Saturday, April 30, 2016

The employment of the term "God" - some cogent reflections from an essay by Fr. John Behr


Yesterday, I finished reading an essay from the book, Orthodox Readings of Augustine (Google Books preview), by Fr. John Behr, "Calling upon God as Father: Augustine and the legacy of Nicaea" (pages 153-165).

The essay opens with the following:

The past century was not a good one for Blessed Augustine: during its course, he was subject to increasingly servere criticism for his trinitarian theology. This misfortune occurred as the so-called "de Régnon paradigm"—that the Greeks began with the three and moved to the unity, while the Latins began with the one before treating the three... (p. 153)

Fr. Behr then provides examples from both perspectives (i.e. Greek and Latin), which include Vladmir Lossky, John Zizioulas, Karl Rahner and Catherine LaCugna. But he then writes:

Against this general tendency [support for the "de Régnon paradigm"], nevertheless, there have appeared more recently new voices arguing that the situation is, if truth be told, not so bleak. Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres (though there are others), have argued that Augustine, in fact, shares many features of trinitarian theology with the Cappadocians, so that there is a generally recognizable "pro-Nicaean" trinitarian theology common to both Greek and Latin traditions, depsite variations not only between them but also within them. Augustine's contribution, therefore, is not a radically new turn, but a deepened, more clearly articulated expression of a common body of inherited belief. (pp. 155, 156)

[For some further examples, see THIS THREAD.]

Within pages 156-161, Fr. Behr presents some solid support for this newer assessment. However, the last portion of the essay raises some serious questions and issues which Fr. Behr believes are still problematic. Note the following:

While the two alternatives of the so-called "de Régnon paradigm" may have been reconciled, there nevertheless remain some fundamental questions—questions not so much of the grand order of metaphysical or ontological claims regarding the ultimate ground of reality, nor even the grammar by which we speak of such things, but, much more prosaically concerning the employment of the term "God." St. Gregory the Theologian knew that he was on unchartered, even unscriptural, territory in using the term "God" of the Holy Spirit, even if it can be argued that scripture does so in other words. Augustine, on the other hand, does not seem to be aware that he is using the term "God" of the Trinity in a radically new manner, one that is not only different but also problematic. The concern of the Cappoadocians, following Athanasius, Origen, and Irenaeus, was not the implications of how one affirms that each divine person is God and the one God, singularly and collectively, but the reverse: how to affirm the one God is Father. (p. 161)

And a bit later we read:

The continual emphasis on the one God as Father, goes back to the Pauline assertion that formed architecture of later creeds: for Christians he says, "there is but one God and Father . . . and one Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:6). The one God confessed in the first article of the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople is unambiguously the Father.

...the monarchy that is so frequently spoken about with regard to Cappodocian trinitarian theology is not simply the monarchy of the Father, but the monarchy of the one God as Father, the Father of an eternally present Son, consubstantial with him, and the Spirit who proceeds from him, without whom he cannot even be thought let alone addressed. (p. 162)

After affirming that, "Jesus is the Son and Word" and is, "as fully divine as the Father", as well as, "true God from true God", he then writes:

To speak of "the triune God" or "trinitarian God," the one God who is three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sounds not only odd, but distinctly modalist."

Fr. Behr then states that the difference between the Greek and Latin trinitarian theologies, "is not that of the so-called 'de Régnon paradigm'," but rather, "the difference between starting from the one God who is Father, and beginning with the Father, Son, and Spirit who are each, and together, the one God." (p. 163)

The entire essay is a must read IMHO, as well as the rest of the contributions in this informative collection.


Grace and peace,

David

4 comments:

Aaron Azkoul said...

David,

How much stock do you give Fr. Behr's caveats in the last portion of the essay regarding what he sees as still problematic with St. Augustine?

Is what Fr. Behr's suggesting - that the Father is alone properly God - a form of subordinationism? Is it indeed evidence of St. Augustine and Aquinas departing from the Patristic understanding of the Trinity?

I've talked with Orthodox who argue, St. Augustine, since he didn't understand Greek and the theological development which lead to the Council of Nicae went past what Nicaea established. And base that claim off what Fr. Behr is discussing here.

David Waltz said...

Hi Aaron,

Thanks much for your interest in this thread. You asked:

==Is what Fr. Behr's suggesting - that the Father is alone properly God - a form of subordinationism?==

Yes, he definitely holds to "a form of subordinationism", but I believe that it is a causal subordination not an ontological subordination. The same holds true for the Nicene Creed itself.

==Is it indeed evidence of St. Augustine and Aquinas departing from the Patristic understanding of the Trinity?==

I don't think so. Causal subordination is clearly taught by Augustine and Aquinas.

For a number of examples concerning Augustine, see THIS THEAD.

And see THIS THREAD for a critique of a gent who believes that Augustine is a "semi-modalist".


Grace and peace,

David

Aaron Azkoul said...

David,

Thanks for your reply.

My question then becomes, if Sts. Augustine and Thomas hold to causal subordination, what exactly is Fr. Behr referring to when he calls St. Augustine problematic?

Fr. Behr writes, "Augustine, on the other hand, does not seem to be aware that he is using the term "God" of the Trinity in a radically new manner, one that is not only different but also problematic." In what way is St. Augustine using the term "God" in such a problematic way if the issue isn't over causal subordination?

I'm also confused why Fr. Behr states, "To speak of "the triune God" or "trinitarian God," the one God who is three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sounds not only odd, but distinctly modalist."

St. John of Damascus, on the one hand says, "All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being : and unless the Father is, neither the Son nor the Spirit is", while also saying, "Wherefore we do not speak of three Gods, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but rather of one God, the holy Trinity, the Son and Spirit being referred to one cause , and not compounded or coalesced according to the synæresis of Sabellius".

So what gives? Is Fr.Behr guilty of making a false dichotomy when he insinuates we can only speak of the Father as "God" and never the three persons as "one God"? Simply put, can't we - and perhaps shouldn't we - affirm causal subordination and the monarchy principle while also speaking of the "triune God"?

David Waltz said...

Hello again Aaron,

Thanks much for your continued interest. You asked:

==My question then becomes, if Sts. Augustine and Thomas hold to causal subordination, what exactly is Fr. Behr referring to when he calls St. Augustine problematic?==

Fr. Behr seems to think that the phrase, "The only true God" should be used with reference to the Father alone. (See THIS THREAD for Fr. Behr's comments on this.)

This means, as you are aware of, that he does not like the Trinity to be referred as "The only true God", or even simply as "the one God".

But, as you pointed out, St. John of Damascus has no problem referring to the Trinity as "one God". (I have a thread on John of Damascus that you may be interested in - LINK.)

I think you are on the right track when you then asked:

==Is Fr.Behr guilty of making a false dichotomy when he insinuates we can only speak of the Father as "God" and never the three persons as "one God"?==

With the information currently at hand, I must lean in that direction. It seems that Fr. Behr is not willing to grant that Augustine and Aquinas used the term "God" in more than one sense. I don't quite understand Behr's why for this, because the Nicene Creed clearly uses the term "God" in two senses.

Now, with that said, it may boil down to an unwillingness to fully understand ALL that Augustine, Aquinas and other Western/Latin theologians believe concerning the doctrine of the Godhead, and the Trinity.


Grace and peace,

David