Monday, January 3, 2011

Johann Gerhard's Common-Sense Realist Dogmatics.

Over the holidays I've been reading some more Richard Muller on the structure of Protestant (Lutheran/Reformed) scholasticism.  I've also gone back and looked at Gerhard's book on hermeneutics/dogmatics.  Muller has pointed out that this work was actually one of the first books in the history of Protestant scholasticism to take seriously the systematic development of the prolegomena.  Gerhard was preceded in this by Francis Junius, who was a Reformed theologian at the University of Leiden (interestingly enough he died of plague and Jacobus Arminius replaced him!).

What I think is interesting to observe about Gerhard and most pre-Kantian Protestant dogmatics is that they philosophically take a position of critical-realism and common-sense realism.  This characterization is to an extent something of an anachronism I realize.  Nevertheless I think it is a fair description of their position.

Most important for the structure of dogmatics is that Gerhard and the rest of them take seriously and realistically the concept of "cause" in Aristotle's thought.  According to Aristotle, no effect is without a cause and effects always resemble their causes in some sense.  Hence, I sorta look like my parents and the dent in a car looks a little like the rock that hit it.  Secondly, greater causes bring about effects that are lesser than them and the more a cause is in act, the more causal effect it has.  So, I have more casual effect than do rocks and trees, and God has greater casual effect than, well, anything.

Taken over into the structure of dogmatics, theologians from the 13th century onward described two levels of theology- natural and supernatural.  Natural theology is what can be inferred from the structure of the world.  Since the world was caused by God, it resembles God in some ways (analogia entis).  Since it is an effect of a cause also, that cause must be God- since an infinite chain of causes is impossible.  

The second level is of course supernatural theology, which is based on Holy Scripture.  Holy Scripture is a direct revelation of God and it proper God's own Word.  For this reason it directly resembles God's own being in the form of propositional truth.  As a direct, rather than indirect, revelation of the Triune God, it resembles God's eternal being more closely than does the created order.  It is not only an effect of God's action as creator, but it is a direct action of God himself speaking in human words through the miracle of verbal inspiration.  We can tell that these propositions present in Holy Scripture are the work of God, the highest causal agent, because the authors did miracles.  This means that a causal agent was present and active in the prophets and apostles which was higher than all temporal casual agents, since only the divine casual agent could affect a disruption in them normal temporal casual chain.

In a word, this view of the sources of dogmatics is both common-sense realist and critically-realist.  First, causes and human perceptions of a causal order should not be doubted as a kind of projection of the human mind.  Neither does the human mind have any reason in and of itself to doubt the causal order.  Secondly, our knowledge of God through the Bible is a true knowledge, though it is always an incomplete reflection of God's own knowledge of himself.  That is because it is an effect of God's action on our cognition resembles God, but does not somehow turn our mind into God's own mind itself.  Hence Gerhard distinguishes between "archetypal theology" (God's own self-knowledge) and "echetypal theology" (our derivative knowledge of God).  He gained this distinction from Francis Junius who is reflecting the Scotistic distinction between theologia nostra and theologia in se.  As we can also observe, this also means that theology has a strongly trinitarian dimension as well.  God knows God's self only as Trinity (Father contemplates himself in the Son, through love and unity of the Spirit).  Our knowledge of God is therefore a participation in God's own eternal act of self-knowledge spread among us in the trinitarian economy of salvation.

To me, based on the Biblical revelation, this seems to be a proper way to do Christian dogmatics.  What becomes problematic about doing dogmatics this way is the Kantian revolution in epistemology.  Kant taught that the concept of "cause" was a postulate of "practical" rather than "theoretical" reason.  In other words, in our every day lives, the legal system wouldn't be able to function if we didn't say that the arsonist who burned down the orphanage was responsible for the death of the orphans.  Nevertheless, in and of itself, there's no telling whether "cause" is actually simply a category our mind imposes on reality or whether its real.  Hence, Christian dogmatics cannot be grounded in cause insofar as the category of cause is questionable.  Nevertheless, Kant argued, even if we cannot talk about things in themselves out in the world (ding an sich) we could talk about their effect on our consciousness.  Hence most modern German Protestant dogmatics (following Schleiermacher) has been one long exercise in inferring the "essence" of Christianity from human religious (Schleiermacher) or existential (Bultmann, etc.) experience.  The external casual order cannot be spoken of, but our inner experiences can be.  

There are two odd things about this.  First, how universally Kant's rather questionable epistemic conclusions have been taken over by modern dogmaticians.  Secondly, what a poor reputation the tradition of Christian Aristotelian scholasticism has, even though it operates on incredibly modest and realistic epistemic claims about how God interacts with the world and how we are capable of knowing God.  In fact, I'm somewhat unclear about how one could not accept these postulates regarding God's causal relationship to the world and revelation and still claim to be Christian.  


  1. Would nominalism differ from Aristoltilianism in the concept of causation?

  2. Somewhat. Ockham didn't buy Aquinas' natural theology arguments, not least because he said that you couldn't confirm whether or not cause as we know it extended into the overall ontic structure of the universe. Since the question of whether or not a infinite chain of causes extends beyond our experience, we could neither confirm nor deny its theoretical possibility. Nevertheless, I would make the point that in terms of our experience and the necessity of a causal chain of reality, Ockham would not deny cause as being part of theoretical reason as Kant does.

    I've been looking at Gerhard on the doctrine of God as well based on the medieval debates prior to him. What he rejects is the eclectic stance of Lutheran and Reformed scholasticism with regard to models of ontology. So, for example, when the question of the analogy of being comes up, he denies it for the same reason Ockham does, namely, he state that there is no proportion between infinite and finite being. But then, he goes on describe the divine attributes in a manner similar to Aquinas and at variance with Ockham- namely, he claims that there is a logic distinction between the divine attributes, even if the divine essence is absolutely simple. He rejects the Ockhamist claim that there is a radical simplicity of the divine essence and therefore there is only a nominal distinction in the divine attributes.

  3. Is the shift from Luther's Occamists perspective to Gerhard's Aristoltilian realism theologically neutral?

  4. I have argued in the past that it is not. See my Logia article "Salvation of the Unbaptized in Chemnitz and Gerhard."

    Due to recent studies though, I have changed my mind. A couple of things. First, the dogmatic content of Luther and Gerhard is pretty much the same. Muller notes that this is true of all the Reformed and Lutheran scholastics. There's really no distinction between them and the Reformers regarding dogmatic content. Furthermore, the Reformers actually didn't change all that much about Medieval theology- sacraments, Justification, Church, etc. The rest of it not so much. Hence the use of other dogmatic and philosophical traditions to augment the theology of the Reformers wasn't really a change in their theology, but rather a theological consolidation of the institutionalization of the Reformation. Gerhard then, by adopting other philosophical traditions than Luther, is not really changing his theology, but rather filling it out.

    Specifically regarding Gerhard, I don't think you could call him a "realist" per se. Like most of the Protestant scholastics he uses different Medieval metaphysical traditions eclectically in order to explain what he considers to be the proper reading of Scripture. As I noted, he does use Ockham's metaphysics, but he also uses Aquinas', as in the 5 proofs for God's existence (which both Scotist and Ockham rejected) and in his discussion of the divine attributes. Also, he uses the distinction between God's and our theology, which is Scotistic in origin. So, you can't really explain Gerhard with reference to a single metaphysical framework.

    Luther may have been trained as a Nominalist, but that doesn't mean that he was always consistent a Nominalist. Also, despite is whining about Aristotle, he does use Aristotle. In fact, Nominalism is in a sense Aristotelian because it accept Aristotle's premise that no form can be know except in matter. It then just goes a step further and says "hey, if that's true, then why claim that the individual form is a universal? Why not just say it possesses only an individual reality? Logically, why go beyond it's individual embodiment in matter?"

  5. I don't see how kants causation view poses any problems.

    It still let's us talk about our common experiences as humans with minds that observe cause and effect. Right? God created us with our minds and the framework our minds impose on us, and those things out there that interact with our minds, whatever they are and however that interaction occurs, we can't say much about. Recognizing that ultimately subjectivity affects our ability to say much of anything reliable about reality accords well with the proper humility we should have before God, and also helps show why trust in anything other than God is intuitively inadequate, as kierkegaard well argued.

    I haven't read much kant since college though so its very likely I'm missing your point or mistaken on some or all of the wrinkles with kants arguments.

  6. Humility in epistemic claims is not something Christian should have much interest in. "The Holy Spirit is no skeptic" as Luther says. This shows Kant's essential philosohphic Pietism (also Kierkegaard's!). Kant's epistemology is about having humility, his ethics is about how to avoid guilt. The Holy Spirit is about "definite assertions".

    The point of common-sense realism is that we have no reason to doubt our basic perception of reality as trust worthy- not that it is indoubitable in an ultimate sense. In fact, as Reid notes, if we look at how we actually live our lives then we should realize that we actually do implicitly do so.

    Because God "gives me every good thing" and cares for my life in this world, I must also conclude that he has created a world in which my basic perception of reality is trustworthy. The common-sense reality approach is rootedness in trust in God as the creator ans sustainer of reality.

  7. I see your point on Luther. Some of the things that Luther wrote seem to reflect the same platonic view you find in Augustine. He was driven by some other concern then philosophy and adopted and discarded philosophical positions when he found them theologically/spiritually usful or not useful.

  8. Greg- Agreed. It should be remembered that in the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther says Plato is a better philosopher than Aristotle. Which is weird because Ockham is closer to Aristotle than Plato. But in 1520, he still refers to "Ockham, my master."

  9. Ok but kierkegaard and kant argued subjectivity requires epistemic humility without regard to faith. Kierkegaard at least wrote that only with faith could we escape subjectivity and have truth. I have no idea how kant treats divine revelation.

    Can't we say kant is right that, considered by those without faith, we have no basis to say anything is true about reality? It's only with faith in God in accordance with divine revelation in scripture we can trust our senses. Ive argued with evolutionists a number of times that they have no reason to believe we evolved so that our senses give us a truepicture of reality, our senses would give info only for what's advantageous for survival.

  10. Wasting more time at work, I see a a few writers saying kierkegaard accepts kants ethics as the ethical sphere Christians transcend when making the leap of faith. Which depends on divine revelation, which kant was apparently skeptical of.


  11. Wasting more time at work, I see a a few writers saying kierkegaard accepts kants ethics as the ethical sphere Christians transcend when making the leap of faith. Which depends on divine revelation, which kant was apparently skeptical of.