Friday, November 13, 2009

Let me be your instincts

Continuing with the theme of the previous post, we'll summarize what was covered last time, and then move on to motivating some of the intuitions of the Western theological method. In so doing, I hope to dispel whatever anxiety might otherwise result from a bugaboo called the ordo theologiae, which, as I will point out, doesn't actually mean anything once you get behind the different intuitions, despite being a favorite club wielded by anti-Western Orthodoxy.


To recap the metaphysical distinction, what distinguishes St. Thomas (and I would argue St. Augustine) from Pseudo-Dionysius is the metaphysical concept of the good. Rather than rewriting the whole buildup to that point, I'm going to skip to the end and steal a summary from Scott Carson:


A significant difference between Plato and Aristotle is that, while Plato insists that any given name may only denote a single, causal entity and, hence, have only one meaning, Aristotle maintains that it is much simpler to admit that many words are equivocal. To give you an idea of what Aristotle is getting at, consider the word "good". For Plato, "good" is the proper name of the causal entity that causes any particular thing that is good in any respect to be good in the respect in which it is good. So, for example, we may say "Socrates was a good man", "This is a good wine", and "Rest and relaxation are good", and Plato would insist that the one word, "good", as differently as it is used in each setting, ultimately means the same thing in each case. The difficulty is to figure out what it means, if it must mean the same thing in each of these very different cases. The word, in short, is univocal, according to Plato, because, as we said above, it is a rigid designator of a certain causal entity which is simple and non-decomposable. But Aristotle held that we may simplify things immensely by allowing that the word "good" means different things in different contexts. That is, it picks out something quite different when said of a man, like Socrates, or of a wine, or of a certain activity such as relaxing. In other words, what it is for Socrates to be a good man is something different from what it is to be a good wine, and we cannot reduce the two things to one thing.

What we did last time was to dig into that distinction a little more, specifically as it pertains to operations. For Plato, Plotinus, and Pseudo-Dionysius, the Form of the Good is "beyond being in dignity and power" (link is to Prof. Carson's summary). Given this sort of univocal causality, the Form of the Good is ultimately the source of being, leading to all of the various operations of the individual things. But in Thomist metaphysics, this Aristotelian notion of everything tending to be good in its own way is then supplemented by the notion of ultimate good that is the end and perfection of all things. Turning back to my black hole analogy, its mode of existence is not like anything around it, but it is the ultimate containment of all things and thereby affects everything around it. Thus, it is not that the good produces operations to mimic its own operations, but that the good produces operations that tend to itself.

The implications of this metaphysical reversal are manifold, but from a theological perspective, almost all of them can be reduced to the role of operations and their relation to God. But to understand how those pieces fit, we have to trace the history of some prominent figures in Western theology.


The easiest way to see the difference is in the original source of Western Trinitarian language: Tertullian. In Against Praxeas, Tertullian notes that the Three are One in quality/condition (status), substance (substantia), and power (potestas), but Three in order (gradus), aspect (forma), and manifestation (species). Tertullian's use of prosopon (person) parallels that of his contemporary St. Hippolytus of Rome; both use the term to refer to a concrete manifestation or an individual presentation. Likewise, both emphasize the commonality of substance by virtue of the commonality of power, although Tertullian's concept is somewhat metaphysically primitive. Specifically, Tertullian's idea still leans too heavily on his notion of substantia in a Stoic sense, as a kind of metaphysical "stuff" that takes various forms through its characteristic modes of action. Thus, even when he concedes the Son's separate entitative existence, it is not clear that he has truly come to grips with the concept of an absolute commonality of essence and power, as opposed to the Son being the result of a power's expression. What is notable about St. Hippolytus particularly, though, is that there is a notable reversal of the pagan order from the Chaldean Oracles, which starts from separate powers being taken for granted and then establishes the commonality of essence. Hippolytus is only the first of many Western theologians to start from the commonality of the essence and to use powers as a concept for indicating unity in diversity.

Subsequent Latin theology oriented itself around the increasing realization that the earlier emphasis on the Son's visibility by Novatian, Hippolytus, and Tertullian as against the Modalists could present a polemical difficulty with Homoian Arians, who used this emphasis on visibility to argue for a difference in nature. This was related to the notion of "two-stage" Incarnation, in which the Son only became active during the economy, a notion that was taken to a defensive extreme by Marcellus of Ancyra. But note that although it could be taken to extremes, no less a Father than St. Athanasius himself refused to condemn the Marcellan view, which strongly suggests that he did not consider this overemphasis the kind of fatal error entailed by Arianism. In any case, after recognizing the problem, numerous separate solutions to this difficulty were advanced by subsequent Western theologians. In what follows, I rely primarily on Michel Rene Barnes, The Power of God, and Mark Weedman, The Trinitarian Theology of Hilary of Poitiers for the details of the theology, and L. Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, for the overall approach.

The first Western theologian to see the difficulty in the position was likely St. Phoebadius of Agen. Phoebadius appreciated the difficulty and saw the need to equate power (virtus) and substance (substantia) within Tertullian's and Novatian's overall scheme of the communion of substance. In that, he made arguments similar to those made by St. Athanasius arguments in favor of the Son's consubstantiality of the Father as the "Power and Wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:24). He affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, and although he did not explicitly tie "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), he does deploy John 1:13, 5:29, and 10:30 in like manner to Novatian as against any suggestion that the Son has a lesser power. On the whole, Phoebadius represents an increasing awareness of the difficulty poised by Homoians and the willingness to deploy the older Western concepts against this concern, introducing new concepts such as the eternal generation in context of the communion of substance. But he does not arrive at a complete Trinitarian theology.

Marius Victorinus proposed what was probably the most original of the solutions. Likely inspired by the tripartite division of powers in the Chaldean Oracles, he argued that the Trinity was like three powers: to be (esse), to live (vivere), and to understand (intelligere). While he shared to some extent the notion of a common power, for Victorinus, the power analogy was more complex. For Victorinus, the completion of powers was in relation to some other thing: sight needs light to see, fire needs air to burn. So what Victorinus took from expressions like "light from light" was not a simple and identical derivation, but rather this sort of completion of the power in the Trinitarian roles, each supplying its own so that the entirety of the substance would be self-contained. Thus, for example, it was sight that supplied its own light, fire that supplied its own burning. The purest example was the pure act of existence itself, which would be the ultimate, imparticipable, infinite power beyond all being, and this appears to be indebted to some extent to the anonymous Neoplatonic commentary on Parminides. But what is notable even in this case is that he appears to be situated clearly within the context of the Homoian debate and Western theology more generally. And as with St. Hippolytus, there appears to be a reversal in terms of placing the essence as transcendent and developing the very concept of power as an explanation for unity in distinction. Although Victorinus would not ultimately work out all of the implications of these ideas into a coherent synthesis, what is interesting is that he probed at the very same points that later would be elaborated in the Western theological tradition, particularly in St. Augustine's famous psychological analogy for the Trinity.

This brings us to what must be legitimately viewed as the golden age of Western patristic theology, beginning with St. Hilary of Poitiers and going through St. Ambrose to the greatest Western doctor of all, St. Augustine. This is the time period in which Western theology, although influenced strongly by Alexandria theology, came into its own. The fateful divergence came on the issue of operations, and while it was not apparent to anyone in the East or West that the course was being set for separation, the inevitability of the divergence was already there. And just as a avalanche can start with a tiny bit of snow, so did this historical flow begin with a single word: forma.

We have seen that there was a growing awareness in the West of the need for commonality of power to indicate commonality of nature, but there was simultaneously a sense of working within an existing tradition. We saw earlier that this tradition included Tertullian's use of the term forma in a way that would have been entirely alien to a truly Platonic framework. That distinction began to widen with St. Hilary's theological use of the term in the context of Phil.2:6-8, which was his exegetical key to demonstrating the consubstantiality of Jesus with the Father in response to the Homoian Arian critique. In some ways, what St. Hilary said paralleled the generally "pro-Nicene" theology described in detail by M. R. Barnes, relying on the technical understanding of power (virtus) as an observable, causal effect of nature (natura). But the rigorous causal connection between form (morphe) and nature (physis) in the East is lacking in the West, which in turn opens up different metaphysical options and arguably even demands them.

Recall first that the context for the Homoian critique is that the visibility of the Son must demand that the Son is not consubstantial with the invisible Father. That provides the motivation by what Barnes called a "double bind." St. Phoebadius started to force against the first binding with his insistence on the commonality of power showing a commonality of nature, but he does not leverage the concept of personhood. St. Hilary does, and he uses the concept of forma as being a distinctively personal expression of the nature to do it. Hence, Hilary links the Son's visibility to his forma, His act of expressing His nature. When He emptied Himself in the kenosis of Phil. 2:6-8, He abandoned expressing Himself as God directly, deferring this to the common glorification of humanity in the eschaton. Thus, while His divine nature was shown indirectly through His exercise of the divine power, in that He produces effects that only God can make, there is a sense in which He makes Himself personally visible over and above this kind of expression. That is what the notion of forma expresses in this context, the way in which the nature is made present both concretely and personally, in like manner to St. Hippolytus's notion of prosopon.

When I say that this observation demands a different metaphysical framework, I mean that it appears impossible that a strongly Platonic understanding of morphe, in which there is a real existence of universals either independently or in Dionysian fashion as "things around God," can be reconciled with this notion of forma. If physis just is the expression of morphe, then forma cannot help but be caused by natura, and forma must necessarily fall on the side of consubstantiality rather than individuality. Likewise, the forma of the divine nature must in some sense be beyond the notion of form entirely. In the Platonic metaphysics of participation (methexis), this would make knowledge or vision of such a form impossible, as it would be identical to knowing God Himself. But St. Hilary considers this forma at least potentially visible despite his explicit acknowledgement that he considers the nature to be infinite (infinitas), which might well make him the first author in East or West to introduce infinity as a positive term for divine power and transcendence (see Weedman's summary).

The difference can be seen by way of contrast with the doctrinaire approach of St. Basil the Great. The Cappadocian Father follows an essentially Stoic epistemological framework, with the substratum (hypokeimenon) knowable by its qualities (poiotes), which are either common (koine) or individual (idia) (a schema also known in the West through Cicero). But Basil then maps this idea directly onto knowing the concrete nature just by its activities, exactly as one would expect of a Neoplatonic metaphysics. Although he rejects the Platonic theory of naming, which separates him from Origen and Eunomius, he still uses seeing/knowing/experiencing the power of nature through its effects characteristic of the developed Neoplatonic understanding. His account of the Trinity is therefore straightforward: "What is not individual is common." One sees the acts and knows thereby the actor (i.e., the person, individual) and the nature (common) through its energies.


Here we arrive at the place where St. Augustine changes the course of Western theology. Had there not been so great a Doctor as Augustine, it is entirely possible that this parallel tradition would have gone the way of the Antiochene tradition exemplified Mar Diodore of Tarsus and Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia. In marked contrast with the Western tradition, the eventual advocate of the Antiochene tradition was the venal Nestorius, who not only failed to see the problems but also failed to demonstrate the intellectual humility that would be required to realize that his own philosophical framework would necessarily be inadequate to the task. Although the tradition would be preserved by the legacy of St. Ephraim, St. John Chrysostom, and the Syriac Neoplatonic tradition from which Pseudo-Dionysius emerged, it was deprived of intellectual authority in its own right by the Nestorian debacle and further denigrated by Justinian's subsequent attempt to ally with the Monophysites.

But the West was not in such a situation. The intellectual milieu in which St. Augustine arrived, the Milan of St. Simplican and St. Ambrose, more closely resembled the free, eclectic intellectual community of Alexandria than the staid and tradition intellectual formation of Asia Minor. This was not to say that Constantinople and Caesarea did not form some brilliant and creative minds; Gregory of Nyssa obviously speaks to the contrary. But the authority of the Platonic philosophical tradition was simply undeniable, and even the Christian responses were made either within or in contrast to that metaphysical framework.

On the other hand, there has been no shortage of effort expended on trying to box St. Augustine into all manner of philosophical traditions. The account that probably held sway as the normative explanation was the middle ground espoused by Peter Brown, where Augustine begins his theological career as more of a Neoplatonist and gradually shifts to a more consciously Christian rejection of these ideas. Robert O'Connell famously held the more extreme view that Augustine retained a Neoplatonic belief in preexistent souls through the entirety of his career. More recently, Carol Harrison in Rethinking Augustine's Early Theology also advocated the thesis that St. Augustine had not essentially changed from his earlier Neoplatonic position. The position I myself have found most intriguing is the one advocated by Gyorgy Heidl in Origen's Influence on the Young Augustine, which argues that what originally set the young Augustine's soul on fire was his encounter with Origen but that the encounter was toned down to the more moderate reference to "books of the Platonists" in the Confessions. That seems right given the atmosphere in Milan that I described and the later embarrassment suffered by another great Doctor of the West, St. Jerome, over Origenism.

In what follows, I will advance the thesis that, no matter Augustine's position with regard to Neoplatonism, either he modified his own account from Neoplatonism on specific issues in a way that made the derivation irrelevant or, even in the worst case, he erred but his inheritors offered correction. Had his works been accepted on sheer authority, then we might have had a reason for greater concern that his own personal beliefs had swayed the opinion of the Western Church, but Augustine himself was not the bishop of some great historical see steeped in political influence. He was no Pope; indeed, he had to appeal to the Pope just as another other bishop might. His historical legacy was simply because other theologians saw the utility of Augustine's ideas in articulating Western theology, and if they read something into Augustine that wasn't there, it nonetheless is the case that the reception of his view was based on this interpretation.

Precisely because of his powerful influence in this regard, St. Augustine ranks with St. Cyril of Alexandria as one of the most calumniated Church Fathers. But with all of this intellectual history, few people have taken Augustine's position as a theological, rather than philosophical, defense of the Western tradition, with M. R. Barnes and L. Ayers rare exceptions in this regard. As a result, the accusations against the Doctor of Grace are taken far too seriously. And just as it took solid scholarly work that took the theological reasoning seriously to vindicate St. Cyril, such as J.A. McGuckin, as against those who were sympathetic to Nestorius, beginning with F. Loofs, it will take serious consideration of the theological surroundings for St. Augustine's thought to be farily understood.

To speak to that understanding, there seems little doubt from the introduction to De Trinitate and Augustine's Letter 118 to Dioscorus that Augustine believed his project to be theological, not mere philosophical speculation, so the real surprise is that the emphasis on the philosophical and speculative project has proved so persuasive. From the theological perspective, Augustine's reasoning seems to me to be quite straightforward from St. Hilary's position. To situate Augustine's thought, then, we should note 3 positions taken directly from St Hilary:
1. The exercise of powers is connected both to natura and forma.
2. But the forma can also be directly and immediately visible by the pure of heart, as it is in the eschaton.
3. The natura itself is infinite, and this is how the powers show the nature (i.e., by doing things corresponding to an infinite nature).

What Augustine introduces to these elements are the concepts of operation, end, and relation. Augustine's explanation is as follows. First, he conceives of operations as fundamentally relational for the nature, which is to say that the operations bear an essential relationship to some end. Second, he argues that the rational operations of the human soul tend to a certain end according to their finite mode. Third, by analogy, he argues that in God Himself there can be only analogous relations meeting the further condition that they are infinite and comprehensive, i.e., the condition imposed by divine simplicity. Because these "operations" are comprehensive and unlimited, however, they are utterly unlike finite operations in that they are actually existence itself.

It is useful at this time to draw a contrast with St. Basil, one can clearly perceive the difference in St. Augustine's project. For purposes of distinguishing, I will call St. Basil's description the properties account of rationality, and I will call St. Augustine's formulation the operations account of rationality.

St. Basil's concern in the properties account is the Eunomian critique, viz., that statements of knowledge about God must then map properties onto nature. This results from the properties metaphysical account; if one claims knowledge of properties, then, one must necessarily be claiming knowledge of the nature. Then, it is simply a question of picking the "best" name for God, which Eunomius said was "Unbegotten." To defeat this critique, St. Basil notes first that even mundane natures are known only by their energies, and this is all the more true for the divine energies, which are not even known in themselves rationally but only by their effects. This erects a double wall in which the divine Persons are known, but even their properties, and a fortiori their nature, remain cloaked in mystery from the intellect.

St. Augustine's concern is the Homoian critique, which maintains that knowing anything about a person necessarily entails a difference in nature from what is unknowable by nature. St. Augustine is concerned, therefore, to explain how the divine nature is only known indirectly through its operations; this he has in common with St. Basil. But where he diverges from St. Basil is on the question of whether these operations are known by characteristic properties (poiotes) or by relations. For Augustine, it is the unique relation of the intellect to God that determines what one knows. Like St. Basil, Augustine says that God makes Himself visible by God's own specific acts of will; there is no such thing as natural visibility of God. And like Basil, Augustine also maintains that even these manifestations do not provide comprehensive knowledge of God, so there is still the double wall between God and man even for ousia. But because of the difference on how the intellect operates, Augustine does not deny that what is known about God is real, in that it is a perception of the intellect as object. It is simply not comprehensive.

In articulating this view of the intellect further, I am indebted to Michael Liccione for pointing out to me the truthmaker account of knowledge about God and divine simplicity developed by Jeffrey Brower and outlined in two articles available online, as this account fits perfectly with what I have outlined regarding Augustine's view. Augustine's notion is that the actions of the divine nature serve as a truthmaker for the finite intellect without what is known being something in God.

The second linked article by Brower points out "If God exists entirely a se, he cannot depend on anything in any way at all, not even in the way that a subject depends on its properties (in order to exemplify them).... This same basic pattern of reasoning pervades traditional philosophical theology, and lies behind not only Aquinas’s Aristotelian-based formulation of divine simplicity, but also standard neo-Platonic formulations of the doctrine." No matter the metaphysical formulation, one has to find a way to articulate a causal relationship between God and human knowledge without reading the properties into God, and thus disturbing the divine simplicity. This requires an account in which the intellect participates by its operation, thus allowing the divine essence to serve as a truthmaker, but does not essentially become God by comprehending the divine essence.

We can therefore now articulate the distinction between the properties and the operations view more or less rigorously. On the properties view, the nature is manifested, but not comprehensively, by its energies, so that true knowledge about the energies is not knowledge of the form and neither is it knowledge of the nature. On the operations view, the operations of things with respect to one another demonstrate a real relation to the form, which expresses nature and provides knowledge by impression of the form on the intellect. With respect to the forma Dei, however, the form acts as the ultimate end for all operations (that is to say, all natures act in relation to it). Consequently, the manifestation of the divine form is sui generis.

We can bring this immediately back to the differences identified in the previous post between the Dionysian view of the good and the Thomistic view of the good. We see that these views essentially correspond to the view of how creation manifests the good, in that Dionysius has the good expressed by energies and Thomas has the good expressed by serving as the final ends of operations, drawing all things to him. Again, there does not seem to be a compelling need to draw a contrast between these views, as they are in many ways complementary.

A central commonality of the views is that one cannot directly experience God absent an entire personal disposition toward God. St. Hilary and St. Augustine both emphasized that even in Heaven the forma Dei would only be visible to the pure of heart; metaphysically, this is because one cannot actually view God as God without recognizing Him as the ultimate end of all operations, including both will and intellect, being the ultimate good per the Scholastic explanation. And obviously, on the properties account, one cannot experience the energies of God without a proper disposition of the soul purified of the passions by asceticism. So despite whatever differences may persist between East and West in this regard, the notion that the Western view advocates an "intellectual" or "rationalistic" view in the beatific vision is abject nonsense.

The divergence arises in a couple of areas: the visibility of God before the eschaton, the nature of miracles, and the nature of God's operations ad intra vs. ad extra. The difference regarding the visibility of God before the eschaton results from the different metaphysical accounts of vision. In the properties account, the experience of energies must be univocal at all times, so that "seeing God" in any sense must always be uniform. Hence, if experience of the Son is the path of encounter to God now, it must have always been. The operations view must, on the other hand, consider the nature and kind of the operation itself, for how each operation tends to God is what specifies each finite kind of thing. Because the experience of God is different in Heaven than on earth, there must be some difference in the relation of God to man, and the relation of the intellect toward God. This is conveyed in Western theology by the distinction between "knowing" and "seeing" with the intellect.

The nature of miracles also differs. In the properties view, it is the unique operations of the divine Person demonstrating His overarching divine power that displays the divine nature. Because Jesus does the kinds of things that only God can do, He shows that He is of one nature with God, even though we do not know that nature. In the operations view, the display operates somewhat different, because the Western view holds that we know God's forma but we do not see His forma in miracles. Rather, we reason to God, with the assistance of faith, by observing the change in relationship of things to Him.

To explain what I mean, we might take the example of Jesus walking on water. On the properties view, what is miraculous is the energy of the person, as here, in the doing of the theanthropic action of waterwalking. On the operations view, what is miraculous is the water responding to Jesus in this way, which is not its ordinary natural relationship to a man. To take the specific example of Matthew 14:28-33, for example, the properties view would have St. Peter divinized so as to be able to walk on the water, while the operations view would have the water behaving in a different way by the changed relationship between Peter and Jesus. In both cases, when St. Peter's will loses harmony with the divine operation, he begins to sink. The difference is subtle here, but if it is overlooked, then the much larger differences can be glossed over.

Lastly, the formulation of the difference between God's actions ad intra and ad extra is different. In the properties account, the actions of begetting and proceeding, as pertaining to nature, are inscrutable, as they do not directly pertain to the energies, although we can know that there is an eternal energetic procession by knowing God's energies. Hence, there is an absolute transcendence of the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity. The operations account has a similar distinction, in that the ad extra operations all pertain to some finite mode of existence tending toward God in some way, while the ad intra operations are infinite and therefore unknowable except in how things tend to them (e.g., we know that there are divine ideas and intellect in God, but only to describe how things were created and continue in existence and know truths). But there is an in-built linkage between the economic and immanent Trinity in that if we know of real relations to Persons of the Trinity, as we do from the Christian life, faith, and revelation, then we can also reason that all three Persons exist in absolute logical relation to one another. As noted in Brower's article above, when we analogize these relations to the operations of intellect and love, it is solely to indicate this purely logical interdependence, not to suggest an ontological analogy to the operations of God, which is impossible. That is ultimately why St. Augustine's psychological account was considered both useful and persuasive in the West, as it fits consistently with the theological developments that I have already outlined.

So now we have looked in detail at some theological background in this disparity between the Dionysian Eastern view and the Scholastic Western view. I hope that this will be useful in promoting in better understanding between the two views. And as I mentioned at the start, I hope also to have illuminated why there is not a rigorous need in the West to have an ordo theologiae that follows immediately from experience of a divine Person, in that the Western view metaphysically permits one to know God through the actions of other natures with respect to God as well as through the actions of God Himself. And this again corresponds to the distinction of the role of the good in metaphysics that I pointed out in the first post. In the future, I would like to apply this understanding in detail to Eastern criticism of Western theology that I believe to be unfounded based on these distinctions.