Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hymn for Reformation Day '21: And can it be that I should gain

[This version is from the Trinity Hymnal, revised edition]

1. And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior's blood?
Died he for me, who cause his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that
that thou, my God, should die for me?


Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, should die for me?

2. 'Tis myst'ry all! Th'Immortal dies:
who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
to sound the depths of love divine.
'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
let angel minds inquire no more.

3. He left his Father's throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
humbled himself (so great his love!),
and bled for all his chosen race.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me.

4. Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

5. No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach th'eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Contra Barrett (Part 3): EFS is subordination within the immanent Trinity?

The subjugation of the Son is not just an economic reality either, limited to salvation or the incarnation. The subordination of the Son is ingrained within the very DNA of the Trinity apart from creation, within the immanent Trinity itself (which EFSers assume is synonymous with what they label eternity past and future). (Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, 218)

In part 1, we note how Matthew Barrett misrepresents EFS in claiming that Bruce Ware teaches the Trinity is defined as a relational community. In part 2, we see how Barrett is misleading in claiming that EFS teaches hierarchy within the Trinity. In part 3, we will look at the main problem with many critiques of EFS (ESS): the inability to understand economic relations in anything other than created reality, thus misrepresenting EFS as teaching subordination within the immanent Trinity.

In the beginning, there was God. God in Himself, in the three persons of the Trinity, is love. Modern Christian apologists utilize this point particularly against Islam, in pointing out that a unitary God cannot actually be love. For there to be love, the persons of the Trinity must be loving each other from eternity past to eternity future.

In the beginning, God has a decree. The one decree of God translates to the many decrees of God which are enacted in time and space. This one decree is in eternity past. The many decrees are also in eternity past, for a decree must exist before its results come to fruition. Since a decree must exist before its results come to fruition, then the decree to create the world must be in eternity before time. But since God is immutable, that means all the many decrees must be already present before time exist, in eternity past.

What is the point of looking at these, you might ask. The point is simple: The love of God expressed towards each other person is outside of the persons of God. The one decree is God, but the many decrees coming from that one decree is not God, for it is many (Divine simplicity). Already in orthodoxy Christian theology, and especially Reformed theology, there are divine things that are from eternity and before time. The ad extra ("to out of") elements of God are not just limited to the incarnation or to salvation. Anything that is not one-ness is ad extra by virtue of the doctrine of divine simplicity. That includes the expressed love of the persons of the Trinity, the decreees (plural) of God, the relationship God has with any of His people, even the upholding of creation.

Straight away, we see the problem with Barrett's accusation. In Barrett's mind, and in the minds of many classical theists it seem, the economic Trinity, God ad extra, pertains only to salvation and the incarnation. That assertion is expressively rejected by all proponents of EFS. In fact, from the examples I have given of the love of God and the decrees of God, it is uncertain that Barrett's assertion is even coherent much less logical. There is God ad intra, with regards to His being in the one essence, and God ad extra, which includs any and everything that is not of the being of God, including the decrees and actions of any one person or all of them.

Barrett's accusation against EFS proponents stem from reading concepts into their words. Many EFS proponents are biblicists, and they, I would say carelessly, use words like the life of the Trinity, or the inner life of the triune God or things to that effect. What they have in mind is that the persons of the God relate to each other, and these relations happen in eternity past, and willl continue to happen in eternity future. This inner life of the triune God is NOT The same as the immanent Trinity, which refers to the being of God. Here, I acknowledge that part of the confusion is a failure by the biblicists to properly use terms like "immanent" and "econimic," or "ad intra/ ad extra." However, when read in context according to the words and concepts they use, it is clear that what they mean is that EFS pertains to the economic ad extra aspect of the Godhead, as they are seen in the relations of the triune persons from eternity past to eternity future.

When Barrett states that "EFSers assume [the immanent Trinity] is synonymous with what they label eternity past and future," the person who is confused is Barrett, not EFSers. Barrett misrepresents EFS as teaching subordination within the immanent Trinity, whereas EFS merely teaches submission of the Son to the Father in eternity, but such is economic not immanent.

Contra Barrett (Part 2): EFS and "hierarchy inside God"

For EFS, the position of supremacy wihtin the Trinity belongs to the Father alone, not to the Son, and definitely not to the Spirit, who has the least authority of all. The Father alone is "supreme among the persons of the Godhead."13 He alone has "ultimate supremacy," and he alone is "supreme in the Trinity." 14. The Father "stands above the Son," and the "Father has absolute and uncontested supremacy, inluding authority over the Son and Spirit,"15 The Father "stands above the Son" and is "supreme within the Godhead."16

EFSers were adamant that these indications of supremacy and subordination tell us who the persons are apart from creation and salvation. They are even person-defining. Just as subordination distinguishes the Son as Son, so too does supremacy distinguish the Father as Father within the Trinity. Apart from these roles there is no Trinity, a point Grudem also stressed repeatedly.17(Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity, 217)

13. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 46-51

14. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 65

15. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 49, 153, emphasis added.

16. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 51.

17. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 251. C.f. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 47, 433; Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womandhood, 457, 540.



So it appears that McCall confuses two sets of properties that are distinguished within the ERAS position: (1) properties possessed fully and eternally by the Father, by the Son, and by the Spirit, of the one and undiviede essence—properties, then, that are the essential attributes of God comprising the eternal nature of God, which is the one and same divine nature possessed fully and eternally by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Spirit— and (2) properties possessed distinctly by the Father, and other properties possessed distinctly by the Son, and yet other properties possessed distinctly by the Spirit, as properties of each of their respective persons&mdassh;distinctly relational and personal properties, which must not be confused with the essential attributes of the one common divine nature. When advocates of ERAS state that the Son possessed eternally the property of being under the authority of the Father, they also propose this as a relational property of the Son's personhood and not an atttribute of the Son's essence. [Bruce A. Ware, "Does Affirming an Eternal Authority-Submission Relationship in the Trinity Ential a Denial of Homoousios?: A Response fo Millard Erikcson and Tom McCall," in Bruce A. Ware and John Starke, eds., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 245]

In the previous installment, we have seen how Matthew Barrett distorts Bruce Ware's words. While Ware argues for the application of ERAS to our roles in life, Barrett states that Ware is teaching that the trinity is a relational community in those very same sentences. But besides asserting thus, Barrett also asserts that Ware (and EFS) teaches a "hierarchy inside God." Is Barrett right in that representation?

On the surface, Barrett's argument seems convincing. Flipping to the pages referenced in endnotes 13 to 16, one can see the exact words, and the immediate context seem to support Barrett's argument. However, in order to get a grasp at what EFS teaches, one must read what EFS teaches in general, and interpret Ware's words accordingly.

We read, in a later article written in a more recent book, One God in Three Persons, that Ware conceives of properties in two levels: (1) properties of the one essence, and (2) properties of each person. In other words, personal properties do not affect the one essence. While less clear in his older book Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it is more charitable to interpret what he says about any distinctions of the persons as pertaining to their personal properties, not each person as to their one essence. As I have said in my review of that book, "uncharitable interpretations are available for those who do not read the cues properly." But taking the charitable reading is to see that the mountain of evidence mustered by Barrett should be recognized as pertaining not to the divine essence and to each person in their essential relations, but to their personal relations. Now, does that answer all concerns? I am not claiming that it does, but at least such a charitable reading should show us that the references mustered by Barrett is at the least misleading.

Now, is there "hierarchy inside God"? It depends on what you mean by the term "hierarchy"? If by "hierarchy," it is implied that there are grades of being, or that one person is superior to the other in nature, then EFS rejects "hierarchy" altogether. If by "hierarchy" one means higher and lower roles, higher and lower distinctions, then it could be argued that some EFSers would assert that to be true. However, I myself would reject "hierarchy" altogether, because I do not believe even a difference in roles and eminance in functions indicate any higher or lower status of any sorts.

Therefore, to the question, the short answer is that, "no, there is no hierarchy in the being of God," "maybe, there might be a functional hierarchy among the persons of the Godhead," and "no, distinctions in roles and eminance are not hierarchical among the persons of the Trinity." Barrett's statement that EFS believes in "hierarchy inside God" is at best misleading, and at worst in error.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Contra Barrett (Part 1): EFS and the issue of a "relational community"

What kind of "roles" and "relationships" distinguish the persons? ... EFS's answer: a society of authrity and submission. A relational community of hierarchy inside God. [Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021), 217]




2. Eternal relationality calls for and calls forth a created community of persons. [Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, 132-3]

Matthew Barrett sincerely thinks that the doctrine of the Trinity needs retrieving. According to Barrett, the doctrine of God has been distorted and manipulated towards our modern times, and we really, desparately, need to get it back. That sounds like a laudable sentiment, but the details is where we see what he means by that, and what we see is not very nice at all.

In chapter 8 of his book Simply Trinity, Barrett pulls no punches as he goes after the supposed "heresy" of EFS (Eternal Functional Submission) with a vengeance. The vehemence with which he does this is a sight to behold. It also gives us clear statements of what many of the classical theists might have believed but have not expressed in such a clear manner. Barrett's vehemence gives us a fixed critique of EFS, and therefore makes it easy for those of us who hold to ESS to address.

In this light, here is part 1 of my examination of Barrett's strongly worded critique of EFS (also better called ESS - Eternal Submission of the Son).

In the first statement of Barrett's attack on ESS, he states that ESS believes in a relational society within the Trinity where there is a "community of hierarchy inside God." There are two accusations here: (1) ESS believes that the Trinity is a relational society, (2) ESS believes there is a community of hierarchy inside God. Is that true? We will look at the first part of the accusation here.

Barrett has made an accusation. In response, we should ask, "Upon what basis do you say that ESS believe that God is a relational community?" We see here in the endnotes that Barrett references Bruce Ware's book Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a book that I myself had find problematic and had reviewed here. Nonetheless, while I found certain parts of his book problematic, it is illuminating that (1) Barrett dedicates most of his endnotes in chapter 8 to that book, as if that particular book by Ware is representative of all who hold to ESS, and (2) Barrett refuses to let Ware speak for himself.

One thing that one must understand as it deals with hermeneutics is that the authorial intent is the most important. One is not free to read any book, and read things into the book that is not there. In seminary, all of us learn this about the Scriptures. But this does not pertain just to the Scriptures but to all literature. After all, would you want someone to read your book a meaning that you did not intend? I hope not. That is a most basic element of engaging others, which unfortunately Barrett does not respect.

To promote the view that ESS teaches that the Trinity is a relational society, Barrett refences Ware's book Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as follows:

Ware presented the Trinity with a strong social emphasis, defining the Trinity as "triune persons in relational community."10 "Eternal relationality calls for and calls forth a created community of persons."11 As a society itself, the Trinity is the model for human society. Sometimes Ware even looked to human society to define the Trinity.12.

10. Emphasis added. This phrase is used throughout chapter 6 of Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

11. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 133; c.f. 134

12. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 134.

When we look at the source material, we notice the following: Chapter 6 of Ware's book is the last chapter of his book, and it is clear from his book that he is trying to draw analogies and practical lessons from all that he has said in the previous 5 chapters of his book. Endnote 10 of Chapter 8 of Barrett's book is indeed correct that the phrase is used throughout chapter 6, but what is missing is a discussion of the context, which is that Ware is trying to use the Trinity as an analogy for lessons for us. Whether one thinks that should be done or not is not the point; what is the point is that Ware is not defining the Trinity as "triune persons in relational community" but using the phrase for analogy and practical applications.

We see the issue again in endnote 11, where Barrett rightly cites the sentence but divorces it from its context. In context, Ware uses that as a subeading under the heading "lessson for our lives and ministries from the relationships and roles of the triune God." Note the preposition "from." Ware is not defining the Trinity relationally, but asking us to apply to our relationships lessons we can learn from the Trinity. This is the same problem for endnote 12 where the direction is the exact opposite of what Ware is advocating. Here is what Ware is advocating for in chapter 6 of his book:

In our own relationships in the home and in ministry, we should endeavor, by God's grace, to model our work and worship in ways that reflect the trinitarian unity expressed through harmony. (Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 136)

So what shall we make of Barrett's accusation here? First of all, it is false that Ware "presented the Trinity with a strong social emphasis, defining the Trintiy as 'triune persons in relational community,'" as we can see from the source material. The use of the subheading in page 134 of Ware's book is misleading, and Ware does not look to human society to define the Trinity. As seen from the actual source material, nothing could be further from the truth. Again, Ware said that "we should endeavor, by God's grace, to model our work and worship in ways that reflect the trinitarian harmony expressed through harmony." Put the two side by side and you see how badly Barrett has misrepresented Ware. Whereas Ware is asking us to model the trinitarian harmony in our social relationships, Barrett acccuses him of defining the trinity as "triune persons in relational community"!

As I have said, one has to represent one's opponents correctly. Failure to do so is wrong, and failure to do so after repeatedly being corrected is sin. Barrett has misrepresented Ware here, and this is just but the tip of the iceburg.

What does Bruce Ware believe about the persons of the Trinity?

Each member of the Godhead is equally God, each is eternally God, and each is fully God‐not three gods but three Persons of the One Godhead. .... This—the one and undivided divine nature—is also possessed equally and fully by the Son and Spirit. (Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance, p. 43)

What did Bruce Ware believe about the Trinity? One thing he did believe in is that in terms of being (ontology, immanant Trinity), God is one and each person is fully equal to the other. Also, each person does not have one-third of the divine nature, but rather the whole divine nature is "possessed equally and fully" by all persons of the Godhead. As it can be seen, Ware does not believe that any one person of the Trinity is higher or superior to the other as it regards to their being; all are ontologically equal.

One supposed implications of simplicity and its denial, according to Matthew Barrett

He is not a God made up of parts but a God without parts. There is in him no composition, nor can he be compounded by parts. If he could, then he would be a divided being (parts are divivisible by definition), a mutable being (parts are prone to change), a temporal being (parts require a composer), and a dependentent being (depending on these parts as if they precede him). [Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son and Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021), 137]

The doctrine of simplicity of God, in its basic form, is the teaching that God is not made up of parts such that one can have a part of, or various parts of God. At its most basic form, it means simply this: One gets God, or no God; there is no in-between. In this basic sense, simplicity is a biblical doctrine, since the Scripture make it clear that one gets God, "warts" and all.

In the providence of God, God uses the metaphysics of classical theism, based as it is upon Greek philosophy, to express this truth for us Christians. Yet, philosophy, being invented by Man, is a mere tool for gaining knowledge. Being a creation of Man, philosophy was never meant to be infallible, and thus we must be free to critique philosophy and never treat any one particular philosophy as THE way to think about anything, both the philosophy of things or theology itself. This particular critical stance is important when we look at some of the ways the supposed recovery of the "creedal doctrine of God" has been working itself out, as seen in the above argument by Matthew Barrett.

In this particular argument, Barrett makes the following argument: If God is not simple, then he is divisible, mutable, temporal, and dependent. But is this statement true? We would certainly agree that if God is not simple, then he is divisible, since "divisibility" is opposite of "simplicitity." However, I would question what Barrett means by a "divided being." Next, according to Barrett, parts are prone to change, therefore a non-simple God would be mutable. However, why should parts be prone to change? Even in the material world, parts like atoms of hydrogen-1 are not prone to change over millions of years. Accordingly, the protons, neutrons, and electrons of Hydrogen-1 in interstellar space do not change at all over time. Thus, even in the material world, we can see that parts are not necessarily prone to change. Why then would a non-simple God be mutable at all? Obviously, I am not arguing against simplicity here, just showing that the argument here just does not follow. It is possible to believe in immutability and deny simplicity, for the simple fact that parts are not necessarily prone to change or even are mutable in any respect.

Barrett next claims that parts require a composer, and therefore a non-simple God is temporal. That likewise does not follow. Why should parts require a compser? Again, in the material world, if you accept the Big Bang Theory, then atoms come into being spontaneously without a composer. While agreeing that God is the ultimate cause of things, there are many things in the world that are self-organizing, from a material point of view. Salt solutions when left to themselve naturally compose themselves into salt crystals, with fixed crystalline structures depending on their chemical composition. There are autocatylytic reactions like the degradation of tin metal into grey tin, or the auto-excision of introns from RNA. Therefore, even things that have parts do not necessarily need a composer. It is possible for parts to auto-organize, and therefore parts do not necessarily require a composer. For a non-simple deity, it is possible to envision such a god being made of self-organizing and eternal parts, thus a non-simple deity is not necessarily temporal.

The last claim made by Barrett is that a non-simple God is dependent on the parts that precede him. Again, this is a non sequitur. Something made of parts could be made of parts because it could be divisible yet started as one whole (the whole is prior to the parts). There is simply no reason why parts must necessarily precede the whole. For example, the human body is made up of parts, yet the human body does not develop as parts which are then composed into the human body. Right from the start as a fetus, the human body develops as a whole. The human body is not like a car assembly line whereby parts are made separately then put together to make a car. Rather, the whole comes prior to the parts, as the parts develop from the whole. In fact, the parts of the human body depend on the whole human body for them to survive. Cut the hand out, and the hand dies while the rest of the body survives. In the case of the human body therefore, the part here is dependent on the whole.

Barrett is right to promote the doctrine of simplicity. However, there are biblical ways to argue for simplicity, and simply illogical ways stemming from outdated philosophy. In this particular case, Barrett's argument is unsound. God is simple because one cannot have a God that has only certain parts, the parts that any particular group likes. But denying simplicity does not lead to a mutable or temporal or dependent being.

When seeking to teach and defend biblical and confessional truths, a key point to note is that one ought to put foward arguments that are sound. Making unsound arguments only weakens one's position, and might lead some to reject the position altogether. The last thing anyone who is promoting simplicity as the biblical doctrine should be doing, is to repeat such unsound arguments. Keep to the basics, and leave the psuedo-intellectual arguments of classical theism behind.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Book Review: Through Western Eyes, by Robert Letham

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? In his book Through Western Eyes — Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective, theologian Robert Letham seeks to introduce and analyze Eastern Orthodoxy for the rest of who are children of the Western churches. Has Letham done a good job introducing Eastern Orthodoxy to us? You can read my thoughts in my review of his book, here. An excerpt:

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? For most Christians in the West, Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) seems mysterious, and looks like an older Roman Catholicism without the Pope. Into this lacuna of knowledge, Reformed theologian Robert Letham has written a book seeking to “demystify” Eastern Orthodoxy for the rest of us Christians of the Western tradition. Specifically, Letham seeks to put forward and analyze Eastern Orthodoxy according to his Reformed perspective, thus helping us understand what Eastern Orthodoxy is about.

Letham divides his book into three sections. In part one, he deals briefly with the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Part two deals with the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, and part three is where he does a comparative evaluation between Reformed theology and Eastern Orthodoxy. He ends with a glossary of terms and a rather comprehensive bibliography for the study of Eastern Orthodoxy.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Gregory Palamas and the Essence/ Energies Distinction


… but also some works of God are without beginning, as the Fathers also rightly affirm. For was it not needful for the work of providence to exist before Creation, so as to cause each of the created things to come to be in time, out of nonbeing? As it not necessary for a divine knowledge to know before choosing, even outside time? But how does it follow that the divine prescience had a beginning? How could one conceive of a beginning of God’s self-contemplation, and was there ever a moment when God began to be moved toward contemplation of Himself? Never! [Gregory Palamas, The Triads (The Classics of Western Spirituality; Ed. John Meyendorff; trans. Nicholas Gendle; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), p. 94]

These works of God, then, are manifestly unoriginated and pre-temporal: His foreknowledge, will, providence, contemplation of Himself, and whatever powers are akin to these. But if this contemplation, prescience, predetermination and will are works of God that are without beginning, then virtue is also unoriginated, for each of His works is a virtue; ... (Ibid., p. 94)


But even if this man considers that everything that has a beginning is created, we for our part know that while all the energies of God are uncreated, not all are without beginning. Indeed, beginning and end must be ascribed, if not to the creative power itself, then at least to its activity, that is to say, to its energy as directed towards created things. (Ibid., p. 96)/p>

The strong influence of Neoplatonism on Eastern Orthodoxy would logically result in a distant and remote deity. Such is however contrary to biblical Christianity. The contradiction is so obvious that Eastern Orthodoxy could not continue being Christian without modifying parts of what it received through Dionysius. This it did in positing a distinction between the essence of God, and His energies. "Energies" can be taken as the workings of God. They are the dynamic workings of God, not to be identified with who God is (essence), neither are they identified with what God does (the works of God). The essence of God is as what Neoplatonism says it is: beyond being, beyond intelligibility, utterly inaccessible to anyone but God. The energies of God are however what humans can perceive. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis, sometimes called "deification," is the idea that the believer could partake in the divine energies fully.

In Palamas' Triads, certainly not everything stated is I believe compatible with biblical Christianity. Nevertheless, Palamas' promotion of the essence/ energies distinction is a helpful category. Neoplatonism has forced the issue, showing how immutability if applied to the whole of God would result in a static God, the God of Deism. Therefore, in order to have a vital communion with God (which the East promoted through its misguided monasticism), new philosophical categories were formed. Western Christianity in general was not as strongly influenced by Neoplatonism as the East was, and therefore was slow to see the problems that would arise with a God who has only an essence that is utterly transendent and immutable. The East remained orthodox in their doctrine of God, unlike many Western theologians who came to see the same problems, and therefore invented these categories congrunt to biblical orthodoxy that we can now appropriate.

One argument that Palamas pointed out was to note that the decrees of God and the foreknowledge of God are prior to creation. God's will and His own self-enjoyment (contemplation) are likewise eternal. Yet all these are not "being" but operations of some sort, since they are active in nature. Therefore, it can be seen that these "works" (as utilized by Palamas) of God are "without beginning." These energies are not just within God so to speak, but they translate to "activities" that are "directed towards created things."

Now, the fact that there are these decrees of God and other active operations are clear from Scripture. What is however omitted from the thoughts of many theologians is an attempt to categorize them as either essence or works. The fact of the matter is that it is neither of these categories, and thus the category of "energies" is most appropriate here. Orthodox Western systematic theologians tend to talk about God's essencce, then His attributes (communicable and incommunicable), and subsume these operations under the atttributes of God. The problem is that atttributes are "static" in nature. They describe what God is, not what God does. Therefore, including these active operations under the section on the atttributes of God, or worse, to shift parts of them to the works of God, is I believe to be massive categorical confusion.

God is immutable yet He relates both to Himself and to us His creatures. We must hold to both, and do it without diminishing either of them. Without the category of "energies," I do not see how either of these truths could not but be diminished, to the detriment of our understanding and worship of our living God.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Mark Galli, formerly from Christianity Today, admits what we always knew about Big Eva

Mark Galli on his Substack platform recently admitted in his report what we always knew was the case: That Evangelicals love the accolades of the world and lean left while punching right. An excerpt:

Elite evangelicalism (represented by CT, IVPress, World Vision, Fuller Seminary, and a host of other establishment organizations) is too often “a form of cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” These evangelicals want to appear respectable to the elite of American culture. ...


I saw this accommodation dynamic as CT managing editor and then editor in chief. We said, for example, that the magazine did not take a stand in the complementarianism or egalitarianism debate. But we rarely if ever published an article that endorsed complementarianism; we did offer many that assumed egalitarianism in family and church life (not to mention the many women pastors who we published).

Then there was the six-day creation/evolution debate, in which again we said we took no stand. But try to find an article in the last three decades that argued for or assumed six-day creation. And yet we published several pieces that simply assumed a billion-year time span for the history of the earth.

It’s not a coincidence that complementarianism and six-day creation are anathema to secularists, features of a religion out of touch with reality.

Is it any wonder that Evangelicalism has always drifted towards doctrinal and moral corruption over time? Galli puts forward TGC (The Gospel Coalition) as the successor to New Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, the same dynamic is busy at work in TGC, just at a less advanced stage.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

In response to Perl's call for a return to Neoplatonism

The alternative to the principle that to be is to be intelligible, therefore is the nihilism which afflicts so much of contemporary thought and culture. For if being is not what is apprehended by thought, then thought does not apprehend being. This in effect means that there is no being, since whatever we call “being” is not being but a projection, interpretation, illusion—in short, nothing. If reality is not as thought must apprehend it, then there is no such thing as reality. Conversely, if thought is not the apprehension of being, then all thought, in that it never apprehends being, is illusory. Nihilism may indeed be said to consist most fundamentally in the denial of the intelligibility of being. (Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite, p. 111-2)

In his conclusion of his book on Dionysius, Eric Perl puts forth his promotion of Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism is treated as superior as opposed to what he sees as the nihilism that infects the modern world. While certainly nihilism is present in much modern thought, I do not agree that Neoplatonism is a better alternative.

Perl's argument against much of modern philosophy can be stated as follows: (1) If thought does not apprehend being, being is an illusion. (2) If thought is not the apprehension of being, then thought is illusory. (3) Therefore, if Neoplatonism is false, being and thought are illusory. (4) (Implied) Being and thought are not illusory. (5) Therefore, Neoplatonism is true. The problem comes with statements 1 and 2. Is it really true that apprehending being is necessary for the reality of thought and being?

Reality and thought are linked in Plato due to the idea of forms, in which apprehension comes about when one apprehends the form of things. One knows what fire is when one sees "fire-ness" in the object. Implicit in this view of knowledge is that the mind has access to the forms in order to apprehend an object. But is that truly how cognition works?

Let us think through a few questions: Can the mind apprehend a pink unicorn? How about a pegasus? Surely we can say that the mind can apprehend these things, but then these things are not real. But suppose it is said that their forms are derived from real forms, and thus even though the mythical creatures do not exist, the reason why we apprehend them is because the original forms exist and we can apprehend them. So let's try something different, something real. How about the wave-particle duality of photons? Can our minds apprehend the concept? I would think so. Pointing out that we can apprehend "wave" and "particle" does not help because "wave-particle" is not wave and not particle. Or from Math, can we apprehend the idea of transfinites, where again transfinites are not truly infinite and yet they compose infinite sets?

The thing is: Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the link between being and intelligibility has been strained to the breaking point. Our knowledge is not limited to what there is, as we are able to conceptualize new theories and new things. Our thought is virtually limited to what we can conceptualize. Reality of course remains the same. The world in Plato's time is more or less the same world in modern times. Photons existed as wave-particles in Plato's time just as it does in ours, except Plato did not know or understand modern physics. Thus, we see a separation between the world of being and the world of ideas. Reality remains the same, yet thought and cognition does not.

Since such is the case, I would propose that we need a separation of reality from the world of ideas. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the Platonic forms, and that objects have forms which impress themselves on the mind (Whether that is the best way to understand cognition I would not comment here). The separation however needs to happen between reality and thought. We must understand that conceptualization is a mental process that can operate apart from the world, and that has happened as we come to grips with the strangeness and counter-intuitive nature of the inner workings of reality. Reality or being is one thing; the world of ideas does have relation to reality but is able to transcend it altogether.

From a Christian perspective, we must hold to some version of that separation, since we believe in a God who is in many ways unlike us. To assert that God is a se (when nothing in reality is a se), and we are expected to understand what we mean when we say that God is a se, is already a conceptual leap from reality. We also say that there are the "secret things of God" (c.f. Deut. 29:29), which are certainly real and yet not known by us, thus we must create an extra category of real but not intelligible. Christianity therefore cuts against the identification of being and intelligibility, and those who hold to such an identification would come to face problems in their philosophies. Those holding to Platonism tend towards rationalism, while those rejecting rationalism tend towards mysticism, precisely because they continue to run with Plato's link between being and intelligibility.

If we separate being and intelligibility, we can have 3 categories: (1) Things real but not intelligible (secret things of God), (2) Things real and intelligible (most things), and (3) Things intelligible but without being (e.g. knowledge of God, Scientific paradigms). There is no need to reduce everything to intelligibility and thus become a rationalist (rejecting 1), or focus on being and thus treading the path of Dionysius (rejecting 1 and 3). If we take this paradigm, then we can reject statements 1 and 2 of Perl's argument, and therefore his case for Neoplatonism. What I suspect is happening in much of philosophy is a failure of imagination, and a stubborn clinging to the idea that unity of thought and being can be found in this world by Man.

Neoplatonism, symbols, and the issue of icons

All expressions of God, the lowly and sensible no less than the exalted and intelligible, participate in him and are thus “similar.” (Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite, p. 103)

All things, then, are in effect symbols of God and are so used in the scriptures, and this is simply a restatement of the doctrine that being is theophany. (p. 103)

The Platonic doctrine of participation, which Dionysius invokes in justifying the suitability of all things as symbols of God, makes it clear that the symbol is a genuine presentation of the symbolized. (p. 104)

A symbol, then, in being finite, available, in not being God and thus in leaving him behind, in concealing him, reveals him as beyond being and thought. … Only by being concealed in symbols can God be revealed (p. 104)

Hence, as Dionysius here indicates, there can be non-symbolic knowledge of God, no knowledge of God without the concealment of symbolism. (p. 105)

The Second Council of Nicea of 787 AD, known in Eastern Orthodoxy as the "Seventh Ecumenical Council," mandated the virtue of holy icons (two-dimensional images) and anathemized those who reject icons (the iconoclasts). For Protestants who see idols of any kind as a violation of the Second Commandment, Nicea II contradicts Scripture and is thus an illegitimate council. Therefore, we would not call it the "Seventh Ecumenical Council" except improperly. Nevertheless, Eastern Orthodox promotion of icons and treating the issue as of the essence of faith stems from this council.

For a Reformed person like myself, I had found it puzzling why Eastern Orthodoxy is so adamant on the issue of icons. Reading Eric Perl on Dionysius however has shown me the likely backdrop for this fascination with icons. This is not to argue that any Eastern Orthodox is a neoplatonist or that any of them hold to full-blown neoplatonism, but rather that the philosophical underpinnings of the Eastern theology of icons is found in the neoplatonism of Dionysius.

In Dionysius' neoplatonic ontology, symbols mediate the divine. Since God is not "being" neither is he "not-being," being the unity of all as the necessary condition for being, being as such is a "theophany," an appearance of the divine (Ibid., p. 32). All things are symbols mediating the divine. To use Christian terminology, all matter is "sacramental." Since God is "beyond being" and "unknowable," to get to the "hidden God" is to go through the symbols mediating the divine. As Perl said, "Only by being concealed in symbols can God be revealed." In other words, Dionysius asserts that there is no way to reach the divine if the symbols are gone.

Once we see this, it becomes clear that a main reason why icons are so important in Eastern Orthodoxy is due to its fear of losing the connection to God. If symbols are necessary to reveal the hidden God, then removing the symbols would be akin to removing God. Seen this way, Nicea II is understandable, albeit it shows us the tragic consequences of adopting an unbiblical ontology which leads to gross idolatry.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Neoplatonic ontology: Being as Intelligibility and God as unknowable

Plato’s understanding of being as form or idea (εἶδος, ἰδέα) is a direct consequence of this identification of being and intelligibility. [Eric D. Perl, Theophany: The Neoplatonic Philosophy of Dionysius the Areopagite (New York NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), p. 6]

Intellect, therefore, is perfect consciousness in that it is the knowledge of being as its own content and therefore as itself. (Ibid., p. 85)

Dionysius adopts his doctrine of God as “nameless,” “unknowable,” and “beyond being” from the Neoplatonic tradition established by Plotinus, and his thought can be understood only in that context. His “negative theology” is not fundamentally a theory of theological language but a philosophical position taken over directly from Neoplatonism, although, as in Plotinus, it has implications for language in that words are discursive expressions of intellection and hence cannot apply to God. (Ibid., p. 13)

Similarly, Dionysius is not content to say simply that God is ineffable, unknowable, or incomprehensible. To say “God is ineffable” is to describe him, to ascribe the attribute of ineffability to him, and thus to contradict oneself. (Ibid., p. 14)

… God is not some being other than all things (the very formula is an absurdity) but is rather the entire content of reality, i.e. all things, without differentiation, without the distinctions from one another by which they are all things. (Ibid., p. 31)

The knowledge of God, then, is given to sense no less than to intellect. Conversely, since God is the object of all cognition and of none rather than merely the object of the highest cognition, the cognitive ascent does not end with intellect. It extends beyond intellect to culminate in “the darkness of unknowing” … (Ibid., p. 93)

Platonism and neoplatonism are important philosophies at the base of the Western philosophical enterprise. For the purpose of church history, Neoplatonism plays an important role in the formation of certain philosophies and theologies in the church. Specifically, as I read more into Eastern Orthodoxy, the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius played an important role in the formation of Eastern Orthodoxy theology, as mediated by Eastern fathers such as Gregoras Palamas in his Triads. Dionysius is not actually written by the real Dionysius the Aeropagite (thus a "false writing" - pseudepigrapha), but it was thought to be so for a long time. The writer of these false writings was a Neoplatonist, and through him Neoplatonism influenced the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy.

But what does Neoplatonism believe in, besides the usual things we associate with Plato? In his book, Eric Perl brought forth certain aspects of Neoplatonism that can be seen in the writing of Psuedo-Dionysius. Concerning ontology, one thing that struck out was the absolute identity between being and thought. Whether Plato taught that to be the case I am unsure, but certainly this strong identification of one to the other was surprising. Note that Perl is not merely stating that Neoplatonism teaches that being and intelligibility are associated or linked, but that they are to be identified. Thus, it is not the case that things exist are intelligible, but rather that to begin to exist is to be intelligible, and to not begin to exist is to be unintelligible. In set theory, all elements of the set "having being" map exhaustively onto all elements of the set "being intelligible." This strict identification implies a collapse of epistemology into ontology, and I suppose that is why the issue of "being" is so prominent in many philosophical discussions.

In Perl's analysis of Dionysius as read alongside Plotinus and Proclus, this identification of being with intelligibility is the reason why Dionysius calls God (the philosophical "the One") "beyond being." To call God a "being" is to imply that he is derivative and not ultimate. To say that one can speak about what God is, is to likewise make God knowable and thus derivative, since being is intelligibility. Thus, in Dionysius, God is "beyond being" and we can describe him only using "negative theology" or apophatic theology. But unlike today's classical theists who use the term, apophatic theology in the Dionysian sense implies a total rejection of any description of God, such that even "ineffable" cannot be predicated of God, for to predicate something of God (even "ineffable") is to reduce him from cause to derivation. Dionysian apophatism is thorough and cannot be squared with any Western theology save mysticism.

Not surprisingly, Dionysian apophatism logically leads to a form of naturalism. The One is not separate from the world, but rather is the supreme unity of the world, in a descriptive manner of speaking (since it technically *is* not anything). While Neoplatonism would baulk at any determination of the One, both Proclus and Dionysius would reject the view that God can exist apart from the world (aseity), and thus no matter how apophatic they want to be, "the One" is certainly not a se therefore Neoplatonism would be considered a form of naturalism. Since Dionysius influenced Eastern Orthodoxy, it would be interesting to see to what extent Gregory Palamas and Eastern Orthodoxy in general utilized those ideas from Dionysius, but that is for another time.