Saturday, February 28, 2009

One “good” rant deserves another…

Yesterday, the anonymous blogger who goes by the appellation “TurretinFan” (“Tur8infan” at AOMIN), double posted a new thread with the title “Misquoting Athanasius” at the Thoughts of Francis Turretin and Alpha & Omega Ministries blogs.

Now, I am in agreement with TF concerning the misuse of spurious writings to bolster ones apologetic and/or theological position(s). However, the value of the double posted thread is significantly diminished by the all too apparent double-standards at play.

First, there is a double-standard concerning ‘anonymous’ posting. Just a few days ago, James White, who a few months back added TF to his “Team Apologian” (individuals authorized to post on the AOMIN blog), had the following to say on his “Dividing Line” program:


and, of course, there are those people out there that uhhh just really have personal issues with me I guess, for whatever reasons, that have, you know, go runnin’, gone running over to that blog, they’re just going to have to change their, their uhhh, uhhh, policy and not allah, allow anonymous posters; uhhh, cuzz there are people attacking me personally; and, and you, you know how there are people out there, they, they don’t have the guts to call this program, they would never face me in public; uhhh, they would never debate, uhhh, but you know, but they’re very brave behind keyboards, their’s a whole bunch of them like that, and they’re sad little people, and so they go running over there and, and spew their venom toward, toward me, and so on and so, but you know , if it’s anonymous, it’s anonymous, you know, and uh, eh, eh it should be given exactly as much weight as well as anything anonymous is given…(February 19, 2009mp3 - 5:12 – 6:02.)

The second double-standard concerns TFs plea to “Roman” apologists to, “stop using spurious and pseudographic quotations to try to bolster your cause.” He then stated: “When Alpha and Omega Ministries discovers an error in a quotation from the church fathers, we're not afraid to fix the mistake…”

Unfortunately, when I pointed out the misuse of a quote erroneously attributed to Luther by anti-Roman apologists, I saw no attempt(s) to “fix the mistake” by the more prominent offenders (though to his credit, TF did respond on his blog).

And there was this THREAD, where in the COMBOX, I pointed out that James White was guilty of using the same spurious quote.

Finally, there is the ongoing erroneous portrayal of Athansius as an advocate of sola scriptura, and as a ‘proto-Protestant’ who supposedly:

For a time even stood against the Roman See under Liberius, the bishop of Rome who gave in to the pressures placed on him. Truly it was said of him, Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” What an amazingly Protestant attitude was displayed by this bishop of Alexandria. (James R. White, “Sola Scriptura and the Early Church”, in Sola Scriptura!, gen. ed. Don Kistler, p. 42.)

[I have dealt with these two last issues in the following threads: FIRST; SECOND; and THIRD.]


So, I would like to end my little ‘rant’ with a plea of my own: clean up your own house before taking a broom to someone else’s. Our Lord put it this way:

Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4 – NASB.)


Grace and peace,

David

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Important reflections from Herman Bavinck

In my last post, I provided a selection, from an esteemed Dutch Reformed theologian, that I believe lies at the root of why the doctrine of the Trinity took so long to develop (and in a very real sense is still developing)—once again (this time from a more recent translation):

In all of these elements of revelation, of course, Scripture has not yet provided us with a fully developed trinitarian dogma. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. John Vriend, p. 279.)

He then continues:

…Scripture contains all the data from which theology has constructed the dogma of the Trinity. Philosophy did not need to add anything essential to that dogma: even the Logos doctrine is part of the New Testament. It all only had to wait for a time when the power of Christian reason would be sufficiently developed to enter into the holy mystery that presents itself here. (Ibid., pp. 279, 280.)

I know that our Reformed brothers will disagree with me, but Bavinck is describing what I would term a “material sufficiency” of the Scriptures, at the very least, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity; in other words, the dogma is not explicit, but rather, implicit.

Bavinck’s reflections provide one of the important reasons why I believe that one must accept the notion of doctrinal development. It also speaks to the historical fact that we find many doctrinal trajectories emanating from one, common, ‘material’ source. An important question that one should then ask is: which trajectory is the correct one? And immediately following that question: if the common material is only implicit, by what means does the doctrine become explicit? (I would add, explicit to the point one must say that it is a necessary and irreformable dogma of the Christian Church.)


Grace and peace,

David

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Subordinationism and the ante-Nicene Church Fathers: the saga continues—today’s readings

From the pages of Bloesch’s, God The Almighty, we read:

The dogma of the Trinity emerged in the church only through a continuing struggle with heresy…

Subordinationism posed a more subtle danger to the Christian faith in view of a palpable subordinationist motif in the New Testament. Subordinationism holds that Christ was subordinate and inferior to God. The Father was the source of the Son and the Spirit. This was an attempt to preserve the monarchy within the Trinity. The apologists were generally subordinatinist, since they considered the Godhead a triad rather than a Trinity, with the Son and Spirit totally subordinate to the Father. For Tertullian both Son and Spirit derive from the Father by emanation and thus are subordinate to him.

The most influential subordinationist in the early church was Origen…

Subordinationism and orthodoxy also coexisted in Athanasius and Novatian…

It is misleading to portray the Father as the “source” of the Son, though this language was used by the early church fathers and is still prevalent in Catholic and Orthodox circles
. (Donald G. Bloesch, God The Almighty, pp. 171, 173, 174.)

Bloesch’s assessment that there exists, “a palpable subordinationist motif in the New Testament”, reminded me of something I had read years ago from the pen of one the foremost patristic scholars of the 20th century:

For him [Irenaeus] the Son is “the visible one” of the Father, as the Father is “the invisible one” of the Son…He is eternal like the Father,—On the other hand, we find most assuredly in the Adversus haereses some expressions savoring of subordinationism, as, for instance: the Son has received sovereignty from His Father (III, 6, 1; V, 18, 3); He is supported by the Father with creation, “for there exists but one God Father above all” (V, 18, 2); [see this THREAD for other examples] but, St. Irenaeus here only repeats the expressions of the Gospels and of St. Paul, and any one who considers the Father as the source of the Trinity can scarcely avoid a certain subordinationism. (J. Tixeront, History of Dogmas – Volume I, p. 234.)

And subordinationism did not end with the forging of the Nicene Creed (at Nicea 325, and Constantinople 381). One Dutch Reformed scholar wrote:

Now we must not suppose that Scripture by means of these various elements of divine revelation [i.e. the material used to develop the doctrine of the Trinity] gives us a fully defined trinitarian dogma. (Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. William Hendriksen, Baker 1979 ed., p. 274.)

After delineating varying degrees of subordination among the ante-Nicene Fathers, Bavinck then states:

…Augustine’s starting point is not the person of the Father, but the one, simple, uncompounded “essence” of God…consequently, Augustine rejected all the earlier theories that posited a dualism between the Father and the Son. The Son, being himself very God, is not less invisible than the Father and is perfectly equal to the Father. All subordinationism is banished. Augustine insists even more strongly upon the Son’s equality with the Father than did Athanasius. In the writings of the latter a few remnants of subordinationism may still be found, c. Ar. I, 59, but Augustine has completely abandoned every trace of the idea that the Father is the real, the original God.* (Ibid., p. 283.)

It seems that the more reading I do, the more support I find for Hanson’s following assessment:

Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology. (R.P.C Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy, New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, p. 153.)

And as we have seen, some Reformed scholars go even further than Hanson on this issue of subordinationism.


Grace and peace,

David


*Note: some recent scholars take issue with Bavinck’s last sentence; also, bold emphasis in citations is mine.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Irenaeus, by Denis Minns: selections and reflections – Part 2


In this second installment, we shall be examining Minns’ reflections on Irenaeus’ theology concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. In chapter 4, “Knowing the one God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, Minns states:

Although there are the beginnings of a metaphysical theology of the Trinity in his writings, he presents us, for the most part, with a highly developed economic theology of the Trinity. (Page 38)

As we shall soon learn, Minns’ construction and assessment of Irenaeus’ ‘Trinitarian’ theology contains some conclusions that are highly suspect. I am reasonably convinced that he has misread Irenaeus on some keys points. I do not want to give the impression that Minns is ‘alone’ here, so I feel compelled to offer another comparative viewpoint, before providing further selections from Minns. In his comprehensive work, The Three-Personed God – The Trinity As A Mystery of Salvation, Willam J. Hill writes:

Irenaeus (+ c. 202), whose theology, remarkable for its vast synthetic vision, differs markedly from that of the earlier Apologists, represents in his own way this Economic Trinitarianism…The Word and Spirit are simply the two hands of God in this work. God, whose absolute oneness Irenaeus takes for granted, relates to the world in the form of Word and Wisdom—the latter his name for the Spirit. On this basis, God’s oneness includes an underlying threeness but solely in the sense that he lives eternally with his Thought and his Wisdom. The distinctness of the Three is suppressed and emerges only in terms of roles within the economy. Needless to say, there is not the slightest suggestion in this of three co-equal “persons.” (Page 33.)

Minns’ reading of Irenaeus shares some common aspects with Hill’s, concerning the oneness of God prior to the emergence of the economic “Trinity” (for creative purposes). Minns penned:

Although Irenaeus tells us that we should not ask what God was doing before the creation of the world (AH II.28.3), I think a case could be made from his arguments in Book II to the effect that he would, at the very least, not be disturbed by the notion that the Trinity did not exist as distinct persons before the creation of Adam. (Page 52.)

Let’s now attempt to determine why Minns (and perhaps Hill as well) proposed such a view (a view that is essentially modalistic, and which I believe may stem from Karl Barth’s reading of Irenaues – see Barth’s, Church Dogmatics, Eng. trans., Bromiley, IV.1.196, 197.)

Foundational to Minns’ analysis of Irenaeus’ doctrine of God entails the following:

Because of his absolute transcendence, God in himself cannot be comprehended or known by human beings…

God will be seen only because he chooses to make himself visible, and this is something God will do gradually, keeping pace with the creature’s process of development towards God. Since the power of seeing in question here is not a mystic, inward vision, but ordinary human eyesight, if God is to be visible at all it will be as an object available to human eyesight. In fact, God has chosen to become visible to us as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

When Irenaeus read in St. John’s Gospel that Christ said to Phillip “he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9); cf. John 12:45: ‘ he who sees me sees him who sent me’; and John 8:19: ‘ if you knew me you would know my Father also’) he understood this in a perfectly literal sense. The Son is, he says, what is visible of the Father, and the Father is what remains invisible of the Son (AH IV.6.6)
. (Pages 38, 39.)

Though Minns acknowledges that, Some scholars have argued that, for Irenaeus, the Son is, from all eternity, ‘visible’ in a way that the Father is not (p. 39); he rejects this position, and instead offers a rather complex explanation to support his take that, “The notion that Jesus is God made visible is Irenaeus’ preferred say of accounting for the distinction between the Father and the Son” (p. 43). To assist his cause, Minns then gives a summary of thought concerning the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, beginning with the following:

The attempts of theologians in the early Church to reconcile belief in the oneness of God with belief in a divine Trinity have for long been classified in two broad schools of thought. Theologians of one school are called Subordinationists, those of the other Monarchians or Modalists…The orthodox theology of the Trinity developed after the Council of Nicaea in 325 rests largely upon a cobbling together of the central tenants of each school. It is as though the later Church was obliged to say that both were right. (Pages 43, 44.)

Minns then lists and comments on a few of the representatives of the “two broad schools of thought” (pages 44-46), and in a footnote (#12) states:

Prominent Modalists of the second and third centuries were Praxeas, Noetus, Sabellius, and Dionysius of Rome. Among the Subordinationists were Tertullian, Hippolytus, Novation, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Origen. (Page 54)

A bit later he writes:

These two schools of thought about the Trinity were beginning to develop in the Great Church when Irenaeus was writing. Can he be said to belong to either of them? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer, for Irenaeus expressed himself in terms which resonate with both of these major theological traditions. (Pages 46, 47.)

What is Minns final conclusion? Though he admits that, “Irenaeus’ use of traditional language about the Son being born of the Father before the creation of the world might seem to offer strong support for the view that he did acknowledge a real, eternal distinction between the Father and the Son” (p. 50), he later concludes:

It would be consistent with this for Irenaeus to have held that a real Trinity of distinct ‘persons’ did not exist before the beginning of the divine economy for the creation and salvation of mankind…Thus, although he understands there to be a real Trinity of distinct ‘persons’, at least from the time of the incarnation, and although he describes the operation of this Trinity in subordinationist terms, he would not allow that the Son is in any sense a lesser god than the Father, for the essential divinity of Christ is fundamental to his understanding of the work of Christ. (Pages 52, 53.)

In summation, it seems to me that Minns, in his attempt to avoid and deflect the all too obvious subordinationism found in Irenaeus’ thought (see THIS THREAD), creates a complex hybrid synthesis of an Irenaues who is both a modalist and an economic subordinationist.


Grace and peace,

David

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Irenaeus, by Denis Minns: selections and reflections – Part 1


Three recent events—separate though intertwined—have provided the stimulus for me to undertake an interaction with, and exploration into, Denis Minns monograph, Irenaeus. The first event was a thread, Denis Minns on Irenaeus, Tradition, and Development, posted by Iohannes, at Fides Quaerens Intellectum; the second, my reception and reading of the book; and the third is this POST by Kepha, at the aforementioned Fides Quaerens Intellectum. With this brief background in place, I shall now begin my examination. [Note: bold emphasis in the following selections from Minns’ Irenaeus is mine.]

On page ix, in the preface, Minns presents the basic “aims” of his book: “to be an introduction to the theology of Irenaeus, not an introduction to all the various problems associated with the study of his writings.” He then writes:

That Irenaeus was influenced by theologians other than those he acknowledges, and that he may from time to time have quoted or paraphrased them, seems scarcely worth disputing. We need to recall that Irenaeus was not attempting a systematic synthesis of theology…Original thinking in theology was precisely the source of the problem he sought to address, not by being original himself, but by demonstrating what was the original, universal, unchanging and uncontaminated teaching handed down from the Apostles. In fact, the tradition he drew on for ideas suiting his own immediate purpose was already richly variegated, and it is ironic that Irenaeus himself should unwittingly show us this. He evidently did not notice that the ideas and formulations which he borrowed from different sources were sometimes inconsistent with one another, or contradictory. He took the uniformity of the orthodox tradition for granted, and drew upon its various representatives, in piecemeal fashion, to establish his argument against his opponents

His own theology cannot be divorced from this polemical context. One cannot fully understand what he means at any point unless one knows what it is he is arguing against at that point – what is the false teaching which his own teaching is meant to correct. (ix, x.)

Minns’ remarks concerning the polemical nature of Irenaeus’ theology cannot be over-stated; for all the positives of Irenaeus’ apologia, the fact remains that he distorts (sometimes by overstatement, and sometimes by understatement) the historical reality of his day.

Diversity of opinion on important theological issues has existed in the Christian Church from the very beginning. It has not always led to schismatic heresy, and, when it has, it is often difficult to decide whether the decisive break, or schism, has been made by the ‘school’ which no longer wished to have formal association with the larger parent body, or by the larger body which decided that association with the ‘school’ was no longer tolerable. To speak, as I have just done, of ‘the larger group’ already betrays a certain prejudice. It is a very old prejudice, which was already establishing itself at the time Irenaeus was writing. It is the prejudice of supposing that orthodoxy, or right belief, is identical with the majority of opinion.

We should remember, however, that it was only at the time of Irenaeus, and in consequence of the crisis of Marcion and the Gnostics, that the orthodox consensus, the majority view, or as it is often called, the Great Church, came into existence
. (pp. 10, 11.)

A bit later Minns writes:

Even in Irenaeus, we occasionally find ideas which look to us as though they would be more comfortable in a Gnostic setting. No doubt, he thought the business of separating false teaching from the truth was a simple, clear-cut matter. Sometimes it was. To worship a God other than the one revealed in the Old Testament was plainly discontinuous with the religion of Jesus, his disciples, and their earliest followers. At other times, ‘the truth’ was only just coming to be recognized as such, and it was in the very act of recognizing it that the Great Church came into being. (p. 12.)

So, what have we learned so far? First, though Irenaeus in his confrontation with the Gnostics was compelled to stress a certain unity of faith among “orthodox” Christians, the fact of the matter was that at this time, there existed a considerable amount of diversity among Christian thinkers who were united ecclesiastically via the succession of the episcopate (this is not to say, of course, that there was NO theological unity, for as we will later see, there was a ‘rule of faith’ in place). Second, the innovations and complex theologies of the Gnostic teachers forced Irenaeus into a ‘reductionism’ mode of apologia—these Gnostics were adding to the true faith via their ‘developments’—the apostolic faith does not need additions, it just is, and merely needs to be handed down without accretion. Though the Gnostic speculative theologies were certainly corrupt developments of the true deposit of faith (the faith that was “once and for all delivered unto the saints”), one cannot not ignore the fact that the theology articulated by Irenaeus in his apologia contained many developments of the original deposit.

In our next installment (Lord willing), we will delve into what Minns terms, “the primitive stage of the development of Trinitarian theology”.


Grace and peace,

David

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Kepha’s recent scholar of choice weighs in on subordinationism in the pre-Nicene Church Fathers—will he listen?

In the comments section of the Tilting at Windmills? thread, Kepha wrote:

David, you ask if I realize that "all [development theories] have one or more representatives among the early Church Fathers, or if he is just unaware of this." I wonder if you realize that I don't take your personal contributions on the development of the trinity, or on the issue of development in general, as authoritative because I've not found any scholars supporting your assertions. So, it's not that I'm ignoring what you say. Honestly, I keep it in mind, but nothing more until I see scholarly authorities confirming your views. Obviously, as of right now, I don't. I am not trying to be disrespectful, I honestly am not. I'm just stating it like it is. Let me leave you with just one reason why I choose scholars over David Waltz:

David Waltz: "While reading Gregory Nazianzen’s 'Fifth Theological Oration – On The Holy Spirit', I noticed something I had previously overlooked: a theory of doctrinal development."

John Thiel: "Drey’s Brief Introduction was influenced in both organization and content by Schleiermacher’s 1811 Brief Presentation of the Study of Theology, in which one finds the first explicit theory of doctrinal development in the history of Christian theology” (Senses of Tradition, p. 61; emphasis mine).


The next morning, I responded to his musings, clearly demonstrating that I have scholarly support for my assessment of Gregory Nazianzen’s nascent theory of doctrinal development, and also for my “personal contributions on the development of the trinity”. To date, Kepha has not responded.

Now, I have brought up this issue anew for an important reason: the ‘discovery’ of yet another scholar who supports my position on the pre-Nicene Church Fathers—and perhaps most importantly it is from the very scholar that Kepha had invoked earlier—John Thiel. From Thiel’s book, Senses of Tradition, we read:

Study of pre-Nicene Christianity with regard to this most important item on the conciliar agenda shows that subordinationism not only was prevalent in the early Christian centuries but also possessed, by virtue of its prevalence, a normativeness that only gradual—first, in the third century and definitively in the fourth—came to be challenged by many as heterodox belief. One can turn for examples to the early apologist Justin Martyr, whose reliance on the Middle Platonism of his day led him to portray Christ as a "second God"; or Theophilus of Antioch, whose strongly Jewish Christianity avowed the creation of the logos by God; or Tertullian, who still spoke of the created generation of the Son from the Father even as he struggled to maintain the unity of the Father and Son and creaturely difference between the Son and the universe; or Origen of Alexandria, who maintained the uniqueness of the Father by affirming the creaturely status of all other existence, including the Son and the Spirit, albeit a creaturely existence eternally crated by the Father. In each case, christological subordinationism of one form or another seemed to be a tacit rule of faith, undoubtedly because such subordinationism preserved the transcendence of the Father and thus the crucial distinguish-ability of the Father and Son for any faith did not err on the side of modalism or Sabellianism. (Page 135 – bold emphasis mine.)

For my part, it is my sincere hope that Kepha revisits Articuli Fidei and carefully ponders Thiel’s reflections on the subordinationism of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers. Perhaps then, he will take the views of the previous patristic scholars I have cited a bit more seriously…


Grace and peace,

David