Thursday, May 17, 2012

Basil 'the Great', an early critic of neo-modalism


In my threads on the Monarchy of God the Father (LINK), I have pointed out a number of 'problems' with the traditional Latin/Western view of the Trinity (i.e. the Trinity/divine essence is the 'one God', not God the Father); problems which include what boils down to a sophisticated form of neo-modalism—notwithstanding the repeated denials of modalism in its original form by those who have embraced this traditional Latin/Western view of the Trinity.

I have also noted that it was Augustine who formulated the foundational theology of what became the traditional Latin/Western view of the Trinity; concerning Augustine's view, one patristic scholar wrote:

We can see that Augustine only gets beyond Modalism by the mere assertion that he does not wish to be a modalist, and the aid of ingenious distinctions between different ideas. (Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, 1958 Eng. ed., 4. 131.)

But, one does not have to wait until the 19th century for a critical assessment of the traditional Latin/Western view of the Trinity, for a staunch, 4th century defender of both the monarchy of God the Father and Nicene Trinitarianism penned the following:

The distinction between οὐσία and ὑπόστασις is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man. Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence, but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear. If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith. We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, "I believe in God the Father." The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; we must combine the particular with the common and say "I believe in God the Son," so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say "in God the Holy Ghost." Hence it results that there is a satisfactory preservation of the unity by the confession of the one Godhead, while in the distinction of the individual properties regarded in each there is the confession of the peculiar properties of the Persons. On the other hand those who identify essence or substance and hypostasis are compelled to confess only three Persons, and, in their hesitation to speak of three hypostases, are convicted of failure to avoid the error of Sabellius, for even Sabellius himself, who in many places confuses the conception, yet, by asserting that the same hypostasis changed its form to meet the needs of the moment, does endeavour to distinguish the persons. (Basil, Letter 236, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers - Second Series, Volume VIII, Basil, p. 278.)

As in our own day, one can discern that the term "person" (πρόσωπον) was being used in different senses in the 4th century, such that Basil (and a number of other Greek/Eastern Church Fathers) felt the need to clear up the semantic confusion by using a much stronger term (ὑπόστασις) for the "particular" distinction/s concerning the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, using this term in conjunction with a "general" (i.e. generic) understanding of the term essence/substance (οὐσία).

Before ending this post, I would like to provide a quote from a current Eastern Orthodox scholar, whose assessment of Basil's theology of God sounds almost identical to my own:

For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: "There is one God the Father." For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of "divinity" which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this "monarchy" of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly "true God from true God," as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term "God" (Θεός) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article (ὁ Θεός), this is only done on the prior confession of him as "Son of God, and so as other than "the one God" of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion." (John Behr, The Formation of Christian Theology - Volume 2: The Nicene Faith - Part 2, pp. 307, 308.)

Amen brother Behr, amen. Now, if only the heirs of Augustine would lend an objective ear...


Grace and peace,

David

20 comments:

Drake Shelton said...

"If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith. We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common."

>>>So is he saying that "we must therefore" in rejecting what was said before or if we take this error we are logically committed to do this, or is he saying that we must therefore sincerely do something? He lost me.

David Waltz said...

Hi Drake,

Good questions, and I don't think I can provide a definitive answer—perhaps the "common" and/or "general idea" spoken of is a reference to the attributes that all the parties Basil was in contact with agreed upon when referencing "God". If one does not add "the particular to the common", it becomes impossible to give "a sound account of our faith".

I think Behr is helpful here, for though it is correct to say that Jesus is God, if one does not add the particular of the monarchy of God the Father, one will not have a correct understanding of what that means.

Will do a bit more reading, and see if I can form a more definitive answer to your questions (but don't hold your breath !!! [grin]).


Grace and peace,

David

Rory said...

Dave,

You ask that the heirs of Augustine would lend an ear. What objection would Augustine have had to St. Basil's explanation?

I have for a long time held that Christians are not the most rigorous monotheists. A favorite hymn of mine begins with "God is three..." (Not Gods are three).

It seems to me like we only need to reconcile the One of the Old Testament to the Three of the New Testament. But history shows that often theologians and church fathers spend their lives defending against the charge of denying the Three, or else against the charge of denying the One.

Nowadays, it will make a big difference which way you'll lean depending on whethetr you are debating a Moslem or a Mormon. There is no way to satisfy either of them. For what it is worth, I liked Basil's explanation, but don't try it on a Mormon or Moslem.

Those thinkers who try to satisfy everyone will always fail. Christians should learn to live with being misunderstood by others who have been evebn more extreme in their zeal to emphasize on the one hand the One or on the other the Three.

Rory said...

I wish I had phrased a proposition I made above in the form of a question:

"...history shows that often theologians and church fathers spend their lives defending against the charge of denying the Three, or else against the charge of denying the One."

I should have put it like this: "What do you think of my idea that theologians and church fathers spend their lives..."?

It is easier to defend your own faith, than it is to deconstruct someone else's. My perception is that when we move from apologetics to polemics, we can inch ourselves into positions that are themselves untenable. I really don't know.

I think we theorize correctly that heresy can sharpen orthodoxy. Is it possible that if one is too zealous to destroy heresy, that heresy fails to convert, but succeeds in corrupting orthodoxy by motivating countermoves. That is the meaning of my question and I am wondering if there is credible evidence for the theory in history.

May I also add that it is very difficult for me to prove I am not a robot. Does anyone else tire of failing to discern what a particularly obscure letter blend is supposed to be? Is the elimination of every robot so important that in destroying robotic influence that it justifies discouraging humans of good will from posting on these blogs?

Nick said...

Hello David,

I'm trying to keep up with this issue as it is a serious charge (and quite an interesting subject).

I'm looking for a Conciliar statement that states the Latin view is indeed heretical and 'neo-sabellian'.

Surely this issue has been addressed and brought up by some Catholic source throughout the ages.

Nick said...

I'm not seeing much in the few places I've looked, but here are some things.

(1) In St Thomas' Commentary on the Apostles Creed, he doesn't really speak one way or the other on the first stanza (I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth). In the Second Stanza, "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord," St Thomas says:

"It is not only necessary for Christians to believe in one God who is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things; but also they must believe that God is the Father and that Christ is the true Son of God."

Though I haven't read the entire article, this seems to at least lean away from the idea Latins went all out in identifying the first instance of "God" with Nature instead of Father. Interestingly enough, when the Nicene Creed says "God from God; Light from Light," this can only be in reference to Nature, but this almost lends itself to equivocation.

(2) The Catechism says:
"198 Our profession of faith begins with God, for God is the First and the Last, the beginning and the end of everything. The Credo begins with God the Father, for the Father is the first divine person of the Most Holy Trinity; our Creed begins with the creation of heaven and earth, for creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God's works."

This seems to lean against identifying the first instance of "God" with the Essence as well, but there also doesn't seem to be much discussion one way or the other.

(3) The Catechism of Trent says this on the Apostle's Creed, first stanza:
"The meaning of the above words is this: I believe with certainty, and without a shadow of doubt profess my belief in God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity, who by His omnipotence created from nothing and preserves and governs the heavens and the earth and all things which they contain"

This is one of the more stronger affirmations away from the 'neo-sabellian' charge, but still no detailed discussion that I've come across yet.

It seems there is more of an 'obliviousness' rather than an all out "God refers to Essence". If they are not saying the first instance of God is not synonymous with The Father, if anything, I would guess they're saying the term "God" would used in a distributive sense, such that it is being read "I believe in God the Father...[God] the Son...And [God] the Holy Spirit" rather than "I believe in one Divine Nature, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit".

David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Thanks much for responding to my musings. Forgive my somewhat tardy response, but V and I did a thorough 'Spring-cleaning' over the weekend; and to make matters worse, I had to fast all-day Sunday and Monday morning for my first 'procedure' ever at a hospital—a colonoscopy (everything went great, with a clean bill of health).

Anyway, on to more important matters; in your first reply you wrote:

==You ask that the heirs of Augustine would lend an ear. What objection would Augustine have had to St. Basil's explanation?==

Me: Though not explicit in the selection from Basil that I provided, as Fr. Behr points out, the 'one God' for Basil is not the Trinity, but rather, God the Father—I think Augustine would have some difficulty with that.

==I have for a long time held that Christians are not the most rigorous monotheists. A favorite hymn of mine begins with "God is three..." (Not Gods are three).==

Me: For Basil, and any other CFs who maintain the monarchy of God the Father in the sense that it is He and He alone who is the 'one God', the phrase "God is three" would be changed to: the Godhead is three—an important distinction.

As for the rest of your comments, I am still mulling over them...


Grace and peace,

David

David Waltz said...

Hi Nick,

So good to see you back. Thanks much for some very interesting information...could you provide a source(s) for Aquinas' "Commentary on the Apostles Creed"?

Do not wish to side-track the serious work you have been engaged in on this subject, but would like to make a suggestion: I think the primary issue at hand is this whether or not "the one God" of the Bible and early creeds is God the Father, or the Trinity, and that this needs to be addressed first and foremost.

Question: if God the Father is truly "the one God" of the Bible and early creeds, how can it be said that "the one God is three"?


Looking forward to your response...


Grace and peace,

David

Nick said...

Hello David,

(a) St Thomas' Commentary on the Creed is online:
http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Creed.htm#1

(b) I don't see where the Latin side has denied "God" refers to the Father in the Creeds. There seems be that kind of talk elsewhere, when talking about the Trinity in general, so the question there is whether one is ever allowed to do that.

(c) The Bible could be using the term "God" to speak of the Trinity in general (e.g. Heb 11:6). I've not studied the issue enough to make any definitive judgment, but if theos appears without the definite article then wouldn't that indicate the Father alone is not necessarily in view?

(d) Obviously, John 1:1 famously uses theos as an adjective when speaking of the Word's nature. This is obviously rare, but an important text.

(e) When Thomas said "My Lord and My God" to Jesus, the Greek uses the definite article, 'the God'. This is also obviously rare, but if there were some 'absolute' rule about 'the God' meaning the Father only then this text would be blatant modalism.

(f) Depending on how you interpret texts like Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1, Romans 9:5, etc, particularly reading the reference to theos as applying to Jesus, then that's more data to consider just how much you can restrict the term "God" to the Father alone.

David Waltz said...

Hello again Nick,

First, thanks much for the link. I have Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentiles, and a few of his Biblical commentaries, but was totally unaware of his commentary/exposition on the Apostles Creed.

I am in full agreement with Aquinas concerning the following:

"It is not only necessary for Christians to believe in one God who is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things; but also they must believe that God is the Father and that Christ is the true Son of God."

And:

"It is, therefore, clear we must believe that Christ is the Only-begotten of God, and the true Son of God, who always was with the Father, and that there is one Person of the Son and another of the Father who have the same divine nature." (Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum - http://www.josephkenny.joyeurs.com/CDtexts/Creed.htm.)

Notice St. Thomas states that it is "necessary for Christians to believe in one God who is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things", and "that God is the Father". This is an important distinction, and one that I embrace, namely: the "one God" is the Father. It sure seems to me that in his Exposition, Aquinas' thoughts are virtually identical to those of Father John Behr.

However, when one turns to his Summa Theologica, this emphasis of the Father being the "one God" seems to disappear (at least I don't remember him using the same clarity found in his Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum; but I may have missed it).

Second, as for Jesus being called "God", I affirm that in at least 4 Biblical texts, he is termed such: John 1:1; 1:18; 20:28; and Heb. 1:8. But, and this importantly, he is NEVER called the "one God".


Grace and peace,

David

Nick said...

But how often is the Father referred to as "one God" in Scripture? Surely, the phrase can be in reference to the Father, but is it an exclusive term in Scripture (and Tradition)?

I think it is very important to keep the following distinction in mind: when a text uses "one God" in reference to the Father, it is wrong to use that occurrence in reference Godhood, but using the term "one God" could be acceptable in certain contexts to refer to the Divine Nature.

Steve said...

Have you guys read Garrigou-Laagrange's Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought? Part 3 will give you a more complete explication of Aquinas' thoughts on the Trinity.

David Waltz said...

Hi Nick,

You posted:

==But how often is the Father referred to as "one God" in Scripture? Surely, the phrase can be in reference to the Father, but is it an exclusive term in Scripture (and Tradition)?==

Me: It is an exclusive term in Scripture and the early CFs when a person is in reference.

==I think it is very important to keep the following distinction in mind: when a text uses "one God" in reference to the Father, it is wrong to use that occurrence in reference Godhood, but using the term "one God" could be acceptable in certain contexts to refer to the Divine Nature.==

Me: I would be more inclined to embrace the above if there was not already a separate term used in the Bible and the early CFs for the Divine Nature itself, namely: theotēs (Greek: θεότης).

But, with that said, I would be very interested in more work on this; either by yourself or others.


Grace and peace,

David

David Waltz said...

Hello Steve,

Thanks much for the heads-up—I have read a number of Fr. Reginald Garrogou-Lagrange's books, but not that one—will order it later today.


Grace and peace,

David

P.S. While I wait for the book to arrive, would you mind sharing some of his more important reflections on this issue?

Nick said...

Hello David,

From a quick search, it seems θεότης only appears once, in Colossians 2:9. That doesn't appear to be enough to establish a 'rule', particularly when texts like John 1:1 & 20:28 use theos in reference to the Son. I suspect there is no hard and fast rule that can be set forth here, except when the person of the Father is clearly the referent of "God".

David Waltz said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for responding; you posted:

== From a quick search, it seems θεότης only appears once, in Colossians 2:9. That doesn't appear to be enough to establish a 'rule', particularly when texts like John 1:1 & 20:28 use theos in reference to the Son. I suspect there is no hard and fast rule that can be set forth here, except when the person of the Father is clearly the referent of "God".==

Yes, you are correct, θεότης is only used once in the NT; however, its equivalent θειότης also appears once (Rom. 1:20). [See Nash's 1899 JBL essay for an excellent discussion on these two terms: Journal of Biblical Literature - vols. 16-18 (essay starts on page 452 in the Google Books pdf; page 1 in the 1899 JBL).]

Further, frequency should not determine correct application; for instance, trias (the Greek term for the English word Trinity) is never used with reference to the persons of the Godhead in the NT, but abounds in the CFs, as does the use of θεότης.

Finally, not to 'beat a dead horse', but the phrase 'one God' is never used of second person of the Trinity (or of the Godhead itself) in the NT, nor by the CF's prior to the later part of the 4th century.


Grace and peace,

David

Steve said...

Hi David,
Sorry for the delay, but I barely have enough time to read blogs much less comment on them. Re: St. Thomas I would just say that he proceeds from the scriptural data, ECF's, and his larger philosophical scheme. He must maintain logical consistency with things such as the principle of causation, act/potency distinctions, etc...Therefore, God cannot be thought of as a composite lest we introduce contingency into divinity. To do so would be to give up the 5 ways and make God logically unnecessary. As such, he moves from the unity of nature to the trinity of persons, which he reconciles through subsistent relation. You'll find far greater detail in the book... I just wanted to emphasize how important a basic understanding of his metaphysics is in order to see where he's coming from with respect to the Trinity. Hope you enjoy the book!

Peter said...

David,

Sorry, but I think the remarks about St. Basil in this article need some clarification.

It is true that St. Basil had an antipathy towards modalism, which he associated with the person of Marcellus of Ancyra; what he would have thought about the trinitarian ideas of St. Augustine of Hippo, and whether he would have stigmatized them as modalist, is open to question. But I know Fr. Behr, and I am familiar with his claim that the term "God" with the article (ὁ Θεός) applies exclusively to the Father: I don't agree with this claim, whether one takes it strictly theologically or as an historical claim about the teaching of the fathers.

St. Basil was close friends with St. Gregory of Nazianzus, called "the Theologian" in the Eastern Church. In his Third Dogmatic Poem (On the Holy Spirit), Gregory differentiates two meanings of the phrase "one God" (εἷς Θεός); in one sense, the phrase refers to the Godhead, shared equally by the three; in another sense, the word refers specifically to the Father. He writes:

"In the Godhead is the unity, but they whose Godhead it is are three in number.
Each is the one God, if you should talk of them singly.
Again, there is one God, without beginning, whence comes the wealth of Godhead
whenever the word refers to all three..."

Again, at oration 39.11, Gregory writes:

"For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or to speak more accurately, who are the Godhead."

What I think the above shows is that, at least in the case of St. Gregory the Theologian, a fellow Cappadocian father and perhaps St. Basil's closest friend, any claim that "the one God is not the one divine substance" is at best a half-truth and fails to do justice to the saint's teaching. That is to say, I think St. Augustine's teaching about the unity of God (much maligned as it is in some circles) in some ways approximates to that of St. Gregory the Theologian. Both of them stress that the Godhead is not merely a generic unity, but is, in some real sense, identified with persons themselves in their one act of being. If Fr. Behr wishes to deny that, I think he is denying, not only the teaching of Augustine, but that of St. Gregory the Theologian, along with fathers like St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John of Damascus who quote St. Gregory on this very point.

Peter Gilbert

David Waltz said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks much for taking time from your busy schedule to comment. You wrote:

==Re: St. Thomas I would just say that he proceeds from the scriptural data, ECF's, and his larger philosophical scheme. He must maintain logical consistency with things such as the principle of causation, act/potency distinctions, etc...Therefore, God cannot be thought of as a composite lest we introduce contingency into divinity. To do so would be to give up the 5 ways and make God logically unnecessary. As such, he moves from the unity of nature to the trinity of persons, which he reconciles through subsistent relation. You'll find far greater detail in the book...==

Looking forward to exploring the above in much greater depth when the book arrives (could be later today according to the delivery estimate).


God bless,

David

David Waltz said...

Hello Peter,

Sincerely appreciated your post; it was very informative, especially your take on Fr. Behr. I have been somewhat 'puzzled' for awhile now by the clear division among EO patristic scholars on the issue of who and/or what is the "one God". In THIS THREAD, there was some great dialogue on this subject, including some important reflections on Gregory "the Theologian" Nazianzen (Nazinanus). Hope you are able to take the time to read through it, and share some further thoughts.

BTW, are you the same Peter Gilbert who authored the book, On God and Man.


Grace and peace,

David