A Review of “Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ” Part 1 | theologia vera

Here’s a more in depth review which interacts and engages with the main poonts of the book – definitely worth reading:

http://theologiavera.com/2015/01/31/a-review-of-dominus-mortis-martin-luther-on-the-incorruptibility-of-god-in-christ-part-1/

Intellect and Reality

So, Kant basically ascribed to the mind a real creative power – things are understandable only insofar as they brought under or within the conditions of sensibility. This I’ll call the active power of the mind, since the categories for understand-ability are supplied by the mind. Now, as I said before, that the mind is in fact an active and not merely passive factor in our knowledge of the world is a fairly incontestable point, but thinking more on this topic led me to think about the intellect in general.

Aristotle held that the intellect was divided into the active (a) an the passive (p). p is the part of the intellect which receives data from the material world, while a acts as a kind of formal cause on the sensory data, forming ideas and thoughts with determinate structure. Aquinas basically held this same view, but tweaked it a bit: p still receives sensory data, but a grasps the form, which it abstracts, from the sensory data (Scotus disagreed with this and believed that the object of the intellect wasn’t the essence or quiddity of a thing, but being itself, but for right now I won’t go into that – for a bit more on that topic, see this post). So you basically have a concept of the intellect (and there’s a lot more to it, with categories like quality and whatnot, but this suffices for present purposes) where it is both passive and active in its knowledge of the world.

The medievals had this great concept: the fit of the intellect to reality. There is some kind of match between the intellect and reality, or the world or whatever you like to call it. Our cognitive faculties are able to allows us to know things about the world – of course, the medievals attributed this to the fact that God had created the world in this way (which I also happen to believe), but whether or not one believes that such a fit is a product of divine creation, it certainly seems that there is in fact a fit between our intellect, or our cognitive faculties and the world in which we live.

This brings me from the medievals ( in my mind, all roads in philosophy lead to the medievals) back to Kant. Where Kant made the mind purely active, the medievals, and the classical tradition as a whole, saw the mind as both active and passive – passive in that there is a world which acts upon our minds, and active in that in some way, the mind acts as a formal cause upon the sensory data received by the mind to impose a determinate form upon the data, either by abstracting the form or essence from the data or by some other means.

Divine Simplicity: East, West, and Barth

Divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of any metaphysical parts – He is one. This is based on the Shema – ‘hear, or Israel, the Lord our God is one.’ There are two main ways of thinking about this that have dominated: the Latin tradition and the Eastern tradition – Barth’s is different from both of these.

The Latin tradition holds that God is absolutely simple in His essence – His existence is His essence, which is His power, which is His goodness, etc. God is utterly one. While we may distinguish between God’s attributes, there is no real distinction in God Himself. God is one in His simplicity.

The Eastern tradition takes a different route. God’s essence is supremely unknowable – we know God through his energies, or workings in creation. The energy/essence distinction avoids simplicity because the energies are distinct from the essence, but don’t think of this as a kind of kantian mediator, or thing-in-the-middle; God’s energies are really God, so in knowing God’s energies (such as His grace, love, mercy), we really do know God. Nothing can be said about the essence, since it is the absolute ontological chasm between God and humanity

Barth takes a decidedly different approach, known as actualism. Instead of taking the Eastern way, which he regarded as a product of subjective apophatic mysticism (he was quite wrong about the apophatic tradition, but that’s for another time), and the Western way, which he saw as abstract metaphysics, he begins with God. God as He is. As He reveals Himself. Barth refuses any kind of speculation and begins his discussion by asserting that God is the Living god, to be known on His own terms.

For Barth, the issue isn’t so much of existence and essence (though he uses that language) so much as act and being. God’s being, who He is, is what He is in His works. God’s being is in His act. His act is revelation – His self-revealing. God is who He is in His act of revelation. So, instead of God’s existence being His essence, His being is His act, and His act is revelation. God’s being is revelation, ergo, God is revelation.

So, in a nutshell, Barth basically affirms the medieval and Latin tradition of existence being essence – he simply gets in a very different way. Whereas the Latins arrive by means of metaphysics (what Barth would call speculation) Barth arrives by means of the self-revealing of the Living God. This shouldn’t be new territory for those familiar with Barth – he was famous for his rejection of metaphysics, natural theology, and speculative metaphysics about God and the nature of God. Torrance would do a good job of mellowing out Barth’s thought and giving a place to natural theology and metaphyics.

These are more or less the two dominant positions, as well as Barth’s – questions, comments, criticisms welcome.

More Reading Notes 2/15/14

I finally got Pelikan’s Reformation book in his history of doctrine series. It’s been outstanding so far – I’ve zeroed in on the discussion of Luther, justification and the theology of the cross. Something I learned was Luther’s emphasis on the Christus Victor theme, which, while all Christians sort of believe that at some level, definitely lost some emphasis in the medieval period. Luther focused on it to a degree I had not realized. While I’m fairly familiar with the justification doctrines Luther puts forward, this has also served to flesh out the subtleties in his thought in that area. I hope to learn more of the subtleties and nuances in Reformation thought.

Apart from that, I’ve done a large amount of reading in the classical metaphysical tradition, specifically the Aristotelean (sp?) theory of act and potency and the debate surrounding divine simplicity/energy-essence distinction. The main thinkers I consulted on act/potency include Aquinas, here, Aristotle, here, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, whose writings on the topic can be found here. I read Hart on simplicity several times over in ‘The Experience of God’, who, while Orthodox, takes a decidedly Latin approach to the whole affair, but still maintains that God in his true nature is unknowable, whereas the E/E distinction doesn’t hold to the absolute divine simplicity of the Latin tradition. I also consulted Barth, in C/D 2.1, pages 457-461, who affirms divine simplicity by tying it to the freedom and simplicity of God’s love, which is par for the course for Barth. This led inevitably to thinking about the role of apophatic and cataphatic theology – which is a whole ‘nother discussion.

‘Mapping the Mind’, by Rita Carter has also been great – a fantastic entry-level book on the physiology/biology of the brain and brain science, technical, up-to-date, covering all the major areas, but easy to read. I’m learning a great deal about neurons, synapses, grey matter, chemical reactions, and lots of other fun things.

Earlier this week I spent some time reading Plantinga’s ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, specifically the sections dealing with foundationalism. This was sparked by someone asserting that unless one had self-evident propositions one couldn’t have knowledge, and God served as the self-evident thing. Plantinga more or less points out a big flaw, namely that foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent – it makes demands that it can’t meet. Fantastic book all around, and highly recommended.

Nature, Grace and Predestination in the 9th Century

A preliminary to any discussion of predestination in the 9th century has to be the concepts of nature and grace. As I mentioned in a previous post, the distinction between nature and grace basically ran like this (the references here will all come from Pelikans’s ‘The Growth of Medieval Theology’):

Augustine: nature = supported by grace, after the fall, grace is taken away. Nature without grace can only do evil.
Pelagius = nature is grace – righteousness is part of the original nature of man. Grace is immutable in the person.

It was the Augustinian viewpoint that dominated the medieval tradition – free will, for example, was seen to only be free in any meaningful sense if it was supported by grace. Bear this in mind as the background and underlying presuppositions of this entire debate, even though it’s not directly referenced.

Now, generally, there are two main ways of thinking about predestination: either God picks by means of decree some to be saved, or God picks based on His foreknowledge of what people would freely do. A key point in Augustine, who was basically the ender of disputes in the medieval period, was this, that God acted…

‘…for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had kindly predestined to grace.’ (p. 81

The latter originated with a guy named Hincmar, who turns out to be another guy named Gottschalks arch enemy. Hincmar said that God foreknew that…

‘…some, through the freedom of the will assisted by grace, would be good…’ (86)

…and these were the people he predestined to salvation. This is single predestination. God predestines based on foreknowledge who goes to heaven, passing over the reprobate.

Gottschalk based his double predestination heavily on his idea of God’s impassibility:

‘”I believe and confess that God, omnipotent and unchangeable, has foreknown and predestined”: so Gottschalk opened a confession of his faith. The conclusion of another statement of faith was an apostrophe extolling the transcendence of God beyond time and beyond change. If God had not foreordained the damnation of the devils and the wicked, they could not be damned; for “if he does something which he has not done by predestination, he will simply have to change,” which was blasphemous.’ (p. 85)

An area of dispute was the distinction between God’s foreknowledge and predestination – did the one impose necessity on the other? Did it even make sense to talk of ‘fore’ knowledge in God? This was an area of intense discussion – but for the sake of brevity I’ll pass over it, noting the two obvious answers: either (a) it did impose necessity, or (b) it didn’t, for one reason or another.

To breeze through a pretty lengthy and subtle debate: both sides believed that they were teaching the correct doctrine, and each believed the other to be a heretic. Both were able to find support in Augustine, and both had patristic support as well as contemporary followers. The most pertinent for modern discussions is the emergence of this viewpoint:

‘This statement of Paul’s, (that God desired all men to be saved), the predestinarians had to admit, was “extremely perplexing and  much discussed in the writings of the holy fathers and explained in many different ways”. Therefore its interpretation was “not to be settled precipitately, but very cautiously”. They rehearsed Augustine’s various attempts to circumvent the text’s affirmation of the universal salvific will of God. From the use of the identical word ‘desires’ in 1 Timothy 2:4. “who desires all to be saved”, and in Romans 9:18, “He has mercy upon whoever he desires,” Gottschalk strove to demonstrate that “truly God has not in way desired to save with eternal salvation those whom, as Scripture testifies, he hardens.” The “all men” in the text must mean “all men who are saved” rather than “all men” in general.’ (p. 90)

This viewpoint opened up all kinds of other questions: how effective was the death of Christ in securing redemption? We have as responses some now classic answers: on the one side, God could be accused of injustice if his son died for only for some and not others. On the other side, the blood of Christ would be seen as being wasted if it was shed for those who were not saved. Both of these were developed in intricate detail by their supporters.

To sum up: the contemporary debate, usually had between Calvinists and Arminians, over the scope of redemption, predestination and God’s foreknowledge, can be seen reaching all the way back to the 9th century – and, oddly enough, it seems that the answers have basically remained the same ever since.

As a postscript: the real issue here is the idea of externalism in regards to salvation, which Barth/Torrance subjected to pretty withering criticism in their writings.

On the Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument (OA) is one of the more interesting a priori arguments in philosophy – it’s had both noted champions and critics, and it generally seems that although it is in fact interesting it is not compelling as an argument. I definitely agree – as an argument, it’s not that compelling.

But I was thinking about it last night – suppose it’s not necessarily meant to be a compelling argument. I mean, look at the context – it’s smack dab in the middle of a work of devotional/mystical prayer (indeed one of the great works of devotion and prayer of the middle ages, in my opinion). Anselm does indeed seem to want to prove ‘the fool’ wrong – but perhaps not so much in an analytic way but rather in a religious way.

In a nutshell, I think the OA is an excercise in allowing the mind to ascend to the most pure communion with God – in a sense, to find God in His most real or ultimate form. Anselm’s famous definition of God as that which no greater can be conceived isn’t so much of an analytic axiom – rather it is the full force of the reality of God upon the mind. Anselm has arrived at God – in a ‘this is *it*’ kind of way. It’s God in His full reality of being, or rather a glimpse of that, being had by the mind, and all Anselm can say is ‘no greater can be conceived’. While differing in content and form I think there is a family resemblance with the theologies of Bonaventure and Eckhart here. Anselm is seeking true communion with the Reality that is God, and as he continually ascends towards God’s reality he finds His most perfect form as that which no greater can be conceived.

Now this is a pretty brief and broad exposition, and I haven’t really gone into a lot of depth and suspect that this isn’t really a majority opinion as to the meaning of the argument. But it’s what I get when reading the work.