Monday, April 18, 2011

Nominalism, Realism, and Paradox: A Dialogue with Dr. Mark Mattes- Part 1.

Dr. Mark Mattes is an ELCA theologian whom I had occasion to get to know a bit while writing my dissertation on Forde.  Though I do not agree with him on every subject, I appreciate him as a prophetic voice over against the present revolt against orthodox Lutheranism in ELCA.  Recently we have an e-mail dialogue over the question of ontology in the interpretation of Luther.  He suggested I post part of it on my blog.  I have edited into the form of a dialogue.  This is part 1, I will be posting part 2 in the next few days.

Mark Mattes: Have you done much thinking about Luther’s use of paradox in theology?  Siegbert Becker in “Foolishness of God” does a good job describing Luther’s use of paradox but is quite poor with giving a rationale for its use or indicating any antecedent resources that Luther might have used.  I’m aware of your study of Luther in his theological context—does Luther’s use of paradox come across as novel, from your perspective?  I’ve spent some years actually thinking about Luther in relation to Nominalism and Realism and for what it’s worth, I’ve come to the conclusion that Luther doesn’t fit tidily into either camp.  My reading of the Finns suggests that they would prefer a Luther with affinity to Realism but I think the role that the analogy of being plays in Thomism is eclipsed by larva dei for Luther.  Luther clearly rejects a Nominalist approach to grace, i.e., facere quod in se est, and I think Bielfeldt has a good point that Luther’s view would contest a continuous Porphyrian tree, a commensurability between philosophy and theology, as we might infer from Nominalism.  Any thoughts? 

Jack Kilcrease: "I'm inclined to agree that reading Luther as a straight Norminalist or Moderni has its limitations.  This can be seen in the systematic application of this reading by the progenitors of 20th century Catholic Luther scholarship (Grisar, Denifle).  In fact, my readings in later medieval scholasticism and Protestant scholasticism have convinced me that people in the late Middle Ages and early modern period tended to be eclectic in their appropriation of earlier scholastic traditions.  Richard Muller's book on Arminius suggest this.  My own reading of Gerhard suggests this as well.  Gerhard rejects the analogy of being in favor of the Occamist "no proportion between created and created being" stance.  He then accepts Francis Junius' distinction between the archetypal and enctypal theology, which is rooted in Scotism, but then posits Thomas' view of the logical, but not substantial distinction between the divine attributes (contra the Occamist radical simplicity, wherein attributes are distinguish from one another merely in name).

Luther in many ways seems to me an Occamist.  Ubiquity, hidden-reveal God, etc.  I agree that Walther Kolher that much of his debate with Zwingli can also be chalked up to his having a different understanding of faith and reason rooted in Occamism over against Zwingli's training in the via Antiqua via Thomas Wyttenbach.  On the other hand, the interesting thing about the hidden-revealed God is that it is not quite the distinction between God's potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata (interestingly enough, I recently found a passage in the Genesis commentary where Luther directly identifies the two concepts, though he is not quite right about this).  In other words, although Luther says that "God has left himself free" outside his "binding" to the Word and the sacrament, he doesn't seem to mean that God's is somehow an undirected and arbitrary will in himself.  Rather, he thinks that God has a nature (holiness and love) which he acts out of, similar to Realism.  There is no Occamist radical simplicity wherein the divine nature and will are simply collapsed into one another.  Rather, God's nature is something real and determinative of his will.  The problem is that we can't see what that nature is or how it reconciles the duality of God's temporal activity of law and gospel.  That nature will only be truly revealed in light of glory.  

Regarding paradox, ever since I read Brian Gerrish piece on the hiddenness of God in Luther, I've rethought a lot about the paradoxical nature of the disclosure of God in hiddenness.  Gerrish pointed out what always bothered me, namely, that Luther says that God is hidden everywhere, but then he's also hidden in revelation.  So this provokes the question: when does revelation ever happen?  What I've come to argue (and I use this in my Christology book), is that the paradox can be understood in terms of auditory vs. visual revelation.  The earlier tradition considered all revelation and knowledge in general a form of vision.  Aristotle of course understands our apprehension of any object as a form of intellectual vision that imprints itself on us.  Hence all theology is analogical reflection on God.  Luther by contrast understands the event of revelation as one where God is present, hidden, yet makes himself known in an auditory fashion.  This makes a lot of sense if you read the Bible.  I actually have a part of my book where I go through the Gospel narrative and show how every step of the way the dissonance between vision and hearing gets greater and greater.  On the cross, we of course hear that Jesus is the Son of God (from Pilate's sign and the Centurion's confession), but we see quite the opposite.  This concept of revelation I think sets Luther apart from Realism.  It is closer to Nominalism with its emphasis on divine self-commitment and communication as the basis of the divine-human relationship.  Nevertheless, the paradox and the sacramentality of the divine presence in the Word is in many ways totally unprecedented according to my reading of the earlier tradition (which is obviously incomplete!)."    

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