July 6, 2017

Robert Jenson on Revisionary Metaphysics

Filed under: Metaphysics,Theology — William Witt @ 7:31 am

Recently, I wrote a book review of a collection of Robert Jenson essays entitled Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics for The International Journal of Systematic Theology.1 Unfortunately, IJST considered the first version of the review to be too long; they wanted a short review, not a review essay. The following contains the bulk of what I omitted, focusing on Jenson’s understanding of “revisionary metaphysics,” and, particularly, on questions of divine immutability and impassibility. I affirm the traditional position, and some might find helpful my interaction with Jenson’s challenge.

TrinityThere is a dominant sub-theme that pervades Robert Jenson’s book, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics and provides its title: revisionary metaphysics.2 What does Jenson mean by “revisionary metaphysics”? In the preface, Jenson affirms that insofar as the question “What is it to be?” continues to be asked, Christian theology necessarily has to do with metaphysics; classical Christian theology necessarily interacted with and revised pagan Greek metaphysics to “fit the gospel.” The resulting Christian metaphysics is above all trinitarian and Christological. Jenson’s acknowledged conversation partners include the Cappadocian fathers, Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, “certain Lutherans,” Karl Barth, and Jonathan Edwards (pp. vii-viii).

However, Jenson is also convinced that traditional Christian metaphysics has been influenced too much by Greek metaphysics; in particular, he rejects notions that God is impassible and timeless, doctrines of God that he considers implicitly unitarian or binitarian rather than trinitarian, and Christologies that are adoptionist or Nestorian.3 Several of the essays in this book emphasize these themes. In “Ipse pater non est impassibilis (The Father Himself Is Not Impassible),” Jenson points to the Hellenistic roots of impassibility: Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics did not know about the incarnation or the biblical distinction between Creator and creature; for them, the fundamental distinction was between the temporal world and a timeless divine realm (p. 94); Jenson insists that if the christological notion that one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh is true, “then the God here referred to by ‘the Trinity’ is not impassible . . . in any sense of impassibility perceptible in the face of the world, it will not do as an attribute of the God of Scripture and dogma.” (pp. 95, 96).


October 13, 2011

Notes on Predestination

Filed under: Calvinism,Metaphysics,Philosophy,Theology — William Witt @ 3:10 am

TrinityWe begin with the Scholastic Distinction Between Ordo Cognoscendi (Order of Knowing) and the Ordo Essendi (Order of Being): The order in which we come to know things is the opposite of the order in which they exist.

Applied to theology: The basic principle of theology is that God is in se who he is in his revelation. In ordo essendi, God exists necessarily and freely as eternal Triune identity. In ordo cognoscendi, we come to know God through his economic acts in history, recorded and witnessed by prophets and apostolic eyewitnesses. Knowledge of God as Triune follows knowledge of God as incarnate in Christ, which follows the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We know God is and has always been Triune because God the Father raised his Son Jesus from the dead.

Scripture is the inspired prophetic and apostolic witness to the Triune God’s economic revelation in history. In the ordo cognoscendi, we come to know who God is first through this prophetic and apostolic witness. Scripture is referential in two directions: history (the economy of redemption – the economic Trinity); ontology (God in se – the immanent Trinity).

The primary language of Scripture is not the language of ontology, but the language of symbol, metaphor, and narrative. The proper object of Christian faith is the subject matter of revelation (the Triune God in se), but this knowledge is mediated to us through the biblical language of symbol, metaphor, and narrative. Our subsequent knowledge of the Triune God as the subject matter of revelation enables us to re-read Scripture in light of its economic conclusion. We know how the story begins (with the Trinity) because we know how it ends (God the Father raised Jesus from the dead).

The language of Scripture is the language of “common sense” realism (symbol, metaphor, and narrative), of realities in relation to us (pro nobis). The language of ontology is the language of “critical realism,” of things in themselves (in se). In the ordo cognoscendi, the move from the economic to the immanent Trinity is the move from common sense to critical realism, from narrative, symbol, and metaphor, to history, and then to ontology. Phil. 2:5-11 and Nicea are not saying different things, but one speaks in the language of common sense realism (narrative and symbol); the other speaks in the language of critical realism (ontology).

What does this have to do with predestination? (more…)

September 13, 2011

Answers to New Atheist Questions: Part 1 — Epistemology

Filed under: Metaphysics,Philosophy,The New Atheism — William Witt @ 11:20 pm

A reader named “Dale” left the following comment in response to my sermon: “CallerID From the Source of the Universe”:

There are two main forces in the universe. Order and chaos. Religion perceives order as good and chaos as evil. These forces have always existed in matter. It is religion that has labeled them as such. Some texts of the Bible have been in existence since 1500 BC. There have been billions of creatures that have been borne, lived, and died before the Bible came along to interpret meaning. It is the nature of matter to be the way it is. It is what it is. Being matter I must die. I go out of existence. That is difficult to accept. I had no existence before I was borne. Faith tells me that there is a transcendence existence beyond matter. Hope comes into play here to treat the anxiety of death. Call it a psychological prop that keeps us sane. Here I can assent to faith or decline to do so. If faith, the promise of glory. Decline, hell or nothing. What is my choice. Glory sounds attractive. Organized religion plays on this dilemma. This is what atheists object to when they challenge believers in this psychological game of meaning.

I thought Dale’s comment was worth responding to at some length.

medallionThank you for writing, Dale. Your points are worth addressing, and I will do so at some length.

First, I want to point out that, in my sermon, I deliberately avoided addressing questions of the origins of evil or suffering, and instead focused on the question of what Christian faith asserts about what it is that God does about the existence of evil and suffering. I also avoided distinguishing between what philosophers call “natural evil” (earthquakes, birth defects) and moral evil (violence, murder, betrayal, theft). I did this for several reasons. First, as a preacher in a church that uses a lectionary, I had to preach from the lectionary texts for the day, and, second, unlike a lecture, a sermon is restricted to what the speaker can say in twenty minutes or so. A more adequate attempt to address the problem would necessarily deal with the origin of evil as well the distinction between natural occurrences (like earthquakes) that threaten human well-being (and are therefore discerned as “evil”), and events that have human causes and are designated as “evil” for moral reasons. The former are more properly “tragedy” than “evil,” while the latter are more properly designated as “evil.” If you lost your wallet, there would be a genuine loss to which you might respond with “tough luck” (minor tragedy), but you would not generally consider the loss “evil.” On the other hand, if I attempted to steal your wallet, then you would likely consider my actions “evil” even if I failed, and you would justifiably be angry with me, even if I actually had done you no harm.

More important than these distinctions, I think, is the question of response to evil, and, as I pointed out, it is one that I have yet to see any of the New Atheists address (or rather even acknowledge) with any sophistication. To the extent that the New Atheists ignore the fundamental Christian claim that God deals with evil in a particular manner, their criticism simply fails to hit its target. I note that your own comment did not address this central point either, but rather focuses on questions about the nature of the universe (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), specifically questions having to do with “natural evil,” and how we might know whether a given natural event is an evil. So I will address those questions.. Your comment covers a lot of territory and addresses several issues, so it needs to be broken down piece by piece. (more…)

October 7, 2010

Determinism? It’s a heresy, why?

Filed under: Calvinism,Metaphysics,Theology — William Witt @ 3:48 am

I think I must be in a cranky mood today. At any rate, the following is also something I originally put on a certain (NeoCalvinist) Anglican(?) blog in response to the following:

The man born blind in John 9 was not an accident of biology. He was born blind so that the Lord Jesus could give him sight. Joseph was not sold into slavery by accident. He was sold into slavery by the express intended purpose of God to redeem many. The Assyrians did not destroy Israel on their own accord. They came as the arm of God to punish. The Lord Jesus was not crucified by fortunate happenstance. The men who delivered Him up and killed him did so by divine decree. There are no random molecules in the universe. Everything is governed by the decretive will of God. Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning. No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will. That is why we can say that everything has purpose in this life, and that everything will eventually reveal the glory of God. We do not have to understand. It is sufficient that God understands.

Providence means that God is capable of bringing good out of evil. But God does not decree or create evil. Evil is entirely the result of the rebellion of creatures, which God permits, but does not cause. Certainly “No death, no misfortune, no suffering, no sorrow, no misery is beyond his reach, or outside the scope of His will.” It does not at all follow that “Nothing happens except that He has decreed it from the beginning.”

God does not decree sin. God hates sin, and his Son died to redeem us from that sin which God hates. To state that God decrees sin is to place on God the responsibility for that which he hates, and condemns, and the effects of which his Son died to alleviate.

August 12, 2010

Does God Change His Mind?

Filed under: Metaphysics — William Witt @ 5:11 am

The following appeared in the comments section on a blog in answer to the question of whether prayer “changes God’s mind.”

If God could change His mind, then He would be learning from and therefore be dependent upon His own creation.  He would be growing from good to better, from wise to wiser.  He would in short be deprived of some of the essential characteristics of Deity – His Omniscience and Timelessness.

The writer was a Calvinist, but I have heard Thomists (of which I am one) make similar kinds of statements. While I do not believe that creatures can make God “change his mind,” I have always been troubled by the more sophisticated metaphysical assertion that really lies behind the claim — that God in no way responds to creatures, and that contingent actions of creatures do not make any difference to God’s knowledge. If they did, God would depend on creatures for that knowledge, and God’s would change, either for the better or the worst, etc. While this position is common among Calvinists and Banezian Thomists, I do not believe it is Thomas’s own position, and I find it problematic because it inevitably leads to determinism–a position Thomas rejects.

I replied as follows: (more…)

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