Saturday, November 10, 2012

Michael Horton's Theological-Ontological Mess

Michael Horton (a Reformed theologian and frequent guest on Issues, etc.) has written a systematic theology a while back that received a lot of attention. I read it about a year ago and had some initial technical problems with it (for one thing, it was one of the worst edited books I've ever read. The first footnotes in one chapter read "Ibid."). Through my research into the history of Western and Eastern Christian theology, I've come to appreciate how Horton's basic way of construing human knowledge of God is a complete mess. What he attempts to do is combine Western scholastic approach to the knowledge of God with an Eastern distinction between "essence" and "energies." These are completely contradictory approaches to ontology and the knowledge of God. Below, I will flesh out some of my criticisms.

Going back to the fourth century, Greek and Latin Christian theologians developed fundamentally different ways of understanding how human beings were capable of knowing the divine. In the West, this culminated in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (the structure of which, if not the content, the Reformers and the Protestant scholastics followed) and with Gregory Palamas in the East.
In defending the Nicene Creed against Neo-Arianism, the Cappadocian Fathers were very keen on emphasizing the unknowability of the divine essence. For example, Eunomius (one the leaders of the Neo-Arians) defended his position on the grounds of Aristotelian logic chopping. Gregory of Nyssa emphasized that one couldn't treat the divine essence like this. It was mysterious and essentially unknowable. In his Life of Moses, Gregory described the Christian life metaphorically as being like the ascension of Moses up Mt. Sinai. One enters farther and farther into the darkness of the mountain of God, without ever reaching a knowledge of the divine being in itself. Of course, this certainly served the polemical situation, but the fact of the matter is that it simply created another problem: how do we know anything about God if he is incomprehensible?

Augustine did much better. Not only was he able to explain the human knowledge of God, but he was also able to explain the ontological relationship between God in his creatures. In his On the Trinity, Augustine explains that God is absolutely simple in his essence. By simple, Augustine does not mean that there are no distinction within the divine being. God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. God has a variety of divine attributes: his love is not his holiness, his power is not his wisdom. Nevertheless, the divine being is not compounded. There is no pre-existent love, holiness, and wisdom which come together and make up the divine being. Hence, God is not good, he is goodness. He is not wise, he is wisdom.

This has epistemological implications: Since God is these things properly and creatures are these things in a derivative manner by similitude to God, God is conceptually knowable by analogy. In other words, through in nature (reason) and revelation, human beings are given a copy of the divine attributes. For example, human wisdom is like divine wisdom, even if divine wisdom is infinitely greater. Likewise, things that we experience as good are good in a similar way in way to the manner in which God is good. God is therefore knowable because of his likeness to that which he has created. Creation can give us a preliminary knowledge of this and revelation through its language about God can fill in the holes. Ultimately, Thomas Aquinas would clearly explicate this approach to God in the Summa. There is an analogy of being between God and his creatures. Hence, humans can know things up to a certain point through revelation (God's existence, the law, etc.) and then more things through revelation (Trinity, original sin, etc.). As we can see, the structure that Augustine set up made scholasticism (which is marked by the coordination of reason and revelation) possible. Luther, Calvin, and everyone else in the West also worked from these assumptions, which ultimately began with Augustine.

Meanwhile, in the East things continued along the line that the Cappadocians had taken. In the High Middle Ages, Gregory Palamas entered into a debate with Barlaam, a convert to EO who had been trained in Western scholastic theology. Barlaam essentially argued a Augustinian-Aristotelian position that the knowledge of God came from propositional truth, mediated to the human intellect through created similitude between the divine essence and the image imprinted on the intellect. Not only did Palamas have to deal with Barlaam, but he was also dealing with a number of monastic communities which claimed to have had a vision of the divine essence in various mystical experiences. They claimed to have seen a divine light, not unlike that of Moses on Sinai.

Palamas didn't want to make a similar claim to that of Barlaam, because he believed that that approach would make reason and not faith a way of knowing God. Moreover, he wanted to validate the claim that those monks who said that they had had a mystical experience of God, without at the same time objectifying the divine essence as something human beings could comprehend. His solution was to say that human beings could directly experience God, in fact, even see God. Nevertheless, they could not see God's essence. God's essence was utterly unknowable. Instead, they could know God's energies. God's energies were in some sense God's being in the same way that foam coming off an ocean is part of the ocean. Nevertheless, when looking at an ocean, one can only see the foam and suffice of the ocean- not the ocean itself! In the same manner, Moses on Sinai and the Apostles on Tabor saw a divine light, (i.e., the divine energies), while they did not see the divine essence itself. Note that when dealing with these same scriptural passages, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all agree that the light seen by Moses and the Apostles was simply a visionary, created light, and not the divine being itself- which of course cannot been seen!

Ultimately, Palamas' approach is both problematic for theology and conceptually incoherent. He makes odd statements. For example, he claims that the divine essence and energies are infinitely different from one another. Then he will say that the whole infinity of the divine essence is present in every human encounter with the divine energies. Neither does it help Christology much: God's essence wasn't incarnate in Christ, only the energies. Taken in a certain way, this calls into question the reality of the Incarnation, though he certainly didn't intend this. Lastly, this approach to the knowledge of God explains why Palamas pretty much represents the end of Eastern theology. Beyond its being hamstrung by its inability to acknowledge the doctrine of original sin or have any kind of critical distance from the secular state (that is, prior to 1917!), when you put all your epistemological eggs in the basket of mystical experience, it tends to destroy your ability talk about theology in a realist-propositional manner, beyond of course, the stuff that was already established in the first seven ecumenical councils.

Returning to Mike Horton, we can observe why his position is so incredibly problematic. As a child of Augustinianism and Protestant scholasticism, Horton is very big on the analogy of being and the Protestant scholastic distinction (stemming from Francis Junnius) of the Archetypal and Ectypal theology. Nevertheless, he also wants to assert the energy-essence distinction. Not only does the latter distinction deny all analogy (if the divine essence is unknowable, there can be no analogy for it!!!), it is simply a completely different and contradictory approach to the knowledge of God. In Western theology, analogy is intended to do what the divine energies are intended to do in the East. If you have one, you don't need the other. Hence, his approach confuses the ontological relationship of God and creatures, and results in epistemological claims that are ultimately contradictory.