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).

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).

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Catholicism as society

In light of the rather odd juxtaposition of the confirmation hearings on one hand and some vociferous divisions between Catholics I respect on the other, I thought it might be useful to offer a word or two on the notion of Catholicism as society. One tremendous advantage of Zubirian thought, an advantage noted by Ignacio Ellacuria among others, is that it provides a meaningful metaphysical account of society. Indeed, Zubiri's entire picture of the Church as Body of Christ is based on the societal interrelation of members living the life of Christ both individually and collectively. You can never separate the individual from the social in being molded to the Trinitarian life.

Part of that realization is to perceive that one can never have "the Catholic faith" as an isolated individual. The individual's faith can never be defined apart from the societal faith, because the individual can never be defined apart from his own historicity and social setting, creating a constant dialogue within the Church. Indeed, Catholicism is in some sense a discussion among Catholics about what Catholicism is; that is an essential part of the metaphysical constitution of the Church. There is no "argument for" Catholicism, because Catholicism is not a subjective belief; rather, it is an objective reality. It is the objective reality, not one's own imperfect perception of the reality, that is the ground of unity. At the same time, it is the conviction of sharing an objective reality that makes the subjective views meaningful; knowing that we Catholics have the shared reality is what gives us optimism in dialogue that something good will come of the discussion.

Part of the problem is in the apologetic emphasis on the divisiveness of Protestantism, acting as if Catholicism is better because its principle of doctrinal authority ensures doctrinal uniformity. In fact, the case is quite the opposite. It is the conviction that there is one faith, and that this faith is realized in the Catholic Church, that brings Catholics together in dialogue to overcome differences. In Protestantism, there is no incentive to do so, because there is no metaphysical imperative to realize unity in a real way. Either the importance of the disagreement is minimized by calling the matter "unessential," or there is schism, or there is simply mutual monologue. Only in Catholicism is dialogue an essential part of the process, because only there is the innate conviction that there is a goal in sight and that greater unity can be attained.

ISTM that suppression of this dialogue is where Catholicism has suffered its greatest losses. I think my bishop's response to the sexual abuse scandals using the theme "Breaking the Silence" makes a great deal of sense. As a matter of practice, the Pope has never been able to suppress dialogue unilaterally, because even his pronouncements have simply sparked more dialogue. And the use of force and political power has historically proved equally futile, producing the moments of greatest shame in the Church's history. Ultimately, it is contrary to the nature of Catholicism, which preserves the faith in a historically submerged dialogue between past and present. Voices are not silenced in Catholicism, and efforts to do so, whether by liberalism or rigorous traditionalism, have failed. This is why the nouvelle theologie succeeded so powerfully with ressourcement; the voices of Tradition could not be silenced by any amount of rationalistic speculation.

That's not to say that "dissent" ought to be unlimited; obviously, there comes a point at which one is no longer committed to the real Church and bringing the ideal into the world. That can take the form of pure idealism (disregarding the "real world" in one's theology) or outright denial of what the Church has to say (no longer sincerely trying to listen to the voice of the Tradition). But most of the time, fear of dissent is simply fear of dialogue, fear of the human process, fear of our own finitude. My reply would simply be that one need not fear finitude if one has faith in the objective reality of God making dialogue possible, and if one doubts this, one wonders how strong one's Catholic faith truly is.

UPDATE -- Newlywed Tim Enloe linking this post actually reminded me of a useful analogy. Fr. Al Kimel's post "Do We Marry the Right Person?" emphasizes the sheer impossibility of making an argument for the objective state of marriage. Marriage is not a belief about marriage, so although people who aren't Britney Spears ordinarily have reasons for getting married (which may be different between the spouses), no argument makes one married! There is no syllogistic set of premises reaching a state of belief equivalent to the state of being married. Furthermore, there is no concrete concept of marriage apart from actually being married, and neither spouse's belief about marriage determines what the marriage will be. Asking what the "argument for" Catholicism is, is akin to asking what the "argument for" getting married is. One might have reasons, but you'd be deluding yourself to think that there was an argument that compelled marriage, just as you'd be deluding yourself to think that there is an "argument for" Catholicism. Conversely, there is no argument against being Catholic that can be made apart from the individual Catholic. Attempting to make an "argument for" Catholicism simply misses that Catholicism is not a cognitive state, any more than marriage is a cognitive state. You're consenting to a real relationship that will define your beliefs, not a real belief about a relationship.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Zoobie Review: St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy by John Anthony McGuckin

St. Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy: Its History, Theology, and Texts by J.A. McGuckin [orig. publ. by E.J. Brill in the series Supplement to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 23, 1994; republished by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2004; ISBN#0881412597]

Modestly described by Baptist patristics scholar Steven A. McKinion in 2000 as "the most recent major work on the christology of Cyril" (Words, Imagery, and the Mystery of Christ: A Reconstruction of Cyril of Alexandria's Christology, p. 157), J.A. McGuckin's seminal work on Cyrillene Christology remains a force to be reckoned with for those who would impugn the coherence of Cyril's Christological position. Through careful attention to the relevant texts, McGuckin systematically rebukes the notion of Harnack, Seeberg, and other liberal Protestant historians that Cyril was a crypto-Apollinarian throughout his career. Moreover, he criticizes the idea that the Council of Chalcedon represented a vindication of Antiochene logos-man Christology against Alexandrian logos-sarx Christology. The latter concept appears to have been inspired by the distinction between Alexandrian and Antiochene views drawn by Grillmeier, even though Grillmeier himself admitted that this was hardly a perfect categorization and specifically denied that the later Cyril was Apollinarian. Subsequent scholars (e.g., R.A. Norris) had sharply questioned whether the Antioch/Alexandria paradigm was meaningfully applicable at all. But no scholar before McGuckin had paid such careful attention to the theological content of Cyril's writings in addressing these two problems. This is where McGuckin's genius at extracting theological concepts behind words becomes plain.

McGuckin is concerned also to defend Cyril's character against the tendency to portray him as a conniving political manipulator. In that respect, McGuckin's efforts are somewhat uneven; Norman Russell, for example, rejects McGuckin's notion that Cyril was not complicit in some of the brutality inherited from his uncle. McGuckin also tends to excuse Cyril's behavior in the sense that we should not apply anachronisitic standards to practices like political bribery, but a realistic assessment must surely admit the relevance of these practices to the acceptance of Cyril's dogma (although perhaps not to the extreme of Susan Wessel in neglecting the idea of theological coherence altogether as a factor in dogma). But even as gritty a theological realist as Wessel must concede both that there is a viable argument that Cyril was theologically consistent throughout his career (S. Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic, p. 270) and that there is no longer any serious scholarly basis for seeing Chalcedon as a vindication of Antiochene Christology as against Cyril himself (p. 290, citing Patrick T.R. Gray's argument to that effect). So it is fair to say that McGuckin's argument represents the consensus of scholars in viewing Chalcedon as being thoroughly Cyrillene, as against the various apologists for Nestorius and detractors of Cyril (such as Harnack).

Perhaps the best evidence of the lasting impression of McGuckin's work has been the inspiration of later works of Cyrillene scholarship. At least two subsequent authors have argued that McGuckin did not even go far enough in examining the rich depth of Cyrillene Christology. McKinion's work (supra), for example, notes that the Scriptural depth of Cyril's argument and the sublime consistency of his Christology can only be appreciated through his use of imagery, although he favorably cites the efforts of both Norris and McGuckin in his treatment. Daniel A. Keating in The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria (2004) argues that previous scholarly efforts at plumbing the depths of Cyril's Christology have been admirable (citing Bernard Meunier, Marie-Odile Boulnois, Norman Russell, and McGuckin), but that even those have failed to take into account the voluminous Scriptural commentaries left behind by St. Cyril, which paint an even clearer picture of the wealth of Cyril's Christology. The fact that even skeptics of the notion of theological consistency in church councils, such as Susan Wessel, have been forced to take notice is surely a sign of the weighty influence that McGuckin exerts in the area. Clearly, McGuckin's work is a pathbreaking foray into Cyrillene scholarship and, in any case, a definitive rebuttal to those who would view Chalcedon as anything other than a thoroughly Cyrillene council. For the price, you will not find a higher quality survey of Cyrillene Christology anywhere.

On a metaphysical rigor scale from -5 to +5, I give it an unqualified 5 Zoobs.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Zoobie Review: Divine Discourse by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks by Nicholas Wolterstorff [Cambridge University Press, 1995; ISBN #0521475570 (paperback)]

It's pretty easy to comprehend why Wolterstorff, as a Reformed epistemologist, wrote this book, but what is more difficult is understanding how he thinks it will impact those of us who aren't. Not that there's anything wrong with Reformed epistemology, I suppose, if you want to believe that sort of thing. But given the numerous Christian alternatives, including the "sentient intelligence" that we Zoobies endorse, it seems to me that Reformed epistemology is almost entirely a defense mechanism for people who insist on the intellectual defensibility of being Reformed. I suppose that it is intellectually defensible at some level, but that's not really a reason to be Reformed, since there are plenty of intellectually defensible positions that are no better than their alternatives. Given the failure of the Reformed epistemologists' assault on natural theology, one wonders what relevance the movement will retain outside of providing an excuse for those who are already Reformed to stay Reformed. Indeed, preserving the Reformed epistemology in the context of Scripture appears to be precisely what Wolterstorff has in mind here.

Wolterstorff sets out to determine whether it is possible for God to have spoken in the sense of Austin's speech-action theory: viz., whether it is possible for God to take what speech-action theorists call illocutionary acts. To briefly and inadequately summarize speech-action theory, the notion is that speech is really a combination of locutionary acts, which are the actual physical acts of uttering sounds, making black squiggles on pieces of paper, and similar acts of producing language (NOTE: Wolterstorff's terminology here is slightly different that Austin's own defintion). But in themselves, these are not speech apart from illocutionary acts performed by way of locutionary acts, such as asking, asserting, commanding, promising, and the like. Wolterstorff notes that the tendency of many theologians has been to assume that because God does not (ordinarily, at least) perform locutionary acts that he does not perform illocutionary acts either. Wolterstorff's theory is that this has led theologians to dismiss what seems like an intuitive understanding that God speaks to human beings in favor of conceiving God's communication solely in terms of revelation rather than speaking.

Wolterstorff's difficulty with this conception appears to be twofold. First, it doesn't account for the vast number of Scriptural and later references to divine communication as God "speaking." Second, his implicit concern appears to be that this causes people to move away from authorial-discourse interpretation, which he views as a quite-tolerable view of God's communicative interaction with human beings (defending it explicitly in this work against the criticism of Derrida and Ricoeur). Wolterstorff criticizes the notion that God communicates solely by revelation by showing examples of speech that are not revelatory, thus motivating the claim that God might speak outside of revelation. In turning to the question of whether God might speak, he formulates the notion of illocutionary acts in terms of moral obligations within a societal context, so that the object of illocutionary action is to trigger moral obligations. Here, Wolterstorff is at his most perceptive, and he cites examples of how this allows speech acts even to be deputized to other human beings' locutionary actions (such as when an envoy is deputized to speak on behalf of the President or when someone endorses a statement by another). In this context, it becomes clear that God can speak in a non-revelatory way even without performing locutionary acts. Moreover, it justifies two separate senses in which we consider God to be "speaking" to us: in the context of public/social morality (public divine speech), and in the private context (private divine speech, an example of which is St. Augustine's conversion to Christianity after hearing a child say "Take, read," which he took as a command from God to read Scripture)

At the same time, it is exactly at this point that one wonders what Wolterstorff's point is. If his object is to motivate authorial-discourse interpretation as a sensible way to identify divinely-intended meaning in some sense, then I doubt he would have many objectors. But Wolterstorff seems to have a sense that there ought to be a univocal way of thinking about divine and mundane speech, and I think this misses exactly the objection that theologians are raising. Wolterstorff, quite rightly, cites Barth as a theologian of the Word of God par excellence and interacts quite extensively with Barth's view. But I think that he misses the fundamental theological point that only the Word of God can reveal God, and this is where Wolterstorff (confessedly, based on p. 73, FNs 10 and 11) doesn't grasp the metaphysical underpinning that it is the witness of God in the Church that gives Scripture "as distinct from all other words and signs, the dignity and validity of the Word of God" (Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/2,459; cited on p. 69). Barth's view is comparable to Zubiri's theory of revelation, that proceeds from the identification of that which is revealed with that which is proclaiming the revelation. But even in Wolterstorff's idiom, if he identified the social structure of the Church with the normative function of public/social morality in the interpretation of Scripture, he likely wouldn't have missed Barth's point here. The point is that it is the "faith community," not the historical horizons of the original author, that defines the normative status of Scripture, which is exactly why profane methods of authorial-discourse simply fail as a true interpretive method (Wolterstorff himself perceives the problem, as I will discuss later, but misses the implications). It is a special kind of speech having social normativity in the context of the Body of Christ.

Wolterstorff's observation that part of Barth's desire here was to overcome what he viewed as increasing difficulty with holding Scripture as "inerrant" in light of critical scholarship is probably correct, but I suspect that was only a corollary of the main point, in that "inerrantism" is not an adequate basis for a theory of revelation anyway (which Wolterstorff himself notes later). But Wolterstoff clearly doesn't grasp the significance of Barth's argument that limiting the Word of God to the kind of speech that Wolterstoff suggests would impugn the freedom of God. Wolterstorff says on pp. 73-74:

Secondly, Barth regarded the claim that God speaks by way of authoring Scripture as compromising the freedom of God. God and God alone speaks for God. "That the Bible is the Word of God cannot mean with other attributes the Bible has the attribute of being the Word of God. To say that would be to violate the Word of God which is God Himself -- to violate the freedom and sovereignty of God. God is not an attribute of something else, even if this something else is the Bible. God is the Subject, God is Lord. He is Lord even over the Bible and in the Bible. The statement that the Bible is the Word of God cannot therefore say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible. On the contrary, what it must say is that the Bible is tied to the Word of God. But that means that in this statement we contemplate a free decision of God" [Church Dogmatics] (1/2,513). If it is indeed a limitation on God's freedom that God would commission a human being to speak "in the name of" God, then perhaps we have to take seriously the possibility that God is willing on occasion to limit God's freedom in that way -- or alternatively, consider the possibility that we are working with an alien or inapplicable concept of freedom. But in the case of appropriation, it's hard to see how God's decision to appropriate certain human speech as the medium of divine speech is in any way a compromise of divine freedom! Probably Barth never even considered the appropriation model as a way of thinking of God as author!

With all due respect to Wolterstorff, I think that this last statement vastly underestimates Barth as a theologian. On the contrary, I think that Barth specifically considered exactly what Wolterstorff is proposing and rejected it as an entirely inferior concept of divine speech as compared to the much fuller theological concept of witnessing and proclamation that Barth endorses, which is effectively a speech above speech. Only this fuller concept, Barth argues, is befitting the name of the Word of God, and to limit Him from this fuller concept is exactly what Barth considers an assault on God's freedom. As I said earlier, Wolterstorff is committed to the notion of a univocal account of "speech" as the only way to properly respect the Biblical language, but I think Barth would actually reject that concept and even consider it denigrating to the idea of the Word of God.

Wolterstorff almost perceives the normativity problem, but misses it on p. 206:

There's a strand of radical Protestantism which would protest vigorously what I said above, that we do our interpreting for divine discourse with convictions in two hands -- in one, convictions as to the human discourse and meanings of the sentences used, in the other, convictions as to what God would and wouldn't have intended to say by appropriating this totality of discourse and locution. That strand would insist that interpretation for divine discourse must be interpretation with one hand: no convictions about God are to be employed in the practice of interpretation which do not themselves emerge from interpreting the human locution and discourse of the Bible. Perhaps the simplest and most decisive way of seeing this cannot be correct is the following: in our interpretations, we make use of the conviction that God speaks consistently. If we didn't, then even the fact that one's tentative interpretation of two parts of the biblical text has the implication that God's discourse was contradictory would be no reason for not adopting that interpretation. Indeed, so fundamental and persuasive is our use of this conviction in our practice of interpretation that we rarely notice we are using it. But if we didn't bring this conviction to the practice of interpretation, rather than waiting until it emerged from the practice, we couldn't take even the first steps in the practice of interpreting for divine discourse. For suppose we approached the text with a truly open mind as to whether God's discourse is contradictory, and then read in the text the sentence "I, God, do not contradict myself." How are we to interpret that very sentence? If we already believed that God does not contradict Godself, then we would interpret it literally, and rightly so -- unless something in the context indicated that the sentence was being used in an unusual fashion. But if we had no view on the matter of God's consistency, we would be without good reason to adopt either a literal or non-literal interpretation, say, an ironic interpretation. We couldn't adopt any interpretation; we would be stymied.

Wolterstorff then cites examples of such convictions from the past (notably St. Augustine and John Lockes) and then notes on p. 208 that the fear of bringing convictions to the practice of interpretation is primarily driven by the "wax nose anxiety," the fear that Scripture will simply be molded to whatever our conviction says. Wolterstoff dedicated Ch. 13 to the demonstration that the notion of "inerrantism" and taking presuppositions from the text is not adequate to alleviate this anxiety. On p. 236, he says:

I conclude that there is no way to avoid employing our convictions as to what is true and loving in the process of interpreting for divine discourse -- no way to circumvent doing that which evokes the wax-nose anxiety, the anxiety, namely, that the convictions with which we approach the process of interpretation may lead us to miss discerning what God said and to conclude that God said what God did not say. The anxiety is appropriate, eminently appropriate, and will always be appropriate. Only with awe and apprehension, sometimes even fear and trembling, and only after prayer and fasting, is it appropriate to interpret a text so as to discern what God said and is saying thereby. The risks cannot be evaded.

Thus far, Wolterstorff is doing well. But when he advances suggestions for how to minimize the risk, he runs directly afoul of Barth's criticism. First, Wolterstorff suggests that we ought to stick to authorial-discourse interpretation absent a "good reason" to the contrary, but here he fails to account for Barth's conviction that the appropriation model of divine discourse is simply inadequate for the Word of God, and the critical importance of "witnesses" as the interpretive community for the Word of God. In other words, he has simply substituted his own convictions for others' in absence of an argument in their favor. Second, he suggests that convictions need to be humbly revisable, but he can't possibly mean that, for if it were true, then the convictions in question would not survive the objection he raises in the first place. He seems to be somewhat inconsistently arguing in favor of the "epistemic principle of charity" suggested by Davidson with regard to one's convictions, but if that is the case, I think that the subject is much better covered by then-ELCA member and current Catholic Bruce Marshall in Trinity and Truth, which argues quite convincingly that Christian epistemic convinctions must be grounded in Christ Himself (a natural stance for a Barthian, as indicated by the objections above, and a Catholic as well). Third, he argues that we need to account for epistemically reliable findings of the sciences (social and physical), but one must question how authorial-discourse interpretation somehow escapes the self-criticality that other sciences must face to ensure their reliability, becoming a divinely preferred model of interpretation by default.

Thus, while I think Wolterstorff does well to locate speech-action theory in terms of normative obligation, I think his argument for authorial-discourse interpretation as a "preferred" method of interpretation limps in light of the Barthian objection, which Wolterstorff doesn't appear to understand, and even fails in the face of his own requirement for a normative community to give moral meaning to illocutionary acts. Moreover, had he paid a bit more attention to the role of the Church in St. Augustine's own hermeneutical theory, which he cites on p. 207, I think he would have realized that Augustine's conviction that the child saying "Tolle, lege" was God speaking to him was not all that different from his conviction that the Church provides the public normative context for interpretation by way of its authority. I suspect the fact that he bypassed both Barth's and Augustine's positions regarding the interpretive community so breezily is probably due to Wolterstorff's admitted acceptance of the divine command theory of obligation (pp. 97-103), a voluntarist paradigm that I doubt can be reconciled with traditional Christianity in any sense (even St. Augustine's relatively will-centered theology) or any metaphysical account of the Church as the Body of Christ. So in a sense, we come full circle to the problem that I cited above: the failure of Reformed epistemology to answer natural theology leaves one with little reason to follow the Reformed epistemologists in the direction they wish to go.

On a metaphysical rigor scale of -5 to 5, I give Wolterstorff three-and-a-half Zoobs.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

Yes, I am still alive

And after some prodding from the Cogitator, I have finally expanded the Wikipedia article on Xavier Zubiri, and firmly planted myself on a soapbox for more theologians of the Zubirian school. Here 'tis:

Xavier Zubiri (1889–1983) was a Spanish philosopher noted for his intellectual rigor. Zubiri's most impressive intellectual accomplishment is the creation of an entire metaphysical system stemming from his view of man as a "sentient intelligence" situated in reality. In this system, man is "religated" by the "power of the real," so that his personal reality is intimately connected with being situated in a real context. At the same time, man can be considered the author of his own personal being, his "I," through the appropriation of experience and the exercise of personal freedom within this real context, so that Zubiri can refer to man as the "animal of realities." This openness of man to possibilities is what makes man an "open essence," as opposed to a "closed essence" (i.e., a structure that simply operates according to rules of functionality). Many of his works have been translated into English by Thomas B. Fowler and by Nelson Orringer. After his death, the Fundación Xavier Zubiri and the Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America were set up as charities to disseminate his work.

Zubiri's Critique of Classical Metaphysics

Probably the most innovative aspect of Zubiri's metaphysical system is his critique of classical metaphysics and particularly of the notion of reality as "subject" in the Aristotelian sense, viz., a reality that is somehow "autonomous" apart from its context. Zubiri reconceives reality as an interconnected structure of "notes," which structure is "in its own right" to a certain degree (a property Zubiri refers to as "substantivity" in contrast to the classical notion of "substantiality"). The "notes" themselves are reality's ways of "giving-of-itself" in being, so in this respect, reality is actually prior to being rather than being identifiable with being. Thus, Zubiri can criticize the "logification of intellect" that identifies what is intellectively known with being, which in turn leads to the "entification of reality" (identification of reality with being). This critique spans the entire history of philosophy, from Parmenides to the medieval scholastics all the way to Hegel and Heidegger (who himself was one of Zubiri's philosophical mentors, along with Edmund Husserl).

The possibilities for applying Zubiri's metaphysics in a theological context are quite diverse, owing to its ability to adapt classical metaphysical formulations of theology into Zubiri's own terms. Zubiri himself applied such adaptations to the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, and the Real Presence of the Eucharist, as well as other diverse theological subjects. Of note is the intrinsic compatibility of Zubiri's notion of reality as prior to being with the earlier patristic notion that God Himself is beyond being. Thus, Zubiri's system has significant potential for reconciling what appear to be inherent contradictions between Eastern and Western theology, such as the debate over the so-called "essence-energies distinction" and the filioque. Unfortunately, the application of Zubiri's work in the theological sphere has been relatively limited outside of Ignacio Ellacuría's work in liberation theology, a controversial application of theological principles to society that is somewhat notorious for its entanglement with Marxism.