Sunday, November 20, 2016


Do any of you remember "Imagine," the Lennon tune of September 1971? It is a veritable paean to the end of transcendence, and to the joys of secularity, socialism and globalization. 
Notice how strangely out-of-place talk of God is in the world below. I remember my high school reading of Brave New World and Lord of the Flies. Lennon's world was glimpsed by Huxley and others, but was just "trickling down" to the young in 1971. His world is now metropolitan America; it is the urban landscape of the weary North Atlantic countries. We are jaded and lost. Heidegger thought only a god could save us now. Will the owl yet fly before dusk? 
It is against this background that the Gospel must be proclaimed, and it is into this context that it must again be received. 
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Philosophical Commitments of ILT

As some of you know, I have been at work on the problem of building the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) these last ten years.  It has been an amazing journey, and I marvel at times how we have gotten to where we now find ourselves.

It began as an effort to take seriously again both the Bible and the Lutheran Confessional documents -- as collected in the Book of Concord.  "Taking these documents seriously" can mean, however, a great number of things.  One can take these them seriously by unpacking what it is they meant in the context of which they originated -- the objectivist, archeological project -- what it is that they might mean for me today in my life -- the subjectivist, "reader response" approach, or what it is that the documents truly mean in our time: what do they say and claim of us within our current cultural-historical horizon?   The early ILT attempt to articulate general philosophical lenses to read properly Bible, Confessions and tradition are attempts to uncovering this latter kind of meaning.

About fifteen years ago I came to the conviction that theology was in danger of losing its very language.  Consider the situation in the philosophy of mind with beliefs/desire explanations for human behavior.  What is the best explanation for Bob driving to the airport on April 14th?  A standard philosophical response is that Bob drove to the airport on that date because he believed that Mary was coming in on a plane at the appointed time, believed that his driving to the airport would allow him to see Mary, and desired to see Mary.  The philosophical problem with this standard view is simply that there are neuro-realizers of believings and desirings, brain actualizations that are sufficient for these believings and desirings.  But if particular brain actualizations are sufficient for these believings and desirings, then it is plausible to claim that the deepest explanation of Bob driving to the airport is not found in his beliefs or desires, but rather in the particular neuro-events upon which his beliefs and desires metaphysically depend.

So what of the language of beliefs and desires?  What do belief and desire terms name, and how do these named things relate to the neuro-events that putatively realize them?  There are these general options:

  • Belief and desire terms name incorporeal thoughts or mental events which, though ontologically different from their putative neuro-realizers, are nonetheless correlated with these realizers.  One could say either that mental substances are ontologically distinct from neural substances or that mental properties are distinct from neural properties.  Accordingly, one asserts either substance or property dualism
  • While belief and desire terms refer neither to mental events nor physical events, such terms are applied if and only if certain behavior conditions obtain.  Accordingly, there is a semantic tie such that belief B obtains if and only if some set of complex stimulus-response conditionals hold.  Mental terms thus do not name mental events, but are applied on the basis of the instantiation of some set of dispositions to behave.  Since we can analyze the mental in terms of dispositions to behave, belief and desire terms simply mean this dispositional set.  We might call this a semantic reduction of the mental to the behavioral.  
  • Belief and desire terms name types of putative mental properties which obtain just in case some    type of neural properties obtain.  One might say that the mental just is the physical, and claim a type identity between the mental and physical or a reduction of the mental to the physical.  
  • Belief and desire terms name instances of putative mental properties which obtain if some disjunction of physical property instances obtain.  One might claims that there is a token identity between the tokening of a mental property and some tokening (or other) of a physical property. We might speak here of the weak supervenience of the mental onto the physical, or the physical realization of the mental.  The point is that a type of mental event is multiply realizable in some set of physical events or other.  
Of what relevance are these arcane reflections in the philosophy of mind to our topic?  As it turns out, the philosophy of mind discussion has relevance for what it is we are doing when using theological language.  Since the time of Kant, it has been widely assumed that neither the category of substance nor cause can apply to God.  Why?  Because both are pure concepts of the understanding that are involved in the organization of our phenomenal experience.  When we apply substance and cause beyond the bounds of all possible experience, we commit the transcendental subruption and mistake the regulative operations of reason with an actual cognition of a supersensible world.  From the standpoint of Kant's first critique, God cannot be known; we are unjustified in making epistemically-motivated claims of the divine.  While we can in our practical life assume there is a God that rewards our duty-doing with happiness, there are no epistemic grounds that would legitimate this.

For the subsequent theological tradition convinced by Kant's argument, the task was to think God on the other side of critique, that is, one had to make sense somehow of theological language without asserting that God is a substance causally-relatable to other substances.  They had to think God without asserting that God is an entity having causal powers.  There are many trajectories of post-Kantian theological options, the most famous advocated by Schleiermacher, where God is understood as the whence of Das Gefuehl des schlichthinniges Abhaengikeit (the feeling of absolute dependence).  Somehow, thought Schleiermacher, God language could be applied in the expression of our own piety.  (The problem that individuating piety states, such that what might be called "piety conditions" had to be met before the assertion of particular theological language, seemed not deeply to concern him.)

There were reactions, of course, to the adoption in academic theology of "the Kantian paradigm."  For over a century Roman Catholic theology generally dismissed the Kantian starting point as being inimical to theology.  Thomism was realist in its outlook: The divine exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language.  Lutheran thinkers like Harms, Hengstenberg, Loehe, and Vilmar rejected the Kantian paradigm as well, with Hengstenberg trying to repristinate 17th century Lutheran scholasticism.  However, these movements while interesting, did not derail the hegemonic Kantian synthesis in theology.  It was alive an well in the liberal theology of Ritschl, Harnack and Hermann, in the birth of dialectical theology with Barth, Bultmann and Gogarten, in the Luther Renaissance, and in the development of hermeneutical theology generally.

It seems to me that the theological tradition in the North Atlantic countries is more dependent upon 19th century philosophy than is perhaps warranted.  Kantian philosophy is studied in the history of philosophy, but transcendental idealism and neo-Kantianism in general does not currently enjoy heavy subscription within the contemporary philosophical world.  That there is a healthy Kantian influence within the philosophical community is, of course, undoubted.  (One thinks here of Hilary Putnam's "internal realism.")

There is, however, no general consensus against realism -- metaphysical or otherwise -- within the contemporary philosophical discussion.  Realism of various stripes is widely and intensely discussed.  One can be an informed modal realist, a moral realist, an aesthetic realist, a metaphysical realist, an epistemological realist, a mathematical realist, a scientific realist, a naive or critical or representative realist, a semantic realist, a causal realist, or a Platonic or moderate realist.  If all of this is possible, why can one not be an informed theological realist?  The Institute of Lutheran Theology's three philosophical commitments to theological realism, semantic realism and theophysical causation manifest the institution's wariness of an in toto subscription to the Kantian paradigm as a presupposition for its theological work.  It does not specify the determinate contour of the realism thereby asserted.

My own reflections on the current discussion in the philosophy of mind has brought me to the point of thinking that granting to the mental in se causal properties entails that a mental event does not mean a set of dispositional properties, that it cannot be reduced to some set of neural-realizers, and that it cannot either strongly or even weakly supervene on neurophysiological actualizations.   This position betrays my own conviction to a general truth of reductionism: If a domain A is reduced to domain B, then the causal connections within domain A are realized by the causal connections within domain B.  That is to say, the ultimate causal map is drawn within domain B rather than domain A.  In the philosophy of mind, this means that the neural processes realizing mental events are the real causal drivers in mental processes.   While A events can be causally relevant in A-explanations, A events are not causally effective in A-explanations.  (Causal stories can refer to higher-level causal powers without the higher-level events having in se causal powers.  Explanations are intentional, but causes are extensional.)  

So what precisely do these positions in the philosophy of mind have to do with theological realism?

Imagine there exists a divine domain.  What is its ontological status?  Is it something other than nature broadly conceived, that is, the sum total of all physical entities, events, properties and relations?  Most honestly doing theology would answer, "yes."  But is this an affirmation of the existence of a realm beyond nature, a supernatural order?  Most doing theology in the Kantian paradigm would say, "no."  While religion is vitally at the heart of what it is to be human, religious claims, and theological assertions explicating those claims, do not have truth-conditions satisfied by the determinate contour of some supersensible, non-natural reality.  So what options remain?

Analogous to positions in the philosophy of mind, we could assert these:
  • Strictly speaking, theological terms refer neither to divine nor micro-physical entities, properties or events.  Rather, such terms are applied if and only if certain macro states of affairs occur in the world.  Accordingly, there is a semantic tie such that theological proposition P obtains if and only if some set of macro-world dispositions obtain.  Theological terms thus do not name theological events, but are applied on the basis of the instantiation of some set of macro physical dispositions.  Since we can analyze the theological in terms of macro physical dispositions, theological terms simply mean this dispositional set.  We might call this a semantic reduction of the theological to the macro-physical.   (I know of nobody who would actually hold this view, but simply provide it here as a logical possibility.)  
  • Theological terms name types of putative theological properties which obtain just in case a determinate type of physical, psychological, sociological or economic properties obtain.  One might say that the domain of the theological just is the physical, psychological, sociological or economic and claim a type identity between the theological and the physical, psychological, sociological or economic, or a reduction of the theological to the physical, psychological, sociological or economic.  (While I cannot think of a strong reductive program of the theological to the physical, one might claim that Schleiermacher and/or Feuerbach hints that a particular theological term is applied if and only if a determinate psychological state obtains.  Durkheim might be said to strongly reduce the theological to the sociological while Marx does the same for economics.  For a number of reasons, however, the strong reduction of the theological to any of these domains is implausible.)  
  • Theological terms name instances of putative physical, psychological, sociological or economics properties which obtain if some disjunction of physical, psychological, sociological or economic property instances obtain.  One might claim that there is a token identity between the tokening of theological property and some tokening (or other) of a physical, psychological, sociological or economic property. We might speak here of the weak supervenience of the theological onto the physical, psychological, sociological or economic, or the physical, psychological, sociological or economic realization of the theological.  The point is that a type of theological event or property is multiply realizable in some set of lower-level properties.  (This view might better describe the general, though not explicitly or deeply-articulated views of Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Freud, Durkheim and Marx.  While more needs to be said about this, I cannot say it here.)  
But who cares about the critiques of Marx, Freud, and Durkheim about Christianity?  Was I not speaking of the subsequent theological tradition within the Kantian paradigm, the putative "post-Kantian theological options?"  Why am I not dealing explicitly with theologians and not those wanting to "explain away" the religious by showing that it is really about some other domain entirely?  

Perhaps the reason is because their Kantian starting points do not eventuate in a clear theological explication consistent with those starting points.  Talk of God and God's "mighty acts" on a Kantian horizon demands an explication of the semantic possibilities of that talk.  It is not clear what it is that we are referring to if we deny the existence of a domain of divine entities, properties, events and states of affairs.  (We must be referring elliptically to human thinking, willing or doing, for those seem to be the only options of reference.)  We can use the talk (and might even walk the walk) while nonetheless failing to clearly mean much at all.   

The philosophical commitments of ILT assert that the truth-conditions of theological language demand taking seriously the domain of the divine, ascribing to it ontological status, and granting its denizen explicit causal power.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Theoretical Entities and Causality in Theology

In Chapter Seven of De prescriptione haereticorum, Tertullian declares, "What indeed has Athens to to with Jerusalem?  What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?  What between heretics and Christians?"

Tertullian is not saying that philosophy should be silent when it comes to things theological, or that philosophy and theology are about different subject areas, or that philosophy and theology somehow constitute incommensurate forms of discourse.  He is saying that we should reject attempts to produce what he calls, "a mottled Christianity of Platonic, Stoic and dialectic composition."

In the following reflection I take Tertullian's intent to heart.  I will not thereby produce a mottled Christianity.  It does not follow, however, that not producing a mottled Christianity entails that philosophy has nothing to do with theology.  In fact, philosophy has a great deal of relevance for theology, particularly as both disciplines were classically conceived and practiced.  Since the time of Plato, western philosophy has been profoundly concerned with questions of semantics, with the meaning and truth of its expressions.  Since the time of Aristotle, philosophy has been deeply concerned with logic, with entailments, compatibility and modality, that is, with what propositions follow from others, what propositions can be jointly true, and in what way these propositions are true.  From both men philosophy learned about metaphysics; it learned to reflect upon being and to distinguish the different ways that something can be said to be.  Clearly, talk of God presupposes positions in semantics, logic and metaphysics -- even if these views are not explicitly held or asserted.

Consider the following expressions comprising a primitive theological theory:
  1. God is incorporeal
  2. God is eternal 
  3. God created the universe
  4. God has three persons 
  5. God through Christ redeems fallen creation 
For many Christians these expressions are prima facie quite simple and plainly true.  It seems, in fact, that there is no particular problem with their meaning, truth and entailments, or even the being of those entities and properties referred to.   But looks can be deceiving.   

Think of the term 'God' and compare it with other terms you might use, e.g., 'block', 'bird', 'slab', etc.  Notice that while 'block' and 'God' both are nouns and presumably name some entity, the way in which they do so is markedly different.  Presumably, 'block' picks out a member of a class of particular empirical objects, while 'God' does not.  (Specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for a particular object to be a member of the class of blocks turns out to be a surprisingly difficult matter.  As Wittgenstein pointed out, there seems not to be definite criteria of application for the word 'block', but rather the members of the class seem to bear some not quite specifiable "family resemblance" to one another.)  The point is that 'block' does seem to refer to an observable object, while the term 'God' does not seem so to refer.  

Once upon a time in the philosophy of science people believed that there was a pretty clear distinction between observational terms and theoretical terms.  The referents of the first could be encountered through sense perception, while those of the second could not.   Unfortunately, the distinction between the two could not be easily maintained.  In what sense is an object observable to sense perception -- with the naked eye or through an electron telescope?  Are the bubbles in a bubble chamber an observation of a moving electron, or a phenomenal event that through suitable "bridge laws" biconditionally ties to a theoretical electron?  

Perhaps it is not the observational/theoretical distinction that separates 'block' and 'God', but a semantic difference having to do with whether or not the term in question has its meaning determined through the axioms of the theory, that is to say, the meaning of a theoretical term depends upon how that term is incorporated into an overall theory.  In a scientific theory, the laws of the theory are essential for determining the extension of the theory's terms.  This means that the meaning of individual terms in the theory are determined within the theory's overall context.   Holger Andreas writes: 
The contextual theory of meaning, therefore, makes intelligible how students in a scientific discipline and scientists grasp the meaning, or sense, of scientific terms.  On this account, understanding the meaning of a term is knowing how to determine its referent, or extension, at least in part.  (See "Theoretical Terms in Science," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013), Edward N. Zalta, (ed.) URL = <>.  
When thinking of theology, it is clear that it too is a theory of a particular kind with some terms that are quite theoretical and some less so.  For instance, the term 'human being' used in theology seems to make easy reference to the world, while the term 'creation' is more problematic.  The first seemingly has a common reference in theology and sociology.  The word 'creation', however, apparently refers to the universe as such within an overarching theological theory, but makes no reference at all within sociology -- unless it perhaps refers to the manuscript the sociologist is writing.

The term 'God' seems to have meaning within a particular theological theory.  In (1) above, 'God' is predicated by 'incorporeal'.  Is incorporeality "present in" God or "said of" God?   If the former, then the being which is God has the property of not having a body in the actual world, but could have a body in another possible world.  If the latter, then it is not possible that any being which is God could have a body.

From the standpoint of the philosophy of science, 'God' is a theoretical term naming a theoretical entity, a term that seemingly has incorporeality as part of its very meaning.  Just as a bachelor is an unmarried male, so too is God incorporeal.

The same might be said about God's eternity.  Perhaps it is essential for God to be eternal, that is, nothing that is God can fail to be eternal.  If both eternity and incorporeality refer to God, then we might speak of a "conceptual tie or law": For any x, if x is God then x is eternal and incorporeal.  But this is not a paradigmatic bridge law because it is not a biconditional; it does state in addition that for all x if x is eternal and incorporeal, then x is God.  In addition, it does not "bridge" from observation events to the exemplification of a property by a theoretical entity.

If we do not, however, think of theological theory as having any bridge laws in the classic sense, but rather as constituted by a group of propositions having terms, many of which appear in a number of the propositions, we can speak of a term's meaning being a function of the way in which it appears in the other propositions in the theory.  (What is predicated of the term and what the term is predicated of.)  This implicit definition of the term then determines its extension.

Within our primitive theory, (1) and (2) presumably has a distribution of predication that differs from (3), for while predication of 'eternal' and 'incorporeal' in the theory does not allow for an x that is God to be predicated by 'not eternal' or 'corporeal', the x that is God can be predicated by 'creates the universe' or 'does not create the universe' because while one can have as a statement in the theory, 'did not create the universe at time t',  one cannot have 'is not eternal at time t'.  That the truth value of 'creates the universe' differs as a function of its temporal index, while the truth value 'is eternal' does not so differ, clearly shows that 'is eternal' means something quite different than 'creates the universe'.

Now consider the predicate in (4), 'has three persons'.  To say that the x that is God has three persons is quite different than saying that the x that is a small company has three persons.  Why?  Because one rarely if ever would say that an x that is a causal agent -- like in (3) -- could ever have three persons.  While a company could be said to be a group of people exhibiting certain relationships among them, God cannot be said to be a group in any sense, for the three persons having relationships among themselves is the simplicity of the one God.

Proposition (5) asserts that the x that is God causes it to be the case that the domain that God creates is now redeemed.  This analysis of 'redeems the world' can be given a temporal characterization like 'creates the world', thus showing that these terms must have different meanings than terms like 'incorporeal' and 'eternal'.  The phrase 'through Christ' adds further complication because it raises the question of whether 'God redeems' if and only if 'God through Christ redeems', and, if so, what does 'through Christ' add in meaning to 'God'.  To show that 'through Christ' has a different meaning, one needs to show that 'God' and 'God through Christ' cannot be substituted with each other salve veritate throughout the entire theological theory.

What I am suggesting here is neither terribly original nor novel.  I am merely suggesting that it might be instructive to look at theological theory with its theoretical entities in ways similar to how we might look at a physical theory having such entities.  We might do this simply to get clear on the semantics of our theological language.   What exactly is meant by a term appearing within a theological theory of a particular kind over and against a term appearing within a theory of another kind?  Since we have fewer empirical moorings in theology than physics, it is useful perhaps to focus more deeply on what it is we might be meaning when employing language of the first kind.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Scandal of the Cross

The Cross has been a scandal in every age.  It subverts our dreams and overturns our idealisms.  Human nobility and spirituality die upon this Cross.[1]  It stands in opposition to the values of the world, the values summed up in the expression ‘theology of glory’.   Because, as Luther says, “Crux sola est nostra theologia” (“the cross alone is our theology”), it follows that the Cross is opposed to all theologies of glory.[2]  But what is a theology of glory, and how does it compare to the theology of the Cross?

The question brings us to other questions.  What is the best of man?   What is it that makes human beings noble?  We might start with the following catalog of virtues: 

Human beings:

·      have an eternal soul
·      are bearers of reason
·      have free will and inhabit a moral order
·      can actualize their potentiality
·      have a taste for the infinite
·      can know the truth, do the good, and appreciate beauty
·      understand justice and law as their highest good
·      know God to be the foundation of truth, goodness and beauty 

Theologies of glory understand that human and divine being stand on a continuum with human being either participating in divine being, or instantiating properties of the divine.  Theologies of glory can be stronger or weaker to the degree to which they instantiate divine being or divine attributes.   My favorite expression of a theology of glory comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who quipped:

Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line,
Severing rightly his from thine,
Which is human, which divine.

Human beings are the embodiment of the highest aim of God, and God is the projection of the highest sentiments of humanity.  It is difficult to know where the one leaves off and the other begins.  

Human beings are created in imago dei and, although that divine image is now tarnished by the waywardness of sin, it still shines forth weakly, and human beings, through greater or lesser degrees of effort and divine succor, pilgrimage to polish up that which is now tarnished.     

An historically important theology of glory was bequeathed to us by a philosopher living over 400 years before Christ. The Greek philosopher Plato argued that the human soul bears the marks of the divine world from which it fell:  indestructibility, simplicity and eternity.   This soul, whose essence is to be without body, has unfortunately been joined to matter in the veil of tears of life.   At death the sickness of the soul is healed as it sheds its body forever and lives in eternity beyond time.    In vast areas of the ancient world, the Greek idea of the immortal soul formed the intellectual backdrop on which Christ’s death and resurrection were understood. 

While time does not permit me to spell out all the theologies of glory in the western tradition, one must at least sketch the dominant one: Neo-Platonism.  This philosophy held that all things are ultimately ONE and that this ONE in the course of history flows out of itself into the alienated world of matter. Salvation demands that material men and women become more spiritual as they are freed from the corruption of the flesh and returned to the ONE from which they sprang.  Christian variations emphasized that God sends grace which is infused in believers so that they might become more spiritual.   

By the sixteenth century, Neo-Platonism had waned, but the impulse of the theologian of glory remained.  The idea was that God gives human beings particular laws and that humans must act in accordance with those laws.  To act in accordance is to be just; to not act in accordance is to be unjust.  In Luther’s time it was widely thought that just as a person is just when he acts in accordance with divine law, so is God just when he rewards likes for likes.  God’s justice demands He punish sin and save sinless. 

However, because humanity is not sinless, God had to give grace that either makes the believer sinless enough for God not to punish, or which “covers” him such that if he makes some small effort towards God (‘fac quod in se ipsum’), God does not deny His grace (‘facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam’).  God justly acts to reward the sinner who has worked merit congruent with his ability (meritum de congruo) as if he or she has actually worked a merit worthy of salvation (meritum de condigno). Because of Christ, the wretched faltering steps towards God the believer makes in his life are regarded as if the were worthy of salvation.    

It is not important that we follow all the specifics here.   The theological tradition is rich in reflection on the nature of justification.  Suffice it to say that a person’s justification and salvation are coninstantiated.  Conceptually, it is impossible for one to be justified and not saved, or for one to be saved and not justified.   Accordingly, it is a necessary truth that ‘x is justified just in case x is saved’.

A theology of glory understands that proximity to God is a function of the worldly instantiation of properties that perfectly and properly apply to God.  


What then is a theology of the Cross?  While a theology of glory understands the presence of God as a worldly manifestation of properties like those of God, a theology of the cross finds the divine presented sub specie contrario (underneath its contrary).  Thus, a theology of the Cross finds God where you least expect to find God: in weakness, in suffering, in death, in finitude.  Whereas the theologian of glory locates God in the divine apathei of detachment, peace and impassibility, the theologian of the cross finds God in despair, suffering, and emotional turmoil.  

In 1518, 35 year-old Martin Luther gave a presentation at the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg in which he provided a classic distinction between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross.    

(19) Non ille digne theologus dicitur, qui invisibilia Dei per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspicit.  (20) Sed qui visibilia et posteriori Dei per passionses et crucem conspecta intelligit.   [(19) That person is not worthy to be called a theologian who looks to the invisible things of God as understood through those things that have happened.  (20) But who understands the visible and “back side” of God through having looked at his passion and cross.] 

The theologian of glory in thesis 19 is one who looks at how the world is to get a clue about how God is.  Since God is like the world in that both are measured by goodness, the better the world is, the better or closer the divine source and goal of existence is. This theologian expects to find God where there is maximum goodness.   Luther says that this theologian of glory is not worthy to be called a theologian. 
The one worthy to be called a theologian is he or she who understands that what can be known of God is available only by looking at the cross.  The theologian of the cross finds God precisely where one would not expect Him to be found: in His ignoble suffering and death on the cross.   

The ancient notion of the anologia entis claims that there is an analogy between the being of God and the being of the world.  When the world is a particular way, then God must be a particular way.  But the one who searches for God in this way always misses Him, says Luther.  Instead of moving from how the world is to how God is, the theologian of the cross finds God in how the world is not.  She finds God in how Christ is!  God is not discerned by looking lovingly at the world, but by looking at the One who Himself looks lovingly at us.  God is found in Jesus Christ and only there, and this is precisely not where we would expect to find him. 
Luther says it clearly in thesis 21:

 (21) Theologus gloriae dicit malum bonum et bonum malum, Theologus crucis dicit id quod res est.  [The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil; the theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.]   
While the theologian of glory sees through creation and finds God at the ground or source of it, the theologian of the Cross finds God revealed in the desolation of the Cross.  While the theologian of glory uses analogy to reason to what God is like, the theologian of the Cross admits that God remains hidden in his worldly actions, and that He reveals Himself only when and where he wills it: on the Cross and in the proclamation of that Cross.  The theologian of the Cross proclaims God’s presence in the midst of His apparent absence.  

Instead of the soul being liberated by divine grace to fly closer to God, the theologian of the Cross declares the death of the soul and the dissolution of the self.  While the theologian of glory assumes some continuity between the divine and human, the theologian of the Cross exploits their discontinuity.  The old being dies and the new rises and takes its place.  It is not that the eternal essence of a man needs readjustment, it is rather that the old Adam in us is put to death and the New man in Christ is constituted in his stead.   There is no perdurance of individual substance across the domains of the old and new.  


So we have now sketched a difference between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.   What is the problem?   Why is there a “crisis of the cross” in our time?   Is it that we no longer understand the distinction between the theology of the cross and theologies of glory?

I don’t believe that the crisis is found in our not seeming to understand it. Lutherans from many different theological trajectories seem to get it.  The problem, I shall argue, is that certain moves within Lutheran theology have made it difficult to state meaningfully the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  How is this possible? 

Theology is a discourse, and like other kinds of discourses, it is concerned with meaning and truth, the realm of semantics.  Classically, the semantics of theological propositions was more or less realist. Terms like ‘God’ were thought to refer to a determinate being, while relational terms like ‘creates’ would refer to a relation between that divine determinate being and the ‘world’, a term which itself referred to that which is outside of God.   Prima facie, to say that a person does not deserve to be called a theologian who “looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were perceptible in those things that have actually happened," is to deny the statement claiming that there is some divine being such that humans perceive something of the existence and properties of that being by perceiving some set of events within the universe.  

At this point it is necessary to make things very precise.  The theologian of the glory apparently holds: 

There is a divine being and there is a universe that is not divine but created by that divine being, and there are sentient human beings such that these beings can perceive some set of events in the universe, and their perception of this class of events within the universe rationally justifies these human beings to hold that a particular set of properties is instantiated by that divine being.

This way of saying this I term the epistemic formulation because it refers both to events and the perception or the knowing of those events.   Let us see if we can make this more perspicuous: 

(1)  There is some x such that x is God, and some y such that y is the universe and x is not y, and there are some z such that z perceived events in y, and z is rationally justified to hold that x has property set S on the basis of z’s perception of events in y.   

Those holding to (1) are theologians of glory; those denying (1) are theologians of the cross.  This epistemological formulation concerns states of knowing and is a weaker formulation of the theology of glory than the following: 

There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within the divine being. 

This ontological formulation of the theology of glory can be clarified as follows: 

(2)  There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

It is this stronger ontological formulation of which I am most interested.  Notice that the theologian of the cross can deny (2) in either of two ways I will call (3) and (3’). 

(3)  It is not the case that there is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

(3') There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that it is not the case that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

This formulation does not simply deny the entire ontological formulation, but rather a part of it.  Accordingly, he or she would claim: 
There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that it is false that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within divine being. 
Now at this point a dizzying variety of senses of the epistemological and ontological formulations can be investigated as to their meaning in order to make possible precise senses undergirding Luther’s thesis 19.  However, this is not the issue about which I am concerned.  What I am concerned with is that my semantic formulation here presupposes a particular ontological contour, a contour that much of Lutheran theology no longer claims to be true. 


Since the time of Kant academic theology on Lutheran soil has denied the epistemological formulations (and almost always the ontological ones as well) because it has held that God is not a substance that in principle can possess properties or be engaged in relevant kinds of relations: causality is the most important.  If God is not a being having properties, then what is He? 

Schleiermacher famously claimed that God was the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.  Fichte talked of God as the infinite striving of the ego in positing the non-ego.  Hegel understood God to be the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness of Himself in time through human consciousness: God is God in Spirit coming to consciousness of itself through relating to what is seemingly other to it.  Ritschl and his school downplayed metaphysical assertions about God and spoke only of the effect of that which is other than the world.  Barth, though strongly opposed to the liberal theology of Ritschl, Harnack and company, spoke of God as the totaliter aliter, the “wholly other” in human experience.   God is thus “wholly other” than being, just as He is “wholly other” than nonbeing.  Other theologians have spoken of God in such ways as the infinite fore-grasp of the illimitability of Being in every act of thinking particular being (Rahner), or as a type of being of God when God is not being God (Scharleman), or as a primal matrix (Reuther).  

The problem here is that even if one could clarify what it is that one is meaning by ”God being God only when God is not being God” or God as Henry Nelson Wieman’s  “primal event,” it is not clear why such diverse referents should be called by the same name, nor is it clear what exactly could be meant by Luther’s thesis 19 when the referent of ‘God’ changes so radically under different interpretations. 

The problem here is that theologians have not paid sufficient attention to the “depth grammar” of their statements.   ‘Julie fishes from a bank’ means quite different things when ‘bank’ means ‘an institution allowing the deposit of money’ on the one hand, and ‘that which abuts a creek’ on the other hand.   While the surface grammar of ‘God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ can be held constant in various languages in which the locution is used, the depth grammar, the propositions actually expressed or the states of affairs actually named vary greatly across theological schools. 


Imagine a Bultmannian view of things where there is no being having divine properties or attributes and no being that is the second person of the Trinity that actually has the properties of divinity and humanity.  Imagine the Bultmannian view of things in which the proclamation of certain locutions is itself a performative use of language in which existential empowerment can occur in the listener.  On this view of things, the semantics of ‘Christ is raised from the dead’ is not a state of affairs in which there is a particular being such that this being had the property of death then afterward life.  The semantics instead would have meaning on the basis of transformed existential horizons in its hearing.  While Bultmann could speak of a theology of the cross here, and could even accept Luther’s thesis 19, he would not be meaning by that either the epistemic or ontological formulations given above.  He would be meaning by it something quite complicated pertaining to horizons of expectation and empowerment in a succession of historical beings having particular existential constitutions.  

Time does not permit me to work all of this out here, but the point should be clear enough. In the absence of a traditional, realist semantics of theological language it is very difficult to state clearly the distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  However, the last 200 years of academic theology has tended not to work with a realist semantics for theological language.  It has indeed tacitly rejected semantic realism, the assertion that theological statements have truth values even when we are in no position evidentially to ascertain their truth.  Semantic realism is a strong criterion of theological meaning: a theological proposition is true if and only if it correctly states what is the case.  Notice that truth here does not connect to epistemology at all.  

Much more needs to be said, but maybe this can get the ball rolling.  My contention is that the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory cannot be sustained if a realist semantics is not presupposed.  However, for almost 200 years a realist semantics has not been presupposed.  Therefore, the distinction is no longer clear.  This is the scandal of the theology of the cross.  It is a formal, not a material scandal.  The necessary condition for the former scandal is for the latter scandal to be assuaged.  It is my hope to do the latter.   

[1] ‘Cross’ here means the entire narrative of the crucified and risen Jesus.   See Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 1.  
[2] WA 5, 176:32 (Operationes).  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

God and Inferences to the Best Explanation

Pascal famously stitched a dictum in his coat sleeve declaring, "FIRE.  God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.  Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace.  God of Jesus Christ."  
Clearly, it is a long way from the God of the philosophers to the God of Jesus Christ.  This distance has for many simply meant that when speaking about these two gods, one is speaking about two different matters entirely. The God of the philosophers is a projection of our own best moral and rational characteristics; the God of Jesus Christ is other than this, a God forever tied to the phenomenon of salvation freely given by the Other to unworthy men and women.  
Theologians have often assumed that the identity conditions for gods are found in the meanings that these gods have for those thinking them.  The idealist penchant in theology is a very long and rich.  Phenomenological theological starting points which trace to the zu den Dingen selbst understand the "thing" as a noema, a content intended by the noetic act of the agent.  Accordingly, the god of philosophy apprehended in such-and-such a way is a different noema than the God of Jesus Christ given in such-and-such a way.  There are different identity conditions for different things thought about, and so the identity conditions of the God of Jesus Christ are simply different than those for the god of the philosophers.  
We have been idealist so long in our theology that we don't understand the relevance Frege's seminal "On Sense and Reference" should have for theology.  Frege understood his notion of Sinn (sense) to be of a kind with Husserl's noema, and argued persuasively that two different senses can be simply different "modes of presentation" of the same thing.  Famously, the Evening Star has a different sense the does the Morning Star, yet Frege realized that 'Evening Star' and 'Morning Star' are, nonetheless, coreferential expressions picking out the same planet Venus. They are not, however, simply different names, but instead constitute different senses with their own unique identity conditions, senses which nonetheless are able to pick out the same object in the actual world.  
Applying this insight to the situation of Pascal's two gods, one might claim that 'god of Jesus Christ' and 'god of the philosophers' are neither simply two different objects or entities nor merely different names of one individual God (with a big 'G'), but rather they name different senses picking out that same God.  We ought not simply assume that because 'god of the philosophers' has a different sense than 'god of Jesus Christ', these senses can't be referring to the same God.  Simply put, why assume that the sense of God encountered in the philosophical enterprise does not pick out the same individual as the sense of god encountered in theology?  Why think that when one apprehends God philosophically, one is not referring to the very same God one apprehends theologically?  
I have never been wary of using the tools of philosophy within theology because I am both a theological realist as well as a monotheist.  As a realist, I assume that theology is talking about something that is God and that philosophy is talking about something that is God.  As a monotheist, I reject the claim that there is more than one god. It follows from this, of course, that philosophy and theology must be talking about the same thing, though in radically different ways.  Although the experience, the "mode of presentation" and the conceptuality of the two may differ markedly, the reference is the same.  While one linguistic description may be far more accurate than the other -- 'God of Jesus Christ' may describe God more deeply -- this does not entail that the other expression, 'God of the philosophers' does not refer.   It is in the spirit of 'God of the philosophers' referring that I offer the following brief reflection.

If we step back from the methodological exclusion of God as a causally relevant entity within naturalistic scientific theory, and consider an inference to the best metaphysical explanation of why there is a universe at all with the cosmological constants necessary to support life -- and why there is self-organizing life of sufficient complexity to develop human consciousness -- we are faced with the following question: What is the probability of there being Reason (a Designing Agent or God) present prior to the emergence of the universe? 
Bayes Theorem (derivable in standard probability theory) states that the probability of the occurrence of a state of affairs or event S given a particular set of experiences (or other states of affairs or events) E is equal to the product of probability of E on the hypothesis of S and the probability of S, over the product of probability of E given S and the probability of S plus the product of the probability of E given ~S and the probability of ~S. 
Consider then that the "forward" probability of a Designing Agent's existence is .1% (S). Now what are rational assignments of probabilities to the following?
  1. What is the probability that a universe would exist tuned for development of human beings with the complexity of consciousness on the supposition that a Designing Agent exists? (It seems that were there to be a Designing Agent, it is highly likely that a universe like ours would exist with the complexities of human consciousness. Let us set this at 99% 
  2. What is the probability that a universe would exist seemingly tuned for the development of human beings with the complexity of consciousness on the supposition that a Designing Agent does not exist? (If the authors of the "multiverse" solution to the existence of the universe are to be trusted, our universe is highly unlikely, much greater than the order of .000001%.) 
Now do the calculation: .99 x .001 = .00099/[.00099 + (.00000001 x .99 = .0000000099)]. Thus we obtain .00099 over (.00099 + .0000000099) or .00099/.0009900099 = .99999900001 or 99.99%. The probability that a Designing Agent exists given the state of the universe and its development to the complexities of human consciousness is 99.99% even though the forward probability of that Agent's existence is only .001 or .1%. 
We realize that the plausibility of the multiverse hypothesis in quantum cosmology is based on an admission of the overwhelming unlikely odds of the universe existing with the features its has. Admitting this, drives the inference to the best metaphysical explanation for there to be a Designing Agent/Reason (God). The only way to avoid this conclusion is to claim that the existence of God in itself is almost as unlikely as a forward probability as is the conditional probability of the existence of the universe with features making possible the complexity of human life on the supposition that God does not exist. But why would any rational agent believe that the existence of God as the supreme rational agent is almost as unlikely as the universe developing into the order it has on the supposition of there being no supreme rational agent at all? 
It appears that someone claiming that a multiverse is needed to explain the universe must either be irrationally prejudiced against the forward probability of God's existence or be unable or unwilling to do the simple calculations in basic probability theory. 

Does this reflection prove somehow the God of Jesus Christ?  Of course not!  Does it make more plausible the existence of the God of the philosophers?  One might readily affirm it is so.  But if the rumination in Section I is plausible and the 'God of Jesus Christ' has the same referent as the 'God of the philosophers', then the claim that the God of Jesus Christ exists is strengthened by the rumination of Section II.  Advances in theology may be possible if we have the courage to do things differently.  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Flacius and Strigel Revisited

The question between Flacius and Strigel in 1557 was this: How deep is sinfulness in human beings? Flacius thought it was so profound that it determined the very substance of human being. Strigel did not go that far, believing that sin while inevitably present, was nonetheless merely accidental to human being. Much has been written about this controversy over the years. The Formula of Concord attempted to follow the spirit of Flacius, if not the letter of his claim, declaring: 
That original sin (in human nature) is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but that, instead of the lost image of God in man, it is at the same time also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption of the entire nature and all its powers, especially of the highest, principal powers of the soul in the understanding, heart, and will, so that now, since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lust and propensity. (SD, I) 
The question as to the profundity of human sin, and the attempt to claim that it is of the very substance of human being, involves us quickly in modal claims -- claims about necessity, possibility and contingency. Aristotle famously held a "two tiered" notion of substance. Accordingly, there are certain properties the substance has which are necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is, and others that the possess that they might not have.
Unfortunately, the phrase "necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is" is ambiguous, trading between the following:
  • Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is identical to individual i if and only if i instantiates a particular property group A.
  • Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is a member of kind k if and only if x  instantiates a particular property group B.  
The first claims that there is an individual essence A which is instantiated just in case a particular individual i obtains; the second declares that a general essence B is instantiated when some individual or other of kind k obtains.  While Aristotle clearly held that an individual substance has a general essence, most believe he did not countenance individual essences.  Thus, while it is necessary and sufficient for the individual Socrates to possess the essence man, it is more dubious that the individual Socrates possesses an essence of Socrativity.  While more could be said about this, I will not say it here.  

In addition to the essential properties that make a substance the kind of substance it is, there are also properties of the substance that are not necessary for it to be the substance it is. While properties of the first type are essential to the subject, properties of the second type, are contingent and do not constitute the substantiality of the substance.  While the substance Socrates must have the property of being a human being or not be Socrates, Socrates can either be pale or not pale and yet still be Socrates.  Using the language of Aristotle's de Categoria,  'man' is "said of" Socrates, paleness is "present in" Socrates.  'Man' is thus essentially predicated of Socrates while 'pale' is only accidentally predicated.

But this is not the end of the matter.  According to Aristotle, since 'man' is "said of" Socrates, 'mammal' and 'animal' must be "said of" him as well.  These secondary sayings about Socrates form transitive relationships: If the general essence of Socrates is to be human, then in being human Socrates must also be a mammal, be an animal, be a living being, etc.  That is to say, Socrates could not be at all if Socrates were not a living (as opposed to non-living) being. Flacius was arguing, in effect, that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings), that is, that any substance having the general essence of being human must also instantiate the property of being sinful.  Strigel, on the contrary, claimed that sin is only accidentally predicated of any individual that is a man.  That is to say, the property of being sinful is "present in" primary substances having the essence of being human, but is not "said of" those substances.  'Sin' is accidentally predicated of a particular human being, not essentially predicated. 

While Flacius was trying to emphasize the inevitability of sin in our actual world, his claim that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings) actually denies the existence of a possible world in which humans do not sin. Since there is no possible world in which a human being does not sin, the notion of 'man' (human being) contains within itself the notion of sin. Thus, just as the notion of square excludes the notion of circle, so too does the notion of 'man' exclude the notion of not sinning. Just as it is inconceivable that a square could be a circle, so it is inconceivable that a man could not sin. None of this can be countenanced, of course, by the Christian holding that God's creation is good. 

But the contrary position that sin is accidental, seemingly suggests a superficiality to sin, as if human beings might not sin because they are not determined metaphysically to do so. The problem in the debate, as I see it, is simply that neither Strigel nor Flavius yet had the notion of a physical law which, on any non-Humean interpretation, determines the distribution of physical properties universally within nature without this distribution holding in all possible worlds.  Human nature is fixed and, as Luther declares, human beings inevitably sin.  Yet this determinate human nature need not obtain in all possible worlds. There are worlds in which human beings do not sin. This, in fact, is necessary for claiming that God's creation is good, and necessary as well for being able to imagine an original paradise from which man and women fell.  One might say, that Flacius' views presuppose the impossibility of the Fall, because they make impossible the existence of a state from which human beings have lapsed.  

The Christian story is that human nature which was made good -- contingently, not metaphysically so -- contingently became a determinately corrupt nature contingently fixing the spectrum of human behaviors and responses.  Just as the acceleration of earthly objects downward is 9.8 m/sec2 universally under standard conditions, so too is human nature universally sinful and cannot (physically or through human agency) free itself.  However, just as there are possible worlds with different laws of motion, so are there worlds in which human nature is not corrupt. The depravity of man is metaphysically contingent, but physically (or agentially) necessary. Total depravity does not extend to all possible worlds.

These simple distinctions show that Strigel was correct, no matter how much Flacius may have fumed otherwise.  Somebody might argue, of course, that the modal distinction I am drawing here is still somehow practically unimportant, that Flacius was right in spirit because he was rightly pointing out that for all x, if x is human, then x is sinful.  He was arguing that human beings are inescapably and inevitably sinful, and this physical necessity of each x to sin is the important matter.  So what if Flacius somehow used the language of essentiality.  Was this not all that he had at the time, and would not other language suggest that human beings might proudly somehow escape sin?  

I aver, however, that modal difference makes all the difference.  We now have a clear notion of physical law; we understand determinate causal chains underlying universal regularities in the actual world.  We now know that for something to be contingently so does not mean that it is somehow capriciously so, obtaining sometimes and not other times.  Simply put, we understand that necessities are of different kinds: There are logical necessities, conceptual necessities, metaphysical necessities, physical necessities, etc.  Just because something is physically necessary does not mean that it is metaphysically necessary.  While we may cringe at calling human sin a "physical necessity," it is indeed so: Each and every human being has a set of dispositional properties such that were conditions x, y or z to obtain, h would act in u or v fashion, where u and v are instantiations of what theology has always identified as sin.  Since it is a fact of our world that conditions x, y, or z obtain, it is not possible for a human being to exist having the set of dispositional properties he/she has and not sin.  The fact that this dispositional properties do not hold in all possible worlds should not obviate the obvious: This dispositional set does indeed obtain in the actual world.  Thus, each and every human being necessarily sins given the metaphysically contingent fact of the universal human proclivity to sin.  That we all necessarily sin given this metaphysical contingency should be enough confidently to proclaim, "We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone."  What more is needed?  If the creation of the universe is a contingent fact given the freedom of God, surely the existence of a fallen universe is contingent as well.