Monday, September 19, 2005

Venti Apologia Cappadocia

The Cappadocian Fathers are frequently revered for their theology of the Trinity, but they are a bit underrated (IMHO) for their apologetics based on natural theology. Methodologically, I don't think we've come particularly far beyond the apophatic method or the analytical rigor of the Cappadocians, and indeed, we've probably gone downhill. The strength of that method was the use of metaphysical discipline to prevent making statements that would violate God's transcendence or the limits of human reason. In other words, it prevented people from making statements that couldn't possibly be meaningful in the sense that they were made. That in turn allowed a more profitable method for determining when and when not to use allegory than Origen's method, which was to some extent uncontrolled. In some respects, the Cappadocian method resembled St. Augustine's exegetical method in On Christian Doctrine. The basic idea is that if your literal interpretation was metaphysically absurd (e.g., denying God's goodness in Augustine's case), you knew that the correct interpretation must be allegorical. But the Cappadocian method (stemming from Neoplatonism) had the advantage of being more metaphysically rigorous than St. Augustine's almost purely Platonic approach, and this gave it a bit more precision in picking out what kinds of statements could and could not be made and where it was and wasn't appropriate to use allegorical techniques of interpretation.

The reason that I think the Cappadocian technique is so effective is exactly because it combats, through discipline, the most tempting and insidious form of idolatry: making God into a man. What is this other than the pride of Lucifer? As the prophet Isaiah puts it, "You said in your heart,`I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.'" (Is. 14:13-14). But Isaiah secures the answer to this pride in humility( Is. 55:6-11): Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts,neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

What is of crucial importance here is to note that the Word does not place God within the limits of our reason, but rather, it comes from something beyond us. Thus, at the root of the Cappadocian method are two fundamental guidelines: the revealed reality of the economy of salvation, and the recognition of our human limits. With respect to the former principle, they follow the method of St. Athanasius, who centered his Nicene theology around the economy of salvation. But it is with respect to the latter that they made their greatest innovation, in effect Christianizing natural theology to preserve God's transcendence without denying the revealed economy of salvation. Although later theologians (particularly St. Maximos Confessor) provided clarification on particular areas of Cappadocian thought, the basic Cappadocian program has been remarkably robust over time, and the best evidence may be the number of recent church historians who have been persuaded to recognize the influence of the Cappadocians (particularly Gregory Nyssen) in the last several decades (see, e.g., Sarah Coakley's Re-Thinking Gregory of Nyssa, Michel Barnes's The Power of God, and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Presence and Thought). Moreover, other great theological lights of the day, including St. Cyril and St. John Chrysostom, necessarily relied on the apophatic methodology given its fullest systematic explanation by the Cappadocians (Cyril in the economy/theology distinction, and Chrysostom in his discourses on the incomprehensibility of God against the Eunomians).

I am persuaded that many errors of contemporary theology can be traced to basic violations of the Cappadocian principle, which is only to be expected, since the Cappadocian principle is directed at the most common form of spiritual idolatry in theological speculation. In particular, I think that it provides a relatively clean way for rejecting excessively anthropomorphic exegesis. I call this the "No, Dummy! SMACK!" effect in exegesis: when you start anthropomorphizing God so as to violate God's transcendence (trying to "think God's thoughts," as it were), a sound apophatic methodology puts you back in your place. Conversely, transcending these limits is a kind of dangerous insanity, akin to the pride of Lucifer. What I propose to do in later installments of the Venti Apologia Cappadocia (VAC) series is to point out precisely how this error produces erroneous conclusions in the arguments of various theological authors, often in a misguided attempt to "give meaning" to Scriptural language. Such arguments I will refer to as VACuous, in keeping with the title of the series (which was inspired by the resemblance of the term "Apologia Cappadocia" to something one would order at Starbucks).