Sunday, September 11, 2005

Nature & person

Perry Robinson has offered another reply. To his credit, he is arguing for his position. Since he goes into some detail, I’ll pull his comments out of the obscurity of the comments box and address them here.

I think the question of where to range Toon along the checkered spectrum of the Anglican communion has received sufficient attention. The dilemma for folks like Toon is that it’s hard to be a traditionalist about the institutional church when the institutional church pulls the rug out from under the traditionalist.


Historically the idea of theosis is an essential part of Athanasius’ defense of the deity of Christ such that a denial of the idea of union with Christ and becoming transformed into the image of Christ would be a repudiation of a long held Christian teaching.


That may all be true, but it isn’t a fixture of Catholic theology or Evangelical theology in, say, the confessional sense.

Again, remember the context of my comment. Prejean, a Roman Catholic, was acting as if to deny the Greek Orthodox interpretation of 2 Pet 1:4 amounted to a denial of 2 Pet 1:4, period. I’m not aware that the Greek Orthodox interpretation enjoys that same precedence in Catholic dogma, and it is certainly not axial to Evangelical theology.

One of the problems, though, is that Catholic theology is more eclectic that Orthodox theology. Catholicism is like a vacuum cleaner that suctions up a whole lot of stuff in rather syncretistic fashion. So you can find a little bit of everything in Catholicism--like an Arab bazaar.

Orthodoxy, by contrast, due to its semi-Platonic cast, has certain unifying principles, a certain aesthetic elegance and economy of motion lacking in Catholic theology and art.

Aquinas is a perfect example. Although he’s associated with the Aristotelian turn in theology, he is also, as you know, in dialogue with Augustine and Boethius and Pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides and Averroes and Avicenna and so on. The architectonic unity of the synthesis owes less to the raw materials than to the raw power of his magnificent mind.

As to Starr, it isn’t very useful to discuss this in a textual vacuum. It seems to me that you’re still guilty of mirror-reading. If we read “divine nature” as defined in Greek Orthodox terms, then the limitation of imitability to moral qualities would generate the difficulty you raise. But that begs the philological question.

From this you go to the general principle of imitability. Even if what you said on that score were altogether unobjectionable, it is getting ahead of the discussion because it marks a premature jump from exegetical theology to systematic or even philosophical theology. But until we know what the words mean in the text and context and intertextual and extratextual lineages, we are not ready to raise the discussion to a higher level of abstraction. We need to nail down the linguistic analysis before we can graduate to a higher-ordered conceptual analysis and synthesis.

On the question of lexicography, we’re stuck with whatever has survived. It may or may not be especially representative, but that’s what we’ve got to go on.

Within that general pool we then have to make a judgment call regarding what would be most relevant, taking into consideration, on the one hand, the linguistic culture of a given Bible writer and, on the other hand, the period, place, and genre of the extrabiblical sources.

Yes, a non-Christian writer can be misleading, especially if it’s a question of technical usage over against ordinary usage.

But the danger of a Christian source is, of course, linguistic contamination, in which a Greek Father’s usage is, in fact, colored by Biblical usage, as well as having taken on a more specialized meaning, so that we end up with a semantic anachronism. That why, in lexicography, one rule of thumb is that the best meaning is the least meaning. When in doubt, play it safe.

As to created grace, I deny the Athanasian presupposition that we are ontologically united to God or Christ. We are accounted righteous in Christ, and renewed by the Spirit. Therefore, the Anathasian consequence doesn’t ensure.

It is not a choice between God’s righteousness and something merely like it. It is God’s righteousness, because it is not our righteousness. To take a trivial example, it’s like doing a favor for a friend of a friend. My friend has earned it. His friend has not. But for the sake of my friend, I’ll do his friend a favor.

Now, you will say that a different result ensures. We end up with a merely nominal relation, a mental or conative act.

Well, here we have a difference in theological method. You begin with what you think the answer should be, and work out your soteriology or ontological accordingly. I’m not that aprioristic. I begin with revelation.

Oh, I know, you lay claim to revelation, and we disagree over the interpretation of revelation. But one reason for the disagreement is, again, a point of theological method—of dogmatic exegesis.

And, when it comes to morality, it comes down to moral intuitions. Some folks will always find the idea of a vicarious atonement artificial or even immoral. I don’t. Even if I did, I’d accept it on divine authority. But, to me, it’s just as natural as family and friendship, patronage and favoritism.

So what if we’re saved by a divine effect? We are divine effects! We are creatures. We’re the result of a creative fiat. God often operates indirectly through natural media.

Conversely, God is a mental entity. All his attributes are mental attributes. All his “acts” are mental acts. And if we construe divine eternality as timeless, then, although the consequence is effected in time, as a delayed result (as it were), the originating cause is timeless.

Again, I’m not the one who’s trying to erect a whole soteric edifice on the foundation of one isolated and rather obscure verse of Scripture.


The Incarnation. I quite agree that we don’t find the divine nature apart from persons. From this I don’t know how it follows that we don’t find human nature apart from human persons. To insist on this would be at least question begging. I do agree that we don’t find instances of human nature apart from personal existence.


You seem to be drawing a distinction between human personhood and a personal existence for human nature which is not, however, a human personal existence.

That’s a very demanding claim. Quite counterintuitive. Requires a lot of imported metaphysical machinery. And does it do justice to the biblical concept of a human being?


And Christ is personally united to his humanity thereby humanizing his hypostatic existence (as well as enhypostacizing his human existence) which is the basis for thinking of his post incarnational hypostasis as composite. The humanity is taken up into the divine person. In this way generally I don’t think any personal existence in terms of Christ is lost and continuity with humanity is maintained. Christ’s humanity is enhypostacized in the divine person of the Son.


That’s the classic formulation. Entitled to a respectful hearing.

Again, though, the question is not necessary one of ruling out every theoretical option until, by process of elimination, we arrive at just one model. The grosser Christological heresies can be dispatched quickly enough, viz., Docetism, Arianism, Monophysitism, &c. But you’re still left with some very subtle models which may be underdetermined by revelation. One can say that a number are clearly wrong without saying that only one is clearly right. All this must be submitted to the verdict of Scripture. Otherwise, our Christology is not a revealed Christology.

And let us keep in mind that there is more than one error to be avoided here. There is a fine line between right and almost right, and there’s an equally fine line between what is nearly right and what is fatally wrong. Is the classic formulation right or nearly right? Or is it just a highly refined and disguised version of Apollonarianism?


Person and nature are inseparable in the Deity, but they are distinguishable. One could think of humanity in terms of the divine ideas, if one believed in the Neoplatonic notion of the divine ideas that are identical with the divine essence. Generally the Orthodox do not and as a consequence I don’t either. (The Neoplatonic idea was condemned by the Orthodox Church as heterodox.) Perhaps you have a Biblical basis for such a speculative notion, but I don’t see it here. It seems to me that you need to be consistent at this point. To complain that such notions of theosis, the divine energies, etc. are speculative and outrun divine revelation and then bring up Neoplatonic notions of the divine ideas or imitability (regardless of the motivation for bringing them up or their possible argumentative employment) is at least seemingly inconsistent.


Well, divine ideas are divine. There are different ways of parsing that, but they are divine rather than something anterior to or subsequent to God.

As to the rest, you don’t seem to have kept up with some of my recent replies to you. To recap and take it a bit further, there is room for speculation, if we’re clear on what we mean.

When fielding speculative objections to the faith, we can offer speculative replies. At the most noncommittal level, this may be an ad hominem exercise in which we argue the opponent down on his own grounds.

Or we may genuinely feel that our own speculations are just as reasonable if not more so than the disputant’s.

Moreover, we don’t have to know everything we believe. We can settle on probabilities much of the time. But that doesn’t rate the same dogmatic status as revelation.

Furthermore, there are only so many possible answers in ethics and ontology and epistemology. So even the unbeliever is going to hit upon something close to the truth from time to time—even if he’s in no position to know it.

Hence, it’s not surprising if philosophy sometimes intersects with revelation. But the intersection has to be clear to achieve dogmatic status.

Scripturally speaking, the very fact that many of the same words and concepts are applied to God and man in Scripture implies an analogy between God and man. And since God is the Creator, he would be the exemplar of any such relation.

There are also verses which tell us that the natural world exemplifies certain divine attributes (e.g. Ps 19:1; Prov 3:19; Rom 1:20; Eph 3:9-10).

“Personhood” is a many-layered construct. It’s a way of capturing certain traits we associate with ourselves and others of our kind, and which we see on display in Scripture, in relation to God and man alike. The question is whether we can do without the concept, however we parse it or label it.

Yes, the divine Logos or Eternal Son was and is and always remains a person. And, yes, that could supply a principle of personal continuity. But in terms of hypostatic union or theanthropic individual, can it simply co-opt a human consciousness and still to justice to the Scriptural conditions and consequences of a divine incarnation?

Again, we want to avoid Sebellianism, but that is not the only thing we want to avoid. And is the proposed alternative anything other than a highly refined and disguised version of modalism?

You see, there’s a lopsided character to your objections--as though the danger were not equal on either side. Or as if we could make everything fit into our box by performing some theological gene-splicing—peeling and prying, slicing and excising—then stitching it back together into a smaller, neater, tighter package. This operation looks to me, not like a revelation from God, but a mad scientist in his laboratory. Isn’t intellectual impatience the mother of heresy?


As to analogy, the problem is that our own self understanding seems only to make sense in light of God so that human person is to be understood as analogous to divine personhood and not the other way around.


According to the order of being, yes—but not according to the order of knowing; in the latter case, the reader sees his own reflection in revelation.


On theological grounds, it is the idea that Jesus is a divine person, the person of the Logos that secures for the Reformed the impossibility of Christ sinning. To give up the idea would seem to attenuate that belief.


Yes, divinity secures impeccability, but that does not, of itself, necessitate an anhypostatic union.


By complex or composite I do not mean that Christ’s hypostasis consists just in the volitional union of two nous or minds under a single appearance.


Agreed, the Incarnation has to run deeper than a merely conative relation.


The views of Cyril and later theologians have by and large been taken up into the Reformed confessional and theological tradition.


True, but sausage doesn’t grow on trees. Much as we may enjoy our pork links, we can’t turn a bind eye to the process.

We’re no wiser than the church fathers, but they’re are no wiser than we. They had to think long and hard—had to work through the issues as they saw best. So we do. We’re not toddlers. We have to see that the doors are locked and the alarm is set before we go to bed.

No, we don’t get to stash in contraband in granny’s wheelchair as we pass through customs. Each generation is answerable to the word of God.

Moreover, it is not as though the church fathers were disinterested, carefree theologians on a spiritual retreat. They were responding to outside pressures.

Furthermore, we all know how institutional inertia sets in. It’s the path of least resistance.

What is more, you yourself, in your spiritual pilgrimage, have not been content to live with the first answer you learned.


I for one can’t see on a Penal Substitutionary model how if the divine person doesn’t suffer and die, but only a human person, how such a death can be propitiatory and expiate sins. How can the suffering of divine wrath of a human person be of infinite value?


Yes, it takes more than a human person. But does it take less than a human person?

The atonement is a divine condescension because only a divine person can condescend. We are sinners; our lives are already forfeit to God. And even if we were sinless, we could never merit God’s favor, for we already owe everything to God. But God loves the elect for the sake of his beloved Son—just as a father will befriend the friend of his son. Redemption is God’s adoptive nepotism.


  1. Steve,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response. I am glad that we can move past some of the rhetoric and concentrate on the issues.

    I had some free time and posted my reply today, but as the day wore on, I am getting sick. This is what happens when your kid picks their nose. I have three classes to teach four days this week and so I probably won't get to your comments till next weekened. I didn't want you to think I bugged out or forgot. ;)


  2. Perry,

    Since you won't get around to a reply for a few days, I have a few after thoughts of my own:

    1.As to the Reformed tradition, as I’m sure you know, Calvin declined Caroli’s challenge to sign the ancient creeds.

    There is much in the ancient creeds that is unobjectionable, and there is nothing wrong with creeds per se. But the purpose of a creed is to clarify certain matters and not to occasion further mental reservations.

    2.It is true that most of the Reformed didn’t follow Calvin in this regard. But I can only judge them by their arguments, which tend to be thin and perfunctory.

    3.Apropos (1), it is one thing to introduce a distinction which clarifies something otherwise obscure, another thing to introduce a distinction which is, itself, rather obscure. We are moving from one mystery to something even more mysterious, and—what is worse, from a revealed mystery to something of a man-made mystery.

    Even Cunningham confesses that the distinction "does not perhaps admit of any very clear, formal definition," Historical Theology 1:316.

    4.I agree with you that Berkhof’s formulation (“complex person”) is more acceptable than Warfield’s. Warfield’s may be correct, but not without its own obscurities, and is more firmly committed to a particular solution than we can grant without further study, if at all.