Thursday, December 29, 2011

Odd Trends in Contemporary Reformed Trinitarian Theology.

As is well known, the Reformed reject the Lutheran doctrine of the communication of attributes within the hypostatic union.  The Lutheran position is very hard to deny because 1.) it rests on such incredibly clear biblical passages (not least the narrative of Jesus' resurrected life in the NT)  2.) Ecumenically, it has wide patristic support and is simply an further explication of the teaching of the enhypostasis-anhypostasis Christology of the fifth ecumenical council (something that Reformed have historically agreed with!).  

Regarding this last point, Gerhard points out that since the human nature is anhypostasis, it can only be spoken of as the human nature of the Logos- even in the abstract.  Hence, the divine glory is communicated to it hypostatically in that it participates in person of the Logos and therefore also his the eternal reception of himself from the Father.  In that the Logos receives within his hypostasis the fullness of the glory of the divine ousia, so the human nature which subsists within the person of the Son also receives it through its unity with the divine person of the Son.  Hence, this communication of glory is, as Gerhard notes, "hypostatic" rather than substantial (which would be Docetic) or accidental (which would be Nestorian).

The logic of this position is undeniable if you buy into the catholic-ecumenical theology of the first six ecumenical councils.  Calvin, wishing to get around the idea of hypostatic reception of the divine glory while at the same time maintaining the doctrine of the ancient Church developed an unusual Trinitarian theology.  Interestingly enough in his recent systematic theology, Michael Horton endorses Calvin's rather strange position. 

Calvin makes the argument that the divine nature is incapable of self-communication.  Well (you will ask), how can that be?  Obvious the Father (the font of divinity) communicates himself in the Son and the Son and the Father do so in the procession of the Spirit.  Calvin responses by saying that communication in the form of begetting and procession are a function of the person and not the divine nature.  The divine nature is what all three persons share in common.  You can see where this goes!  For this reason, the later Reformed orthodox could claim that the even though the human nature participated in the hypostasis of the Son, he did not receive the divine glory of God's ousia.  This is because the divine person became incarnate and not the divine nature.  If the divine nature became incarnate, they claimed, then all three person would be incarnate.

Let's examine what's wrong with this.  Most fundamentally it seems to strangely make the divine nature a fourth thing along side the persons.  Actually, in terms of classical Trinitarian theology, Thomas Aquinas' description of the relationship between the divine persons and the ousia is probably the best.  The divine persons are "subsisting relations."  In other words, what makes a person a person within the Godhead is his relationship of begetting and procession to the others.  The person "subsist" in these relations.  Moreover, since the Father is the font of divinity, the divine nature is not something abstract alongside the persons, but possesses its reality in and through the subsisting relationships.  In other words, there is no separating the divine persons and nature the way Calvin wishes to.  The divine nature only possesses its actuality through the concrete subsisting relations of the Trinitarian persons.  Hence, participation in second person of the Trinity is necessarily participation in the divine nature which is exists in its fullness in the Son as he possesses his reality through his relationship to the Father and Spirit.

Now it gets weird.  A small minority modern Reformed Trinitarian thinkers have taken Calvin's odd Trinitarian theology to a next level.  These folks would be: Charles Hodge, Robert Reymond, and Loraine Boettner.  According to these theologians, there are no relationships of procession or begetting in the Trinity.  Reymond in particular makes the rather bizarre claim that "Father" and "Son" language simply refer to unity of substance (what about the Spirit then?).  All claim that "begetting" and "procession" language refers to temporal activity and not eternal relationships.  Begetting would then be the act of Incarnation, whereas procession would be the sending of the Holy Spirit.  Boettner claims that apply such language to the eternal reality of God confuses the immanent with the economic Trinity.  Of course, without collapsing the immanent and economic Trinity into one another (as modern theologians after Hegel have tended to do), one may legitimately ask doesn't God's temporal activity reflect his eternal being?  If not, then why not?  Is he different in himself than he is in his Word and work?

How then are we to conceive the unity of the Trinity apart from subsisting relations?  All of these thinkers seem to think of the Trinity as three persons somehow fused together into a single entity without any relations to subsist in.  True to the Reformed fixation on the concept of covenant, Reymond talks of a "covenantal" relationship between the persons (this has lead to charges of Tri-theism from other Reformed theologians).  This is an especially odd way of thinking insofar as it also calls into question the simplicity of the divine nature.  In other words, because of divine aseity, God isn't made of up other stuff compounded together to make God-God (unlike creatures!).  If God is "made up" of three persons existing alongside one another in some sort of undefined ontological unity (rather than subsisting through self-communicating fecundity of the single divine nature itself) then God would in a sense seem to be compounded rather than simple.

Although most contemporary Reformed theologians have rejected these views, it is not hard to see how Calvin's odd Trinitarian theology led to these conclusions.  Unless we view the divine nature as existing in and through the persons and there subsisting relations to one another, it is hard to conceptualize the unity of the divine substance or the logic of the distinctions of the persons.  Moreover, if one accepts the classical Trinitarian theology in this description of the divine being, it is difficult to see how one could reject the Lutheran understanding of the hypostatic union and the communication of glory.


  1. What if we don't assume that the Divine nature is absolutely simple? Aren't there other options than the Lutheran one then?

  2. I suppose, but then you would also reject monotheism and you wouldn't be Christian.

    The concept of divine simplicity has been profoundly misunderstood. I think that Richard Muller has a very good discussion of it in the third volume of the "Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics." Basically all divine simplicity means is that God is identical with his own essence. Hence he's not made up of qualities, he is identical with them. If he's the ultimate reality and the only God, that's what you've ultimately got to say this.

    Therefore, divine simplicity is natural result of divine aseity. In fact, understood this way, I have no idea how a person could be a monotheist and reject divine simplicity. Perhaps if you misunderstood the concept you could. The title and content of Paul Hinlicky's most recent work suggest that there are many very bright theologians who do misunderstand the concept.

  3. The entire Eastern Orthodox tradition denies that God is identical with his essence. And though they believe God is simple--that is, that He is without parts--they consistently assert the Divine Essence is not identical with the Divine Energies.

  4. First, not all traditions, (namely the Greek one), that hold to the essence/energies distinction. Russian orthodoxy, for example, doesn't buy into it. Secondly, they don't exactly reject God's identity with his essence. Rather they assert that the divine essence "gives off" energies which somehow are God but aren't identical with God's inner reality. The analogy I've heard used is that as a human being, you can see my manifestations and works, but you can't see my essence as human.

    The analogy and the idea are problematic for several reasons. First, idea that God "gives off" something that is somehow less than God's essence which serves as a half-way house between him and the world has the Middle Platonic search for a mediating principle written all over it. Secondly, the analogy of the distinction between my manifestation as a human being and my essence doesn't work for God insofar as God's existence and essence must be identical as Aquinas notes. Why? Because there is only one God- when you encounter him, then you are encountering divinity in itself. Humans are can differ from their essence because individual humans are not "humanity."

  5. Jack,

    This is the first time I have heard that the Russian Orthodox tradition does not hold to the essence and energies distinction. Having said this, traditional Eastern Orthodoxy as epitomised by Maximus the Confessor and even John of Damascus do deny the identity between Person and Essence. In other words, they hold that the "attributes" are actually real metaphysical properties which are belong to Persons. The properties when exercised or actualised or potentiated by the Persons are indeed grounded in the essence but never *directly*. They are indirectly "inferred" based on the encounter with the divine energies. Basically, it's a way of doing the theology in exactly the same way as the Law-Gospel distinction - ordo theologiae ... starting with Persons first as the concrete "Beings" and the acts or operations as the manifestation of the properties and then finally to the essence. In other words, the oneness of God is secured with, in and through the Father and not an impersonal essence or Godhead. Yes, the Cappadocian "definition" of the Trinity is opposite of Thomas Aquinas indeed Persons are distinguished by *three* origins rather than *two* "opposing" relations (namely Father<-->Son and Father-Son<--> Holy Spirit as epitomised by the filioque).


  6. The incomprehensibility or unknowability of God for the eastern tradition means precisely that the essence is beyond being - hyperousios ousia ... the distinction between Persons and Essence is not nominal or conceptual but real and metaphysical ... in other words, the Essence is never considered apart from the Persons (ordo theologiae). Thus the concept of simplicity is not a positive definition (a philosophical one) but to affirm the lack of partition, meaning that each Person *and* every energy is Deity wholly and entirely.

  7. Jason- I would direct you to Lewis Ayres studies of both the Greek Fathers and Augustine. Having read through the Father myself, I tend to agree with Ayres that looking for a "starting point" is not entirely helpful. For example, it is frequently asserted that the Eastern Father start with the person and then move to the essence, whereas Augustine and Aquinas do the opposite. I find it hard to make that assertion in light of the fact that this assertion does not actually represent their argumentation style. Moreover, if one examines the early books De Trinitate and compares it with the Orations of Nazianzius (for example) Augustine's analogy for the Trinity is the unity between two agents (the Father and the Son)in enthralled by love (the Spirit). This means that Augustine actually does place the individuality of the persons a the forefront. The psychological analogy is in the later books and Augustine is abundantly clear that it is merely an analogy insofar as God is not a single subject. Beyond that, in the Orations, Gregory uses the analogy between Peter, Paul, and John sharing "humanity" the the three person sharing "divinity." This sounds to a lot of modern theologians like an emphasis on the individuality of the person- but they would be wrong. Gregory and the rest of them acceptable an ultra-realist ontology. All human beings were considered to be a single entity. Every time that a new human being is born a new accident (in Aristotle's sense) is added the the single human substance. Hence, the idea that the Eastern Father's emphasized the individuality of the persons more than western theologians is a misunderstamding based on reading them through modern Nominalist categories. The chief person behind this would be Adolf von Harnack.

    Regarding the Essence/Energies distinction, I'm not certain that I read them as suggesting that the energies somehow "actualize" themselves. That sounds rather Hegelian and not very much in keeping with Patristic metaphysics. Certainly I think that they would say that God is dynamic in that he gives off the energies of his essence in his work. The whole difficulty for me is how God's essence and existence cannot be different. It strikes me as just common sense if you accept the Christian doctrine of creation. Moreover, talk of God "actualizing" aspect of his being would seem to me to be very odd indeed. It would suggest that God possesses unactualized potencies, which makes no sense in that as infinite he is pure actuality (to borrow from Aquinas again).

  8. Jack,

    A couple of things: First, there is, properly, no human substance. Substances--at least the sort that can have accidents--are individuals.

    "Substance, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man or horse. But in a secondary sense those things are called substances within which, as species, the primary substances are included; also those which, as genera, include the species. For instance, the individual man is included in the species 'man', and the genus to which the species belongs is 'animal'; these, therefore-that is to say, the species 'man' and the genus 'animal,-are termed secondary substances.
    ~Aristotle, Categories.

    The nine accidents exist in first substances--that is, in individuals.

    Second, though that section of the letter to Ablabius could be read as giving preference to the essence, it should be remembered that elsewhere in the letter he suggests that perhaps "One God" should mean that all three Persons have the same activity--an account which is distinctly centered on the Persons.

    Next, I am not qualified to speak to whether St. Augustine lines up with the Cappodocians, but that does seem to be the consensus. But if both agree and make Persons primary, we are in error when we make the essence primary.

    I'm not sure that "actualizing themselves" is accurate: actualized by the Persons would be better.

    Finally, I'm not sure what to make of your claim "It would suggest that God possesses unactualized potencies, which makes no sense in that as infinite he is pure actuality (to borrow from Aquinas again)." For the Palamite it doesn't quite make sense to say that the essence is infinite or pure act, because it is beyond all affirmation and negation. But Palamas does clearly say:

    The wise Maximus thus rightly says that "existence, life, holiness and virtue are works of God that do not have a beginning in time"; and he adds (so that no one should think these things relate to this age, albeit in a nontemporal sense), "There was never a time when virtue, goodness, holiness and immortality did not exist."
    ~Gregory Palamas Triads p. 95 (Classics of Western Spirituality series).

    And later "We for our part know that while all the energies of God are uncreated, not all are without beginning." p. 96

  9. Matthew-

    "A couple of things: First, there is, properly, no human substance. Substances--at least the sort that can have accidents--are individuals."

    Well, yes, that's sort of the point.

    "Gregory and the rest of them acceptable an ultra-realist ontology. All human beings were considered to be a single entity. Every time that a new human being is born a new accident (in Aristotle's sense) is added the the single human substance. "

    In other words, all humans are a single substance, since all are a single individual. Not only the Cappadocian bought into this, but so did the Damascene. In book IV of The Orthodox Faith, John insists that in some sense all humans are already redeemed insofar as they are substantially united with Christ at the right hand of God. He does not work out the implications of this in the form of universalism insofar as he would be in violation of the fifth ecumenical council rejection of Origen.

    "Next, I am not qualified to speak to whether St. Augustine lines up with the Cappodocians, but that does seem to be the consensus. But if both agree and make Persons primary, we are in error when we make the essence primary."

    What I mean here is that there is an old stereotype that Augustine emphasizes the unity of the divine substance to the detriment of the the persons, whereas the Cappadocians emphasize the individuality of the persons. What I'm simply saying is that both are in basic agreement and therefore the stereotypes are unwarranted. Both emphasize the importances of the persons as individuals. In fact, one could make the argument that Augustine does more so.

    "For the Palamite it doesn't quite make sense to say that the essence is infinite or pure act, because it is beyond all affirmation and negation."

    Which is silly nonsense, since Scripture does affirm that God is infinite (among other things). "Heaven and earth are full of your glory" "Heaven and earth cannot contain thee." Certainly the Bible negates things as not being God, but it also positively affirms things about God. To assert otherwise is to go off the biblical rails.

    All of this via negativa is a lot of Middle/Neo-Platonic clap-trap. Nothing is gained theologically by it. The end result of all this is that you have to invent a half-way thing that's sort of God and sort of not God. Plato had one in the Demiurge, the Middle Platonists came up with a couple of different ones (the Logos sometimes), and Arius had his ideas as well. The Fathers of Nicea said that there was no mediating principle and allowed the paradox of the infinite God coming to the finite world to stand. Hence the Bible and the Western tradition stand firmly along with this- especially the Lutheran assertion that the finite can contain the infinite.

  10. Let me be a little more clear about Aristotle. You have him fundamentally wrong. Species are not substances. Matthew N. Petersen is a substance, humanity is not. The species is not an individual. Accidents do not exist in species, but in individuals. Matthew N. Petersen has the accident of being white. Humanity does not have that property. I believe you mean to say there are different instances of the species. But that is an entirely different proposition.

    St. John does not mean that all will be among the blessed, but, that Hell is the torturous presence of Christ for those who hate him. St. Paul says something very similar to this because he asserts that resurrection came by Christ, but that means the resurrection of the damned comes from the one resurrection of Christ. That is to say, all men, including the damned are saved in Christ.

    I'm not sure what to make of your point regarding God's infinity. The Orthodox affirm God is infinite, and affirm many things of God. They say that in His essence he is beyond affirmation and negation, but nevertheless God can be known actually and truly in positive theology. Surely the Orthodox do not claim that heaven and earth are not full of God's glory--that's the point of the distinction between God's essence, and his eternal uncreated glory, the uncreated energies.

    You seem to have missed that Palamas quotes Maximos using the language from the Arian controversy regarding the energies. "There was not a time when they were not."

    Moreover, there is no intermediary between the Divine Person the Logos and man. That objection is simply aside the point. Our union is not, and no one has ever claimed it is, with the Divine Essence, it is with the Divine Person.

  11. Jack,

    You cited from St Basil that the essence is unknowable. How do you interpret that statement??

  12. Have you seen this article?
    You may find it interesting. It is unfortunate that many of the Reformed reject historic orthodox trinitarian theology when it comes to generation and procession. But then, they have never confessed "one baptism for the remission of sins" either so I suppose it shouldn't be that surprising. Reymond's approach is (at least) borderline heretical in my opinion.