Saturday, May 20, 2023

Tim Keller (1950 - 2023)

World renown pastor Timothy J. Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY, and a giant within certain segments of Evangelical and Reformed circles, has passed away on May 19 2023. While I am sure he has a positive influence on many, he leaves behind a very mixed legacy.

On the positive side, he has run the race and kept the faith. His works has positively impacted the lives of many. Yet, on the other, he is a known theistic evolutionist compromiser, he obfuscates on basic Christian morality like the wickedness of homosexuality, and his promotion of "contextualization" corrodes biblical orthodoxy among the less informed. While perhaps the positive legacy is of those won to Christ through his ministry, yet how many I wonder will fall away from biblical orthodoxy because of these three compromises of his?

Obviously, Keller plays little part, if any, in the development of my Christian faith. Let us thank God for his ministry, while rejecting the problematic aspects of his legacy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

God and Time: The aeon and the pre-aeonial state

Before the formation of the world, when there was no sun dividing day from night; there was only the aeon that is coextensive with the things that are eternal like some temporal movement or interval. In this sense there is a single aeon, in according with which God is said to be aoenial, but also pre-aeonial, for he himself also made this aeon. (John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, 97-98)

What is before creation? It seems that, in the history of Christian thought, the idea of "time" before creation was explored in the concept of the "aeon" (αἰων), a Greek term normally translated as "age." John of Damascus explored this concept of the "aoen" as God's first "creation" (in Section 15) before the actual creation of the universe in Section 16, which were followed by discussions of the "invisible world" (Sections 17 and 18), the visible creation (Section 19), then the various frames and elements of the material world as understood at that time (Sections 20 to 24b). Therefore, the idea of "time" before creation, even an eternal "time" before creation, was held at least by John of Damascus. The "aeon" is made by God, yet it has a derivative "eternity" not linked to the essence of the eternal God.

It is this manner of talking that is interesting for our modern times, if only for the fact that much of the polemics coming from modern classical theists imply that anything that is eternal must be linked with God's essence. Yet, as we can see, this does not seem to be the view held to by John of Damascus, who is considered one of the later church fathers. We can speak of an "eternity" that is "aeonic" in nature, and this is not a heretical or heterodox position but a perfectly orthodox one.

Apophaticism and the limits of human reason

The divine, being incomprehensible, is also necessarily nameless. [St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith: A New Translation of An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Popular Patristics Series 62; trans. Norman Russell; Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022, 88]

… [God's essence - DHC] it is superessential and beyond beings, beyond the divine, beyond the good, beyond fullness, and is set apart from all principles and classes as a whole, and is superior to every principle and class, since it is more than essence, life, word, and concepts; it is light itself, goodness itself, life itself, essence itself, since it does not have its being, or anything in the category of existents, from another, being the source itself of the being of that which exists, of the life of that which lives, of the rationality of that which participates in reason, .... (Ibid., 71)

… ὡς ὑπερούσιον καὶ ὑπὲρ τὰ ὄντα οὖσαν, ὑπέρθεον, ὑπεράγαθον, ὑπερπλήρη, τὰς ὅλας ἀρχὰς καὶ τάξεις ἀφορίζουσαν καὶ πάσης ἀρχῆς και τάξεως ὑπεριδρυμένην ὑπερ οὐσίαν καὶ λόγον καὶ ἔννοιαν, αὐτοφῶς, αὐτοαγαθότητα, αὐτοζωήν, αὐτοουσίαν ὡς μὴ παρ' ἑτέρου τὸ εἶναι τοῖς οὖσι, τοῖς ζῶσι τῆς ζωῆς, τοῖς λόγου μετέχουσι τοῦ λογου , … (Ibid., 71)

Apophatism is the manner of deriving truths about God through negation. God is stated as being "not X." Apophatism comes about through influence from Neo-Platonic philosophy as it meditates upon the one "beyond (or above) being" (ὑπερούσιον). Simply stated, Neoplatonic philosophy finds the inadequacy its philosophy to comprehend the One, which is appropriated by Christians as the one God.

There can be many things that a Christian can find problematic about apophaticism, since it seems to make God unknowable. Absolute apophaticism seems to imply agnosticism on the one side (we cannot know anything about God since "we cannot say anything true about God") and mysticism on the other (we cannot know anything about God so we must bypass the mind and approach God through mystical encounter). Or we can go the "classical theist" route and use apophaticism to reject any ideas or implications of cataphatic ("positive") theology that we do not like. Thus, in the case of much of "classical theism," certain dogmas of what they deem to be orthodoxy is maintained to be true. But if pressed and if any contradictions are shown, they retreat to "mystery" and apophatic language, claiming that the objector is being a "rationalist" and embracing "univocity," thus evading any examination of their system by attacking the opposition.

There is therefore a prima facie reason to reject apophaticism. But if one thinks about the issues, there is another way to embrace apophaticism despite its questionable legacy, and despite its origin in Neo-Platonism. If one sees apophaticism as the realization of the finitude of human reason and human philosophy to truly grasp the nature of God, thus needing the revelation of God to truly reveal who He is, then we can embrace this form of apophaticism. We can say that God is "beyond being," meaning by that He is beyond all philosophical discussions of ontology. God is thus sui generis in this sense: Any discussion of God and His being must be from Scripture, and Scripture alone. All objections based upon Man's philosophy are necessarily corrupted, including those found in "classical theism," a system which is very much Aristotelian in its philosophy. This is not to deny that we can "spoil the Egyptians" of their philosophical riches, both Platonism and Aristotelianism, but to deny that any one philosophy should be considered definitive for the Christian doctrine of God, and that includes both Plato and Aristotle.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

The London Lyceum Symposium on "Christian Platonism"

Back in 2022, the London Lyceum did a symposium of sorts on the issue of "Christian Platonism" as promoted by Craig Carter - what it is and is it a helpful term. The posts are as follows:

  1. Paul M. Gould, “On Classical Christian Platonism: A Philosopher’s Reply to Carter,” (August 1 2022), here
  2. Willemien Otten, “Christian Platonism: Some Comments on Its Past and the Need for Its Future,” (August 3 2022), here
  3. R.T. Mullins, “Craig Carter’s Christian Platonism,” (August 5 2022), here
  4. Grant Sutherland, “Is Arius a Christian Platonist?,” (August 8 2022), here
  5. Hunter Hindsman, “Plato is not the point: A Critical Defense of Craig Carter’s Proposal,” (August 10 2022), here
  6. Jordan Steffaniak, “Whose Plato? Whose Platonism? Summarizing the Christian Platonism Symposium,” (September 2 2022), here

After reflecting on the issues and reviewing Carter's book promoting "Christian Platonism," I can more clearly understand the issues, and agree with the main thrust of the articles. That said, I still find it illuminating how people like Steffaniak continue to think there is one metaphysic at Nicaea, or that Classical Theism is necessitated by Nicaea or even Chalcedon.

Fanciful history and Dubious Hermeneutics: A review of Craig Carter's Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition

Craig Carter is one of the foremost proponents of the ressourcement happening in current Reformed and Evangelical circles. His books on the subject have been promoted as showing us the way forward towards embracing Classical Theism and 'Great Tradition' exegesis. I have finally gotten around to review his book on exegesis, and it has been a real doozy. Here is my review of Craig Carter's book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, laid out in three main sections interacting with his narrative of church history, his idea of "Christian Platonism" or "Ur-Platonism," and his hermeneutics or embrace of the medieval Quadriga. An excerpt:

How does one interpret the Scriptures? In Craig Carter’s view, the correct way to interpret the Scriptures is to read them the “premodern” way. Taking us on a tour through the history of exegesis, as retold by Carter, we are told a history of the rise and fall of good exegesis. There was a ‘golden age’ of premodern exegesis based upon ‘Christian Platonism,’ which at the advent of the Enlightenment caused the downfall of this glorious age of exegesis into the broken shards of unbelieving scholarship. The way back is to recover the ‘Great Tradition’ based upon ‘Christian Platonism,’ and in so doing we learn how to interpret Scripture alright. In Carter’s words, “academic theory needs to be reformed according to church practice when it comes to biblical interpretation.”


Monday, May 01, 2023

The history of modern science and the revisionist view of the history of modern science

Since the awe-inspiring rise of modern technological science based on the so-called hard sciences, including physics, chemistry, and biology, many other academic disciplines have aspired to be regarded as objective sciences. One way they have sought to do so is by imitating the methods of the empirical sciences in what Andrew Louth (following George Steiner) referred to as “the fallacy of imitative form.” So historians have tried to model their methods as far as possible on those of physics, which has led to historians adopting a modern, neopagan set of metaphysical beliefs (Epicurean naturalism), whose prestige depends on its association with modern technological science, even though that association is merely accidental. Modern science did not grow out of. Epicureanism. It grew out of a medieval Christian worldview in which the doctrine of creation made it plausible to think two things about the world: (1) that events in nature are not random, purposeless, or temporary but rather reliable, purposeful, and permanent; and (2) that the human mind is capable of grasping the laws of nature that govern events in the world because the same Logos by which the universe was created is part of our minds insofar as we have been created in the image of God. Epicurean metaphysics undercuts both of these assumptions. The identification of philosophical naturalism with the success of technological science is therefore unwarranted and the result of Enlightenment propaganda rather than clear thinking. (Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, 218)

Unfortunately, in the early stages of modern science, the goal of technological control of nature was seen as being hindered by the existence of teleology in nature. Teleology is a bedrock assumption of Christian Platonism. But if things have inbuilt natures, and if they flourish only when those natures are fulfilled, then there are definite limits to how far we should go in manipulating nature (including human nature). The problem was that such limits were seen by early modern science and philosophy as undesirable constraints to be shaken off by the triumphant and sovereign will of the autonomous individual. So teleology was out, and so was the Christian Platonism of the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Scientists sawed off the branch on which science was perched, although the full implications of this move did not become visible right away. (Ibid., 219)

The history of the world, and the history of ideas, is often messy. There is always a tendency to simplify and over-simplify narratives, and we can see such narrative construction at work in Criag Carter's retelling of the history of the Western world:

A long time ago, the Christian faith conquered the Roman Empire. With the rise of Emperor Constantine and his heirs (with the exception of Julian the Apostate), Christianity became the favored, and eventually, the only tolerated religion. In the 2nd century, the Alexandrian school had figured out the natural affinity of the Christian faith with Platonism. Now, with the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, Christian theologians have more time to consider philosophical issues, and they discovered that Platonism showed the natural revelation of God in nature. The subsequent centuries saw the widespread adoption, adaptation, and synthesis of Christian Platonism with the Christian faith, resulting in the formation of the Great Tradition, manifesting a glorious time of Christian civilization.

Sadly, all this would fade away. Late medieval nominalism had assaulted the metaphysical foundations of the Great Tradition, but thankfully they were not successful in destroying it. However, the successor movement of the Enlightenment came onto the scene. Beginning in the 18th century, the Enlightenment was a time of great abandonment of the Great Tradition and of Christian Platonism, resulting in the devastating collapse of the Christian faith, most clearly seen in the rise of theological liberalism (Carter, 85-9). The churches have been a veritable desert of feeble pietistic platitudes from the advent of the Enlightenment until the early 21st century. Now, at long last, post tenebrax lux! Thanks to the actions of scholars like Craig Carter, we have sought theological retrieval and have recovered the Great Tradition which we have lost. Now, we can finally Make the Church Great Again!

Alongside Carter's simplistic history of Christendom is his reframing of the rise of modern science. According to Carter, modern science has its origin in Christian Platonism (the "medieval Christian worldview"). However, in "the early stages of modern science," Christian Platonism was rejected and science was placed onto a "neopagan" route, where the branch of modern science was "sawed off" from its foundation. Modern science has therefore lost its way, and must be re-oriented towards "Christian Platonism" in order to be truly science.

As with his simplistic retelling of the history of Christendom, this history of science is an exercise in fiction. The whole idea that scientists came around and malevolently cut off science from its true Platonic roots because they wish to be fully autonomous with a will triumphant over nature is ludicrous. There was indeed a shift away from teleology, and thus a rejection of the medieval view of science, but that is where the actual history of science diverges from Carter's imaginative retelling of its history.

Now, Carter is right to state that modern science has its roots in medieval natural philosophy [See James Hamman, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2011)]. However, modern science has its roots not in Platonism but in Aristotelianism, and the focus of science was discovery, not any specific fidelity to any one philosophy. We note that what allowed modern science to progress: the regularity of nature, and the fact that nature is not divine and thus open to investigation, are specficially Christian premises, not Platonic or Aristotelian premises. Carter is therefore in error to state that the foundation of modern science is Christian Platonism, for the medieval worldview is broader than "Christian Platonism."

In the history of science, what is known as the "Scientific Revolution" coincides with a shift from the deductive method of science to the inductive method of science, as pioneered by Francis Bacon. This shift basically sounded the death knell for any Platonic or Aristotelian view of science, because the issue of "final causes" or teleology cannot be discerned with the inductive method. Thus, "Platonism" or "Aristotelianism" was "sawed off," not because of some malevolent actors at work but purely because of a shift in how science is done.

If science is the discovery of the workings of the world, then deductivism is limited to things which we can deduce from prior knowledge. Inductivism however expanded the range of things available for investigation, and allows for scientific experimentation to be done alongside much hypothesizing of scientific theories. Teleology is dropped because teleology cannot be discovered inductively. Furthermore, since deductivism is done from a larger metaphysical system, the question is asked why any one system should be adopted to make sense of the natural world.

Carter's last attack on modern science is to call it "neopagan" and based on "Epicurean naturalism." Given that no scientist in their role as scientists are explicitly calling for a return to the gods, and given that no scientists is trying to resurrect "Epicureanism" as a true philosophy, this attack by Carter is mere guilt by association. First, any similarity to Epicureanism is found in the radical "New Atheists" and "Scientific materialist" camps, not "modern science," which in itself takes no position on metaphysical entities. Therefore, besides the radical materialists, it is false to claim that "modern science" is "Epicurean naturalism." Speaking of which, Epicureanism is not the only materialistic philosophy around, so it is false to claim that scientific materialists are necessarily "Epicurean" just because both scientific materialism and Epicureanism are materialistic in nature.

Carter's history of the modern sciences therefore is revisionist in nature. It is false that modern science stems from Christian Platonism. It is false that modern science explicitly cut itself from its own roots, although he would be correct if he applied that to naturalistic modern science. It is false that modern science, even scientific materialism, is "Epicurean naturalism." And lastly, Carter is false to assert that there is a malevolent rejection of "Christian Platonism" in the history of science, which causes its "fall." In short, Carter shows ignorance of the actual history and development of science, in service of his grand project of promoting what he holds to be "Christian Platonism."