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,


Friday, April 15, 2016

Aquinas on John 14:28 and John 5:19

A few days ago, I got involved in a thread started by Dr. Edgar Foster—at his blog Foster's Theological Reflections—under the title: Question of the Day for Trinitarians.

Among other issues, Dr. Foster and I discussed Aquinas's understanding of Jesus statement that, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). I stated, that Aquinas believed that it could be understood to apply to both of Jesus' natures (i.e. divine and human); Edgar (who is quite knowledgeable and no novice when it comes to Aquinas), is of the opinion that Aquinas limited the interpretation to his human nature only. I quoted in our combox discussion the same selection from Aquinas's commentary on the Gospel of John that I provided in my April 1, 2016 thread, Clear elements of Nicene Monarchism..., which I believe supports my take. Here is that selection again:

1971 One could also say, as Hilary does, that even according to the divine nature the Father is greater than the Son, yet the Son is not inferior to the Father, but equal. For the Father is not greater than the Son in power, eternity and greatness, but by the dignity of a grantor or source. For the Father receives nothing from another, but the Son, if I can put it this way, receives his nature from the Father by an eternal generation. So, the Father is greater because he gives; but the Son is not inferior, but equal, because he receives all that the Father has: "God has bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9). For the one to whom a single act of existence (esse) is given, is not inferior to the giver. [LINK to online source.]

The above did not convince Edgar of my position, so to add strength to my view, I am providing yet another selection from Aquinas's commentary on the Gospel of John, this time from John 5:19:

746 To get the true meaning of Christ’s statement, we should know that in those matters which seem to imply inferiority in the Son, it could be said, as some do, that they apply to Christ according to the nature he assumed; as when he said: “The Father is greater than I” (below 14:28). According to this, they would say that our Lord’s statement, the Son cannot do anything of himself, should be understood of the Son in his assumed nature. However, this does not stand up, because then one would be forced to say that whatever the Son of God did in his assumed nature, the Father had done before him. For example, that the Father had walked upon the water as Christ did: otherwise, he would not have said, but only what he sees the Father doing.

And if we say that whatever Christ did in his flesh, God the Father also did in so far as the Father works in him, as said below (14:10): “The Father, who lives in me, he accomplishes the works,” then Christ would be saying that the Son cannot do anything of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing in him, i.e., in the Son. But this cannot stand either, because Christ’s next statement, For whatever the Father, does, the Son does likewise, could not, in this interpretation, be applied to him, i.e., to Christ. For the Son, in his assumed nature, never created the world, as the Father did. Consequently, what we read here must not be understood as pertaining to Christ’s assumed nature.

747 According to Augustine, however, there is another way of understanding statements which seem to, but do not, imply inferriority in the Son: namely, by referring them to the origin of the Son coming or begotten from the Father. For although the Son is equal to the Father in all things, he receives all these things from the Father in an eternal begetting. But the Father gets these from no one, for he is unbegotten. According to this explanation, the continuity of thought is the following: Why are you offended because I said that God is my Father, and because I made myself equal to the Father? Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself. As if to say: I am equal to the Father, but in such a way as to be from him, and not he from me; and whatever I may do, is in me from the Father.

748 According to this interpretation, mention is made of the power of the Son when he says, can, and of his activity when he says, do. Both can be understood here, so that, first of all, the derivation of the Son’s power from the Father is shown, and secondly, the conformity of the Son’s activity to that of the Father.

749 As to the first, Hilary explains it this way: Shortly above our Lord said that he is equal to the Father. Some heretics, basing themselves on certain scriptural texts which assert the unity and equality of the Son to the Father, claim that the Son is unbegotten. For example, the Sabellians, who say that the Son is identical in person with the Father. Therefore, so you do not understand this teaching in this way, he says, the Son cannot do anything of himself, for the Son’s power is identical with his nature. Therefore the Son has his power from the same source as he has his being (esse); but he has his being (esse) from the Father: “I came forth from the Father, and I have come into the world” (Jn 16:28). He also has his nature from the Father, because he is God from God; therefore, it is from him that the Son has his power (posse).

So his statement, the Son cannot do anything of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing, is the same as saying: The Son, just as he does not have his being (esse) except from the Father, so he cannot do anything except from the Father. For in natural things, a thing receives its power to act from the very thing from which it receives its being: for example, fire receives its power to ascend from the very thing from which it receives its form and being. Further, in saying, the Son cannot do anything of himself, no inequality is implied, because this refers to a relation; while equality and inequality refer to quantity. (Bold emphasis in the original.) [LINK]

In my opinion, I think the above comments make it quite clear that Aquinas applies John 14:28 and John 5:19 to both of Jesus' natures. Would be very interested in hearing from others on this issue...

Grace and peace,


Friday, April 1, 2016

Clear elements of Nicene Monarchism from an esteemed, 19th century Catholic theologian

Important elements of Nicene Monarchism include the priority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the etiological principle that the Father is the cause/source of both the person and substance of the Son and Holy Spirit. Though post-Augustine Catholic theologians rarely place an emphasis on the above aspects of Trinitarian thought (unlike many Anglican and Eastern Orthodox theologians), I remained convinced that the Catholic tradition has never denied those teachings. For instance, I found vestiges of Nicene Monarchism in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, who taught:

One of the most important 'relational' distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity is that, "the Father is the principle of the whole Godhead" (P1.Q.39.A5), the "fontal principle of the entire divinity" (fontale principium totius divinitatis - Aquinas, Commentum in Lib. 1 Sententiarum, D.34.Q.2) [See THIS THREAD for more on this issue.]

In his commentary on the Gospel of John (verse 14:28), we read:

1971 One could also say, as Hilary does, that even according to the divine nature the Father is greater than the Son, yet the Son is not inferior to the Father, but equal. For the Father is not greater than the Son in power, eternity and greatness, but by the dignity of a grantor or source. For the Father receives nothing from another, but the Son, if I can put it this way, receives his nature from the Father by an eternal generation. So, the Father is greater because he gives; but the Son is not inferior, but equal, because he receives all that the Father has: "God has bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9). For the one to whom a single act of existence (esse) is given, is not inferior to the giver. [LINK to online source.]

So, although I had found snippets of Nicene Monarchism in post-Augustine Catholic theologians, it was not until I had recently read the English translation of Matthias Joseph Scheeben's, Die Mysterien des Christentums (The Mysteries of Christianity), that I came across definitive support for Nicene Monarchism within the Catholic tradition. The following germane selections will be from the B. Herder Book Co. 1947 English edition, translated by Cyril Vollert.

From Chapter IV - The Productions of the Second and Third Persons, we read (all bold emphasis mine):

The term "generation" is of course employed, in the first place, to indicate that the production of the Second Person in God is wholly different from creation, the act by which non-divine beings come into existence. Creation is a free act of the divine will, whereby God calls into being things which of themselves were nothing, and communicates to them an existence which is essentially different from His own. But God brings forth His interior Word by communicating to Him His own being, His own substance. The Word proceeds from the Father's innermost substance, which passes over to the Word and places Him in full possession of the very nature that is proper to the Father. (Page 87.)

In God, in whom all that is found scattered in creatures is one, faith reveals to us the production of the Word from the substance of the Father. This Word is an intelligible image of its principle, because it proceeds from the latter's cognition and manifests it. It is likewise a real. substantial, personal image, because the cognition and also the object of the cognition, are expressed and impressed in this Word. The Second Person in the Godhead is produced because the First Person wills to utter and attest Himself, to express and manifest His nature. The Second Person receives the Father's nature in order to exhibit and manifest it in Himself. What then is to prevent us from saying that He is truly generated, nay, that in accord with the words of Holy Scripture, all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is so-called after the generating fatherhood of His principle? (Page 91.)

Then, in a footnote (#4, p. 91 ff.) Scheeben provides a quotation from Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles (IV.11), a work I had read in the 90's, long before my studies into Nicene Monarchism, and quite frankly, failed to recall its importance to Nicene Monarchism. Note the following:

We must note that what is generated is said to be conceived, so long as it remains in the parent. God's Word is begotten of God in such wise that He does not depart from the Father but remains in Him. Therefore God's Word may rightly be said to be conceived of God. This is the reason why the Wisdom of God affirms: 'The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived' (Prov. 8:24). (Page 92.)

A bit later, from the same footnote, we read:

Again, what is brought forth issues from the womb. For a similar reason the generation of God's Word, which is called birth to indicate his perfect distinction from His Father, is called birth from the womb, according to Psalm 109:3" 'From the womb before the day star I begot Thee." However, the distinction of the Word from the speaker does not prevent the Word from existing in the speaker. Hence, just as the Word is said t0 be begotten or brought forth from the womb, to indicate His distinct existence, so to show that this distinction does not exclude the Word form existence in the speaker, revelation assures us that He 'is in the bosom of the Father' (John 1:18).

Finally, we must advert to the fact that carnal generation of animals is effected by an active and a passive principle. The father has an active, the mother a passive part. Hence for procreation of offspring the father has one function, the mother a different one: the father confers nature and species on the progeny, whereas the mother, as passive and receptive principle, conceives and gives birth. Procession is predicated of the Word inasmuch as God understands Himself: but the divine intelligence involves no passive element, but is wholly active, so to speak, since the divine intellect is not in potency but exclusively in act. Therefore in the generation of God's Word there is no maternal function, but only a paternal function. Hence the various functions which pertain to the father and the mother in carnal generation, are attributed by Scripture to the Father in His generation of the Word: the Father is said to give life to the Son (cf. John 5:16), to conceive Him, and to bring Him forth. (Page 93.)

Towards the end of the chapter, Scheeben, provides some insightful commentary on the issue of 'relation' as it pertains to the three persons of the Godhead/Trinity. Scheeben writes:

The communication of the essence from one person to the others involves no separation or partition of the essence. On the contrary, the essence can be transmitted to one of the other persons only if this person enters into relationship with the First Person and is united to Him in oneness of essence.

Furthermore, the first principle is one, the original possessor of the divine nature is one, and the distinction among persons proceeds from this one principle. The distinction issues from the unity, and is in turn stabilized by this same unity. for the Second and Third Persons are distinct from the First Person only because they have their origin from Him and stand in relation to Him by virtue of this origin...(Page 115.)

The Father unites the other two persons with and in Himself as their common root and source; for He is the common principle of both. (Page 116.)

In ending, I would like to say that it is quite reassuring (and refreshing) to discover a 'heavy-weight' Catholic theologian who espouses a number of the propositions concerning the Godhead that I have been defending over the last few years.

Grace and peace,