Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? (pt 2)

McCall begins the first chapter of the book by lamenting that ‘systematic theology of recent vintage’ has failed to shed light on the ‘threeness-oneness problem’ in theology proper and by finding encouragement in philosophers of religion contending for the coherence of ‘the distinctness and divinity of the persons’ and ‘the oneness or unity of God’ (p. 11).  A number of analytic proposals are recapitulated in this chapter.  Cornelius Plantinga and Richard Swinburne come under scrutiny as representatives of social trinitarianism.  After critics of social trinitarianism (Brian Leftow, Dale Tuggy, and others) have had their say, the ‘Trinity monotheism’ of J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig is unfurled as a defense of social trinitarianism.  For Moreland and Craig, there are ‘two ways to be divine’.  The first belongs to the Trinity as a whole, which is ‘the sole instance of the divine nature’, while the second belongs to the persons, which are not ‘instances of the divine nature’ but rather ‘parts of God’ which are fully divine, as parts of a cat are fully feline (p. 31; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, not McCall’s or mine).  For Moreland and Craig, God is ‘one soul endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties’ and hence the persons are ‘three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and volition’ who are still the same divine being, as Cerberus, the three-headed dog thought to guard Hades, would be one being with three centers of consciousness that might be called Rover, Bowser, and Spike (pp. 32-3; this is Moreland’s and Craig’s analogy, unembellished by McCall or me).  After Moreland and Craig, Keith Yandell’s trinitarianism is presented as another variation on the social construal.  In Yandell’s account, the Trinity is complex but not composed of parts because the Trinity and the persons and the persons themselves cannot exist without one another.

Continue reading

Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? by Thomas McCall (pt 1)

In view of what he calls ‘a dearth of engagement with the work being done by analytic philosophical theologians’ (p. 4), Thomas McCall has written Which Trinity?  Whose Monotheism?  Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology (Eerdmans, 2010) in hopes of promoting more interaction between systematicians and Christians doing analytic philosophy.  Both spheres have much to learn from one another, McCall urges, especially when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The book contains three major sections.  The first unpacks different proposals for understanding the Trinity that have been proffered by analytic philosophers, delineates theological desiderata that demand more attention than they have received in the analytic world, and then evaluates the various analytic trinitarian schemas in light of those desiderata.  The second deploys the ‘conceptual tools of the analytic approach’ in appraising the doctrine of the Trinity in Robert Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, evangelical debates about the ‘eternal subordination of the Son’, and John Zizioulas.  The third concludes the book with ‘theses for scholastic disputation on the future of Trinitarian theology that is both faithful to its truly theological heritage and attentive to contemporary metaphysical issues’ (p. 7).

I’m interested to engage this book on two levels.  First, I’d like to explore how exigent and promising are the proposals being developed by analytic philosophers on the doctrine of the Trinity.  Second, I’d like to explore more generally (and perhaps only implicitly) what to make of philosophers who are Christians and passionate about theological issues (not simply theologians with a watchful eye on philosophical stirrings or a keenness to glean things from philosophical resources [say, speech-act theory or Aristotle on causation]) taking up the task of constructive work in Christian doctrine.  A related question: should there be such a thing as ‘Christian philosophy’ or simply Christians who do philosophy in its own right and perchance see some of their insights utilized ad hoc by Christian theologians to whom the work of dogmatics is properly allocated?

Any thoughts before we get into the content of the book?

Calvin, the Divine Essence, and God the Father

I’ve been slowly re-reading Calvin’s Institutes and came across a section in Book I Chapter 13 on the Trinity that I thought would be fruitful for discussion here. In I.13.24, Calvin aruges that the name “God” in Scripture does not refer to the Father alone. In my mind, what this does, not necessarily for Calvin, but for many of his followers after him, is to de-personalize the name “God” and apply it to the divine essence, so that there is, as it were, a God behind the trinitarian God.

In this section, Calvin is knee deep in polemical argumentation against a sort of Arianism. His worry is that if the Father is only considered “God,” then the Son would, in some sense, be less than God. He doesn’t seem to notice that the Fathers, from what I can tell, are unanimous that the term “God” is used in Scripture of the Father, and that his counter-examples in his polemics simply don’t make his argument. Calvin fluctuates between “God” as a name and “God” as deity, and doesn’t draw a distinction between them. Therefore, he can argue, that when Christ says that no one is good but God alone, then you have to say Christ isn’t God if only the Father is God (thereby reducing name to deity). Continue reading

Evagrius and the Persons and Essence

I’ve been perusing some of Evagrius of Ponticus’ writings (as you do), and in light of our vigorous interchange in the comments of my “God and Motion” post, I thought I would add some thoughts from Evagrius. Evagrius is interesting, in part, because he was heavily influenced by the Cappadocians. In fact, the letter from which I will quote was thought to be written by Basil. You often find this letter in Basil’s works as “Letter 8″. The following are some thoughts from the letter that represent Evagrius’ trinitarian theology:

Number is a property of quantity; and quantity is linked to bodily nature; therefore, number is a property of bodily nature. We have affirmed our faith that our Lord is the fashioner [demiorges] of bodies. So every number designates those things that have been allotted a material and circumscribed nature; but ‘One and Only’ is the designation of the simple and uncircumscribed essence.”

“And yet we, in keeping with right reason, do not say the Son is either like or unlike the Father; each term is equally inapplicable. For the terms ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ are used only with respect to qualities, whereas the divine is free from quality. But as we confess the identity of their nature, we also accept the identity of their essence and disavow the idea fo a composite nature – for the Father, who is God by his essence, has begotten the Son, who is God by his essence. Thus, the identity of their essence is shown: for one who is God by essence has the same essence as another who is God by essence.”

“So, too, those who fight God seize on the verse, ‘The Son can do nothing of himself’ [Jn 5:19] in order to destroy those who listen to them. But to me even this passage attests chiefly that the Son is of the same nature as the Father. For if every rational creature with free will can do of itself what it wills and has equal inclination toward the good and the bad, whereas the Son can do nothing of himself, then the Son is no creature; and if no creature, then he is of one essence with the Father…You say that the Holy Spirit is a creature. But every creature is its creator’s slave. ‘For all things are your slaves’, he says [Ps 118:91]. If he is a slave, then he possesses holiness as an adjunct – but everything that possesses holiness as an adjunct admits of evil; whereas the Holy Spirit, being holy by essence, has been proclaimed ‘the fount of holiness'; so, then, the Holy Spirit is no creature. But if he is no creature, he is of one essence with God.”

Quoted from A.M. Casiday, Evagrius Ponticus in The Early Church Fathers Series by Routledge.

What do you think about this? Evagrius’ concern seems to be to utilize the creature/Creator distinction, in part, to highlight the essential unity of God as One. This reminds me of some of the post-Reformation anti-trinitarian polemics, where the individuality of the three are assumed, and the polemical issues revolve around unity. Any thoughts?

Moltmann, Calvin, and the Cross

The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not exactly fashionable these days, so perhaps making its exoneration the topic of one’s first post on a blog is rather inadvisable.  Yet whatever a person’s opinion of the doctrine may be, it’s only reasonable to spend a bit of time wading through some of the caricatures in order to face up to the most robust treatments on offer, at which point a critic may begin properly to criticize and an adherent may begin to draw from such resources for contemporary restatement.

One criticism directed toward penal substitution is that it envisions discord within the Trinity: God the Father opposes God the Son in punishing God the Son on the cross (see, e.g., Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, p. 147).  Interestingly, this concern about a rift within the Trinity brings to mind the language of Moltmann, a theologian, in my experience, not readily associated with the penal substitutionary construal of Christ’s death.  Commenting that in Jesus’ cry of dereliction he calls God simply “God” and not “Father,” Moltmann writes, “If we take the relinquishment of the Father’s name in Jesus’ death cry seriously, then this is even the breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity: if the Father forsakes the Son, the Son does not merely lose his sonship.  The Father loses his fatherhood as well.  The love that binds the one to the other is transformed into a dividing curse” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 80).  Of course, Moltmann goes on to speak of this as a voluntary separation on the part of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit as the bond between them persisting even during the hour of separation.  The point, though, is that at least formally (materially as well?) a description like Moltmann’s could be implicated in the God-the-Father-versus-God-the-Son objection to penal substitution.

Calvin, the man typically credited with a formative influence on the doctrine of penal substitution, comes at the  trinitarian dynamics of the cross in a different way.  Continue reading

Baptism and Christian Identity

I want to take a look at Gordon S. Mikoski’s new volume, Baptism and Christian IdentityBaptism and Christian Identity: Teaching in the Triune Name (Eerdmans, 2009). This is another work in practical theology which seeks to breath fresh life in the conversation concerning practices which is either dying or else never truly came to life. This work, on the other hand, has promise. There is no doubt from the get-go that this is a work of practical theology. The author talks about his denominationally oriented point of view, the importance of looking at concrete situations and then engages in a detailed analysis of his church’s practice of baptism. In other words, not only will this volume look at Gregory of Nyssa and Calvin, nor will it simply look at theology and Christian education, though it does both. This volume will look at the theological and practical issues against the backdrop of very real conrete situations and help to ask real questions about how our theology should substantialize.

Mikoski does not choose baptism at random, as if it were simply one of many possible practices to choose from. Continue reading