Review-ish of ‘Dominus Mortis’

So I read ‘Dominus Mortis‘ this last month, and though I don’t usually do book reviews (there’s no shortage of theoblogs doing book reviews), I decided to write up a few thoughts on this outstanding little volume.

As a whole, this is just a fantastic work of scholarship – anyone interested in divine impassibility, late medieval christology (and christology in general), theological metaphysics and, of course, Luther’s theology will benefit hugely from this book. The writing is clear (though technical in places) without dumbing things down, though of course the reader will have to follow the text closely so as not to be lost. Being a specialized study, there’s the assumption of a fair amount of familiarity with theological vocabulary and concepts, so while easy to read, it’s not a beginners guide.

The standouts in terms of content for this book are for me the engagement with the doctrine of passibility/impassibility, the engagement with modern theology in terms of Luther’s applicability for today’s issues, and the historical overview of the ‘divergence thesis’  with the subsequent argument/demonstration that the passibilist reading of Luther is, in fact, very incorrect (I won’t give it away here, you’ll have to read it yourself – suffice it to say that the passibilist reading of Luther has been dealt quite a blow in this book) .

Something I really, really, really, REALLY REALLY  appreciate is that at the end of every chapter is a brief (1-2 page) summary of what’s been discussed in the chapter. This is quite simply so very nice – the arguments can be somewhat long and complex and it’s incredibly helpful to have a look back to help you get your bearings with a quick stock-taking to see just where you’re at.

I’ll end this review-ish with a hearty recommendation – if you’re interested at all in passibility/impassibility, christology, theological metaphysics and Luther, this is an essential volume. Get it.


Quick Note on the Third Man Argument

The third man argument has no force if the sentence of the form: ‘The Large is large’ is taken to be self-predication – that is, a statement of that being large is a part of what it is to be large – and not an example of something which is an additional thing that displays the form Large.

This is mostly drawn from the Cambridge Companion to Plato – references forthcoming.

Notes on Supervenience

– The basic idea for supervenience is that there is no change in the mental (M) unless there is a change in the physical (P). Put differently, no mental activity without physical activity – the mental supervenes on the physical.

– What supervenience attempts to secure, generally speaking, is a non-reductive physicalist account of the mind – ie, this isn’t a simple identity theory (mind = brain) or an eliminative theory. In other words, it’s a theory of the mind that aims at an account of the mind that, while not reducing the mental to the physical, shows the mental to not be independent of the physical.

– There are various accounts of supervenience, but generally it’s accepted that it must be of the strong kind to be a really physicalist theory of the mind. This means, roughly, that in no nomologically possible world (this move is made so as to preclude the metaphysical possibility of, say, dualism) :

‘Necessarily, for each property M in M,  if anything x has M, then there is a property P in P such that x has P, and necessarily if anything has P it has M.’ (‘A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind’, p. 579)

– As Jaegwon Kim notes, its difficult to see exactly how this isn’t a reductive theory – if for M it’s necessary for P, there it certainly seems like M entails P. Kim goes so far as to declare that supervenience won’t give up a nonreductive theory of mind, in fact.

– A further difficulty (and the above is a very crude sketch of one objection) comes when the issue of causation comes into play – Kim appropriately dubs his theory of causation ‘supervenient causation’ – M causes P because M supervenes on P. Kim holds to a theory of ‘causal explanatory exclusion’, or the doctrine that there is at most one full, complete causal explanation for a given event, and this, coupled with his principle of ‘causal closure’ –  any physical event that has a cause at time t has a physical cause at t – seems to really nix any idea of mental causation in the bud, which is precisely what Kim is trying to hold on to (the spectre of epiphenomenalism is always hovering nearby). If M causes P, and M supervenes on P, and M really is distinct from P, then it would appear that we have two causes of P – M and P. But given Kim’s commitment to the causal priority of P, what causal role is there really for M? It seems that epiphenomenalism has been invited in here.

Never Again

Remember those who died from gas, starvation, torture, experiments, dismemberment, work, bullets and cruelty.

Remember the elderly, children, sick, weak, homosexual, ethnic, who were specially selected to die. 

Remember the mothers who tried to hide their children from the gas chambers but were discovered.

Remember the piles of emaciated bodies found in the death camps, and the living who were in just as bad of conditions.

Never again.

The Solidarity of Impassibility

A common refrain in modern theology is that of God’s solidarity with humanity – this goes hand in hand (and sometimes is the same as) God’s passibility -God suffering not just in Christ but in His very nature. The aloof, static, lifeless, metaphysical God who does not and cannot suffer is simply not the God we see revealed in Scripture and in Jesus, a radically involved and suffering God.

I’m not going to recapitulate the various arguments for and against impassibility here (though it is a subject I’ve written on before – for two more substantial posts, click here and here). What I am going to do is, inspired by David Luy’s ‘Dominus Mortis‘ (review forthcoming) go into why radical solidarity demands divine impassibility, and fails on an account of passibility.

Solidarity, or God being with us in our suffering, trials and death, is a hugely powerful theme in Scripture. What has to be guarded against, however, is the tendency to leave the theme of solidarity unexamined, and thereby allow one concept to become such a dominant theme that it unwittingly drowns out (and even damages) the larger framework of which it is a part.

Simply put: solidarity, God being with us, in our midst in our suffering and death, has to be coupled with God being for us in the midst of our suffering and death. For there to be real redemption, real salvation, God cannot simply be a co-suffer-er – He must overcome the powers of sin and death which afflict us. Solidarity on its own brings no redemption. If God is passibly with us, then there is no overcoming of death, because only that which cannot die can defeat death, and if death is not defeated, then there is no redemption – and a God who cannot redeem is no God at all.

However, this has to be seen, as I said above, within a larger framework – the framework of Christus Victor – the triumph of Christ over death, sin and the powers. The redemption of humanity, which is accomplished by God’s radical solidarity with us in Christ, who in taking on human nature heals, sanctifies, and redeems us via the hypostatic union, is coupled with the victory of Christ, which is accomplished by the impassible deity of Christ. If Christ is passible in his divinity, then death cannot be defeated by only experienced.

What kind of solidarity is provided by impassibility, though? I’ll let Luy answer that:

‘Impassibility refers, for him (Luther), to the “mode” of God’s radical immanence: a maximally radiant nearness of incorruptible divinity in the midst of abject human weakness; the triumph of of deathless might in the very jaws of mortal defeat.’ (‘Dominus Mortis’, p. 209)

‘Only a God, who is incorruptibly divine, can be the Lord over sin, death and the devil. Only such a one may irradiate human weakness with deathless might and break the power of death and Hades…impassibility, in other words, is not an abstract means of protecting some predetermined notion of divine transcendence in spite of God’s presence in Christ…God is present impassibly because only a God thus present can redeem – and only a God who can redeem is truly God.’ (p. 210)

In His impassibility, God truly is in the most radical solidarity – truly immanent and truly present in all His divine life – radically with us, and impassibly redeeming us. In short:

– Christ is man (he suffers with us, as one of us)

– Christ is God (he is deathless and redeems us)

From Christ’s impassible divinity follows his victory, and from his humanity and solidarity follows redemption. From both of these follow atonement.

Some Sunday Links

A few cool things found floating around the World Wide Web:

3:AM interviews David James on Fichte, Rousseau, and idealism:

‘I think that Fichte’s essential role in the development of German Idealism can nevertheless be identified fairly clearly. Essentially, he sought to explain the unity of reason explicitly in terms of the idea of autonomy in the sense of reason’s independence of anything other than itself, an independence that he explains in terms of its being governed by rules or principles whose source is in each case somehow itself. Whatever one makes of such an undertaking, it opens the way for investigation of a number of issues that I take to be central to German Idealism, such as how human reason might be conceived as a whole whose basic forms share the same essential structure, rather than a collection of disparate parts (e.g. faculties), the extent to which theoretical reason is determined by practical reason in the sense that a practical engagement with others and the world more generally shapes how we think of ourselves and conceive our relations to that which we take to be other than others, and finally how reason can be thought to remain autonomous in the face of that which appears to be wholly independent of it.’


NPR interviews Ben Yagoda on When Pop Broke Up With Jazz:

‘There was a change in popular taste. The soldiers who had come back from World War II didn’t seem to be as interested in the more complex, challenging kind of popular song, the more jazz-based song. Sentimental ballads and, yes, novelty numbers, suddenly was much more appealing.’


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a whole slew of Livestream Bird Cams – the wife and I have been watching the great horned owl since yesterday.


In Nature magazine, two physicists attempt to defend the integrity of physics:

‘This year, debates in physics circles took a worrying turn. Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe, some researchers called for a change in how theoretical physics is done. They began to argue — explicitly — that if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally, breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical. We disagree. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued: a theory must be falsifiable to be scientific.’


 Wesley Hill has written two articles on First Things defending the doctrine of divine impassibility, the first here and the second one here:
‘Almost three decades ago, theologian Ronald Goetz spoke of the rise of a “new orthodoxy” in Christian thought. He was referring to twentieth-century theology’s enthrallment with the theme of the suffering of God.By the time Goetz wrote, that theme—of God hanging there on the gallows with the innocent sufferer, in the timeless image Elie Wiesel offered in his book Night—had come to dominate many forms of Protestant theology. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written from a Nazi prison that “only the suffering God can help.” Jürgen Moltmann, in the wake of the revelation of the full extent of the Holocaust, had authored a book called The Crucified God. And figures as diverse as the process theologian Alfred North Whitehead, who characterized God as “the fellow-sufferer who understands,” and the Japanese Lutheran Kazoh Kitamori, who spoke of “the pain of God,” had ushered in a way of thinking about divine majesty and power as God’s ability and will to share in human misery. Across the spectrum, from both pulpits and pews, the “new orthodoxy” came to reign: God suffers in God’s own nature.’
‘Put positively, because the Christian God is radically transcendent (which “impassibility” gestures toward), therefore God can take human nature to himself without displacing it or destroying it. And because the transcendent God has taken human nature to himself, the suffering which God undergoes in that nature is redemptive, rather than simply passive victimhood and solidarity with us. Because it is God who suffers in Christ, that suffering is not simply the suffering a fellow-sufferer who understands but is instead the suffering of One who is able to end all suffering by overcoming it in resurrection and ascension and immortality. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is only by affirming impassibility that we can maintain the deepest soteriological import of the suffering God takes on himself in and through the Incarnation.’

Toumo Mannerma, the man behind the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, passed away last week, and Concordia Theology wrote a wonderful piece on his life and work:
 ‘At a time when Luther studies had drifted into doldrums of a sort, Mannermaa’s arguing that the heart of the Wittenberg theology lay in Luther’s adherence to theosis as an explanation of how God bestows righteousness upon sinners aroused discussion and returned researchers to the central question of the Reformation. The discussion around his ideas has moved beyond his initial ideas, but the stimulus he has given has served the church and scholarship in special ways. We thank the Lord for this friend.’

Marcus Borg, controversial historical Jesus scholar, friend of liberals, enemy of conservatives, also passed away last week as well (a very sad week for theology), and while there have been a number of lovely tributes, here’s the one that broke the news to me:
 ‘Very many people who had left the Christian faith have returned to it through Marcus’ evangelism (though he would grimace at my use of the word, I suspect). Marcus was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ in word and in deed. He understood Jesus (and especially the Resurrection) differently than I do. But the veracity of his faith was clear. And calm. And passionate.’


Chell from Portal Illustration {And a Valentine’s Gift that’s to DIE for!}

For all those Portal fans, this isn’t a lie…

Smiling Sticks

A month or so ago my husband introduced me to Portal. Since then all I do is search Pinterest for cool fan stuff, my ringtone is Still Alive, and I’ve decided to illustrate Chell! (:


It’s not very often that I draw a stick figure without a giant smile, but that just wouldn’t have been appropriate for this heroine! I’m so happy with how she turned out! I was stressing about whether I should draw her with real limbs, but I’m really pleased with her in full stick figure style (:


The best news is that I’ve uploaded this artwork onto my Society6 website just in time for Valentine’s Day!!! Get the perfect {and best of all, inexpensive} gift for your Portal-loving Valentine! ♥

What games are you addicted to? My husband’s favourite game is Half-Life 2, so I’m considering drawing Gordon Freeman next. Let me know if you have any…

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The Logic of Committment

In ‘Personal Knowledge’, Michael Polanyi makes a couple of interesting meta-logical points. After a sustained examination of just what it means to assert something as true, he reaches the following conclusion:

…’if ‘p is true’ expresses my assertion or reassertion of the sentence p, then ‘p is true’ cannot be said to be true or false in the sense in which a factual sentence p is true’ declares that I identify myself with the content of the factual sentence p, and this identification is something I am doing, and not a fact that I am observing. The expression ‘p is true’ is therefore not itself a sentence but merely the assertion of (an otherwise unasserted) sentence, the sentence p.  To say that ‘p is true’ is to underwrite a commitment or to sign an acceptance, in a sense akin to the commercial meaning of such acts. Hence we cannot assert the expression ‘p is true’, any more than we can endorse our own signature; only a sentence can be asserted, not an action.’ (‘Personal Knowledge’, p. 254)

The distinction between the act of assertion (which cannot be true or false – or, to use more modern terminology, is not something which can have a truth-value) and the content of that sentence (which can be true or false, or have a truth-value) which is asserted serves to clear away some logical problems that Polanyi sees as rising out of the habit of ‘disguising’ an act as a sentence and serves to also lay the groundwork for showing just where commitment itself comes into play.

Briefly, Polanyi argues that only something which can be true or false can be believed – belief can only be had if what you believe might be false. This introduces an element of risk to epistemology, and from there it follows that to hold a belief as true requires, or may even actually in itself be, an act of commitment. From this it follows, on Polanyi’s scheme, that our assertion of a given sentence as true isn’t so much a statement of the facts – he distinguishes between ‘I believe p‘ and ‘p is true’ (which is something you might expect to find in a school textbook) – but an expression of commitment:

‘Admittedly, to say ‘p is true’, instead of ‘I believe p‘, is to shift the emphasis within one’s commitment from the personal to the external pole. The utterance ‘I believe p‘ expresses more aptly a heuristic conviction or a religious belief, while ‘p is true’ will be preferred for affirming a statement taken from a textbook of science.’ (p. 305)

The truth, in a more metaphysical or ontological sense is, for Polanyi, something that is sought after by us and hidden from us – it is an object of passionate desire (intellectual passion) that reveals itself only after sustained inquiry. This is the external element of truth – the internal, epistemic sense of truth is that truth ‘can be thought of only by believing it’ – i.e., from within a framework of commitment.

What this roughly serves to show isn’t that we are doomed to throw up our hands and declare that there isn’t any truth, or that truth is ultimately a matter of attitude – far from it. While there are indeed ‘facts of the matter’, as it were, outside of us, independent of our own minds, what Polanyi’s logic of commitment shows is that in any talk, pursuit or thought of the truth , there is a personal, tacit and fiduciary act of commitment, from scientific inquiry (which I’ve written on in a bit more detail here) to the cold mechanics of formal logic.

A Few Notes on ‘Written on the Heart’ in 2 Corinthians 3

Reading ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, I came to a short exposition on 2 Corinthians 3 – and I decided to pause and dig a bit deeper into it, specifically the theme of ‘written on the heart’.

– An interesting (but by no means exhaustive) chain of uses of the theme of ‘written on the heart’ can be traced through Deuteronomy 6, Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. Roughly, each of those passages can be mapped as such:

(1) Deuteronomy 6 = slavery/exodus/Shema

(2) Jeremiah 31 = renewal of people covenant, noting Israel’s unfaithfulness in verse 32

(3) Ezekiel 36 = the vindication of Israel, and the new spirit, noting that Israel profaned God’s name among the nations

Finally, in 2 Corinthians 3, we have a few different things going on:

– the new covenant

– the fulfillment of various OT covenant promises, both of which occur within the context of Paul’s ministry to the Corinthian church and the life of the Corinthian church itself.

– the reflection and beholding of glory/Shema, which is an interesting use of temple-language in regards to the church

– said glory is revealed not in the physical temple, but in the new temple, the true temple, the people of God, unveiled by the spirit

– the rough conclusion of the chapter seems to in effect be that in the apostolic ministry of Paul, and in the life of the Corinthian church, we have the fullfillment and embodiment of the OT covenant promises.

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)