Robert Jenson on Revisionary Metaphysics
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.
There 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).
In an essay entitled “Creator and Creature,” Jenson claims that traditional mappings of the distinction between Creator and creature in terms of oppositions such as infinite/finite, timeless/temporal, transcendent/immanent are “radically mistaken.” Rather, “the difference between Creator and creature is displayed precisely by the christology against which the pair-matchings are most frequently deployed.” (p. 155). Jenson states that “the notion of an infinite will undoes itself.” To will something is to will one thing and not another, and thus to set limits for oneself – not to be infinite. Moreover, an act of will demands a “before and after” that is analogous to time rather than its opposite. To transcend means to transcend something. God does not transcend creation, since he does not start from creation (pp. 156-158).
Jenson proposes establishing the distinction between God and creatures “narratively.” It is God who distinguishes himself from everything else – which is creature – and sets up the Creator/creature difference by taking action. Everything that is not God has being by participation in God who is Being, and necessarily has God as its final and formal cause. Jenson insists that “some form of the Platonic great chain of being is a required moment in the doctrine of creation,” and that “some modification of the Platonic notion of ‘participation’ is indispensable in Christian theology.” The problem with emanation schemes is that anything that emanates from God is drawn back into God, and Jenson suggests that the act of creation is a preventative action on God’s part to prevent such a merging of divine and created identity: “God establishes himself as Creator and everything else as a creature by activity stopping this sort of return from happening.” (pp. 158-159).
Drawing on Cyril of Alexandria’s christological doctrine that, in the incarnation, Jesus Christ is a single agent, Jenson points to Christology as the solution to the emanationist problem: “To keep his creating from becoming an emanating and absorbing, God does the incarnation.” Insofar as the incarnate Christ is both Creator and creature, and yet a single agent, Jenson finds the theological clue he needs to establish the difference between Creator and creature: “God acts to block the possibility of emanation/return by being in his second identity an actor who acts always as Creator and creature, and by just so seeing to it that there is only that one.” (p. 161).
In “Once More on the Logos asarkos,” Jenson posits two maxims that could be read as unproblematic rejections of Nestorianism: (1) “Jesus is the Son/Logos of God by his relation to the Father, not by a relation to a coordinated reality, “the Son/Logos.’” (2) “In whatever way the Son may antecede his conception to Mary, we must not posit the Son’s antecedent subsistence in such fashion as to make the incarnation the addition of the human Jesus to a Son who was himself without him.” (p. 119-120).
It is Jenson’s third statement that will provoke controversy: (3) Considering the question, “How would the Trinity have been the Trinity if God had not created a world, and there had therefore been no creature Jesus to be the Son, or had let the fallen creation go, with the same result?,” Jenson concedes that he previously pondered this question, but “It has now dawned on me that the putative question is nonsense, and so therefore is my previous attempt to respond to it.” (p. 120).
At the conclusion of the essay, Jenson endorses Thomas Aquinas’s position that “a divine hypostasis is ‘a subsisting relation,’” concluding that “it is Jesus’ relation to the Father – and not Jesus as a specimen of humanity – which is the second hypostasis of Trinity.” Jenson states: “The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God” (Jenson’s emphasis), and “In the divine life there is therefore no line on which the relation describable as God’s sending and Jesus’ obedience could occupy a position ‘after’ anything.” (p. 122).
What to make of Jenson’s “revisionary metaphysics”? Although some theologians have thought it possible to dispense with metaphysics, Jenson’s claim that Christian metaphysics is indispensable is surely correct. Theological affirmations concerning the triune persons, God’s activity in creation, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, whether human beings have a capacity for grace, how and whether grace transforms human nature, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, how God operates in the sacraments, the union between the risen Christ and the church, and eschatology as both re-creation and transformation, all presume a uniquely Christian ontology. Jenson is also correct that a properly Christian metaphysics must be revisionary. Certainly patristic discussions of the incarnation and the Trinity, Medieval discussions of topics such as grace and nature, and Reformation discussions of justification and the sacraments, simultaneously used and transformed philosophical concepts and tools ultimately derived from pagan metaphysics. The real issue of disagreement concerns Jenson’s claim that Christian metaphysics has been insufficiently revisionary. Are notions of divine impassibility and immutability, contrasts between Creator and creature in terms of infinite/finite, eternal/temporal, and affirmations of a Logos asarkos, uncritical holdovers of pagan (Hellenistic) metaphysics?
Jenson’s claim that they are so indicates a division that (broadly speaking) cuts through contemporary theology, with theologians such as Jenson and “revisionst” Barthians such as Bruce McCormack on the one side, and more traditional Barthians (George Hunsinger, Thomas F. Torrance), traditional Thomists, “Barthian” Thomists (Hans urs von Balthasar, D. Stephen Long), and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, on the other.4
The complaint concerning Hellenism is debatable. Another possible reading is that the big threat from Hellenism came with emanationism, and the crucial break concerned necessary creation.5 Unlike the One of Plotinus, the triune God does not need to create a world because God is eternally complete in se in that God’s love is fully actualized in the triune relations. But it is precisely this affirmation that the school of Jenson and McCormack rejects in their denial of the Logos asarkos.6
A second concern is whether Jenson has accurately characterized the position with which he disagrees. No theologian likes to be accused of rejecting a position based on a misunderstanding. Jenson himself complains of having been misunderstood and offers a position that may help to “avoid stalemate” between passibilists and impassibilists, traditionalists and revisionists (p. 93). Nonetheless, as critics of divine “impassibility” and “timelessness” too often do, Jenson characterizes “impassibility” and “timelessness” as if they were meant to be positive descriptions, what might be called “attributes” of God. He complains, for example, that it will not do to evoke the “analogous character of predicates applied to God” when discussing divine timelessness. “God is good” says something about God as the formal cause of goodness in creatures, but if time and eternity are contradictories, then “we define the difference between Creator and creature in such a fashion as to make the posit of a cause in God . . . simply inconceivable” (p. 157).
Talk of analogy is a venture into Thomist territory, and Jenson acknowledges his appreciation for Aquinas’s distinction between essence and existence, which he calls a “brilliant move” (p. vii-viii, 158). In creatures, essence (what something is) and existence (that something is) are distinct; in God, they are not. What Jenson does not acknowledge is the significance that this distinction has for Aquinas’s understanding of divine “timelessness” and “immutability.” For Aquinas, that essence and existence are not distinct in God means that God is the pure act of existing (purus actus essendi), and cannot have potency toward more or less existing. According to Aquinas, “to be” (esse) is an act (actus essendi), not a property, and God fully exists because he fully actualizes his own existence.
Aquinas’s task in Summa Theologiae 1.3-26 has often been misunderstood as that of providing a description of divine attributes: infinity, immutability, goodness, justice, providence, and so on, but this is a misreading. Aquinas distinguishes the following ways in which human beings can speak of God: (1) negation: the denial of God to any limitations unique to creatures; (2) positive relational terms: (2a) both metaphor (“Our God is a consuming fire”) and (2b) strictly relational terms (“Creator,” “Savior”); (3) positive analogical perfections terms that speak literally of the Triune divine nature in itself (God is both “good” and “goodness,” “just” and “justice”).
It is only (3) perfection terms (like “goodness” and “justice”) that are predicated analogously of God. “Timelessness” and “immutability” are neither attributes nor positive descriptions of God at all, so certainly not analogous predications; they belong to Aquinas’s “negative” theology, denying of God limitations that strictly belong to creatures as a way of formulating the distinction between God and creation.7 David Burrell has suggested that such terms should be understood as “formal features” of divine simplicity.8 ST 1.3.1-8 provides descriptions of the ways in which “God is not”9; the One in whom existence and essence are identical will be absolutely simple, not composed in any way – without extended parts, lacking a distinction between form and matter, essence and existence, genus and difference, substance and accidents. Infinity (or “limit-less-ness”) and immutability (or “change-less-ness”) are not positive descriptions of God at all, but denials to God of limitations distinctive to creatures.10 God is infinite because he is not finite: since God is his own subsistent existence, he is not limited by matter or form, and omnipresence means that God exists wherever he causes creatures to be. Because God is the pure actuality of existing, God’s nature is unchangeable, not subject to deterioration or further actualization: unlike creatures, God is not susceptible to substantial change (coming to be or ceasing from existence), accidental change (as simple, God has no accidents), or change of place (God is not in a place and so cannot move to where he was not before), or acquisition or loss of perfections.
Moreover, there is no need to posit an additional explanation apart from God’s necessary existence itself in order to distinguish between God and creatures. That God is simple (without parts or composition) and exists necessarily is sufficient to distinguish God from all composite and contingently existing creatures. (Simplicity does not compromise Trinitarianism because the divine persons are not parts, but rather relations of origin).
At the same time, Jenson is at least partially correct; advocates of impassibility and passibility tend to talk past one another. Advocates of impassibility are concerned with God’s nature in itself, which they rightly deny can be enhanced or debased by creatures; critics are concerned with God’s relation to and interactions with creatures in a contingent and changing world. Jenson (and similar theologians) seem to have three concerns: (1) Is there any sense in which God responds to creatures? (2) Is there any sense of “before” and “after” in God’s actions? (3) Does eternity have any positive relation to time or rather (in the concern expressed by Jenson), are time and eternity simple contradictories?
Many advocates of impassibility have simply denied that God responds to creatures in any sense. This has been a consistent affirmation of the Bañezian interpretation of Aquinas.11 A distinction between God’s nature and divine intentionality may be more helpful here. Interpreters of Aquinas point to a key passage in which Aquinas removes intentional activity from what he means by “movement” or “change” (ST 126.96.36.199). Aquinas speaks of actions of understanding, willing and loving as “operations,” not change in the strict sense of movement from potentiality to act. Accordingly, it does not follow from the full perfection (and thus immutability) of God’s pure act of existing that God cannot respond to or interact with creatures.12 In a “creative retrieval and completion” of Aquinas’s metaphysics of personhood, Norris Clarke has argued that receptivity must be included as a positive perfection of being, and particularly of personhood. Without corresponding receptivity, authentic mutual love would be incomplete, and there could be no self-communication. In the doctrine of the Trinity, receptivity is “present in the Son and the Spirit . . . as a pure perfection of existence at its highest . . .”13
Jenson writes of “narrative time” as “the ordering of events by their mutual reference,” and the “narratively-temporal extension of an event [as] its relation to other events in a set,” which he compares to “musical time” as a way of discussing God’s economic actions in redemptive history, as God’s “total history with us” (pp. 97-98). Some rapprochement might be possible here to the extent that advocates of immutability would be able to speak of a logical order in God’s beings and actions: “before” and “after” in God does not have to mean temporal priority. In the generation of the Son, the Father is eternally the origin of the Son’s being, and the Son eternally receives his being from the Father; yet there is no temporal order between them. In the order of redemption, both creation and sin are logically prior to redemption. One of Aquinas’s fundamental assertions is that God is not the cause of sin (ST 1.49.2). Sin is unnecessary, and so, logically, might not have happened at all. At the same time, it is well known that Aquinas answers the historic conundrum of whether the Word would have become incarnate if there had been no sin by affirming (against what would later be called the Scotist position) that the Word would not have become incarnate if there had been no sin (ST 3.1.3). Without having to decide between the Thomist and Scotist positions, it is clear that Aquinas held that a fundamental affirmation of Christian faith – that the Son of God became incarnate in Jesus Christ – was contingent on the outcome of a contingent human event. If sin had never occurred – again, according to Aquinas, a distinct possibility – there would have been no economic history of redemption. So whatever Aquinas’s affirmations concerning divine immutability (unchangeableness), he did not understand this to mean that God does not respond to human activity, nor that it is not meaningful to speak of a divine “before and after” in terms of God’s economic activity. Thus there are Christian truths affirmed by those who affirm divine impassibility that presume that some of God’s actions are responses to human actions and that there is in God some kind of logical order (at least) that corresponds to the created temporal order of redemption: redemption presupposes the existence of sin, which God does not create; prayer is the exercise of a genuine created causality, which, if we take seriously, presumes divine response to human activity.
Finally, given that immutability and timelessness are negative descriptions and not positive affirmations at all, it should not follow that eternity and time are simple contraries; Brian Davies points out, for example, that, for Aquinas, eternity is a “measure of duration,” which measures “abiding existence,” and that eternity means that, God “embraces (includit) all times,” that eternity is present to all times (ST 1.10.1; 1.10.2 ad 4; 1.57.3). Davies interprets Aquinas to understand eternity to mean that “God has duration and that he exists at all times.”14
What about Christology and Jenson’s concerns about Nestorianism? Following Cyril of Alexandria, the historic Chaleconian position is that the subject of identity in the incarnation is the single divine person of the Word/Logos/Son who has assumed a human nature; the personal identity of the Word incarnate is neither the human nature, nor a human person. Thus, the distinction between person and nature is a real advancement of Chalcedon christology. Since there is no second human person, Jenson’s anti-Nestorian affirmations follow from the traditional doctrines of enhypostasia and anhypostasia. As human, the incarnate Word is named Jesus, but there is no separate human person in distinction from the divine person of the Word/Son. The point of the communicatio idiomatum is that the subject of predication is the person, not the nature. Accordingly, because Jesus’ personal identity simply is that of the second person of the Trinity, any predications apply to the divine person. God does indeed suffer in Christ because the subject of the incarnation is the second person of the Trinity, but the Son suffers as human, in his human, not his divine nature.15
Another helpful distinction is that between what Aquinas calls “real relations” and “rational [or notional] relations” (ST 1.13.7). Against what he considers an inaccurate criticism, Jenson denies that he believes that God “actualizes himself . . . through his actions within history”: “I have not said any such pseudo-Hegelian thing.” (p. 93). But he is ambiguous. At times, Jenson seems to collapse the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity. As noted above, Jenson follows Aquinas in affirming that a divine hypostasis is “a subsisting relation,” and that Jesus’ relation to the Father is the second person of the Trinity. Jenson’s conclusion, however, that “The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God” (p. 122), is one which Aquinas would certainly not have drawn in that it seems to erase the distinction between the Trinity as eternal subsisting relations of origin (ST 1.28), and the temporal economic missions of the Son and the Spirit (ST 1.43). For Aquinas, the eternal subsisting relation of origin which distinguishes the Father from the Son is a different kind of relation from the Son’s temporal mission. The former is eternal, necessary, and what Aquinas calls a “real relation”; the latter is contingent, free, and would not have taken place if humanity had never sinned. It is what Aquinas calls a “rational relation,” since it involves the relation between a non-necessary created temporal reality – the created human nature assumed by the Son – and the eternal divine person who assumes it. If Jenson is conflating the Son’s eternal relation of origin (“subsisting relation”) with the Son’s temporal mission (“The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience are the second hypostasis in God”), there would be a problem. This, combined with Jenson’s assertion that the incarnation is necessary in order to distinguish between God and the world would seem to imply not only a necessary creation – perhaps even a supralapsarian creation since the purpose of the incarnation is redemption – but that the existence of the world is in some sense necessary in order for God to be Trinity. If (1) it is necessary for God to become incarnate in order to preserve the distinction between God and creation, and (2) the temporal mission of the Son (“The Father’s sending and Jesus’ obedience”) simply is the second hypostasis in God, then, at the least, it would seem to follow that creation is a necessary presupposition to God’s trinitarian identity – in which case it might be understandable that a reader would conclude that Jenson understands God to constitute himself (or at least to determine himself in some manner) through historical action. Far from being “nonsense,” it is of crucial importance to affirm that God does not need to create a world, and God would still be Trinity even if he had not.
In conclusion, this collection of essays is classic Robert Jenson. What he writes about the Christian story, post-modern culture, liturgy, the creedal center of the Christian message as located in the Trinity, creation, covenant, incarnation, resurrection, church and eschatology is always worth listening to. At the same time, traditional Barthians and Thomists will not be convinced, or at least not completely convinced, by Jenson’s “revisions” of classical Christian metaphysics.
1 International Journal of Systematic Theology, 18 no 4 Oct 2016, p 465-467
2 Robert W. Jenson, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation, ed Stephen John Wright. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).
3 These have long been themes in Jenson’s theology. See, for example, Robert W. Jenson, Unbaptized God: The Basic Flaw in Ecumenical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
4 This is to paint with broad strokes, of course. Barth accepted “predicates of classical theism . . . in modified form”; both Barth and Torrance tended to interpret immutability in terms of “divine constancy.” George Hunsinger, Reading Barth With Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), p. 131; Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), p. 239.
5 David B. Burrell, C.S.C., Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), pp. 5-18; Giles Emery, O.P. ‘The Immutability of the God of Love and the Problem of Language Concerning the “Suffering of God”’, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, ed. James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White, O.P. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), pp. 33-34.
6 For a traditional Barthian defense of the Logos asarkos, see Hunsinger, pp. 16-32, 157-158.
7 “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not. . . Now it can be shown how God is not, by denying Him whatever is opposed to the idea of Him, as, composition, motion, and the like.” ST 1.3 Prol.
8 See David B. Burrell, C.S.C, Aquinas: God and Action (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979); Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986); Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).
9 It is not until ST 1.13 that Aquinas addresses positive predication concerning God, whether metaphorical terms (“rock”) (art. 3), relational terms (such as “Creator” or “Lord”) (art. 7), or analogously predicated “perfection” terms (“good” and “goodness.” “wise” and “wisdom”) (art. 5).
10 “[W]hen Aquinas tells us that God is eternal, he is primarily telling us what God is not, namely not changing. And in holding to the view that God is immutable, he is chiefly denying that certain creaturely limitations are found in God.” Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 111.
11 David Bentley Hart is particularly critical of the Bañezian approach in “Impassibility as Transcendence: On the Infinite Innocence of God.” Divine Impassibility, pp. 299-323.
12 Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action, p. 37; Emery, p. 62; Burrell writes: “[If] divine eternity be understood for what it is – a formal feature of divinity as such – then the creator who bestows esse and is hence present to each moment of time as it exists in its respective now will be one intimately engaged with each individual. And when such individuals are intentional beings, capable of knowing and loving, such a God will be responsive to them as they are responsive to divine promptings. Nor does such a picture in any way clash with another formal feature of divinity – unchangeableness – since intentional interaction is not change but involves the responsiveness of knowing and loving.” Knowing the Unknowable God, pp. 105-106. William Hill writes: “[God] willing to enter into relationships with human beings, who as persons determine themselves to be the kind of persons they are vis-a-vis God, is on his part a willingness to be determined on this ontological level of freedom and personhood, without any corresponding mutation or determination on the level of nature.” “Does the World Make a Difference to God?,” Search for the Absent God: Tradition and Modernity in Religious Understanding, ed. Mary Catherine Hikert. (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 118.
13 W. Norris Clarke, S.J., Person and Being (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993,1998), pp. 20-21, 82-87.
14 Davies, p. 109.
15 Bruce D.Marshall, “The Dereliction of Christ and the Impassibility of God,” Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, pp. 246-298; Thomas G. Weinandy, “Cyril and the Mystery of the Incarnation,” The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria, ed. Thomas G. Weinandy and Daniel A. Keating (London, New York: T & T Clark, 2003), pp. 23-54.