Wednesday 28 February 2007

Paul Helm on Karl Barth

Paul Helm of Regent College has written a critique of Barth’s doctrine of election for a forthcoming volume entitled Karl Barth’s Theology: Collected Critical Perspectives; and he has posted a draft of the essay on his blog.

Helm has done lots of excellent work on philosophical theology and on the history of Christian thought, so it’s interesting to see him attempting to grapple with Barth. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet really penetrated into the structures of Barth’s thought – and his interest in Barth seems to have derived mainly from Bruce McCormack’s essay on election in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (2000).

Bruce McCormack’s interpretation has generated heated debate among Barth specialists. And Helm attempts to weigh into this debate with his own rather heavy-handed philosophical critique: “It is no good saying, with McCormack, that for Barth ‘essence is given in the act of electing, and is, in fact, constituted by that eternal act.’ For necessarily actions have agents. The act of electing must be the action of someone; it cannot be an act of no-one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes the agent as a someone.” Although that seems like a common-sense objection to McCormack (and to Barth), it is in fact a petitio principii – it simply begs the whole question of the relationship between act and being. From one perspective, Barth’s entire theological project could be seen as a challenge to precisely Helm’s common-sense assumption that the agent must precede the act.

In the same way, when Helm objects to Barth’s view of divine freedom, his criticism rests on a theological petitio principii: “It may be granted, with Barth, that God is free in the sense that he is under no obligation to do what he does. But could he have done other than he did? On Barth’s view … it does not seem to be possible.” Again, Barth’s whole theological project could be viewed as a challenge to precisely this assumption that “freedom” entails alternativity of choice, a formal ability to choose between different options. For Barth (as McCormack has rightly emphasised), God is free precisely in his decision to be this particular God. To ask whether God “could have done other than he did” is simply to bypass Barth’s own understanding of what divine freedom is all about.

I enjoyed reading Paul Helm’s paper, and I’m delighted to see that a volume of “critical perspectives” on Barth is being published – this, at any rate, is better than any uncritical repetition of Barth! But an effective critique of Barth’s doctrine of election will have to engage much more deeply with the structures of Barth’s own thought, and will have to take seriously Barth’s own highly distinctive understanding of divine freedom on the one hand, and his highly actualistic understanding of the divine being on the other.


Aric Clark said...

Sounds like you might have some of your own thoughts to contribute to this volume.

When I noticed that Paul Helm was critiquing particularly Barth's interpretation of the doctrine of election my interest was definitely piqued, because I think this is probably Barth's most incredible insight. In the calvinist stream of thought up until Barth, election was far too brutal of a doctrine concerned with the formalities of who's in and who's out. Barth saved reformed theology with his fresh air in this area in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Again, Barth’s whole theological project could be viewed as a challenge to precisely this assumption that “freedom” entails alternativity of choice, a formal ability to choose between different options. For Barth (as McCormack has rightly emphasised), God is free precisely in his decision to be this particular God. To ask whether God “could have done other than he did” is simply to bypass Barth’s own understanding of what divine freedom is all about.

The more I look at this paragraph, the more my head spins. There is a difference between ‘alternativity of choice’ and ‘choice?’
If the (act of) decision to be this particular God doesn’t precede being this particular God, and if there is no ‘alternativity of choice’ about it, then how does freedom differ from necessity?

Peter Kline said...

At this point, McCormack would say that this kind of language is necessary but insufficient. Human beings cannot really grasp the concept of an 'eternal decision' - there is no analogy in our experience - but we must say this given God's revelation in Jesus. God really makes a decision, but His decision is unlike anything we know of as decision. In revelation we see that God is irrevocably God 'for us' yet we also see that this 'for us' is a sovereign, lordly 'for us.' It is, as Barth says, a turning of God to us. It is wholly of God, and is wholly under God's control. God comes to us not we to God. We know this - that God's 'for us' is sovereign and lordly i.e., free - in that God turns to sinners as the Holy God in grace. God is not bound to despise sinners but completely free to love them into newness. God is free to be gracious. This is all we know in revelation.

Barth, and McCormack, are simply trying to describe this startling freedom. This God has decided to be 'for us.' We must say this is a decision given that God's love is love for sinners. Yet also, the God who loves sinners, according to Barth, could not be a God who must arbitrarily decidide between different options - to be or not to be gracious. God must be, to be the lover of sinners, gracious to the very core. Yet this grace is not drawn out of God by creatures, it is always freely given.

The only way to capture all of this, it seems to me, is to say something like 'eternal decision.' A choice that has always taken place, never not taken place. This, to be sure, doesn't harmonize easily, but neither does God's being as three in One, one in Three.

Anonymous said...

Well thank you, Peter Kline. No doubt these language symbols must be used with care and not overburdened. Nevertheless, may I suggest that if you replaced ‘decision’ with ‘compulsion’, ‘makes a decision’ with ‘is compelled’, and ‘freedom’ with ‘necessity’ in what you wrote above, the effect would resonate just as truly.

Also, if you are going to speak in terms of the ‘eternal decision’ of God with respect to human being, I believe it is important that you do not prematurely hypostasize the ‘human being’ who, you say, does not ‘draw’ the grace from ‘God’ but receives it as it is freely given. The movement (Barthian Act?) that is experienced and which may be analogically articulated is one between two poles: the immanent and transcendent. The immanent experience of temporal finitude and bounded freedom is requisite to any experienced revelatory conception of ‘eternal decision.’ That is, the noetic activity of the search and reach is as inseparable as the pneumatic activity of the pull and lift.

Shane said...


I won't speak for Helm, cause I haven't read his piece. But I fight with mccormackian barthists sometimes. So here's my version of the attack on mccormack:

(1) Every action presupposes an agent.
(2) Election is an action.
(3) Consequently election presuppose the existence of an agent.

There is nothing question-begging about this argument.

An argument begs the question when the premises of the demonstration presuppose rather than prove the conclusion. An example:

(4) The Bible says God exists,
(5) The Bible must be right since it is the revealed word of God, so . . .
(6) God exists.

Barth's response to my argument should just be to deny premise (1), not to say that my argument itself is fallacious. But of course, at this point I either need (i) to create a new subargument in support of (1) drawing on even simpler and more self-evident terms or (ii) just reject Barth as an uninteresting dialogue partner on this question because he is probably willing to deny any logical intuition I might have about the matter as 'natural theology', no matter how absurd it makes his own position sound.

Logical argument will never persuade Barth (or his latter day descendents) of anything because he can always deny the premises. (Not, of course, that Barth himself manages to do without smuggling some good old metaphysical premises back into his own work.)

So, I think Barth denies (1). This of course occasions our wondering how something can act before it is? Barth's answer boils down to this: God is magic so logic doesn't work on him.

Personally, I think this is a pretty poor line to take. God is magic in a sense, but he's the reason we have logic in the first place and maybe it reflects his character in that sense. (If someone in the comments starts pissing and moaning about "human logic" and it's inherent weakness, he deserves to be shot. Did the fall cause the modus ponens inference to be invalid?)


Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments. Just a couple of quick responses:

Shane: The reason Helm's argument is question-begging is that he tries to refute Barth's view (that action constitutes an agent) simply by assuming that an agent must precede action. This is fine if it's just an appeal to "common sense" -- but it's not a coherent argument.

Bop, you ask: "Is there a difference between ‘alternativity of choice’ and ‘choice’?" I see what you mean -- and certainly the Western liberal view of freedom that we're all so familiar with makes a direct identification between freedom and alternativity. But it's worth noting that there are entire traditions that don't conceive of freedom or choice in this way. The Reformed theological tradition, for instance, has generally emphasised that freedom is a positive movement of the will towards the good -- i.e. (to put it in formal terms), Reformed theology understands human freedom as spontaneity rather than alternativity.

Or for a medieval example: Anselm defined freedom as the ability to preserve the will in rectitude -- i.e., for Anselm, freedom is the very opposite of indifference or alternativity, since it consists solely in a positive determination of the will (or to be more precise, in an ability to continue in this positive determination).

Anyway, these are just examples -- but I think it's worth pointing out that the common-sense notion of freedom as alternativity (which Rowan Williams has described as "a picture of choice that presupposes a blank will looking out at a bundle of options like goods on a supermarket shelf") has not always been self-evident in Christian tradition. Barth himself is in fact taking up a characteristic Reformed theme when he critiques the doctrine of "alternativity of choice".

Shane said...


I read Helm's article quickly just now and it seems to me that he isn't question begging. His argument seems more or less like the one I articulated above, but he adds the charge that Barth's position is incoherent, i.e. that by denying proposition (1) Barth's account will end up being self-contradictory. I didn't see him really flesh this argument out in a satisfactory way. (But I was reading quickly, so perhaps I missed something.)

At any rate, I don't think Helm's argument is incoherent either. In other words, I'm not sure how you could force me to admit that it contradicts my other beliefs to admit that any action presupposes the existence of an agent. It isn't 'incoherent' to affirm (1) against Barth. In fact, if anything, the fact that (1) has such a high prima facie plausibility means that the onus should be on Barth to show us why his position is not incoherent and not the other way round.

So, if you want to persuade me that Barth (in the McCormackian interpretation) is right, then please explain to me how it is that a thing constitutes itself by its action before it exists.

I'll keep thinking about this and see if I can come up with a nice formal proof of the incoherence of this idea. I'm not a fully fledged logic jedi yet though, so maybe I won't be able to construct it.


Shane said...

p.s. 'coherence' is a property of a set of propositions. A set of propositions is incoherent if and only if from it one can derive a contradiction. Since no contradictions are true, at least one of the propositions from which the contradiction was derived must be false. A set of propositions is coherent if and only if no contradictions are derivable from it.

Anonymous said...

What a theological and metaphysical mess! I thought the whole point about God being God, sui generis, is that God's agency and act are one. So it is not that God is and then God acts (what sense could be made of this "then"?). Nor is it that God is act simpliciter. But I don't think Barth is really saying that.

God is not like the deity in a Larson cartoon who thinks, "Mmmm, I wonder what I'll do today? I know, I'll smite someone!" - or, if Larson were a Barthian - "I know, I'll elect Someone, and I'll make me a covenant!". "God," as Barth says, "is who He is in the act of His Revelation."

On the other hand, with Shane, the notion of an act without an agent deserves to be sent up in a Larson cartoon. I would say that God is constituted in/by his act, and I would say that God's act issues from his being. Am I trying to have it both ways? I should hope so!

Overegging the divine act - the divine will - is a nominalist pathology. Overegging the divine being - the divine nature - is a platonic pathology. A healthy theological ontology will say, "A plague on both your houses!", and proceed dialectically in constant self-correction.

In a spirit of hermeneutical generosity, one must understand that Barth is policing the divine freedom so that grace may be grace. So perhaps we can forgive him his policy of zero metaphysical tolerance! Not least because Barth is equally insistent that God is "the One who loves in freedom." But as a gloss on, if not a corrective to, Barth, I would venture that it is misleading to suggest that God decides to love - or elect - rather God loves and elects eternally. Insofar as we must - and, as linguistic and temporal beings, I'm afraid we must - speak of God's being on the one hand and God's will one the other, the most appropriate and least misleading formula I know is that God's being is the grammar of God's will. God, as Rowan Williams says - suggesting that this is the patristic consensus - "gives eternally, necessarily, out of the very depth of His being." And this "necessarily" is not some theologically illicit infringement on the will or freedom of God, it is what God himself tells us about himself in his self-revelation in Christ, such that it becomes part of the syntax of the church's talk about God. Of course a fuller explication of this talk would take us into the doctrine of the Trinity.

I say again what I have said before: I think many of our problems here result from our inveterate habit of picturing God as having a human psychology only huger.

Is my understanding hopelessly bewitched?

Shane said...

Because I'm writing on Aristotle at the moment, I'm going to have to say that I find something quite strange about the way act and being are separated in this discussion.

For Aristotle the 'ousia' (being, substance) of a things is its act of existing as the kind of thing it is. 'Ousia' contains the act of existence and the potentiality for change.

God's ousia, presumably is metaphysically simple. Which ought to force us to think that God's 'act' just is his being. Otherwise we have two principles. Likewise, God can have no potencies for change, otherwise you impugn divine simplicity again by saying that there are two principles in God, act and potency.

Of course, on certain views of eternity, potency in God would be incoherent anyway, since God, being timeless, does not change and therefore doesn't have any unactualized potencies.

If act and being are separate, then it seems to me that McCormack has caused himself big problems elsewhere in his doctrine of God.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, McCormack's now asking for some calm in the debate (see the latest issue of SJT). Seems sensible to me! Occasionally, theologians are not particularly gracious to one another. . . or is that just my perception?

Peter Kline said...

Act and being are not separate for McCormack, he is trying to bring them into the closest possible relation. He is, however, privledging act over being in his way of bringing them together. God's act of election is, according to McCormack, the same thing as God's eternal existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God IS the One who elects to be for us. God is triune in his act of election, not alongside but in. God constitutes himself as triune in the act of election. The second person of the Trinity is Jesus Christ, the Logos asarkos is the Logos incarandus. Now McCormack would not deny that this act is performed by a Subject, he would say that the Subject who performs election is Jesus Christ. Like Kim said, there is not a 'then' where God is not Jesus Christ. McCormack is not doing away with being and only holding on to act, he is saying that God doesn't have a being different from an electing/acting being.

Now it should be noted that there is deep disagreement about all this among Barthians - with regard to both what Barth himself held, and the correct position now to hold. Kim's above post represents a middle , and I think correct, position between, say, McCormack and Molnar. Being and act are dialectically related there. McCormack wants to resolve the tension and priveledge act over being. Molnar leans the other way in privledging being over act.

See Kevin Hector's article in the International Journal of Syst. Theol. for a mediation position similar to Kim's.

Shane said...

"God's act of election is, according to McCormack, the same thing as God's eternal existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."


Your account seems to be verging on incoherence:

(1) A = B,
(2) A is logically, though not temporally, prior to B.

I just don't see how to affirm (1) and (2) simultaneously. If A is prior to B, then it must be something other than B, otherwise:

(3) A is logically prior to itself. (by substitution).

There are lots of things deep and mysterious about Christian faith, but this (3) is not a mystery; it's just nonsense.


Shane said...

Also, note that if being and act are related dialectically that they can't be the same thing because dialectic presupposes and otherness.

If God is simple, then act and being are coextensive. But if they are coextensive then one cannot be prior to the other as I proved above.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Kim, for your very sane comment!

Anonymous said...

My views are as follows.

1. Barth nowhere says that God's being is constituted by God's act. He says only that God's being and act are inseparable. I read him to mean that act and being for God are each ontologically basic. Act for Barth is no more prior to or constitutive of God's being than the reverse. They are equally and primordially basic.

2. Barth distinguishes between an act and a work. The term "work" applies only to God's relationship to the world. Creation, for example is a work. "Act," however, is a term that pertains not only to God's relations with the world but also to God's being in eternity in and for itself. God's being is in act -- God is the living God -- as Father, Son and Holy Spirit to all eternity.

3. Throughout II/2 Barth speaks of the Holy Trinity as being determined by God's free decision of election. I take this clearly to indicate that the Trinity is ontologically prior to and logically presupposed by the pre-temporal act of election. It is not election that constitutes the Trinity, but the Trinity that constitutes election. Election is a free and contingent act of divine self-determination (not self-constitution). In short, it is eternally necessary (true by definition) that God is the Holy Trinity, whereas the act of election is eternally contingent (not necessary to the definition of God's being).

4. Barth says repeatedly throughout his career that God would be the Holy Trinity whether the world had been created or not. There is nothing inconsistent in his saying this. In fact he would have been inconsistent if he had denied it.

5. Barth also says that in some important respect God was under no obligation to redeem the world once it had fallen into sin. God remains the Lord of all his actions in relation to the world. He is at once self-determined in a particular way and yet also free at every moment to decide what he has decided differently and anew -- without ceasing to be who he is, without ceasing essentially and eternally to be the One who loves in freedom.

6. The mystery of God's unswerving self-determination in relation to God's radical freedom as the Lord can only be properly described, for Barth, by way of abiding and unresolved antithesis. For us that means that God is to be unconditionally trusted and yet never to be taken for granted. The old translation is literally wrong but substantively true: "Though he slay me yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15 KJV).

Shane said...

Prof. Hunsinger,

Your articulation of Barth's ontology makes much more sense to me than what has been put forward so far. But could you clarify the sense of 'act' used in articulating your (and Barth's) position?

Specifically, I want to know how you can affirm act and being to be each ontologically basic AND affirm that God is simple.

It seems to me that we ought to say, with Thomas, that God's being (essence) just is his act (existence) and that God is 'pure act' in the sense of possessing no unactualized potentialities.

Anonymous said...

Being in or Being apart from act? On Barth and Aquinas

It seems to me that the divine ousia might be logically prior to the divine hypostases. (I wouldn't want to say for sure. I'm still thinking about it.) But it cannot in any sense be ontologically prior to them.

(It would be logically prior, if we could not define the divine hypostases without presupposing the divine ousia, but could define the divine ousia without presupposing the divine hypostases.)

Ontologically, however, the divine ousia and the divine hypostases are equally and primordially basic. Neither is prior to or derived from the other. The divine threeness of the Holy Trinity is always given in and with the divine oneness, and vice versa. (Seeing this point, as Ayres and Barnes do, side-steps a lot of confusion in contemporary trinitarian discussion.)

It is a premise of orthodox trinitarian doctrine that the divine ousia is simple, underived, and concrete (not generic or abstract). Yet this ousia has no actual subsistence apart from the three hypostases that in turn subsist within it. For that reason it is not impermissible to say that "God's being is communion."

At the same time, we may also say that God's eternal being, in and of itself, is in becoming. The primordial relations of the Holy Trinity are not inert but living and dynamic to all eternity. God's being eternally becomes what it eternally is. God as the Ancient of Days is ever new.

If the above line of reasoning is correct, then the divine simplicity does not exclude but includes the three hypostases. "The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three gods but one God." But if it includes the three hypostases, it necessarily includes the act (the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit) in which God lives eternally in and for himself as the Holy Trinity.

It is because Barth thinks, as it were, from the doctrine of the Trinity to the concept of divine simplicity, or at least because he refuses to think of the divine simplicity apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, that he (unlike Aquinas) decides that we have to include a trinitarian idea of "act," so to speak, in any proper conception of the divine "being." For there is no one God, and no inert God, behind or apart from the living God, who just is eternally the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Barth agrees with Aquinas that there are no unactualized potentialities in God. Where he seems to disagree would be if for Aquinas simplicity excluded dynamic differentiation within the Godhead. But this disagreement may finally be more apparent that real, pertaining only to the order in which the concepts are taken up and discussed respectively by each theologian. It may be that Aquinas became misleading by deferring too many topics to ST III.

The being of the three-personed God is eternally in act -- an act of love and freedom, joy and peace -- as unending perichoresis or communion. There is nothing more basic than the Holy Trinity. Like the turtles in another story, it's the Trinity "all the way down." The eternal divine being (ousia), in all its proper simplicity, can therefore not truly be conceived apart from the eternal divine act in which God is God. Ultimate reality is not being itself, but koinonia.

Anonymous said...

Superb, beautiful, George. My neck is now stiff from nodding up and down all the way through this crystal comment. I feel like I used to feel at the end of a George Caird lecture: like standing and all saying the Grace!

Only one thing: I think you should bite the logical bullet: following Wittgenstein's dictum "Don't think, look!", it seems impossible to me to "define the divine ousia without presupposing the divine hypostases" (neither can presuppose the other). Otherwise I fear the thin end of the modalist wedge.

Shane said...

To being with, I would like to thank Prof. Hunsinger for contributing one of the best blog comment I’ve read in a long time.

Despite having said that, there are three points on which I am uncertain. I’ll articulate my own view and wait for correction from those with more theological expertise than I possess.

First, I am dubious that any x can be logically prior to y but not also ontologically prior to y. I just cannot come up with any other instance in which this could be true. If there are no other instances, then this statement is guilty of special pleading. Granted we are talking about the Trinity so special pleading is allowed here more than elsewhere, but it still seems a mark against the theory to me. It is possible that I am simply having a failure of the imagination here and that someone could demonstrate a clear counterexample. If so this would be very helpful.

Second, I agree that the divine simplicity does indeed include the three hypostases and that one ought not to assign an ontological priority to the ousia over the hypostases. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this account needs another layer of analysis to flesh out precisely the sense in which the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son, nor the Spirit, etc.

I assert that God is absolutely metaphysically simple. In other words, all substantial predicates predicated of him are identical. ‘God is love’ = ‘God is justice’ and so forth. That the Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit, and so forth presents no problem to the proponent of divine simplicity, because the three persons are divided from one another by relational rather than substantial predicates (cf. Boethius’s De Trinitate). The Son is the Son because he proceeds from the Father, but ‘procession’ is not a substance, i.e. not something real in God that would be different from ‘spiration’, for example. (This allows us to predicate ‘God’ substantially of the persons, but not vice versa: “The Father is God” but not “God is the Father.”)

The upshot of this distinction between relational and substantial predicates is that it allows us to maintain the separation of the ousia and the hypostases (cf. Basil the Great, epistle 214) without compromising the divine simplicity, which seems to me the best bulwarks against tritheism.

Now, this distinction between relational and substantial predication might seem to imply that the ousia is ontologically prior just in the sense that substances are ontologically prior to accidents. (All accidents depend for their existence upon their inhering in some substance.) However this is impossible, just because God’s being is eternal. The divine ousia cannot be a principle that causes the separation of the persons because causation implies change, which presupposes temporality. There is no temporality in God, hence no change, hence what He is, He is eternally.

Third, I would like to make a niggling point about what it means for Thomas to assert that God is eternal, pure act, changeless, etc.

The recent fashion is to reject scholasticism for positing an ‘inert’ or ‘static’ god of the philosophers. However, God is by no means something static or inert for Thomas and his scholastic contemporaries. God’s eternity and pure actuality imply precisely the opposite: God is infinite and perfect activity.

This is why I wanted to emphasize earlier Thomas’s statement that God’s essence is his existence: since ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are substantial predicates they are identical because of the divine simplicity. But the significance of this is that God’s ‘nature’ is identified with the act of existing. God is essentially activity. To be sure, God’s mode of being active and our mode of being active are quite different. (Since for us essence and existence are separate.) Thomas might well say that modern theologians are simply too indebted to creaturely analogies if they believe God’s changelessness means he is something static! The Christian faith has to do with a living God who enters history as the man Jesus Christ and not static self-enclosed thought thinking itself. And yet, the mystery of the Incarnation is that this living God who came into history remains finally above and beyond it. The divine mystery is constituted by the interaction of two poles: the natural and the supernatural. Thus, the way in which God is alive is a mystery to us precisely because of the distance between our concept of life and the life we assert of Him. If one discards the ‘god of the philosophers’ in favor of the immanent Christ, doesn’t one reduce the mystery by rejecting one of the two poles that constitute it, emptying the mystery out into immanent human concepts?

Affirming Thomas’s doctrine of God in no way compromises our commitment to the mystery of Christ’s incarnation. But if faithfulness to the incarnation does not require us to abandon eternity, changelessness, pure act, etc., then why assert that God’s being is in becoming? If God is perfect (perfectus, teleios), then for him to change is to decay, which is impossible, therefore it seems that God’s being is not in becoming.

I eagerly await comments and corrections on my proposals here.

Shane said...

"(It would be logically prior, if we could not define the divine hypostases without presupposing the divine ousia, but could define the divine ousia without presupposing the divine hypostases.)"

Wait, I get it now. Ignore my first worry above.


Anonymous said...

On the distinction between logical and ontological necessity

To Kim and Shane. Thank you for your kind words of appreciation. I am very grateful for them indeed.

Here's why I'm still thinking about the difference between logical and ontological necessity in the particular case I mentioned.

Of course I agree that modalism is out of the question, and that the divine ousia, as we actually know and affirm it according to the trinitarian faith, cannot be fully defined in abstraction from the divine hypostases. It seems, however, that the divine ousia qua ousia – its being indivisible, underived and concrete – does not require that a reference to the hypostases be made in order for just these aspects to be set forth as defining characteristics.

Historically, these aspects were more or less established as necessary to a possible definition of ousia without taking the hypostases directly or explicitly into account. Ontologically, however, the divine ousia, hypostases and perichoresis are all given in and with one another, so that we never have any one of them without the others.

Logically, on the other hand, the relations would seem to be importantly different. The perichoresis obviously cannot be defined without reference to the hypostases. The same is true for the hypostases relative to the divine ousia. The hypostases as they subsist can't be properly defined without reference to the divine ousia, since each of the hypostases individually and all of them together are wholly and indivisibly God.

By the way, I even think Calvin is correct, contrary to some standard Eastern Orthodox views, to suggest that insofar as the hypostasis of the Son is generated by that of the Father, the second is derived from the first, but that insofar as the Son is fully God, the Son is autoousia. The Son's hypostasis, but not his ousia, is derivative.

Insofar as the divine ousia is absolutely simple, self-existent and concrete, a direct reference to the hypostases would not seem to be necessary at the technical level of formulating a definition.

Something similar might be said about the idea of "hypostasis," insofar as hypostasis qua hypostasis just means something like "concrete mode of susbsistence."

So I am merely thinking abstractly about the idea of ousia qua ousia, in one of its possible technical definitions. That's why I distinguish between two different respects, the logical and the ontological. Ontologically, or in actuality, there's no question that the divine ousia can't be understood without reference to the hypostases, and vice versa (or for that matter, without reference to the perichoresis). I'm proposing something purely notional, at best.

However, I can certainly see the force of the objections. That's why I leave it slightly open. But as long as we're clear about what we mean, I can't see that it matters greatly in the end, one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

On the priority of dogmatics over metaphysics

To Shane.

Thanks for your substantive and very thoughtful remarks. Here's how I see things:

Following Barth, my position differs from yours, mainly (it would seem) because I think about these matters dogmatically first and metyaphysically only second. If the only considerations were metaphysical, your position would be unimpeachable.

Barth denies that God's substantial predicates – what he calls the divine perfections – are all metaphysically identical. In this he differs from Aquinas. He thinks of the divine perfections according to a kind of trinitarian logic or grammar. As the three hypostases are each fully God though not identical with each other (the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father, etc.), so the divine perfections are each real for God and not just for us. Each of them is an irreducible modality of the one indivisible divine ousia.

In the Godhead, there is not just a trinity of real distinctions (with respect to the hypostases), but also a multiplicity of real distinctions (with respect to the perfections). They co-exist with and interpenetrate one another eternally without losing their real distinctions from one another. The thought-forms of identity-in-(real) difference, and of unity –in-(real) distinction, are largely what drives Barth to his particular mode of dialectical thinking (unresolved antitheses, whereby we are continually driven from one pole to the other and back again, because there is no higher synthesis). (There is of course unity and harmony in God, despite our inability to get beyond the antitheses, whose function is precisely to point us to the ineffable mystery of the divine unity.)

Think of Gregory of Nazianzus's famous remark:
No sooner do I consider the One than I am enlightened by the radiance of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. When I bring any one of the Three before my mind I think of him as a Whole, and my vision is filled, and the most of the Whole escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One in such as way as to attribute more greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one Torch, and cannot divide of measure out the undivided Light. –Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 40.4
For Barth much the same is true of the divine perfections.

Moreover, while it is true that "God is infinite and perfect activity," the livingness of the triune God is just such that the Holy Trinity's eternal being is in eternal becoming. In other words, the perfect activity of the divine life needs to be defined fully in trinitarian terms. I take this dynamism to be entailed in the doctrine of perichoresis.

By the way, I would really like to know the intellectual history of the idea of the divine simplicity. It appears in the Christian tradition at least as early as Origen and Irenaeus. Philosophically, it is said to go back at least as far as Plato, and perhaps even to Parmenides.

As always, when the theological tradition takes over a philosophical idea, it does not do so uncritically. The theological version of simplicity (in the context of trinitarian dogma) would have been unrecognizable to the philosophers.

What I would really like to know is whether the concept of divine simplicity was taken over in any sense by pre-Christian Jewish theology. Christian theologians like Origen and Irenaeus just seem to take this borrowing for granted as something well-establlished and in no need of special discussion, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, George, for your time - and for the education. I'm a lot clearer - and happier - now about the logical/ontological distinction, and your last good and modest point about the matter makes sense to me.

You've confirmed a few things for me (like the difference between Barth and Aquinas on the distinctiveness of the divine perfections), tightened up a few things (like simplicity-in-trinity) and taught me a lot I didn't know or hadn't considered (nothing in this parenthesis - it would get too long!). Thanks again.

Shane said...

On the concurrence of philosophy and theology

Thank you for the kind words, Prof. Hunsinger, but if there is one philosophical thesis of which I am irrefragably certain it is that no opinion of mine is unimpeachable. Since the question has moved on past my own small area of competence I'll hold my peace now a little while.

And yet I am still in perplexity because I too accord a primacy to theology over philosophy. And yet, even if theology is the queen; this does not imply her handmaids cannot be lovely nor useful.

Regarding the pre-history of divine simplicity, a quick search of the internet reveals several articles on the doctrine of divine simplicity in Philo. I would expect that there are probably neo-platonist Greek or Jewish philosophers who used the doctrine as an attack on the coherence of early Christian doctrine. If this were the case, then it would make sense for the Christians to agree immediately with their opponents. "No, no. We agree entirely that God is simple, it's just that his simplicity is a bit more complex (!) than you thought."

At least this is my guess about the issue.

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