Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ontology and the Whole: Some Thoughts on Comprehensive Explanations of Being

Recently I've been reading this book on Lutheranism and philosophy:

It's something of a mixed bag. The Hinlicky and Bayer essays are quite good- an essay with the charming title of "Queering Kenosis" is probably the worst piece of theology that I've ever read. Seriously. Ever.

Anyways, I particularly found the Bayer essay helpful in that he reads Luther in a fairly historically reasonable way and makes some good proposals for how to deal with different theological and philosophical topics. Bayer reads Luther's ontological thinking primarily as reflecting Aristotle as interpreted by Ockham. This is hard to argue with. He also makes the point that all the talk of "relational ontology" that ones finds in contemporary Lutheran theology (coming from Joest and Ebeling) is not helpful as a comprehensive explanation of Luther's views. Luther does talk in the manner of substance ontology and in the categories of relation. Luther does not possess a comprehensive explanation of being, but thinks in categories that fit contextually what he finds in revelation. Some categories of ontology work for the realities we find in revelation, some don't. Others work contextually, but not in other contexts.

I have noted in the past that I find a similar eclecticism in both Melanchthon and Gerhard. Melanchthon likes the revised Humanistic Aristotle and Cicero. Gerhard pulls bits and pieces from all sorts of scholastic thinkers: The hidden God from Luther, the fives proofs of God's existence from Aquinas, and the distinction of the Ectypical and Archetypal theology from Francis Junius (who adapted it from Scotus' theologia nostra and theologia in se!).

This comes from a larger theme in Bayer's work: namely that systematic explanations of being usually fail and are in fact, part and parcel of the theology of glory. The theology of glory wishes to be God, and there always seeks to know the whole. This is not our privilege as God's creatures, at least not in this life. For example, in thinking through the question of the analogy of being vs. the univocity of being, it has occurred to me that there are aspects of both ways of thinking about God that make sense of what we know in light of revelation. God is of course incomprehensible and as Paul says we see him in a glass darkly, partially knowing and not knowing. We see the glory of God reflected in nature and its perfections (Romans 1, Psalm 19). In these regards, the analogy of being and analogical discourse regarding God is valid. On the other hand, God is one and God is three- not in a analogical sense, but in a univocal and quite literal sense. God's actions in creation are also quite literally what Scripture reports them to be. God really does punish and redeem people in a literal and univocal sense of the term. God's actions are God, and so we must say that God in some sense can be spoken of univocally. For this reason, elements of the univocity of being have validity as well. Either as a comprehensive way of relating God and creation pretty much falls on its face.

With a rejection of comprehensive explanations of being, come the recognition (also following Bayer) that different explanations of being are valid contextually within certain spheres of reality. For example, as I have argued in the past, creation is itself inherently narrative and so we find our reality when we find place within the narrative of creation and redemption. God himself is not a story though- he is the narrator who defines the story by speaking it forth. Though God may incorporate (or perhaps to use a Christological analogy "enhypostasizes") particular identities assumed in this narrative into his fullness of being, such roles do not change him. Neither is creation an arena for God's own self-actualization. God is already pure actuality.

This is why a theology such as that of Robert Jenson, which seeks to comprehend God and creation under a single ontology of narrative has all the same problems that the classical scholastic debates on the analogy vs. the univocity of being had. Not only does Jenson turn God into a pathetic deity who needs creation and in fact somehow gains possibilities for self-actualization from creation, but he sets up a new theology of glory by claiming to know the whole.


  1. This is helpful, though I must say that I have found the problems inherent in analogical discourse to be less disastrous than that of a pure (un-augmented or unaccompanied) univocity. Three cheers for pointing out the terrible Hegelian necessities that accompany Jenson's Trinitarian theology. Can't we finally just get away from Hegel at least?

    1. As long as there is a Germany we will have to put up with Hegelians. Moltman and Pannenberg suffer from the same fault as Jensen.

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments on ontology. Have been reading various trinitarian ontologies by Barth, Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson. Your post was very timely as a caution for me. Excellent.

    Just wish to ask if those Hegelian ontologies have any value then? Or are they plainly misleading and unhelpful? Thanks again.

  3. Martin- To answer your question, I find nothing useful in Hegel or these Hegalian ontologies. I would point you to the scholarship of Cyril O' Regan. Hegel's ontology is essentially Gnostic. It presupposes that God is alienated from himself in order to find himself- much like the divine children of the heavenly father fall into the real of the archons and then attempt to return through the mediation of the savior's gnosis.

    The direction that Jenson and the rest take things is that salvation history becomes a ego-trip for God. It's a means for his self-development. As David Bentley Hart points out, this ultimately means that the grace of creation and redemption is no longer grace. God needs to create and redeem for essentially selfish reasons. He cannot work these realities for essentially disinterested reasons. Also, these ontologies denigrates the glory of God and his role as the source of the good, by stating that creation contains possibilites for God not already actualized in himself. If God is the source of creation, he cannot gain anything from which he does not already have within himself.

  4. Dr Kilcrease, appreciate your kind advice. This is truly mind blowing stuff.

  5. Dr Kilcrease,
    I'm just beginning to propose my Masters dissertation topic and I wanted to have a look at Luther's ontology. Could you recommend a narrow thread that you think might be useful to tap into this area?