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.


  1. I think you're misrepresenting Palamas. Indeed, your christological criticism is nearly incomprehensible to me.

    You say "God's essence wasn't incarnate in Christ, only the energies." But no one claims God's essence was incarnate, and it's heresy to claim it is. The Second Person was, and is Incarnate, but the essence is not. Thus Chalcedon, "The distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence."

    I'm also confused--you seem to think the Easterners remove us farther from God. But surely the opposite is true--as you admit, the Easterners claim Moses actually saw God, the westerners, that Moses only saw a created light.

    Your claim that "Then he will say that the whole infinity of the divine essence..." is likewise incomprehensible. The Divine Essence is not, for Palamas, rather, infinity is a Divine Energy, as is simplicity. So all of God is present in each of the energies, not just part, but it is not the essence which is present, but the energy.

  2. The divine essence was incarnate in Christ, because the second person of the Trinity, who possesses the fullness of the divine essence within himself, was incarnate. Your argument sounds like Calvin's rather bizarre separation of the divine essence and persons, revived among many contemporary Calvinists. The divine essence is present in its fullness in each of the persons of the Trinity. The divine essence exists in and through the Trinitarian relationships.

    About the rest of the stuff, my basic point is that Palamas' position is incoherent. Like I said, he does and he doesn't separate God from creatures. He does, in the sense that he makes the divine essence completely unknowable (hence no beatific vision, ever), yet he also makes it uber knowable in the energies.

    And yes, the fullness of the divine being indeed present in all the energies, that's what I said.

  3. Matt, in the future I would encourage you to study what the Patristic theologian actually say before criticizing me. You should note that Calvin was not at the fourth ecumenical council.

  4. What? Not even Jenson claims that the Divine Essence was Incarnate. And in Chemnitz I'm only finding As many, including Damascene, say, the Person is compound, with both a human nature, and a Divine Nature. It is not that the Divine Nature becomes human, but that the Divine Person receives a human nature, and so becomes composite.

    "Further, by the word "Christ" we understand the name of the subsistence, not in the sense of one kind, but as signifying the existence of two natures. For in His own person He anointed Himself; as God anointing His body with His own divinity, and as Man being anointed. For He is Himself both God and Man. And the anointing is the divinity of His humanity. For if Christ, being of one compound nature, is of like essence to the Father, then the Father also must be compound and of like essence with the flesh, which is absurd and extremely blasphemous."

    Your formulation of the Incarnation in this last comment is also not an ancient one, and though perhaps defensible, it will not do to make it the standard of orthodoxy, for that is simply to beg the question in favor of your own position. Sure the orthodox disagree with you. So?

    Perhaps you mean that there is a true and actual interpenetration of the humanity and the Divinity? That "Now not only as God, but also as man He knows all things, can do all things, is present with all creatures, and has under His feet and in His hands everything that is in heaven and on earth and under the earth." (Epitome of the Formula of Concord, VIII) But there's nothing in that statement a Palamite would disagree with. He disagrees in that he claims those refer to energetic properties of God, not to essential properties. And so, again, it's begging the question to accuse the Orthodox of making a jumble of Christology.

    Regarding your accusations of incoherence: Whatever your basic point may have been, you very clearly used incorrect terminology. For Palamas, it is incorrect to claim the Divine Essence is infinite, for it is beyond all affirmation and negation.

    As a result, it seems likely that your inability to make sense of Palamas shows more about your understanding than about Palamas. It is highly unlikely that Palamas can be reduced to incoherence in one, poorly worded paragraph. It is, however, very likely that you, and I, do not fully understand him.

    This confusion about Palamas is shown more fully in the last paragraph. You did not say that the the fullness of the divine being is present in all the energies, and indeed, I did not say that either. I said "all of God is present in each of the energies, not just part [of God]" whether that is equivalent to "the fullness of the divine being indeed present in all the energies" is not clear to me. It is definitely not equivalent to "the whole infinity of the divine essence is present in every human encounter with the divine energies."

  5. Ug. Sorry about that first paragraph. I'm not finding anything like that in Chemnitz. I'm only finding that the Person is Incarnate, not that the Essence is. Perhaps you are referring to the question I address later of the exhalation of the human nature, which Chemnitz, and Palamas both affirm, though differently. (And the ancient authorities do not obviously judge between them.)

  6. The essence is in the person. Divine persons contain the divine essence. So if a person is incarnate, then the divine essence is incarnate. You are confusing Calvinist Trinitarian theology with the with the position of the first 7 councils.

  7. Basically your argument largely depends on using the term "essence" in a way that it was only really used by the Moderni. According to them, the divine essence is what all three persons of the Trinity are together- which is probably where Calvin gets the idea (though not consciously- he knew very little scholastic theology). I think what your trying to accuse me of is saying that the all the persons together as a single subsisting entity were incarnate. You know very well that's not what I'm saying. Rather, Christ as the second person of the Trinity possesses the fullness of the divine nature within himself. The divine nature subsists in and through the persons of the Trinity, so there's no saying a person could be Incarnate without saying that the divine essence (which is fully present in each person) was incarnate in Christ. So, stop playing word games and willfully misunderstanding me. If you do have a real point, I would encourage you to post it.

  8. I went back and read it again. You think that I'm a monophysite? Well, that's obviously not true.

    The Palamite formulation of the energies incarnate, but not the essence, distances God from the Incarnation, though again, maybe not. Since the fullness of the divine being is present in the energies, maybe it doesn't? Or maybe it does because the energies are infinitely distant from the divine essence. It's all really confusing.

    The point is that the idea is mystical and incoherent. The only point that I was making was that it makes for mystical theology and not terribly coherent theology.

    Again, before you respond read what I write carefully and try to figure out in what sense it was meant. Willful misunderstanding are not appreciated.

  9. I'm not sure you're being fair to Horton. It's not clear that he has holistically adopted an Eastern framework of essence-energies without critically do so in relation to his Reformed-scholastic theology. In other words, you seem to be saying that he's meshed the two theologies without any revision. I doubt he would agree with that. - Jordan

  10. Jack,

    Matthew is simply reiterating orthodox Christianity. The Incarnation as hypostatic union is personal union, not union between two natures. Otherwise, the Father becomes Incarnate also. Hence, Patripassianism and Modalism/ Sabelianism.

  11. I believe you're using the expression "The essence was incarnate in Christ" to mean what I would use language of the communicatio idiomatum to describe--that, for instance, the flesh is actually life-giving. If I could hazard a guess, you're attempting to get around Calvinistic understandings of the communicatio that claim, at best, only the first genus of the communicatio, if that, and claim that the communicatio is merely verbal. (This bad doctrine is seen, for instance, in Vermigli's dialogue where, in response to Brenz, he says that the Word did not die on the Cross.) In that respect, you're doing something admirable, and rightly resisting a very bad doctrine. We really should push back against that Calvinistic understanding.

    But we have to remember that it is the language of the real communicatio, and not a particular gloss of that that is Patristic. The Fathers do not adjudicate between an Energetic and an Essentialist understanding of the Divine Idiomata. On the Western model, the Divine Idiomata are Essential, but on the Eastern, they are Energetic.

    For this reason, your criticism of Palamas seems either to simply restate that he makes a distinction between the Essence, and the Energies (though it is placed in the context of the Idiomata, and not the context of distinction itself); or else circularly, presupposes the Energetic understanding of the Idiomata is false, and the Essential understanding true, and then uses that assumption to criticize the Energetic understanding. But neither of these will do.

  12. You're right Matthew. Yeah, ... I think that's what Jack (probably) had in mind.

  13. Jordan, Have you read his systematic theology? I didn't detect any attempt to revise the Palamite framework. He just seems to plop it down with the Latin scholastic framework. In fact, he often gives the impression that he's using ideas that he doesn't fully understand simply because he finds them attractive.

    I'm open on this point to revise my assessment. Perhaps he hold together more coherently and meshing them better than I think he does. So, where would you point to that he does this?

  14. Matthew, When I said that the divine essence was in Incarnate, it had nothing to do with the communication attributes. I was simply affirming that the second person of the Trinity was incarnate, who shares in the divine nature. My criticism of the Palamite framework merely regarded the ambiguity of whether God was really, really incarnate in Christ, who some sort of oddly defined mediating principle of "energies." Again, it's not that I'm asserting that Palamas rejected the Incarnation or even the communication of attributes. I'm saying that this language drives us in problematic directions.

  15. Thanks for your thought provoking response.

    The issue is that any Palamite would vigorously deny that the energies were incarnated. The Person was incarnated, and the Person is not the back of God. Indeed, it is because the Person is so much more than the energies that Mary is described as "More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim." The whole angelic host participates in the Uncreated Energies. But Mary bore God Himself. For the Easterners, the locus of the Incarnation is not in any way either the Energies, nor even the Essence, but the Person, God the Word. They explain the communicatio through the Energies, but that's in a very real sense, secondary to the fact of the Incarnation. God the Word was Incarnate as Christ, neither the Energies, nor the Essence was.

    For that reason, it seems to me that the tension you're noticing is not so much an internal tension, but a tension with Western (and especially Lutheran) theology. You say: "The second person of the Trinity was incarnate, who shares in the divine nature." Though a Palamite strongly agrees with the first clause, he only agrees with the second clause in a very qualified sense. (And this point is very important, so I reiterate it.) The Palamite would not say that the Persons are instances of the Ousia, or any of the other related things we say in the west.

    For this reason, for the Palamite, God is actually Incarnate, and God was born of Mary. But "God" in that last sentence does not refer to the Divine Ousia, but to the Second Hypostasis. God the Son ate fish after He resurrected. God the Son lay dead in the tomb for three days. God the Son hung on the Cross.

    But since they do not hold to the same relation between the Nature and the Person we do, many of the questions (and resolutions) that come up in the West simply do not come up in the East. The whole disagreement between Zwingli and Brenz--with Zwingli saying that the Logos did not suffer, and Brenz seeming to say, at least to Zwingli, that the Divine Nature suffered--simply doesn't make sense in the Eastern context. God suffered, full stop. And the One who suffered is Infinitely many Infinities beyond the energies which are upon him. (As Maximos says.)

  16. Since Aquinus makes use of Pseudo-Dionysius he incorporates the Eastern apophatic emphasis. How does he ballance these diverse approaches?

  17. It's been a while, but a couple of years ago I started to translate Aquinas' commentary on Dionysius, here:

    That may get you started with an answer.

  18. Two points.

    First, Horton employs some of the language of the Orthodox traidological model for a few reasons. First, because he is falling into the current “theosis envy” in academia. It is a way to make your work look “sexy” to have something Orthodox in it. As one priest said to me, Orthodoxy is the new black.
    Horton does this also because he sees (or rather hears about) criticisms of Rome in the works of people like Vladimir Lossky that he would like to piggy back his Reformation objections onto. The problem is that Lossky’s objection that Rome introduces a created entity between God and the Christian in salvation via the teaching of created grace isn’t really a criticism that Reformation traditions can avail themselves of for the simple reason that a relation of law is also a created entity. Metaphysically thinning out the created intermediary via nominalism doesn’t make it any less a created intermediary. Horton’s pot meets kettle. Add to this is Horton’s seemingly lack of grasp of speech act theory. The divine energies are not words or an expression of law.
    So I agree that Horton’s view is a mess.
    As to Palamism, let me see if I can give a coherent reading. To my knowledge, the monastics did not claim to see the divine essence, but rather that they saw God. Barlaam claimed that this was impossible since God is all and only the divine essence with a caveat for subsisting relations. So it wasn’t the case that Palamas was trying to come up with some creative gloss as a via media.
    What Palamas is aiming to defend is the deification of the body or more directly, the material world. If the body cannot be deified, then the world cannot be saved for there could be no incarnation.
    God’s essence for Palamas is unknowable because God’s essence is huper-ousia or beyond being. One can’t know non-being. (Please note that being in the medieval traditions is largely a verb and not a noun.) Consequently to say that all of the divine being is in the energies is not to say that all of the divine essence is or that the essence is actuality.
    It is incorrect to say for Palamas that the divine energies are in some sense the divine being for God ad intra is not being. The divine energies are ad extra and hence are being (and fully deity) for being is operation or activity. This is a fundamental difference between western and eastern readings of Dionysius, among other figures. For someone like Thomas, God is pure actuality and hence pure subsisting being. (For Scotus pure activity or actuality in terms of an infintitude of intensity of being.) In this way for Thomas (and Scotus) God is beyond being in terms of being beyond partial or limited being since being is limited by potency and God has no potency and hence no limitation. For Palamas and other eastern writers by contrast, God is not ad intra pure actuality for actuality and potentiality are applicable to being. God is therefore ad intra not pure actuality because he is not being in any way, even self subsisting being.

  19. The divine energies are being because they are just that, activities or operations of the divine persons. Pace Augustine, Rome and the Protestant traditions, the glory of Mt. Tabor was not a created light since Christ says he shares this glory with the Father prior to the creation of the world. If the glory were created then it would entail that Christ is a creature.
    Palamas may have “odd statements” but oddity doesn’t amount to incoherence. We’d need an actual demonstration to show a contradiction. To say that the energies are infinitely different from one another is to accomplish a few things at once. It is to say that they are not metaphysically reducible one to another, securing a genuine plurality in God, which gives Palamas and the Eastern tradition a more robust Trinitarianism over against Eunomianism than the west was able to muster. And this cuts the legs out of Eunomius’ Arianism for it was built entirely on the basis of divine simplicity precluding any plurality in God that Eunomius taught that the Son could not be homousias with the Father. It is a direct refutation of Arian metaphysical assumptions rather than granting them and doing gymnastics with subsisting relations as Augustine does.
    To say that the whole infinity of the divinity is present in each of the energies is just to assert a robust doctrine of empirochoresis, namely interpenetration. So the energies are metaphysically distinct and non-reducible one to another on the one hand, but fully present and interpenetrating on the other. In God there is a harmony of being and non-being which overcomes the Hellenistic dialectic.
    As Matthew has made clear, Chalcedon teaches the divine person was incarnate, not the divine essence. This is not to separate the person from the essence, but to distinguish. It was human nature that was assumed into the divine hypostasis of the world, not into the divine essence of the Trinity, which would entail a form of patripassianism. Nor are the energies incarnate, but rather the divine person of the Son. Consequently there is no problem with the incarnation. The distinction is necessitated since what is true of the Son in terms of the divine person experiencing a human death is not true of the divine essence.
    And the East does acknowledge the doctrine of original sin, just not the Augustinian gloss on it. Christian theology does not begin nor end with Augustine. As far as distance from the state, I’d recommend looking at the church’s opposition to the state in times when the state favored heresy as in the Arian controversy or the iconoclastic controversy. Last I checked, those were long before 1917.
    As far as realism goes, given that the divine energies are real and hence form a basis for talk about deity and deity’s relation to creation on a formal basis, there is far more a robust basis for realist talk than on a Protestant or Catholic gloss. For on neither of those two glosses is God the formal cause of creatures, nor can he be given their commitment to a specific gloss on divine simplicity. For the Orthodox we don’t need an analogia entis since the natures of every creature are a divine logos and hence a divine energy, which comprises a much stronger basis for talk and thinking about God’s relation to the world, without panentheism, than the Protestant and Roman glosses could ever hope to accomplish.
    As for there being no beatific vision in Orthodox theology that is true, but then again, Paul seems to teach as much when he denies that anyone can see God. (1 tim 6:16).

  20. I realize this is an old post. However, I would like to point out that Luther's Bondage of the Will did not reject logic in toto. If so, the Luther's treatise is meaningless irrationalism. Luther did not reject reason per se. He rejected Aquinas' theology of reason leading to faith. For Luther faith precedes reason but within that context Scripture is perfectly rational, logical, and reasonable. How else could Luther argue logically that God's nature is immutable, a fact that discards ALL contingencies in God's mind. Foreknowledge, according to Luther, is definite in God's mind and is most certain to happen precisely because God is immutable. By this observation Luther devastated Erasmus' argument for free will. And, by the way, the logical implication extends even to elect and reprobate angels and men! There are NO contingencies with God. If only modern Lutherans had followed Luther instead of Melanchthon!

    I might add that Horton's theology of analogy and paradox allows him the liberty to contradict himself. Rationalism always leads to irrationalism and skepticism. I follow the presuppositional apologetics of the late Gordon H. Clark, by the way. Forgive the jab, but Lutheran calling a Van Tilian "confused" and "contradictory" is about like a pot calling the kettle black.

  21. Sect. IX. — THIS, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: That God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, “Free-will” is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces. Those, therefore, who would assert “Free-will,” must either deny this thunderbolt, or pretend not to see it, or push it from them.

    Sovereignty of God, The Bondage of the Will.

    Sect. CLXVII. — I SHALL here draw this book to a conclusion: prepared if it were necessary to pursue this Discussion still farther. Though I consider that I have now abundantly satisfied the godly man, who wishes to believe the truth without making resistance. For if we believe it to be true, that God fore-knows and fore-ordains all things; that He can be neither deceived nor hindered in His Prescience and Predestination; and that nothing can take place but according to His Will, (which reason herself is compelled to confess;) then, even according to the testimony of reason herself, there can be no “Free-will” — in man, — in angel, — or in any creature!

    What part of "all things" do Lutherans not get?

  22. Surely those who side with irrationalism should reconsider the words of the late Gordon H. Clark:

    In conclusion, I wish to affirm that a satisfactory theory of revelation must involve a realistic epistemology. By realism in this connection, I mean a theory that the human mind possesses some truth – not an analogy of the truth, not a representation of or correspondence to the truth, not a mere hint of the truth, not a meaningless verbalism about a new species of truth, but the truth itself. God has spoken his Word in words, and these words are adequate symbols of the conceptual content. The conceptual content is literally true, and it is the univocal, identical point of coincidence in the knowledge of God and man.

    Gordon Clark (2011-07-02T18:48:21+00:00). God's Hammer: The Bible and Its Critics (Gordon Clark) (Kindle Locations 774-779). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.