Notes On Fregean Existence

– Broadly, the Fregean/post-Fregean concept of existence is that existence is the instantiation (sp?) of a concept. No doubt there are some subtleties here and there but that’s the basic gist. For a horse to exist means that the concept of horse-ness is instantiated.

– Frege noted that there is an odd quality about terms like ‘existence’ – namely, that if existence is a universal predicate (i.e. a predicate which is true of everything) then non-existence is true of nothing.

– This seems to have the consequence that nothing can either exist or not-exist – which is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.

– The consequence of this is that the difference between existence/nonexistence is reduced form ontological to propositional. Surely, though, there are things that don’t exist and things that do, and the difference is more than how they both look when put into formal logic. Perhaps Frege’s logic isn’t equipped to deal with existence?

– It quickly becomes clear that this is a way of speaking about existence, rather than speaking about existence as such (David Bentley Hart points out as much in ‘The Experience of God). Existence is just assumed, rather than explained. And perhaps this is fine – but one certainly does feel that such a conception of existence is thin.

Learning From the Past in Theology

This post didn’t show up in my feed, so in case of a WordPress glitch, I’m reblogging it.

Theologians, Inc.

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so…

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Learning From the Past in Theology

Theology as a discipline is rather different than, say, the natural sciences, in that, by and large, the older an idea is, the more true it is. In theology, one simply has to take what has been said in the past seriously and in some ways authoritatively, and in other cases definitively. I see this as a fairly common-sense sort of idea. Consider the post-apostolic fathers (the ante-Nicene fathers). It makes a good amount of sense to take what they say as an authoritative and definitive interpretation of the teachings of the Apostles, since, you know, they were the disciples of the Apostles.

Another way it makes sense to take seriously the voices of the past also seems to be a common sense idea: a lot (a lot!) of people have thought about theology and theological things. Lots of these people were very, very smart and very devout Christians – so it makes a lot of sense to take seriously what they had to say. Chances are, somebody has had something very good to say on whatever theological idea your thinking about. Examples would be the medieval period – lots of very important and interesting thinkers there. It would be kind of not smart to simply ignore a thousand years worth of theological reflection.

Now, the opposite of what I’m saying is, unfortunately, seen more often in theology than it should be, and its basically taking the voices of the past less seriously simply because of who/where/when there did their thinking. Easy example: the medievals. It’s pretty easy, in theological circles, to make blanket-statements about the atonement because some guy’s theory of the atonement reflected an aspect of his feudal society (I wonder who that guy is). It then becomes even easier to write off the entire medieval period as theologically illegitimate because of an influential model of the atonement. I seen it with my own eyes.

The problem with that should be fairly easy to see (I actually see two problems): it’s pretty stupid to write off whole periods of church history on account of when/who they were, and it’s equally as stupid to write off whatever theological idea because it (in this case) is a model of the atonement obsessed with feudal concepts of justice and retribution (disputable, but moving on). I see the latter as worse, actually, because at the heart of nearly every theological idea, no matter how weird or offensive it may be to us, there is a legitimate theological concern. Stupid medievals, with their individualistic retributive penal ideas of satisfaction! Out with them. Never mind that behind such theories of the atonement lie some pretty deep theological reflection on the nature of the Incarnation, justice, etc. And there’s the rub: by dismissing an idea on account of what’s on its surface, we miss the deep and often edifying aspects of the idea floating below.

A kind-of case study of what I’m getting at can be seen in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s ‘Justice in Love’. Towards the end of the book, he engages in a exegetical study of the concept of God’s justice, drawing on the book of Romans. He states at the beginning of the chapter that he sees his project as concerned with the medieval concept of God’s justice, iustia dei. He then wonders why there seems to be a lack of Protestant engagement with this idea of justice – he cites N.T. Wright as an example. According to Wolterstorff, Wright has never discussed iustia dei  in any of his work on the topic of justification.

Wright has a habit of broadbrushing and oversimplifying ideas – the Enlightenment being a very prominent example. I suspect, though can’t of course be one hundred percent sure, that he would likely point to various examples of medieval theology gone wrong (purgatory, doing penance) as a reason why medieval theology was all muddleheaded, and then go about his day. He has of course engaged medieval theology (‘Scripture and the Authority of God’ had a lot of good work on medieval exegesis), but based on his slogan-like dismissal of various dynamic movements like the Enlightenment, I don’t see him as terribly concerned with medieval understandings of justice and what they have to say to us today.

This is a criticism that could probably be made of Protestantism as a whole – the medieval period is often trotted out as a whipping-boy along with the Enlightenment. The point of this, though, isn’t to pimp medieval theology but to highlight the perils of writing off the underlying concerns of any idea we disagree with for relatively shallow reasons, using Wright and iustia dei as a working example.

The point of all this rambling? Don’t write off an idea just because of what it says on the surface, but look to engage the underlying concerns of any idea.

Quick Note on Justification in Wolterstorff

Wolterstorffs take on justification is interesting. Whereas Wright emphasises the fact of God’s covenant faithfulness, Wolterstorff tries to really focus on the content of said faithfulness – namely, the justice of God’s covenant faithfulness. Wolterstorff .holds that that the topic of Romans is more about justice than covenant faithfulness alone (Wright). God’s inclusion of Gentiles is thoroughly just in the tradition of the Old Testament teachings about the justice of God. The inclusion of the Gentiles does not violate justice

Thought Notes 9/22/2014

A significant but overlooked contributor to the topic of justification in Paul is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose roughly forty page discussion in his book ‘Justice in Love’ is just outstanding, focusing on the traditional medieval definition of the ‘dik’ words as ‘justice’. He fleshes out the content of Gods covenant and the justice thereof to a degree not really seen in a lot of discussions on the subject. Locating the topic of justice within the broader picture of God’s covenant faithfulness is a good way to advance the debate on Paul’s thought. Here’s a great review/interaction of/with the book. To quote from the review:

‘Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God’s justification of the Gentiles is his “covenant faithfulness,” for Wolterstorff it is God’s “justice”: not the “mere fact” of covenant fidelity but its substantive content.’

I continue to think on the nature of civil government, war, etc within the context of Christian theology. Wolterstorff makes a great point (somewhere, not exactly sure where off the top of my head) that government is essentially a rights-respecting entity (Wolterstorff thinks of rights as inherent). This allows for the state to ‘wield the sword’, to paraphrase the book of Romans, in the service of rights-defense.

I go back and forth on how important I think secondary sources are in philosophy/theology. I like sticking to primary sources myself. I haven’t read lots of commentaries on various philosophers and their thought – and all too often it seems that reading a secondary source is required to really understand said philosopher.

Here’s a comment I wrote regarding the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It’s kind of a quick overview.

‘Kant was a transcendental idealist. His entire project was to overcome what he saw as the weaknesses of the dominant positions in epistemology, empiricism, where all knowledge comes thru the senses, and rationalism, where all knowledge is a priori. He also developed the analytic/synthetic distinction in a posteriori/a priori knowledge, which has been further developed by Saul Kripke into the necessary a posteriori and contingent a piori, and rejected by W.V.O. Quine. Kant’s project here was to figure out what the mind must be like for us to have any experience at all – which lead to his famous idealism, where he posits causality, space and time as constructions of the mind as well as his phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

His ethic is called the categorical imperative, which can be summed up in his famous maxim about acting in such a way that can be universalized as a moral law for all people. His ethics stem from his attempt to figure out how to make sense of our moral experience – its not too far removed from his method in epistemology. We have this inescapable sense of right and wrong, of duty, the sense of ‘ought’. Thru a long process I won’t go into here, Kant postulates
both freedom and God as necessary conditions for this experience of our moral life.

The categorical imperative derives from his grounding morality in reason alone – ethical reasoning for Kant cannot be derived from empirical data. Once you do this, that is once you discount the empirical, your moral reasoning is grounded in pure reason alone and hence is universal and hence binding on everyone else. Hence why Kant was able to assert that lying, for example, is always wrong.’

A lot of discourse in the area of ethics and moral philosophy (at least since Moore, Russell, et al) seems to try and use the tools of analytic philosophy to derive ethical truths (using ‘truths’ loosely). I’m not really sure how sympathetic I am to this approach. It appears rather unwise to use analytic tools to solve existential problems, and ethics is nothing if not existential.

Some Scattered Thoughts on Peter Enns Ideas on Scripture, the Enlightenment and God

This post is basically an edited and condensed version of some comments I made at Rachel Held Evans blog and on Alastair Roberts blog:

It seems that despite Enns not wanting keep the Bible at a safe distance in all its troubling messiness, he does a remarkable job of keeping it at a safe distance while allowing some fairly modern presuppositions to shape how he reads it.

For starters, I wonder what makes our current and modern sensibilities the standards by which everything must be measured, which seems to be a given for Enns. I’d also wonder about his method of reading Scripture – i.e. to see the violent portrayals of God as ‘tribalistic’ etc and his, despite his insistence that he’s not doing so, dismissal of such portrayls. These are examples of his holding Scripture at arms length – can’t have those violent pictures of God, can we? Chalk em’ up to a primitive tribes record of their experience of God seen thru their own agendas and assumptions. Hence, no need to really believe the same thing as those Israelites wrote down – we now know better. This seems to be little more than Enns holding Scripture at arms length. I get that his project is to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘messiness’ of Scripture, take it on its own terms blah blah blah – got it. I really do . The end result of that, however, is that certain parts of the Scriptures that don’t conform to his method are jettisoned as being the imaginings and mistakes of an iron age tribe engaged in primitive warfare. Hence it’s not really wrestling with the texts or allowing them to really speak on their own terms. Hence my comment. (And, as an aside, invoking things like ‘enlightenment presuppositions’ does more to muddy the waters than anything else – what is an example of an ‘enlightenment presupposition’?) I could probably argue that Enns’ thinking is actually quite influenced by ‘enlightenment’ presuppositions, honestly. It strikes me that a position such as Enns’ isn’t far at all from the very real Enlightenment idea that we are free from the past and must progress past it. Alastair observes a rather important point that seldom gets noticed:

‘One could also argue that Enns et al are directly in line with the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason. Revelation conditioned by historical particularity is instantly exposed to suspicion because it doesn’t attain to this ideal. The historical and cultural particularity revealed in the Scriptures is cause for distrust for those of us who have attained to the regime of liberal universal reason. We must free Scripture from its cultural shackles and discover the timeless and universal truth that it was straining towards within its problematic cultural embeddedness.’

The picture of God that emerges from Enns’ thinking bears a suspicious resemblance to a lot of very modern, liberal ideas – ‘enlightenment based sensibilites’, to use those terms, hence (again) the point of my comment – for all his attempts to let the texts speak on their own terms, it seems like he ends up with a view of God based on some a priori viewpoints he has than what the Scriptures actually say.

The issue surrounding the use of ‘enlightenment’ is that there is no one ‘Enlightenment’ way of thinking, or, if there is, it’s so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless (‘progress’, could fit, but that is, as I said, so vague as to be usless.). In terms of the natural sciences, it refers to Newton, an anti-a priori/pro-empirical approach (for the most part – Newton made plenty of hypotheses), in terms of political philosophy it refers to individualism, the development nation-state and nationalism, John Locke, private property and the beginnings of liberalism, in metaphysics it refers to the blank slate, Hume, Locke, suspicion towards classical metaphysics and scholasticism, skepticism and the way of ideas, in terms of historical study it means Lessings broad ugly ditch and the march of history, in ethics, the categorical imperitave, the project of morality without God and the absolute moral autonomy of the self – there is no one monolithic way of thinking that we can invoke by saying, ‘you and your damn enlightenment presuppositions!’ It’s a buzzword, honestly, that is invoked more often than it is critically examined.