Andrew Fuller on the Incomprehensible Trinity

A helpful reminder from 18th century Baptist pastor and theologian, Andrew Fuller:

A subject so great and so much above our comprehension as this is requires to be treated with trembling. Everything that we can think or say, concerning the ever blessed God, requires the greatest modesty, fear, and reverence. Were I to hear two persons engaged in a warm contest upon the subject, I should fear for them both. One might in the main be right, and the other in the wrong; but if many words were used, they might both be expected to incur the reproof of the Almighty: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Letters on Systematic Divinity)

Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

The Extra Cyrillicum: In the Bosom of the Virgin, Filling All Creation

The doctrine known as the extra Calvinisticum states that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature. Even “after” the incarnation, the eternal Son still continues to exist as God, upholding the universe by the Word of his power, along with the Father and the Spirit. The doctrine emerged out the Reformation controversies over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans maintained that the Son’s human nature became ubiquitous by virtue of its union with the divine nature and could therefore be present “in, with, and under” the elements of the Eucharist (a misapplication of the ancient doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes). The logic of the Lutherans seemed to be that wherever the divinity of Christ is, there also is the humanity of Christ. The Calvinists, on the other hand, maintained that the incarnation does not introduce a change or mutation to either the human or the divine nature of Christ; instead, since both natures retain their integrity, the Son must continue to exist in his divinity, even apart from his human nature. The Lutherans lampooned this view, labeling it Calvin’s extra, meaning, “outside of”–as if Christ’s divinity was sort of spilling out of him in a spatial sense (for more on the extra, see Paul Helm’s essay on it here).

But the Calvinists had the upper hand in this debate–in terms of both Scripture and the Christian tradition. On the latter, David Willis has argued convincingly that the Calvinist view is so well attested in the tradition that the doctrine is more properly termed the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum, rather than the extra Calvinisticum.

One of the most common objections to the extra is that it runs the risk of Nestorianism. If Christ has a divine life, so to speak, outside of his incarnate experience, then doesn’t this entail that he is functioning effectively as two persons, one divine and one human? Gerald Hawthorne, for example, argues that the early church fathers implicitly taught this view, namely, that Christ has a kind of “dual existence” as God and as man. According to Hawthorne, this view either risks Nestorianism or else a kind of “de facto Docet[ism], failing to estimate fully the humanity in which divinity made itself visible.”

cyril

Ironically, Hawthorne cites Cyril of Alexandria as an example of this view. I say “ironically,” because Cyril was, of course, the chief anti-Nestorian in the lead up to the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus (431), which denounced the two-persons heresy. So if Cyril himself affirms the extra, then it seems highly unlikely that it actually risks the error of Nestorianism. Here is the relevant portion on the issue from Cyril’s Third Epistle to Nestorius:

And we do not say that the flesh was changed into the Godhead, or again that the ineffable nature of God the Word was perverted into that of the flesh, for He is immutable and unalterable, ever abiding the same, according to the Scriptures; but while visible as a babe in swaddling clothes and yet in the bosom of the Virgin who bare him, He was filling all creation as God, and was enthroned with Him who begat Him. For the divinity is immeasurable and without magnitude, nor does it admit of circumspection.

The Word is united to flesh and so Christ is one person, but this does not mean that his divinity is contracted, so to speak, to his human nature. He remains the Word even in his incarnate state. Thus, because he has two natures, there is nothing improper in ascribing to him, as a single person, attributes and activities distinctive of his two natures: nursing at Mary’s breast, while at the same time filling all creation. So perhaps we could, with some justification, even speak of the doctrine as the extra Cyrillicum.

O Radix

If you don’t know about Malcolm Guite’s excellent little book of sonnets on the church year, Sounding the Seasons, you should remedy that. Guite is an Anglican poet-priest who has a knack for making the sturdy, permanent truths of the Christian faith as lively and relevant as they really are.

Guite opens with an extended selection of sonnets on Advent, including seven that match the great “O Antiphons” of the final seven days of Advent. Here is today’s sonnet, “O Radix,” celebrating the Root of Jesse:

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root,
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.

What Kind of Incarnation? Mapping the Contemporary Options

He had not lost His former being, but He had become what He was not before; He had not abdicated His own position, yet He had taken ours.

-Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate 3.16

Advent is well under way and Christmas is nearly upon us. So Christians around the world are giving special attention to the glorious mystery at the heart of our faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. But what does it mean for God to become incarnate? How can a single individual be both God and man?

Even among those who agree upon the basic grammar of Christology enshrined in the Chalcedonian Definition–namely, that Christ is one person in two distinct but inseparable natures–there is often confusion and disagreement about what kind of incarnation we are talking about. What would it even mean for God to become incarnate? In what follows, I briefly map out some of the major options provided by contemporary theologians and philosophers in answer to this question (these two books have been especially helpful to me in thinking through these issues).

Kenosis vs. Krypsis

Many Christians assume that in order for God to become incarnate, he must surrender something–if not the possession of his divine attributes, at least the exercise of certain divine attributes (such as omnipotence or omniscience). After all, how can Christ be genuinely human, if at the same time he possesses all knowledge and all power? How can he be temporally and spatially located, if at the same time he is timelessly eternal and omnipresent?  It must be the case, on this reasoning, that the Son divested himself of certain divine attributes in order to become incarnate. This so-called kenotic theory of the incarnation–which takes its name from Phil. 2:7, he “emptied” (ekenosen) himself–remains popular among many Christians and has witnessed a revival of interest among academic theologians in recent years.

But the kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was (e.g., see the Hilary quote above). It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.

Transformational vs. Relational Models

Closely related to this first pair of options is a second set of categories, namely, what Jonathan Hill has termed transformational vs. relational models of the incarnation. In the transformationalist approach, as one might guess, the Son is transformed into a human being either by becoming a human body or a human soul. The most problematic version of transformationalism can be found in the heresy of Apollinarianism, which maintained that the Son simply replaced the human soul in Jesus Christ. But kenotic models can also be seen as a subset of the transformationalist approach, since, in kenoticism, the Son has restricted himself, as it were, to the constraints of an ordinary human life.

In contrast, relational models understand the incarnation in terms of the Son acquiring a particular relation to a particular human nature. This human nature is complete (body and soul) and would have constituted a distinct human person had it not been assumed by the Son. But since it is assumed by the Son from the moment of conception is does not constitute a distinct human person (anhypostasia) but is given its personhood in the hypostasis of the Son (enhypostasia). On the relational account, then, the Son need not surrender anything, nor undergo any kind of transformation in terms of his divine life, in order to assume a discrete human nature.

Abstractism vs. Concretism

The final set of categories tracks closely with the previous two. This final typology concerns the question, what kind of human nature did Christ assume? Did he assume a concrete human nature–complete with both body and soul–as the relational model suggests? Or instead did he merely assume a set of abstract properties that are common to human nature?  In other words, did he assume a human nature, viewed as a concrete particular, or did he assume human nature, viewed as an abstract universal? Alvin Plantinga appears to be the first to suggest this terminology (abstract vs. concrete human nature) but the positions go back much further (perhaps even to Chalcedon, as Plantinga suggests). As the tradition of the undivided church continued to clarify and expound upon Chalcedon, it became apparent that the orthodox position demanded something much closer to concretism, since the sixth ecumenical council affirmed that Christ has not only two natures but also two wills and two energies.

Conclusion

These sets of categories are obviously related. The first factor in each is related to the others. In other words, kenoticism, transformationalism, and abstractism can be understood as distinct ways of describing the same basic approach to the incarnation. Likewise, krypsis, relationalism, and concretism appear to hang together as a coherent model of the incarnation. If we were to state these contemporary options in terms of ancient Christological heresies, we might say that the first approach is eager to avoid Nestorianism (the two persons heresy) but perhaps skirts too closely to Apollinarianism (an incomplete incarnation). The second approach would run in the other direction: keen to avoid Apollinarianism but running the risk of Nestorianism. For my own part, I think the second approach–the kryptic-relational-concretist model–is the most consistent with both Scripture and the Christian tradition; can successfully avoid the charges of Nestorianism; and is superior to the first model in terms of broader dogmatic considerations. But that is an argument for another day!

Confirmation Bias?

Like many other people, the increased division among citizens in US and in the UK saddens me. The recent Brexit vote and the US election are symptoms of something that has been taking place for some time. It seems to me these two events reveal the underlying division in a way not previous because the direct way they shape political vision. Of course it is far too simple to imagine a time where there won’t be tension based upon political desire, but I think we can desire mutual understanding and sympathy. In order to do so we will not only need to answer immediate political questions but also understand the roots of division among citizens.

There are probably a number of philosophical structures at play (many that I’m unaware of), but one that interests and worries me is how our use of technology shapes us as persons. In the case of our current political discourse, our constant connectivity and options of social media and/or news sources means we never lack similar voices to our own. Ken Stern’s recent essay in Vanity Fair on his own perception of the way more main stream media outlets abandoned any attempt at partisanship and fully endorsed Mrs Clinton makes this exact point. Here is how Stern ends his essay:

As Emma Roller wrote recently in The New York Times, “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”

Audiences are increasingly seeking, and demanding, news that fits their personal notion of what is important and what is true…And it is not simply that they have opinions on one side or another; they are routinely demanding coverage that conforms to their world view, and they have the choice to go elsewhere if they are not served.

In a fragmenting media world, with rapidly changing norms and vast choices for consumers, any media company that wants to survive over the long run, will need to factor in the demands of their best customers for news that fits their political biases. That need not be done by changing the facts, as happens too often in many places online, but by offering stories that cement a particular view of the world. That may be good for business, and audience, but it is most certainly not good for the notion of a democracy that depends on some notion of shared values and common discourse.

Stern’s conclusion is thought provoking and has numerous implications. I think one of the most important is we be aware of the way technology is shaping our worldview. My guess is that most of us are guilty of delighting in the confirmation of our already held beliefs. The only way I see us moving to mutual understanding and sympathy will as individuals and hopefully small communities that refuse to participate in such a “cultural liturgy.”

 

A Model to Imitate

huvb

I’m reading through von Balthasar’s seminal work on the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As the translator Brian Daley points out, this is a unique work, “combining historical interpretation with constructive argument” (11). Daley explains that von Balthasar intends “not to be a detached observer of Maximus in his own milieu” but to be both a critic and “an advocate, an impassioned promoter of the synthetic view of God and creation that he perceives in this seventh-century scholastic and monk, precisely because he sees there many elements of the theological synthesis he hopes to offer to his own world” (16).

In other words, von Balthasar is engaged in theological retrieval–not merely historical investigation as an end in itself, nor even merely historical theology as an detached enterprise–but retrieval for the sake of renewal, as Timothy George puts it. That’s a model worth following.

And as von Balthasar seeks to demonstrate, Maximus is one of the great luminaries of the shared Christian past worthy of imitation. As he introduces the life and theology of Maximus, von Balthasar reaches an almost poetic crescendo:

We search, with our lanterns, for models to imitate, but we do not like to look for them in the distant past. Here is one who seems extraordinarily contemporary: a spiritual world-traveler, who continued to work quietly while the waves of the Persian armies and the still more threatening waves of Islam drove him ever further from home and while ecclesiastical and political integralism captured him, put him on trial, attempted to seduce him, condemned him, and banished him, until–at the southern end of what was to be Holy Russia–he died a martyr (27-28).

In a destabilized world and in uncertain times, we need sturdy, reliable models from the past, not to dust off as ancient artifacts to be admired, but as living conversation partners (think, communio sanctorum), who inspire faithful obedience in our own time and place. Retrieval for the sake of renewal. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs this now more than ever.

Oklahoma Baptist University at ETS and IBR

OBU will have a number of faculty presenting and moderating in San Antonio this year. Here’s the list:

Matthew Arbo (Jewell and Joe L. Huitt Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies; Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life)

Christian Ethics (ETS)

Moderator

Tuesday, 2:00 PM-5:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Mission B

Being Public: Defining the Scope of Ecclesial Action (ETS)

Moderator

Thursday, 1:00 PM-4:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Independence

 

Alan S. Bandy (Rowena R. Strickland Associate Professor of New Testament)

The Land in Prophecy, Eschatology, and the Book of Revelation (ETS)

Moderator

Thursday, 1:00 PM-4:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Bowie C


Matthew Y. Emerson (Dickinson Assistant Professor of Religion)

Trinitarian Thought and Development in Second Century Literature (ETS)

“The Descent to the Dead and Trinitarian Economic Relations in the Second Century”

Tuesday, 11:30 AM – 12:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Bonham D

Trinity and Gender: A Panel Discussion presented by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (ETS)

Tuesday, 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM

Grand Hyatt – Lone Star Salon C

 

Heath A. Thomas (Professor of Old Testament; Dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry; Associate Vice President for Church Relations)

Suffering, Evil and Divine Punishment in the Bible

Respondent to Richard Schultz, Wheaton College, “Suffering as Divine Punishment in the OT Wisdom Books: Is There a Shared Perspective?”

Friday, 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
Room: Republic A (4th Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (IBR)

Theme: The Kingdom of God

“‘The Kingdom of God is Among You’: Retrieval of the Kingdom for Today ”

Saturday, 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM (15 minute papers followed by Q&A)

Stars at Night 1 (3rd Level) – Convention Center (CC)

 

Michael Travers (Professor of English; Division Chair for Language and Literature; Associate Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Associate Provost)

Literature of the Bible

“‘A Lamb standing as though it had been slain’: Poetic Images of God the Son in the Bible”

Wednesday, 9:20 AM—10:00 AM; panel discussion to follow at 11 AM

Grand Hyatt – Mission A

 

 

 

 

 

Books and Culture Interview with Richard Hays

Books and Culture’s recent interview with Richard Hays has been making the rounds. The interview is interesting in itself and covers topics on Hays’s background and some of his academic work.

Hays is one of the better models for theological reading and I found one aspect of the interview illuminating on him as a scholar.

…once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.

My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.

David Bentley Hart on Analytic Philosophy

Speaking of the analytic philosophical tradition, here’s part of David Bentley Hart’s take(down):

I should probably note here that, in the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, the issue [of God as Being or Reality] tends to be complicated on the one hand by the methods and conceptual rules generally preferred by analytic thinkers, and on the other by the lack of historical perspective that those methods and rules often encourage. The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably the greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

The Experience of God, p. 123

Thoughts? Reactions?