The Natural Theology of Negation

In ‘Christianity and Classical Culture‘, Jaroslav Pelikan spends a good deal of time on the topics of both natural theology and negative theology, or apophatic theology, in the thought of the Cappodicians. The Cappodicians were concerned not only with the dogmas of the Trinity, Holy Spirit and so on but also with interacting from the classical Greek culture in which they were steeped, and they had no hesitation in appropriating what they took to be parallels between classical thought and Christian thought.

A key example can be found in Gregory of Nyssa, whose overall method was what we might call a method of ‘circumcision’ – so named because he took there to be a number of doctrines in classical thought (creation, for example) that in and of themselves were sound but needed to have the corrupting aspects cut away, as it were (in this case, Gregory cuts away Plato’s doctrine of the co-existence and co-eternality of matter with the creator).

Gregory’s method, then, looks something like this:

(1) find parallels between classical thought and Christian thought

(2) tease out the truths in the parallels

(2a) from (1) and (2) establish a kind of ‘natural theology’

(3) cut away the contrasts – the corrupting philosophy attached to the parallels

Gregory can thus point to a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural religion’ – he is fond of saying ‘Does not nature say the same?’, when arguing for Christianity, and provide some answers to objections to his faith. This was a key task for the Cappodicians and indeed their apologetics overlap considerably with their evangelistic and pastoral concerns (at times it is difficult to even distinguish between the three).

Taken in an unqualified sense such a method poses grave dangers – it is but a step from the above method to drawing positive statements about the divine on the basis of created, finite things, and this was a danger of which the Cappodicians were fully aware. It was with this danger in mind that they expounded their negative theology:

‘To protect themselves against distortion, whether accidental or deliberate, any “proper conceptions about the divine nature”, therefore, needed to begin from the fundamental premise that the divine nature was “unlike anything known” that might be used in speaking about it.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, p. 45

Such was the language of negation – the recognition that there was no way for human thought or language to ever comprehend fully the divine. There is no perfect analogy – any analogy had to proceed with the presupposition that while it may be an understandable analogy it is ultimately an inadequate one. Apophatic theology thus serves as a guide or a boundary marker within which reason is free:

‘For negative theology could be construed not only as a limitation on the mind but at the same time as a liberation of the mind, setting the human reason, as the image of God, free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it.’ (p. 57)

It is not reason itself, however, that recognizes these limits. This recognition comes through faith, a mode of knowing given through grace, and it is faith that recognizes and accepts the transcendence of God – for Gregory, the divine has its being where thought does not reach.

An interesting contrast may here be noted between the Cappodicians and Aristotle. The latter held that being qua being is the proper object of human inquiry and the end of human reason – the former held that apart from faith, the divine being was hidden from human reason and in fact was not comparable to any other thing that existed or could be known:

‘Apophatic metaphysics, then, was inseparable from apophatic epistemology, whose fundamental axiom was: “The divine being is to be known only in the impossibility of perceiving it.” The divine being – to whom, at Athens in the very first confrontation between Christianity and classical culture, the apostle Paul had applied a quotation from a pagan Greek poet, “In him we live and move, in him we exist” – could not be compared to any other beings to which the terms “being” and “knowing” had ever been applied. In the case of these other beings, a growth in human knowledge meant an increase in understanding and comprehending the subject, but here it meant the opposite, an ever deepening awareness of the incomprehensibility of the subject.” (p 55)

There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfills and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.

A Few Interesting Video Games

I play a few games here and there on the PC, and I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting and artistic ones I’v’e come across recently:

(I’ve logged a sizeable amount of time on this game, and it really is quite brilliant)

(I’ve played this one all the way through several times and I still jump from some of the scares)

Anyway, enjoy the trailers, and go buy one or two. There’s no reason not to, since Steam is having their giant summer sale and most of those titles are available at a discount.

Notes on Stephen’s Speech

– Two things should be noted right off the bat: it’s the longest single speech in the New Testament, and it doesn’t jive to well with a lot of the other New Testament in terms of critique – Stephen is much harsher in his condemnation of the temple than Luke is, for example.

– The two main passages of Scripture that Stephen quotes are Amos 5:25-27 (in verses 42-43) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (in verses 49-50. Respectively, these deal with the themes of idolatry and God using the world as a footstool – i.e., not contained in a house built by hands. I think from these two specific quotations and the general theme of the speech, it can reasonably be assumed that Stephen saw the temple as not only superfluous in light of Christ but as totally unnecessary and even wrong from the very beginning. The entire temple apparatus simply allows the idolatry that Stephen takes to be part and parcel of the Hebrew people a greater reign.

– Being rather convinced by Wright’s thesis that the temple at the time of Jesus was more or less a talisman of a violent and nationalistic religion, I think it can Stephen’s speech can also be reasonably seen as a critique of Jewish privilege. Stephen traces a lineage of turning from God and his oracles in v. 38-41 – and note that it is the oracles of God that Paul connects with the advantage or privilege of the Jew. Stepehen also effectively turns the tables on his accusers by arguing that in their betrayal and murder of Jesus, they were the ones who broke the law as delivered by angels (an invocation which establishes its legitimacy). So, whereas Paul points to the receiving of the oracles of God as a privilege or advantage of the Jew, Stephen sees the idolatry present in his fathers as causing them to reject these oracles. Being also generally convinced of Wright’s thesis that a problem with the Judaism of the time was that it had developed into a closed-off ethnic religion or identity, I think that Stephen can be taken to be arguing that the privilege of the Jew had turned into a hoarding of the oracles of God.

– More evidence here could be cited from the examples Stephen gives of God’s revealing and workings in Hebrew history – such revelations are not restricted to certain people in the Holy Land but rather wherever God’s faithful servants can be found – Egypt, Mesopotamia, wherever. In his narrative, Stephen seems to connect the building of the temple with the stagnation of Israel’s religion.

– A very interesting transition occurs between v. 39 and v. 51 – in the former, Stephen refers to ‘our fathers’, who refused to obey Moses. In the latter, Stephen refers to ‘your fathers’, who resist the Holy Spirit in the same way that Stephen’s accusers do. What I think is happening here is summed up by Bruce Metzger in ‘The New Testament, It’s Background, Growth and Content’:

‘The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history. The seeds of theological revolution lie within Stephen’s challenge of the alleged privilege of the Jews, and the logic implicit in his argument opened the way for a Christian mission to the Gentiles. In short, Stephen stands for a Christianity that was coming to realize its independence and self-sufficiency and was beginning to feel that it must either absorb Judaism or break with it.’ (p. 189)

The Prolepsis of the Son and the Eternity of the Hypostatic Union

I originally wanted to write this post on the idea of functional subordination in Barth, but two things steered me in a slightly different direction: (1) that becomes a huge topic very quickly, and (2) while reading George Hunsinger’s new book ‘Reading Barth with Charity‘, a slightly different but very related topic jumped out at me: prolepsis within the context of the Son’s obedience to the Father. For a good overview of the issue of subordination in the Trinity, head to Kevin Davis’ two helpfulposts, ‘Subordination in God, modal not personal‘, and ‘In God, subordination is not deprivation‘. Prolepsis is, briefly, a kind of anticipation of something as if it already exists. I kind-of blogged on this here though I don’t use the term there explicitly. Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book ‘Divine Discourse’ noted that Barth was the most relentlessly Chalcedonian of theologians, and by fleshing out Barth’s use of prolepsis I think we will see just how true that statement is.

Barth, in a nutshell, holds that the eternal Son elects Jesus of Nazareth, and that logically prior to this the eternal Son elects himself. So in electing himself, the eternal Son also elects Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Hunsinger:

‘The election of Jesus of Nazareth in and with the self-election of the eternal Son is what makes the whole God-Man Jesus Christ present as such (proleptically) at the eternal beginning of all things.’ (‘Reading Barth with Charity’, p. 62)

This is an interesting and important point and should be understood rightly. Barth isn’t simply saying that the eternal Son’s Incarnation was foreknown or foreordained – he’s saying that Jesus of Nazareth is eternally present to the Son and to the Father. Hunsinger again:

‘Through the coinherence of simultaneity and sequence in eternity, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, is present at the beginning of all things. He is conceived as present by virtue of God’s eternal foreknowledge, in which something is true and real because it is divinely foreknown (not the reverse).’ (p 62)

Because Barth effectively puts the hypostatic union into eternity, he is thus able to argue that the divine Son’s obedience to the father is a human obedience – the two natures and two wills of Christ reach into eternity. Darren O. Sumner, in his fantastic contribution to ‘Advancing Trinitarian Theology‘ (the published papers of the Los Angelos Theology Conference) entitled ‘Obedience and Subordination in Trinitarian Theology’, (and seriously, it’s a brilliant essay – my favourite of those I’ve read so far) draws out the implications for putting the hypostatic union into eternity on Barth’s scheme:

‘…while there are two natures and two wills in Jesus Christ, Barth insists that each of these is determined (or “commonly actualized”) according to their personal union. The human essence is drawn into obedient conformity to the divine, while the divine essence is given a new determination that, without the Incarnation and the unio hypostatica, it would not otherwise have had. What Jesus does in his divine essence he does not only in conjunction with his humanity but in the “strictest relationship” with it. If the divine essence is determined by its union with humanity, then Barth is able to say further that God’s willing in his second way of being is not necessarily identical with his God’s willing in his first way of being. While there is one divine will, in God’s second way of being that will is in relation to a particular human will as well – a relation of openness and receptivity to the humanity of Christ.’ (p. 141-142)

How does this enable Barth to say that the obedience of the Son to the will God is a genuinely human obedience? Since, by virtue of the prolepsis above, the Son has never not had his humanity – the hypostatic union is eternal in this sense – and since the two natures and wills are mutually determining, the divine obedience to the will of God by the eternal Son is a genuinely human obedience, and the human obedience to the will of God by Jesus of Nazareth is a genuinely divine obedience.