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.

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Atonement Notes

The first thing to note in any study of the atonement in the early church is that there was no one monolithic view of the atonement. There are large themes that emerge, and some of these themes clearly dominant more than others and some even serve as controlling structures under and through which other aspects of the atonement are brought forward. The controlling element of some of the larger themes is important, because no aspect of the atonement can really be a stand-alone kind of thing, or played off of other themes – the controlling structures are what allow everything to come together in a coherent way. Briefly, then, some of the dominant notes of the atonement are:

Christus Victor – for my part, this is the most important element, for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the overall controlling structure and framework for the atonement as a whole. The victory of Christ over death and the powers in his death and resurrection is a very clearly found in both the Biblical and patristic witness – through his victory he sets free those who are held captive by death. Athanasius was the most important expounder of this view in the early church.

Healing – this theme highlights the ‘what happened to humanity’ part of the atonement. By Christ’s person, life, and work, the corruption and death in humanity is healed (this is tied closely to the hypostatic union, which I won’t go into here). There is a real, objective, ontological change wrought by God in the deepest part of humanity, where the sickness and corruption are healed by Christ’s overthrowing of death and corruption. Athanasius and Gregory Nazanien developed this theme greatly.

Recapitulation – developed in the early church primarily by Irenaeus, the motif of recapitulation has to do with the ‘re-creation’ of humanity, in which the history of humanity in Adam is ‘summed up’ and gone over again, succeeding where Adam failed (it may not be too far off the mark to think of Anselm as elaborating on this theme), and in virtue of that undoing the primal Fall. Irenaeus is most associated with this viewpoint.

Substitution – Christ died in our place being the key thing here. This is also seen in the early church very clearly very early on, though the theme was far from modern formulations of penal substitution. Christ died in our place, as a ransom and a sacrifice – this is a motif that is quite clear in the Biblical and patristic witness and may have the clearest Old Testament parallels – one can hardly open the Old Testament without finding stories of sacrifices.

The extent to which these themes are interwoven should be somewhat easy to see – Christ recapitulates Adam and humanity and succeeds where Adam had failed in his life, and by doing so effects a real healing of human nature. In his death and resurrection he defeats death, and having healed human nature of its sickness of death, opens salvation to all.

What I’m thinking of doing next is working a bit more on how these themes overlap and provide controlling structures for how we think of the atonement.

Brief Notes on the Atonement in the Fathers

The controlling themes that surface in the atonement are basically substitution, Christus Victor, and healing – and these themes are often intertwined with each other. Healing and substitution go together (and you could probably fit these in under recapitulation) and both of those themes are kind of subsumed under Christus victor, which I personally take to be the dominant controlling theme, through and under which the other themes are developed. Under the theme of CV, the themes of substitution and healing cohere into one unified whole.

Note on the Atonement in the ante-Nicene Fathers

The consensus of the ante-Nicene fathers on the nature of the atonement is firmly Christus Victor – actually, I’m hardly able to find any kind of dissenting viewpoint at all. Virtually every father saw the atonement as the triumph of Christ over the powers – while it’s not as developed as it would come to be, I think it’s safe to say that the early church’s view of the atonement was Christus Victor, and almost nothing else.

Another Trinitarian Thought

Gregory Nyssa holds that the Godhead isn’t a description of God’s nature but rather an operation which unites the persons of the Trinity. Gregory gets into what the term actually means in ‘On Not Three Gods’:

‘…we suppose that “Godhead” (theotes) is derived from “beholding” (thea) and that by general custom and the teaching of the Scriptures, he who is our beholder (theates) is called God (theos). Now if anyone admits that to behold and to see are the same thing, and that the god who oversees all things both is and is called the overseer of the universe, let him consider whether this operation belongs to one of the Persons we believe to constitute the holy Trinity, or whether the power extends to the three Persons. For if our interpretation of “Godhead” is the right one, and the things which are said to be beheld (theata) and that which beholds them is called God (theos), no one of the Persons of the Trinity could properly be excluded from this form of address on the ground of this meaning of the word.’ (‘On Not Three Gods’)

So, again, Nyssa basically grounds the unification of the three persons in the operation of the Godhead – the operation(s) flow in one motion from the Father, through the son, to the Spirit.

Pelikan on Maximus and Augustine

‘It is instructive at this point to contrast the Augustinian system with that of Maximus. For example, Maximus said that “we were freed by holy baptism from ancestral sin,” which sounds very much like the Augustinian doctrine of a sinfulness passed on from Adam to his descendants for all generations. Human nature lost “the grace of impassibility and became sin.” In other passages, too, Maximus spoke of sin and the fall in an apparently Augustinian fashion. But Maximus’s doctrine, while referring of course to the sin of Adam, did not have in it the idea of the transmission of sin through physical conception and birth. Rather, Maximus saw Adam not as the individual from whom all subsequent human beings sprang by lineal descent, but as the entire human race embodied in once concrete but universal person. In spite of the superficial parallels between the two, therefore, Augustine’s doctrine of man and Maximus’s doctrine were really quite different. Photius recognized that the church fathers had a twofold anthropology, one praising and the other reviling human nature. In the Eastern tradition this did not lead to the Western view of sin through the fall of Adam, but to a view of death through the fall of Adam, a death that each man merited through his own sin. Thus the hardening of Pharaoh, which Augustine had interpreted as at one and the same time a result of the secret predestination of God and an act of Pharaoh’s own free will, was to Photius a proof that “God, who never does violence to the power of free will, permitted [Pharaoh] to be carried away by his own will when he refused to change his behavior on the basis of better counsel.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700,’ p. 182)

N.T.Wright, Second-Temple Judaism, and Early Christology

‘Chalcedon, I think, always smelled like a bit of a confidence trick, celebrating in Tertrullian-like fashion the absurdity of what it believed, and gave hostages to fortune which post-Enlightenment fortune has been using well. But the NT writers, by re-using the Jewish god-language in relation to Jesus and the Spirit managed to say everything that needs to be said, and to make it look more, from one point of view at least, so natural, so obvious, so coherent with the nature of God and with the full humanity of Jesus that fortune receives no hostages at all. Ironically, the Jewish setting and meaning were either misunderstood or forgotten so soon within the early Church that the fathers struggled valiantly to express the truth, but with one hand, the biblical one, tied behind their back.’

‘Long before secular philosophy and terminology was invoked to describe the inner being of the one God (and the relation of this God to Jesus and the Spirit), a vigorous and very Jewish tradition took the language and imagery of Spirit, Word, Law, Presence (and/or Glory) and Wisdom and developed them in relation to Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit.’

‘Long before anyone talked about “nature” and ‘substance”, “person”, and ‘Trinity”, the early Christians had quietly but definitely discovered that they cpi;d say what they felt obligated to say about Jesus (and the Spirit) by telling the Jewish story of God, Israel and the world, in the Jewish language of Spirit, Word, Torah, Presence/Glory, Wisdom, and now Messiah/Son. It is as though they discovered Jesus within the Jewish monotheistic categories they already had.’(N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’, originally published in Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42-56)

(There is a lot going on in this article, but I’m going to focus on one particular theme here – that of the church moving away from its Jewish foundations.)

Wright’s criticism of Chalcedon is interesting – I’m a sucker for anyone who challenges, in a substantial way, a long-standing and powerful tradition. The primary critique here (and Wright has emphasized this elsewhere), that the post-apostolic Church (say, from 300 to 600, or so) drifted from the biblical framework of the apostles and Jesus is a heck of a claim – can it stand up to sustained criticism? (For the record, I haven’t read his big books. I own and have read Justification, Paul, Scripture and the Authority of God, Evil and the Justice of God, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as well as most of the articles/essays on his unofficial webpage. More for the record, I would count myself fully in agreement with the bulk of what he says; IE justification, Paul, you know, the controversial stuff.)

Wright’s more well-known criticism is of a flat way of thinking about the relationship between God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus – Jesus, so the claim goes, didn’t simply strut around declaring Himself to be the second person of the trinity in a take it or leave it way. Such categories (at least in the flat and often reductionist forms, which is more often than not what Wright spends his time attacking) weren’t really part of the NT frame of thought – the Jewish categories listed in the second quote were. Wright’s point, if I’m reading him right, is that the Church, without really noticing it, started to think of Jesus and God in more reductionist terms since the 17th/18th century (and in more subtle ways, since the early fathers) – i.e., deism and the like, and that such a move would have been prevented had the Church stayed anchored in the Jewish modes of thought in the early church. The Church needs to break out of the enlightenment/post enlightenment way of thinking and return to the early modes of thought of the NT.

I think one of the underlying questions is whether or not non-biblical ideas (say, some secular philosophical ideas) have any place in theology. I think Wright’s claim has some substantial force – if one looks at the post-apostolic church, there is a lack of the Jewish story of Israel as the grounding of the language of theology. Not a total lack – but I don’t think one can really claim that the early fathers had the narrative of Israel at the forefront of their thought, and in a sense, that’s okay. Their problems were of a totally different type – philosophical attacks on Christianity had to be answered, and answered in form that meant something to the attackers. Simply referring to the narrative of Israel doesn’t do a whole lot if your opponent is a Stoic, or Cynic, or Platonist. But, if I may be so bold as to speculate, the problem seems to have come when the concepts used in a given scenario to answer a given objection actually started to become the actual reality. I may not be right in that claim, but as I see things that seems to be about the case.

These are broad statements – and I’m definitely not saying anything along the lines of ‘Christianity was fine until that cursed (platonic, stoic, deistic, etc) came along and ruined it! I have no problem with a Christian metaphysic, and I think it’s impossible to not have a metaphysic. I think lots of the ideas of (say) the early apologists were great – for example, early logos-theology (Justin Martyr and co). I suppose my own position would be sympathetic towards Wright’s criticism – but not without my own criticism of Wright. I have a nagging feeling that I’m missing a key concept here, though.

Criticisms welcome.