Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lutheran Theology and the Metaphysical Question.

The entire discussion of sanctification brought up a number of issues.  Chief among them is my use of speech-act theory, as well as my use of categories of thought taken from relational and ecstatic metaphysics to explicate my views of sanctification.  When I pointed out the advantage of these ways of speaking to give an account of and to conceptually preserve biblical and confessional commitments (as well as their precedent in Luther's own ways of speaking and conceptualizing theology), it was charged that I rejected the substance ontology of the early Lutheran dogmaticians, and that I was therefore out of accordance with the historic tradition.  As much as I tried to explain in a few short sentences to point out that my position was being distorted, such a response was generally speaking ignored.  Below, I would like to clarify my position on the metaphysical question in light of my biblical and confessional commitments to God's truth.  Regarding Lutheran theology and the need to speak in terms of philosophical ontology, I would make the following observations:

1. One cannot canonize any one ontological scheme.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First of all, the great weakness of Catholic and Reformed theology is that they have more or less canonized a particular metaphysical scheme and allowed it to determine their theology.  This can be seen in the Catholic commitment to things like Transubstantiation and the doctrine of created grace.  In the case of the Reformed, they enter into their discussion of the two natures in Christ and the sacraments with philosophical presuppositions about what divinity and humanity are (non capax, etc.), and what God would do and what he would not do .  And so, ultimately they ignore or obfuscate what Scripture says about these things.  Secondly, Lutheranism (or perhaps more accurately, people who define themselves as Lutheran!) has functioned with a number of different philosophical traditions: Nominalism, Scotism, Aristotelianism, Leibnizianism, Kantianism, Hegalianism, and Existentialism.  Many of these philosophical schemes have had unfortunately distorting effects on the teaching of biblical truth.  My opponents tend to think the Aristotelian one was pretty good.  In some respects, this was true.  Nevertheless, this too also created any number of problems.  One example might be the false teaching of "receptionism," that is largely a function of the Melanchthonian appropriation of Aristotle's casual scheme.  All causes must be in place (including reception) to actualize a reality.  This distorts the gospel-promise of the Supper by effectively claiming that my action of reception is a contributing cause of the body and blood of Christ being present, rather than the sole cause lying in the promissory and consecratory word.  The third reason that we cannot canonize any one metaphysical scheme is that as Oswald Bayer has pointed out, this would be the theology of glory.  To know a universal scheme within which we can relate the ontic reality of God to all beings in an absolutely consistent way would in fact to suggest that we could know God's being in itself, and how all of God's works (which, often seems contrary) are coordinated with one another.  This is a problem because we know that the theology of glory always leads to conceit and self-justification.  Such a knowledge of God is not proper to this life, but the next life.  In this life, an attempt at such a knowledge leads to creatures believing in God as a transparent ideal, rather than a savior.  From this, theology and ethics becomes structured around trying to be conformed to that ideal.  Such knowledge will only be possible and helpful to us in the next life when God purifies us and conforms us to his ideal reality.

2.  If metaphysical and ontological terminology and schemes have historically distorted aspects of biblical teaching, then why bother with them at all?  One has heard this argument from Lutherans  often enough, and indeed to some extent in the history of Protestant theology.  The young Luther was contemptuous of philosophical terminology borrowed from Aristotle.  Of course, he never completely rejected philosophical learning (he has very nice things to say about Plato in the Heidelberg Disputation, as he trashes Aristotle).  Moreover, many of the presuppositions he used to attack philosophical reason were in fact borrowed from Nominalist philosophy (this is particularly the case in his arguments against Zwingli).  Finally, he ultimately did acquiesced to Melanchthon's revival of a purified Aristotelianism in the curriculum of Wittenberg by the 1530s.  Moreover, we find of course a similar rejection of philosophical metaphysics in the considerably less orthodox theology of 19th century Liberal Protestantism.  Schleiermacher and Ritschl in particular rejected philosophical tradition as a basis or in some case, even a tool, for theological discourse.  Adolf Harnack built an entire theory of the fall of the Church around it in his History of Dogma by positing that Christian theology had gradually been corrupted by Greek philosophy (his famous "Hellenization Thesis").  Unfortunately for the coherent of their argument, they attacked philosophical reason on the basis of Kantian presuppositions, thereby revealing that they were unable to escape philosophical schemes themselves! 

3. Ultimately,  the problem with trying to escape philosophy and metaphysical presuppositions is twofold.  First, since philosophy primarily deals with the question of what is real and what is good, it is built into the unconscious presuppositions of every culture.  Since the theologian or ordinary believer are not immune to their culture, all theologians and believers will have unconscious commitments to a particular philosophy.  For example, most American Christian that I have met have an unconscious commitment to aspects of the philosophy of John Locke, even though they've never heard of him.  Lockean empiricism, as well as his ideas about government tend to be hardwired into our culture.  So, instead of denying that philosophical influences are there, it would be more fruitful to be honest and self-conscious about our presuppositions and then try to subordinate them to the Word of God as much as possible.  We should do this even though as sinners it is unlikely that we will ever be entirely successful at this this side of eternity.  Secondly, Christian theology is about God's truth manifested in creation and redemption in Christ.  And since Christ is the truth, that should make Christian doctrine relatable to all other forms of truth.  When I say "relatable" I should caution that I do not mean "synthesizable."  That would more be the task of theology within Thomism, which, as we have seen earlier, wants to see past the differences in God's actions and the resulting truth claims, and see the unity of God's actions within himself.  That again is the theology of glory, and, in practice (at least the case of Aquinas) the canonization of Aristotle (a pagan philosopher).  Rather, theology should be relatable to other truth claims because all truth is God's truth and part of God's creation.  That relating may take the form of correlation (wow, look this finding of history, philosophy, or science matches with the Bible!), rejection (this truth claim obviously contradicts Scripture, and so it must be rejected!), or even paradox (wow, what the Bible says is true, and what this human science tells me seems true, but I can't reconcile them.  Better wait for God to explain it to me in eternity).  Either way, if one wants to think about their faith in a meaningful and coherent way (something necessary, since faith claims the whole person, intellect!), then one will have to engage the metaphysical task and relate and translate Christian truth claims into the language of the truth claims within one's own culture.  At minimum, one will have to show from Scripture why the unconscious epistemology and metaphysics of one's own culture are wrong, and that will also call for philosophical explication as well.

4. This being said, I therefore am not against the use of metaphysical schemes in explicating theology.  Neither am I against the use of substance ontology as a means of talking about theology (as was charged).  I rather object to the usual of substance language and conceptualities in certain contexts where it distorts what I consider to be biblical truth.  My two objections to the manner of conceptualizing sanctification in the manner of my opponents were that first, the language of substance had a distorting effect on key biblical-Lutheran commitments to the claims of law and gospel on the total person of faith and corollary of the simul of Christian existence.  In these things, I would argue that my opponents were not using the language of substance/predicates as a means of explicating biblical truth (which, would of course be totally acceptable), but were rather dictating what the Bible could and could not say based on their conceptual/philosophical presuppositions.  Even when I quoted Scripture (and Luther!) to them, they did not seem to want to believe it because it contradicted the presuppositions rooted either consciously or unconsciously in substance ontology.

5. That being said, I again, do not want to deny the legitimacy of the use of substance concepts and language in certain settings.  If I did, I would in effect be claiming that much theology done prior to the 19th century was completely illegitimate- not least the conceptual framework of the great ecumenical councils and the later confessional documents of the Lutheran Church.  What I will say is that their usefulness is limited to reality from a very specific perspective.  What substance metaphysics say about reality is that there are real entities within it, and that they possess an identity internal to themselves that persists over time.  This is true irrespective of whether or not certain predicates of their reality are altered (my hair will turn grey some day!).  Moreover, God is a certain something and humans are a certain something, and our language portrays that reality to us in a realistic fashion.  So, the goal of substance language and concepts is linguistic realism and the recognition of the continuity of identity.  Therefore, what we get from substance language is fundamentally a law of identity and also a law of propositional truth. 

6.  From this, I would like to suggest is that substance language is good for and what it portrays to us is reality from the perspective of the law.  On the one hand, the law tells me about what God is and what creatures are in a realistic fashion, and says to me "you must believe that the language the Bible uses to portray these entities corresponds to their reality."  That is the law of belief and a law of linguistic correspondence.  It is not a gospel truth because it never says "such and such is true for you and for your salvation."  Even if the truths about redemption are established as facts, they function as law if they are not given as a promise given"for me."  This perspective of the law also carries over into the question of identity.  Insofar as I am an entity and I possess an essence that persists over time, I am identical with myself.  And if I am identical with myself, then I am a responsible being and therefore responsible for all I have done.  I am responsible and no one else is.  This is the implication and the ironclad law of identity that one finds in substance ontology.  As a centered being, I am absolutely responsible for myself and I can never escape my past.  And if this is true, my reality is entirely defined by the law and its judgment.  It logically excludes redemption, in that redemption, as we will see below, assumes a transcendence of the law of identity.  Moreover, if I am left with this particular account of my being, I will remained centered.  I will not find my identity in the reality of the other, because I must conserve my reality.  I am stuck with the law and my disobedience to the law.  Moreover, insofar as I move out from the center of my being and give myself to the other, I will lose myself.  Left alone with this account, I can exist as nothing more than as one "curved in on themselves" (in curvatus in se) under the sway of the opinio legis.
7. Nevertheless, the horizon of the the law of identity is transcended in Christian understanding by that of the grace of God.  This is the case in both creation and redemption.  In the case of creation, all creatures have an identity that subsists in God's gracious address to all his creatures.  In speaking, God brings his creatures into existence by an act of grace.  Such a effective address means that creatures from this perspective do not have their identity so much in a centered substance that persists over time, but in God's address that narrates them into existence.  And for this reason, the fundamental ontic structure of the creatures consists in something ecstatic, rather than something centered, in the same way that the reality of the law is contextualized and subordinated to the gospel.  Such an ecstatic existence is model on that which God is within himself.  The Father possesses all, and is therefore free to eternally begets the Son.  And the Son possesses all, and therefore, he is free to return himself full to the Father in the form of the procession of the Holy Spirit.  In this, each person of the Trinity possesses an ecstatic identity.  As Athanasius points out in one of his later anti-Arian writings, the Father is the Father because he has a Son.  His identity as Father is not based on himself, but on his ecstatic relationship to another.  Similarly, insofar as I am seen from the horizon wherein God narrates me into existence with his gracious address, my identity is not based on a centered essence that persists over time, but rather on that address external to me.  Lastly, in that God has created human beings in his own image to be beings whom he responsibly addresses, he has mediated the world to them and made it knowable through language.  And reality is not so much knowable as mere "representation" through language.  Rather, reality becomes present to humans in, under, and through language.  This could only be the case if the world was created by an ecstatic and self-communicating God, who transcends the law of identity and is capable of making one reality present in and through another.  If beings are seen from the perspective of a centered identity, it is completely impossible to account for human knowledge and linguistic realism, since epistemic and linguistic realism implies the self-communication of one being in and through another, which the substance account problematizes.  See a similar argument to this here:

8. This ecstatic account of the reality of our identity as it subsists in the grace of God in creation, also sheds light on redemption as well.  In Christ, I am righteous, and indeed, this makes little sense if I am understood as a centered-substance that persists over time.  Seen from the perspective of the law of identity, I am not Christ and Christ is not me.  So how could Christ be my righteousness, since he is not me?  Similarly, if Christ is not me, then how can he take on my sin? (Historically, Catholic accounts of atonement going back to Anselm have denied that Christ is imputed with our sin!)  Nevertheless, if we understand that our being is something ecstatically constituted, I can see that Christ is the new Adam and the same eternal Word of God that ecstatically gives me my existence through creation.  And insofar as he speaks me forth anew in the address of the gospel, I have a new identity and reality before God external to myself in him.  In this, I am restored to the image of God lost in the Fall.  Instead of living a centered existence under the exclusive definition of the law, I now live ecstatically "in Christ through faith and in love through my neighbor" (Luther).  Luther makes a similar observation in his commentary on Genesis, when he says that Jacob's Ladder represents the manner in which Christ descends to us in the means of grace, and we ecstatically ascend to him through faith.  This existence defined by ecstatic receiving and self-giving, mirrors the life of the Trinity. Similarly, this new existence also mirrors and is indeed based upon God's self-communication in Christ, wherein the fullness of his divinity is communicated to his humanity (genus majestaticum) and what belongs to humanity is taken into divinity.  Finally, without an ecstatic view of reality, God's gifts in Word and sacraments make very little sense.  If God's Word is something ontologically centered, it would lose itself in ecstatic self-communication in and through human words.  Within substance conceptualities, moving out from one's center means moving out from one's own reality and therefore a loss of reality and identity.  Instead, Luther's Reformation was predicated on the assertion that God's Word of forgiveness was sacramentally present in and through the word of absolution.  The same thing may be said about the sacraments as well.  This the reason why the Catholic and Reformed traditions have so much difficulty with the "in, under, and with" of Lutheran sacramental theology.  They remain beholden to the Augustinian platonizing "res and signum" construct.  Even though Catholics do wish to preserve a sort of sacramental realism, they ultimately still make a sharp distinction between the intelligible and the physical aspects of the sacraments, whereas the Reformed simply separate them completely.

9. Just as the law without the gospel turns people into either legalists or libertines, so goes all epistemological and ontological projects based on the law of identity apart from the relational and ecstatic foundation provided by the creedal-evangelical metaphysical framework.  On the legalist side of the spectrum, we have the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who because they uncritically used a centered concept of substance (borrowed from Middle Platonism and Stoicism), could not comprehend how the divine being could remain itself while fully communicating itself in the divine life, or in redemption.  And the result was a drift toward subordinationism or modalism.  And the same tendency can be seen in the ancient Christological heresies that separate the humanity and divinity of Christ (Nestorianism) or make the divinity of Christ only possible insofar as it absorbs the humanity (Eutychianism).  In either case, the assumption is that ecstatic self-communication is impossible if the law of identity will be maintained.  Likewise, Roman Catholics, being beholden to Aristotle, could not comprehend how believers could live through another ecstatically, and therefore they invented the whole theology of created grace.  In both cases, when God and his creatures are subordinated to substance categories, redemption and indeed the very identity of God are distorted under the logic of the law.  God is turned from a self-communicating and self-giving God, into a centered being who in his fundamental identity is the law.  He is a distant monarch, who finds it impossible to see human beings as anything other what they are according to the law of their identity.  Hence, the best account of grace possible within the conceptual framework is that God has set about improving that identity by adding onto it (created grace), otherwise it will not meet his standards.

10. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum would be the antinomian option, which has been in vogue in post-modernism and before that in late modernism.  And in this scheme, there is an attempt to make my identity non-existent, thereby obfuscating the demands of the law of identity.  And I am nothing more than the grey of DiffĂ©rance, or a social construct.  Indeed, as Satre points out, the autonomous person must deny God, because if God existed there would be no real freedom because God would determine my essence.  And if this is true, positing any self at all would be a law of self and I would be responsible to that law.  Hence, because there is no escaping the law of identity through the gospel, then I must deny the law altogether- even when it is actually nonsensical to do so.  The implication of this is also that there is no knowledge as well, because truth would impose the law of truth which I must correspond to.  This law becomes a burden when my language and cognition must live up to that law.  And so in the linguistic turn, there is posited a great disjunction between word and world, language and reality.  Because I can no longer see behind language to reality, how can I be responsible for my words corresponding to reality?

11. Against this ontic and epistemic antinomianism, the ecstatic and self-giving God gives us ontic and epistemological realism through the "art of marriage" (Hamann) and stands in judgment over the "art of separation" (something Hamann attributes to Kant's distinction between the noumenal, and phenomenal).   Because God is the gracious giver of every good, he has made me and all creatures to subsist ecstatically through his gracious Word for freedom.  God's on primal gift makes freedom possible by granting life and the ability to understand and engage with reality, it does not take it away.  And through this gracious gift there is a unity of heaven and earth, and word and world.  This is true because at the heart of reality is the self-communicating and self-giving God, who corresponds to himself in and through his own word within the life of the Trinity.  And according to the horizon of reality provided by the self-communicating and self-giving God, we can encounter reality through our words, and we can find the unity and coherence of our identity through his gracious narration of our being in creation and redemption.  Just as the gospel places the law in its proper place, so too the ecstatic horizon of reality allows us to use substance language and the law of identity in a proper way.  That is, not in such a way so as to define what God can do and what he cannot do under the possibilities of the law (opinio legis), but to deal with God and his creatures in an epistemically realistic fashion for the sake of our love of the neighbor and service to creation.