendental condition for the possibility of grasping the realm of determinate beings.

Very important in this approach is the overcoming of Neo-Scholastic dualisms between nature and supernature, the finite and infinite,  and nature and grace.   The transcendental horizon making possible human knowledge is not merely a thing of nature, nor merely a thing of grace, but it is a horizon of a continuum of nature and grace, a continuum where natural human striving gives way to the grace of God as pure Being, as that which is the authentic end of human striving.   For Rahner and followers nature is already graced; God is always already related to nature.  Grace thus is ingredient in the transcendental constitution of natural human striving; there is no authentic nature without grace.

Now the question I wish to entertain pertains to the semantics of the language I have just used to articulate the position in the previous three paragraphs.   What are the conditions for the possibility of meaning and truth of that language used to articulate the structure of the transcendental horizon of human natural being? 

This is a very difficult question, of course; one that seems far more difficult than articulating the conditions for the possibility of the meaningfulness of language referring to the world of nature and history, or a putative transcendent realm existing beyond nature and history. 

I have argued that we must adopt semantic realism in theology for three reasons: 1) If our time is to take the truth claims of theology seriously again, theology must make serious truth claims; 2) If theology is a discipline that is so important that one's very being and the meaning of one's being is at issue in it, then we should work with a view of theological language that makes the most robust theological assertions; 3) It turns out to be very difficult to give theological language a self-consistent semantic interpretation that is finally not realist - - at least if one wants to retain theological language.  Because semantic realism seems best for referring to God in the world and beyond it, it is tempting to think that semantic realism is the best construal of language about the transcendental horizon as well.   However, for reasons soon apparent it proves to be very difficult indeed to provide such a semantics.  Why?

Imagine language L having a standard intension and extension such that the intension of a name is its sense and its extension is its reference, the intension of a monadic predicate is a property and its extension a set of objects satisfying that property, that the intension of a polyadic predicate is a relation and its extension the set of ordered n-tuples satisfying this relation, and the intension of a sentence is the proposition expressed and the extension its truth-value.   Now assume the L is going to articulate the transcendental horizon T. 

The first question to ask is what are the names that refer to objects and entities, and what are the predicates that refer to classes of objects and entities?   Whereas a particular being is an object, it is not clear that the horizon of being is itself an entity or object.   But what is it?   Is it precisely that which is forgotten in any predicate of the predicate to the name?   This sounds sufficiently profound, but what could be actually said by saying that there is something that is not a being or thing but still nevertheless is somehow, and that this which is but is not any particular being is that which is forgotten in the very semantics of L? 

Now one might say that the particular dynamism toward Being itself is a series of events that could be specified in principle by names, and that the property of "driving beyond" refers to the class of those events comprising the dynamism.   On this construal, the dynamism and its salient properties could be in principle referred to by L,  But notice what can't be referred to?   It is precisely the term of the Vorgriff, the end or being towards which the dynamism flows. 

But I hear the objection.   Have you not in this proto-analysis presupposed a dualism between self and other, with the otherness of Being Itself now somehow existing outside the dynamnism as that to which the dynamism flows?   Don't you realize that it is precisely, as you earlier said, a continuum that exists between the dynamism and its terms, and thus between nature and grace?   But unfortunately pointing this out is no ultimate help at all to the semantic task.   Why?

The reason why is analogous to the problem Wittgenstein had in the Tractatus.   After he pointed out that language can have sense only when it refers to objects in the world, he raised the question of the meaningfulness of the assertions which themselves refer to the relation between language and world.   Obviously, they must be senseless.   Wittgenstein thus concludes the Tractatus with the suggestion that the propositions of the Tractatus are elucidations, that they are like the rungs on the ladder, the entire ladder of which must be thrown away when the relationship between world and language is rightly grasped.

Analogically here, the transcendental horizon of the graced natural dynamism towards being (T) grounds the very possibility of the language used to talk about that transcendental horizon.  In the human dynamism towards Being in its totality, the transcendental horizon T is known in the surpassing towards being.   However, since Being in its totality cannot be an other to the subject of the transcendental dynamism, Being in its totality becomes the face of Being in its totality, that is, the articulating of the transcendental structure presupposes the transcendental structure.   Language about being which grasps determinate being having the transcendental horizon as a condition cannot itself grasp indeterminate being, that is, it cannot grasp the transcendental structure having as its ultimate term the totality of being.

Nothing what I have said here should be deeply surprising.   Why would one expect language to be able to refer to something as inchoate an unthematic as the transcendental horizon of being?   My embryonic point here is simply this: If transcendentality is the ultimate location of God, then the infinite regress of transcendentality in knowing transcendentality is a problem for any language that attempts to state this.  Clearly, language L is not adequate to the task of referring to the transcendental horizon.   If this is so - - and I do know that much more argument is needed - - then hopes appear dim for a semantic realism with regard to transcendentality, and accordingly, for the robust truth of the existence and contour of transcendentality itself.