Monday, September 26, 2005

OK, Who Am I Kidding?

I've been talking about coming out with several articles for a couple of weeks now, and it's clear that it ain't gonna happen. Moreover, in terms of timing, I want to dedicate the greater portion of my free time in matters theological toward preparing for my confirmation students. So I'm going to cut corners, because frankly, I have to do it. In the future, I hope I will introduce some of these issues with enough detail to get people thinking, but it isn't going to be anything like a full-fledged argument or exposition.

One particular subject that I would like to do in gory detail is the Venti Apologia Cappadocia series, but I just can't. There are too many books out there, and I don't have time to do them justice. Since I can't hit them book by book, here are the themes that I see emerging in Protestant works; you'll have to do your own investigations for homework to flesh out the arguments.

A. Personal Problems

One significant problem in Protestantism is failing to account for God's transcendence in the concept of a divine person. They want to excessively "humanize" God, often based on the so-called "accommodation" of God in written revelation, not realizing that this is essentially an attempt to drag God down to their level. It basically requires God to make Himself comprehensible to human beings in order to reveal Himself, which is more or less ridiculous. This leads to two problems.

The first problem is to accuse the orthodox view of a divine person assuming human nature as not human enough. This resembles the old Antiochene view, but done for opposite reasons (the Antiochenes wanted to preserve God's transcendence against the Arians, while current Protestants want to deny it in order to make God comprehensible in terms of propositional truths). The big enthusiast of this view was Adolf von Harnack, the liberal humanist who notoriously accused St. Cyril of Monophysitism and defended the orthodoxy of Adoptionism. But this brand of anthropomorphism is more broadly accepted in Protestant circles. The most glaring examples can be found in Harold O.J. Brown's Heresies, which is used as a textbook of church history in Protestant seminaries and which repeatedly asserts the need for "personhood" for Trinitarian intercommunication, and the influential writings of D.A. Carson, especially Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, Love in Hard Places, and The Gagging of God. Carson's work purports to answer the wishy-washiness of liberalism and postmodernism with a truly sovereign God. The problem is that Carson's stern, providential "god" is just as anthropomorphic as the (quite literally) pathetic "god" of touchy-feely liberalism. The same sort of reasoning comes about in attempts to refer to the so-called "masculinity" of God and to give interpretive weight to the gendered usage of terms like "Father" and "Son" as if this is more reflective of father-love than mother-love, for example (the Cappadocians would have had a field day with that nonsense). Carson even goes so far as to (perversely) deny the impassibility of God, citing the need for God to relate to us emotionally as well as rationally, not even realizing that he would thereby destroy the ontological trustworthiness of the promises and sovereignty in which Carson sets his stock!

Such an anthropomorphic view of God's sovereignty is obvious all over the place in Calvinist writings; I would cite Paul Helm in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views as an example. If you follow his argument, he cites things like the minuteness of God's providential attention as evidence that God must be sovereign (no problem at that point), but then he gets himself into trouble by an anthropomorphic understanding of causation that effectively denies God's transcendence. He demands a causal mechanism for God to be sovereign and to "justify" God's knowledge, which renders his entire account of God's permissive will entirely incoherent. This flaw is noted by William Lane Craig in the same work, who observes that Helm's analogy of removing the hand from someone riding a bicycle who infallibly falls according to causal principles does nothing to make Helm's account of divine knowledge more acceptable than middle knowledge, since Helm is effectively asserting that God can only know what He causes. For homework, you can pick any of these books and try to identify the points where they violate God's transcendence; they won't be hard to find.

In some respects, this is simply following through the consequences of one's assumptions about what can be known about God, which is why it is important to have a theological method that draws these distinctions in advance before the mistake is made, which leads me to my next point.

B. Exegesis
Any time you have a theological method that does not account for God's transcendence, you will end up blowing it on exegesis. Such a person will not know when to allegorize to avoid anthropomorphism (because such a person doesn't know when he has said something absurd about God), and the result is that passages are taken at face value that shouldn't be. That's exactly what happened to the Antiochenes; in attempting to protect God's transcendence, they actually ended up violating it by being overly literal. The sovereignty problems mentioned above are simply a special case of the same thing.

But a slightly more insidious problem comes up in the case of inter-Trinitarian communication. In the orthodox account, this is perichoresis, which is incomprehensibly different from all modes of human communication. As absurd as it may seem, there is a school of thought in Protestantism that is based on the notion that members of the Trinity actually speak to one another, and that human language is an analogical reflection of this communication. In terms of apophatic theology, that is just plain ridiculous; it is exactly in the area in which we cannot have knowledge of any kind. It reflects a defective account of what analogical knowledge about God is (see Christos Yannaras The Absence and Unknowability of God for an excellent contrast of the Western like/unlike idea of analogy with true apophaticism); it treats doxological knowledge about God as if it were propositional knowledge.

The result of this rather-absurd anthropomorphism is that several Protestants have invented so-called "Trinitarian" methods of exegesis based on the "mutual coinherence" of random groups of three linguistic aspects (e.g., Vern Poythress's classificational, associational, and instantiational theory). Apart from displaying extraordinary philosophical naivete about ontology generally (see Brice Wachterhauser's Beyond Being: Gadamer's Post-Platonic Hermeneutic Ontology for an excellent summary of how philosophical hermeneutics fails to take account of its metaphysical origins), it is more of the same fanatical hubris that attempts to make an idol of some human characteristic, language in this case. Even the more philosophically sensitive Protestants like Nicholas Wolterstorff have failed to take account of the theological difficulties in this perspective, something that was a major focus of Barthian theology. Indeed, the misunderstanding of Barth by both Wolterstorff and Poythress (the latter having several nasty footnotes about "neo-orthodoxy") are perhaps the best evidence that they don't even see the possibility of idolatry in confusing language itself with God. They don't recognize the theological problem, and consequently, they think the philosophical resolution of speech-action theory has made their position defensible. This is turn reinforces literalism in areas where (for theological reasons) it is absurd to apply it.

Homework assignments in this area could include a survey of any of the following books: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse; Anthony Thistelton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics; Vern Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (a misnomer if ever there was one); John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God; and D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God. (Edit -- Also, Kevin Vanhoozer's First Theology). There are more, of course, but those are the ones that make the problem most plain IMHO.

And, alas, that's all I can really do on this subject. With regard for everything else, all I can expect to do is to post some brief Zoobie Reviews on what I'm reading or have read as I find time. Just didn't want anyone to be on hold for more extensive reviews, because I'm just not going to be able to do them. However, if you happen to read one of the books I review and want to discuss it, I'd love to have more extensive discussions via email, and I might even post them (if I'm given permission; otherwise, what happens in email will stay there).