Denys Turner on God and Atheism

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Analytic Theology and the One God: Where is the Mystery?

Once the transcendence of Transcendence has been properly grasped, many of the objections advanced against the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity lose their persuasive power. Perhaps they have some purchase among analytic philosophers attached to the univocity of being; but for those who have been schooled in the apophatic vision of the Church Fathers, they just seem … well, irrelevant. One might as well complain about European football not being American football—two different games, two different sets of rules. So it is with Dale Tuggy’s book What is the Trinity? The book is intended for a popular audience, but it issues from the author’s extended conversations with his fellow analytic philosophers. No doubt they recognize in his published works an understanding of divinity shared within the analytic community, as evidenced by the fact that he was chosen to write the entry on the Trinity for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Tuggy knows well the contemporary philosophical debates on the doctrine of the Trinity and believes he has advanced telling criticisms of it. But I suspect that neither Orthodox nor Roman Catholic theologians will pay them much mind—not because they are not well-stated, but simply because Tuggy and his fellow analytics seem to be playing a different game. Where, one might ask, is the Mystery?

If Trinitarian theologians (at least those outside the analytic camp) agree on anything, they agree that the dogma of the Trinity points to a mystery, the one Mystery whose divine essence is incomprehensible to finite rational beings (at least in this life and perhaps even into the Eschaton). By divine revelation we may know who God is—namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but we cannot know what God is. We cannot provide a definition of divinity. He does not belong to a class or genus nor stand alongside his creatures as one being among many—hence the heavy reliance by the Church Fathers (the very individuals who formulated the dogma) upon negative attributes like infinity, immutability, and simplicity. These negative attributes highlight the incomprehensibility of the divine substance and secure the Creator’s absolute uniqueness and incomparability. The Fathers are happy to talk about the perfections of God, but these perfections are enveloped in the recognition of his ineffability. Tuggy names this apophatic strategy “mysterianism.” He goes on to distinguish between positive mysterianism and negative mysterianism, but the key is the assertion of divine incomprehensibility, which then opens the door to paradox and antinomy (and probably dancing, too!). Tuggy restricts mysterianism to Trinitarian discourse, but this is a mistake, I think. The three great monotheistic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—apprehend the one Creator as infinite mystery and have commonly employed the via negativa in order to distinguish him from the creaturely order (see David Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God). Thus the great Rambam:

The second principle – the unity of God, meaning, that we believe that He who is the Primary Cause is one, and is not one pair, or one species, or one person that can be divided into many ones, and not one like a simple body that is numerically one, but that is subject to endless division. Rather, God is one in a oneness of which there is nothing similar. This second principle is indicated by what is said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (“Thirteen Principles of Faith”)

There cannot be any belief in the unity of God except by admitting that He is one simple substance, without any composition or plurality of elements: one from whatever side you view it, and by whatever test you examine it: not divisible into two parts in any way and by any cause, nor capable of any form of plurality either objectively or subjectively. (Guide for the Perplexed 1.51)

From the Yigdal:

Exalted and praised be the living God;
He exists, and His existence is timeless.
He is One and there is no unity like his —
He is mysterious, and His oneness infinite.
He has nothing resembling a body, and no physical substance;
His holiness is unique.

Similarly Ibn Sina:

The First also has no genus. This is because the First has no quiddity . That which has no quiddity has no genus, since genus is spoken of in answer to the question, “What is it?” and [moreover] genus in one is a part of a thing; and it has been ascertained that the First is not a composite. … the First has no differentia. Since He has neither genus nor differentia, He has no definition. There is no demonstration of Him, since there is no cause of Him. For this reason there is no “why” regarding Him, and you shall know that there in no “why-ness” for His act. … The negation that follows it does not add [anything] to it above and beyond existence, except the relation of distinctiveness. This meaning does not include any realized thing after existence, nor is it a meaning of something in itself; but it is only in terms of relation. (The Metaphysics 8.4.277)

And Al Ghazali:

We say that [the word] “one” can be taken and understood in the sense of that which does not admit of division, that is to say, it has no quantity, no perimeter, and no extension. Thus, the Creator most high is one, meaning that he is not quantifiable, meaning that quantification denies something’s wholeness by dividing it. But [God] is not divisible, since divisibility pertains to things that are quantifiable. Quantification results in division into parts, becoming smaller. But that which is not quantifiable cannot be described as divisible. Furthermore, [one] can be understood as that which has no equal in its rank, such as when we say that the sun is one. In this sense also the Creator most high is one, since he has no peer. (On Divine Essence 73.10)

And representing the Church catholic, the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom:

It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to give thanks to Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion: for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.

The oneness of the Creator confounds and delights the human intellect. Everything we know may be differentiated one from another, based on their respective natures and particulari­ties; but this is impossible when we seek to apprehend God in his transcendent unicity. The God of faith cannot be counted. Confessing the one Deity is not a matter of comparing respective pantheons. “You Romans have many gods (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Pluto), but we Jews have only one.” That would reduce YHWH to being an instantiation, albeit the sole instantiation, of a divine nature. The Lord becomes, as it were, the last deity standing. Once upon a time there were many dodos, but then the species started dying out. Eventually there was only one left; then that one died, too, and now there are none. (As the pop-atheist meme goes: “I just believe in one fewer god than you do”). The one God is not the last dodo—hence the traditional monotheistic insistence that God is beyond counting. Counting presupposes that we know the natures of things and can differentiate one from another. We can count computers and chairs and airplanes, for we know their essences; but we do not know what it means for God to be God. His nature is beyond our grasp, his essence incomprehensible. The mystery of divine oneness is beautifully expressed by the medieval Jewish poet Solomon ibin Gabirol:

Thou art One, the first of every number, and
the foundation of every structure,
Thou art One, and at the mystery of Thy Oneness the wise of heart are struck dumb,
For they know not what it is.
Thou art One, and Thy Oneness can neither be increased nor lessened,
It lacketh naught, nor doth aught remain over.
Thou art One, but not like a unit to be grasped or counted,
For number and change cannot reach Thee.
Thou art not to be visioned, nor to be figured thus or thus.
Thou art One, but to put to Thee bound or
circumference my imagination would fail me.
Therefore I have said I will guard my ways lest I sin with the tongue.
Thou art One, Thou art high and exalted beyond abasement or falling,
“For how should the One fall?”

Denys Turner invites us to engage in a thought experiment. We bring together all the scientists in the world, and we ask them to make an exhaustive list of everything that exists. The list will no doubt number in the billions, trillions, zillions. After the list is finished, would it then be legitimate for someone to say, “But you have omitted God. Don’t forget to add him to the list”? No, Turner replies. “God cannot be counted in any list of the ‘everything that is.’ God’s oneness is not the oneness of mathematics, as it would be were I to say of any creaturely oneness: ‘I’ll have one pie for lunch, not two’” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 120; also see Turner’s essay “Christians, Muslims, and the Name of God“). The confession of the one God immediately brings us into the transcendent mystery of the God who is not a god. The ontological cleavage between creator and creation is decisive. We can number the gods, for the gods (if they exist) belong to the world of nature. But the one God plus the world does not equal two. As St Dionysius writes, “For God is not some kind of being” (Divine Names 817D). St Gregory Palamas is even more provocative: “Every created nature is far removed from and completely foreign to the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature; but if every other thing is nature, He is not a nature, just as He is not a being if all other things are beings. And if He is a being, then other things are not beings” (Capita 78). It is therefore false to claim that there are two Gods (what could that mean?), whereas to say that there is one God is true, though with this important nuance: “the oneness of God is beyond our comprehension. That is why the manner in which ‘There is one God’ excludes ‘There are two Gods’ is not the same as the manner in which ‘There is one pie for lunch’ excludes ‘There are two pies for lunch'” (Turner, pp. 275-276, n. 15). The oneness of the Creator is a transcendent oneness of Being (or beyond Being), not a oneness of entities. Hence to speak of the one God as numerically one is incorrect. The divine unicity excludes all numeration. Our language breaks precisely at this point—at the point of the infinite interval between Creator and creature. Neither unitarians nor Trinitarians can escape it. “Christian trinitarianism does not rock a unitarian boat that would otherwise be plain sailing for Jews and Muslims,” Turner remarks. “Whether by God’s oneness or God’s threeness, we are in equal measures theologically benighted, or, as one might more positively put it, believers of all three faith traditions are thereby invited into a participation in love with the same unknowable, indescribable Godhead” (pp. 130-131). In the end, we are all mysterians and mystics.

But this apophatic way of speaking and knowing the one God disappears when we turn to Dr Tuggy’s reflections. In his recently published essay “On Counting Gods,” Tuggy proposes three conditions for divinity:

  1. To be a deity requires selfhood. It must be “a being/entity who is in principle capable of having a first-person point of view and knowledge, and performing intentional actions” (p. 190). It is a person whom we may address and who communicates with us.
  2. To be a deity requires power, more power than ordinary human beings possess, thus enabling them to act in those areas of life which human beings care about. Not only can they do most of the things human beings do, but they are also capable of performing feats of which ordinary humans are incapable—think superheroes. But deities are greater than the greatest of our comic book heroes, because they also fulfill condition #3.
  3. To be a deity requires supernatural power, that is to say, it must possess “the ability to intentionally act in ways not wholly constrained by the natural world’s normal ways” (p. 192). Whereas a superhero still acts within the constraints of the laws of nature (pushing them to their very limits, perhaps manipulating hidden laws), a deity is able to transgress the laws of nature: “a deity has powers to act not wholly constrained by nature’s normal ways, and he or she acts without making use of hidden natural laws.”

Note that the above are conditions for being a deity (lower-case), as analyzed from the perspective of comparative religions. Tuggy then makes a second distinction, between being a deity and being a god/God: while all gods are deities, not all deities qualify for godhood; they lack the quality of ultimacy. “An ultimate,” Tuggy explains, “is a being/entity which is unique and unsurpassable in reality (degree and/or kind) and/or in explanatory priority. Roughly, an ultimate is supposed to be the highest, most basic, most real, or ‘farthest back’ being” (p. 195). The concept of godhood necessarily implies ultimacy; the concept of deity does not. On the other hand, ultimacy does not necessarily imply godhood, as the ultimate may lack the characteristics of selfhood and personality which all gods must have. Examples of an impersonal ultimate would be the Tao of Chinese religion and the Brahman of Advaita Vedanta Hindu philosophy. Tuggy proposes that an impersonal ultimate be called “The Ultimate.” We thus get this Venn diagram:

A further clarification is needed: Can there be more than one god? Tuggy thinks not. As used in analytic philosophy, the term “god” is employed not as a name or title but as “a sortal or a kind term, referring to the sort of being that atheists believe there to be no example of” (p. 194).

It is presumed that there can be at most one such being; if there is any such being, it is of necessity unique. There is supposed to be a contradiction in the claim that there is more than one god (but not in the claim of more than one deity). Nor is a god supposed to be just any old deity. If there are other deities, none is the god’s peer. A god is by definition incapable of having a true peer. (p. 195)

Tuggy is aware that those who believe in an impersonal ultimate sometimes identify their ultimate principle or entity as “God.” He finds this usage confusing and reasonably suggests that the title be reserved for a being who qualifies as a god. Hence it appears that if a being qualifies as a god (i.e., an ultimate deity), he is, by definition, God. Tuggy goes on to develop various categories and distinctions, ranging from “naturalistic adeism” (old fashioned atheism) at one end of the religion spectrum to “polydeistic monotheism” (one god plus angels, demons, and maybe even some cool preternatural creatures) at the other end. This last category is of particular interest, because this is where he locates most Jews, Muslims, and Christians, as well as monotheistic Hindus. Polydeistic monotheists believe in the existence of exactly one personal creator, “yet they are polydeists, with a plurality of deities, such as angels, demons, the divine council, sons of God, jinn, devas, or asuras” (p. 205). “Polydeistic monotheism” must also be distinguished from “monodeistic monotheism,” which lies in the middle of the spectrum. Monodeistic monotheists believe in the existence of one god but deny the existence of non-god deities. So what’s the difference between an adeist and a monotheist? A matter of number—0 or 1.

How well do Christianity, Judaism, and Islam fit into Tuggy’s categories (whether #3 or #8)? Clearly Tuggy thinks they fit just fine. What’s the problem? Each of the three monotheistic traditions speak of one absolute Deity possessing ultimate metaphysical status. This divine self has all the essential properties to qualify for godhood: “super-powerful and knowledge­able and good, unique creator of all else, who is uniquely provident over history” (What is the Trinity?, p. 117). What more do you want? Yet I can easily envision Dionysius, Aquinas, Maimonides, and al-Ghazali jumping up in protest, exclaiming, “There’s no counting in God!”

Any hint of God’s radical unicity and transcendent difference or the inherent inappropri­ateness of our theological language is notably missing in Tuggy’s presentation. To put it bluntly, God is simply the greatest thing around. Tuggy’s analysis of ultimate personal divinity is thus vulnerable to the criticisms advanced by Barry Miller against “perfect being,” or Anselmian, theology:

The Anselmians’ notion of a perfection has immediate implications for their understanding of God’s transcendence over his creatures. They succeed in setting him well apart from his creatures, many of which may perhaps have great-making properties but no one of which would have even one of them to the maximum degree possible. On this view, the gulf between God and creatures would therefore be wide, and perhaps unimaginably so, though it would not constitute an absolute divide. It is difficult to see how it could be more than a difference of degree, since the terms indicating his properties—‘powerful,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘generous’ and so on—seem to be used univocally of God and creatures. True, when applied to God, those terms are often qualified as ‘maximally powerful,’ ‘all knowing,’ ‘infinitely merciful,’ ‘unsurpassably generous,’ but the qualifiers do nothing to change the sense of the terms they qualify. Hence, the role of ‘maximally,’ ‘all,’ ‘infinitely,’ and ‘unsurpassably’ cannot be that of alienans adjectives like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck,’ or ‘negative’ in ‘negative growth,’ each of which does serve to change the sense of the term it qualifies. Rather, they are merely superlatives, which of course leave quite intact the sense of the terms they qualify. Thus understood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.

As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship. The point is that the terms that perfect-being theology predicates of God are being used in precisely the sense that ipso facto precludes their being predicated of a God who is absolutely transcendent, since it is a sense in which they could equally be predicated of creatures. The difference between creatures and any God of whom they really could be predicated would therefore be simply one of degree. Although this may seem to be a hard saying, it follows straightforwardly from the fact that absolute transcen­dence cannot be attained merely by extending human attributes to whatever degree is deemed to be ‘maximal.’ The Anselmians’ God is therefore anything but ineffable, for not only can we talk about him, we can do so in precisely the same terms as those we use in talking about humans. Such a view succeeds in presenting God in terms that are comfortingly familiar, but only at the price of being discomfitingly anthropomorphic. (A Most Unlikely God, pp. 2-3)

Perfect being theology presupposes a scale of “greatness” (one can hardly avoid thinking of the Hellenistic chain of being), with the greatest and most perfect being at the summit. It seems all very reasonable. Yet by itself, the Anselmian view leaves us with a Deity who is less than Deity. What should Anselm and his followers have done? asks Miller. They should have considered the possibility, as St Thomas Aquinas certainly did (“we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not” [ST I.3]), that the greatest being does not exist on any scale, that the items on the scale merely point to the ultimate reality without ever converging upon it. “In other words,” suggests Miller, “what should at least have been considered was the possibility of the greatest F not being the final member in a series of members that were F to an increasing degree, not belonging to the series at all, but lying completely outside it. In that case, the greatest F would not be a maximum or limit simpliciter in an ordered series of Fs, as Anselmians understand it to be. Rather, it would be the limit case of such a series” (p. 4). A limit simpliciter differs by degree from that of which it is the limit, whereas a limit case differs absolutely. For perfect being theology, Deity ends up being a human being writ large (with appropriate qualifications)—let’s call it a divine self—but he still remains significantly different from the ineffable God worshipped in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, whose transcendent uniqueness is determinative. I imagine that some would reply that Miller’s concerns are fully satisfied by the attribution to God of incompositeness, but divine simplicity is a contentious issue in analytic circles (see William Vallicella, “Divine Simplicity,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; R. T. Mullins, “Simply Impossible“; cf. Dale Tuggy, “Why I Am Not a Thomist” [part 1, part 2]; for a defense of apophaticism from an analytic perspective, see Jonathan D. Jacobs, “The Ineffable, Inconceivable, and Incomprehensible God“).

Where is the incomprehensibility of the divine essence or the transcendence of Transcen­dence? The problem, I surmise, lies with perfect being methodology. If we begin with maximal attributes and the difference of degrees, it’s hard to see how we can ever rightly conceive divine transcendence, even if, like Tuggy, we identify God as an ultimate and unique being. Aristotle’s unmoved mover, for example, is a unique and ultimate being, but it’s still just a being within the continuum of being. But if we begin with the biblical revelation of the creatio ex nihilo and the infinite analogical interval, then all the superla­tives of the perfect being may be properly gathered into the one and holy Mystery. Herbert McCabe eloquently states the necessary distinction, with implications:

The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is at the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (God Still Matters, p. 59)

Here is the surprising weakness of Dr Tuggy’s presentation of unitarian divinity—the failure to properly conceive the transcendent oneness of the one God.


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“I do not know whether we can even sleep without falling into debt”

The Lord puts the parable of the unforgiving debtor before us that we may learn from it. He has no desire for us to die, so he warns us: This is how your heavenly Father will deal with you if you, any of you, fail to forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

Take notice now, for clearly this is no idle warning. The fulfillment of this command calls for the most vigorous obedience. We are all in debt to God, just as other people are in debt to us. Is there anyone who is not God’s debtor? Only a person in whom no sin can be found. And is there anyone who has no brother or sister in his debt? Only if there be someone who has never suffered any wrong. Do you think anyone can be found in the entire human race who has not in turn wronged another in some way, incurring a debt to that person? No, all are debtors, and have others in debt to them. Accordingly, God who is just has told you how to treat your debtor, because he means to treat his in the same way.

There are two works of mercy which will set us free. They are briefly set down in the gospel in the Lord’s own words: Forgive and you will be forgiven, and Give and you will receive. The former concerns pardon, the latter generosity.

As regards pardon he says: “Just as you want to be forgiven, so someone is in need of your forgiveness.” Again, as regards generosity, consider when a beggar asks you for something that you are a beggar too in relation to God. When we pray we are all beggars before God. We are standing at the door of a great householder, or rather, lying prostrate, and begging with tears. We are longing to receive a gift—the gift of God himself. What does a beggar ask of you? Bread. And you, what do you ask of God, if not Christ who said: I am the living bread that has come down from heaven? Do you want to be pardoned? Then pardon others. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Do you want to receive? Give and you will receive.

If we think of our sins, reckoning up those we have committed by sight, hearing, thought, and countless disorderly emotions, I do not know whether we can even sleep without falling into debt. And so, every day we pray; every day we beat upon God’s ears with our pleas; every day we prostrate ourselves before him saying: Forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us. Which of our trespasses, all of them or only some? All, you will answer. Do likewise, therefore, with those who have offended you.

This is the rule you have laid down for yourself, the condition you have stipulated. When you pray according to this pact and covenant you remember to say: Forgive us, as we also forgive our debtors.

St Augustine of Hippo

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“To be God the Father is first to be the Father of the Son, and just and only so to be God”

It was the center of the revelation to Israel that the Lord is a ferociously jealous God, that he brooks no almost-gods, no “next” powers “after” the Father of all. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God,” is the first creed of the church also. In the Bible there is the Lord, the Creator of all things, and there are his creatures, and there is nothing in between; there is no ontological overlap, no pantheon of not-quite-gods or divine creatures.

So which is the Logos, Creator or creature? For such Bible-readers as were the ancient churchmen, the question could not be ignored, but it could be long suppressed. Until finally poor Arius pressed it so urgently that it had to be faced, whereupon the church blew apart.

The outcome is familiar. A few thinkers took up Arius’s challenge and faced the church with the stark alternative: either stop worshiping the Son, because he is a creature and Christians do not worship creatures, or acknowledge that the Son is Creator, God Almighty. For a time such radicals were a minority, yet with this stern biblical reasoning they eventually bullied the church, kicking and screaming, into the confession of Nicaea and Constantinople, that the Son who is from God is nevertheless, or rather just so, himself true God, that in the case of this God, being from God is not incompatible with being 100 percent God.

The thought was achieved that has since enabled all specifically Christian thought on any given subject: that to be God the Father is first to be the Father of the Son, and just and only so to be God; that to be God the Son is first to be the Son of this Father, and just and only so to be God, and that to be God the Spirit is first to be the Spirit of this Father resting on this Son, and just and only so to be God; so that only in their mutuality is there God at all. God—if I may use my own jargon—is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.

So Jesus is the Son, who is of one being with the Father, either of whom can be called Lord and neither of whom can be called the Lord without the other. From A.D. 381 on that has been the dogma of the holy catholic church.

(Robert W. Jenson, “With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 16-17)

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“Why do we usurp God’s right to judge?”

You know how great a wrong it is to judge your neighbor. What is graver than this? What does God hate and turn away from so much as from this? Nevertheless, from things that appear negligible a man comes to such great evil. For by accepting a suspicion against the neighbor, by saying, “What does it matter if I put in a word about my suspicion? What does it matter if I find out what this brother is saying or what that guest is doing?” the mind begins to forget about its own sins and to talk idly about his neighbor, speaking evil against him, despising him, and from this he falls into the very things that he condemns. Because we become careless about our own faults and do not lament our own death (as the Fathers put it), we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor. Nothing angers God so much or strips a man so bare or carries him so effectively to his ruin as calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor.

There are three distinct things here: running a man down, condemning him unjustly, and despising him. Running a man down is saying that so-and-so has told a lie, or got into a rage, or gone whoring, or the like. A man has already committed calumny if he speaks about his brother’s sins as if with sympathy. Condemning a man is saying, “he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator. For in this way one judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life, saying it is of such a kind and condemns him as such. This is a very serious thing. For it is one thing to say, “He got mad,” and another thing to say, “He is bad-tempered,” and to reveal, as we said, the whole disposition of his life. It is serious to judge a man for each one of his sins. As Christ himself says, “Hypocrite, first take the board from your own eye, then you can see to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”

You see, he compares your brother’s sin to a splinter and your rash judgment to a board. Very nearly the most difficult of all sins to deal with is judging our neighbor! That Pharisee who was praying and giving thanks to God for his own good works was not lying but speaking the truth, and he was not condemned for that. For we must give thanks to God when we are worthy to do something good, as he is then working with us and helping us. Because of this he was not condemned, as I said, not even because he said, “I am not like other men,” but he was condemned because he said, “I am not like this tax-collector.” It was then that he made a judgment. He condemned a person and the dispositions of his soul—to put it shortly, his whole life. Therefore, the tax-collector rather than the Pharisee went away justified.

Nothing is more serious, nothing more difficult to deal with, as I say repeatedly, than judging and despising our neighbor. Why do we not rather judge ourselves and our own wickedness, which we know so accurately and about which we have to render an account to God? Why do we usurp God’s right to judge? Why should we demand a reckoning from his creature, his servant? Ought we not to be afraid when we hear about a brother falling into fornication and declare, “He has acted wickedly!” If you know what it says about this in the Book of the Ancients, it would make you shudder. For an angel brought Isaac the Theban the soul of someone who had fallen into sin, and said to him, “Here is the person you have judged. He has just died. Where do you order him to be put, into the Kingdom or into eternal judgment?” Can you imagine a more terrible situation to be in? What else could the angel mean by this words than, “Since you want to be the judge of the just and the unjust, what do you command for this poor soul? Is he to be spared or to be punished?” The holy old man, frightened beyond measure, spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears and continuous hard work to be forgiven this sin, and this in spite of having fallen on his knees before the angel and been forgiven, for the angel said to him, “You see, God has shown you how serious a thing it is to judge; you must never do it again.” This was the way he granted forgiveness but the soul of the old man would not allow him to be completely comforted from his pain and repentance until he died.

St Dorotheos of Gaza

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Nicene Metaphysics: Apprehending the Transcendence

It’s not clear in my own mind precisely when I began to make the connection between creatio ex nihilo and the metaphysical revolution initiated by the first two ecumenical councils and the theologians we now identify as the Pro-Nicene Fathers (St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa); but I’m confident it goes back to the late 70s and early 80s when I immersed myself in the Trinitarian theology of Robert W. Jenson and Thomas F. Torrance. Crucial confirma­tion came in the early 90s when, on the recommendation of now Archbishop Joseph Augustine DiNoia, I read Robert Sokolowski’s illuminating book The God of Faith and Reason. The connection was later wonderfully deepened by David Bentley’s Hart’s lecture “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics After Nicaea,” which I heard delivered at the Fordham conference Orthodox Readings of Augustine a decade ago. My subsequent reading has only reinforced my conviction: in particular I mention Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology; Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea; Lewis Ayres, The Legacy of Nicaea; and, more recently, Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation.

My unoriginal thesis, simply stated: the Trinitarian reflection of the second- and third-centuries, elaborated in a subordinationist conceptuality, created a theological problem for the Church’s proclamation of the gospel that could not be resolved except by a transfor­mation of Hellenistic metaphysics.

The crisis began in the fourth century among the followers of Origen. Grabbing hold of one trajectory within Origen’s presentation of triadic divinity, Arius said what catholic theologians had always refused to say: Jesus Christ is a creature—the first and greatest creature of God but a creature nonetheless, generated out of nothing. Arius unequivocally locates Jesus on the creaturely side of the uncreated/created chasm: “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing” (quoted by Socrates of Constantinople, Church History I.5). The Son, in other words, is a contingent product of the Father’s will: he might never have been; he might never have been created. The transcendent Deity might have chosen not to generate his hypostatic Word and Wisdom, just as he might have chosen not to make the world. Arius thus resolves the instability of Origen’s speculations by divorcing Jesus and the divine nature, and he appeals to the Bible for support: “The Lord created me as the beginning of his ways, for the sake of his works” (Prov 8:22 LXX). Khaled Anatolios elaborates:

The internal consistency of Arius’s doctrine comes into view once we see that his project is fundamentally concerned with integrating a strict definition of divine transcendence with a relativized but, in his view, scripturally adequate conception of the primacy of Christ. The highest level of divine transcendence is defined in terms of absolute simplicity and unqualified priority: the one God is therefore unbegotten/uncaused/monas. Therefore, God is not always Father; the Son did not always exist; the three hypostases are unlike each other in substance. In relation to this one God, the Son/Word/Wisdom, as secondary and caused, is a creature whose existence has a beginning as the effect of the will of the one God. But the son is also “God,” albeit in a secondary sense, as the created and necessarily incomplete representation and mediation of divine glory. Like all created beings, the Son is alterable by nature. But the primacy of Christ consists in his being granted an original and unsurpassable share in divine glory, which is not a participation in divine substance but in the freely bestowed grace of God’s benefits. The Word is therefore not like the other creatures but is the exemplary and uniquely “perfect creature.” (p. 52)

The response from others within the camp of Origen, representing the alternative trajectory, was immediate and emphatic: Arius has denied the gospel—anathema! Not only does Arius’s doctrine leave the Church worshipping a creature (idolatry!), but it subverts the baptismal gift of salvation! How can a creature save us from sin and nothingness? How can a creature, no matter how exalted, incorporate mankind into the eternal life of God? As Athanasius would later write: “For humanity would not have been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were true God. Nor would humanity have been drawn into the Father’s presence, unless the one who had put on the body was the true Word by nature” (C. Ar. 2.70).

Basil Studer makes explicit the interior connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the movement of the Church into a deeper comprehension of Trinitarian divinity:

By the turn of the century a new theological attitude to the concept of creatio ex nihilo had emerged in the apologetics directed against the pagans, probably under the influence of philosophical discussion. This made it urgent to give an unambiguous answer to the question still left open in Origen’s cosmology, governed as it was by the problem of the One and the Many: that is, whether the Logos was to be placed on the side of creation or of the Creator. Arius himself decided for the first option. According to him the pre-existent Logos cannot be equal to the Father, who alone is uncreated; thus he cannot possibly have come out of the being of the Father. He was rather created out of nothing like all creatures. However, he is the first creature; he was created before time, while the other creatures came into being through him in time. In short he is only a secondary God, not without beginning like the Father. (pp. 103-104)

The bishops gathered in Nicaea in 325 and promulgated their creed. The key credal statement and condemnation:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be, both those in heaven and those in earth.

And those who say “there once was when he was not”, and “before he was begotten he was not”, and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance, affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration—these the catholic and apostolic church anathematises.

Arius was excommunicated, but as subsequent writings and events bear out, the dogmatic definition did not resolve the debate. Theology remained trapped in the subordinationist metaphysics of the Hellenistic world. The Pro-Nicene Fathers struggled to find appropriate conceptuality in which to express their faith in the ontological equality of the Father and the Son (and eventually the Spirit). By the conclusion of the fourth century, the metaphysical revolution had been achieved. Subordinationism was rejected and a fresh and bold way to state the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was articulated. David Hart elaborates:

The doctrinal determinations of the fourth century, along with all their immediate theological ramifications, rendered many of the established metaphysical premises upon which Christians had long relied in order to understand the relation between God and the world increasingly irreconcilable with their faith, and at the same time suggested the need to conceive of that relation—perhaps for the first time in Western intellectual history—in a properly “ontological” way. With the gradual defeat of subordinationist theology, and with the definition of the Son and then the Spirit as coequal and coeternal with the Father, an entire metaphysical economy had implicitly been abandoned. These new theological usages—this new Christian philosophical grammar—did not entail a rejection of the old Logos metaphysics, but they certainly did demand its revision, and at the most radical of levels. For not only is the Logos of Nicaea not generated with a view to creation, and not a lesser manifestation of a God who is simply beyond all manifestation; it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness—his transcendence—is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his “essence” as God. Thus it is that the divine persons can be characterized (as they are by Augustine) as “subsistent relations”: meaning not that, as certain critics of the phrase hastily assume, the persons are nothing but abstract correspondences floating in the infinite simplicity of a logically prior divine essence, but that the relations of Father to Son or Spirit, and so on, are not extrinsic relations “in addition to” other, more original “personal” identities, or “in addition to” the divine essence, but are the very reality by which the persons subsist; thus the Father is eternally and essentially Father because he eternally has his Son, and so on. God is Father, Son, and Spirit; and nothing in the Father “exceeds” the Son and Spirit. In God, to know and to love, to be known and to be loved are all one act, whereby he is God and wherein nothing remains unexpressed. And, if it is correct to understand “being” as in some sense necessarily synonymous with manifestation or intelligibility—and it is—then the God who is also always Logos is also eternal Being, not a being, that is, but transcendent Being, beyond all finite being.

Another way of saying this is that the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery—the full transcendence—of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the person of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo; not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no metaphysical structure of reality, through whose agencies God acts; but it does mean that, whatever that structure might be, God is not located within it, but creates it, and does not require its mechanism to act upon lower beings. As the immediate source of the being of the whole, he is nearer to every moment within the whole than it is to itself, and is at the same time infinitely beyond the reach of the whole, even in its most exalted principles. And it is precisely in learning that God is not situated within any kind of ontic continuum with creation, as some “other thing” mediated to the creature by his simultaneous absolute absence from and dialectical involvement in the totality of beings, that we discover him to be the ontological cause of creation. True divine transcendence, it turns out transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent. (The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 147-148)

This dense but rich passage demands multiple rereadings (as does the the essay itself). I cannot pretend to have comprehended Hart’s analysis at every point, but here is my takeaway: whereas in earlier patristic reflection the Son and Spirit were conceived as subordinate “divine” beings—existing in hierarchical, vertical relationship between the one God at the top of the metaphysical ladder and temporal reality at the bottom—now they, with the Father, are seen as existing in immediate relationship to the cosmos and with each other. Radical transcendence makes possible radical immanence. The ladder, if you will, has been tipped over. In their mutual relations, Father, Son and Spirit are intrinsic to the internal structure of deity. God does not need mediators between the world and himself. The Father creates the world through his Son and by his Spirit: each hypostasis is fully divine; each equally immediate to the world as the ultimate source of existence. The biblical story of the one God who by his Son and Spirit creates, redeems, and transfigures the world reveals God as he truly is in himself. The Father exists eternally with his coinherent Word and Spirit. As Thomas Torrance was fond of saying, there is no God behind the back of Jesus. The Hellenistic notion of degrees of divinity is thus emphatically rejected. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “To compose the Trinity of Great and Greater and Greatest, as if of Light and Beam and Sun …, makes a ‘ladder of deity’ that will not bring us into heaven but out of it” (Letter 101.14; quoted by Jenson, p. 90). And Gregory Nyssen: “Between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is no interstice into which the mind might step as into a void” (Ep Pet. 41; see Lewis Ayres, “On Not Three People“).

Some, like analytic philosopher Alan Rhoda, have questioned the connection between the creatio ex nihilo and the ineffable mode of divine difference. The creatio ex nihilo only denies God’s creation of the world out of primordial matter; it implies nothing more. Origen and others, after all, affirmed the world’s creation from out of nothing, but they still maintained their adherence to subordinationist metaphysics. The most one can legitimately say is that the doctrine functioned as a catalyst. It certainly confronted the Church with an unavoid­able decision: Is Jesus Christ uncreated or not?

I keep mulling this over in my mind. It still seems to me that the creatio ex nihilo entails more than the denial of creatio ex materia. If God does not fashion the world from primordial matter in demiurgic fashion, and if he does not pantheis­tically generate the world through the emanation of his substance, then we are talking about a making that is not a making at all. The ex nihilo gestures toward the dissimilarity. Thus St Maximus the Confessor: “For if artists in their art conceive the shapes of those things which they produce, and if universal nature conceives the forms of the things within it, how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness” (Various Texts on Theology 1.6). God is not a cause among causes: he is the transcendent bestower of finite being. He creates by summoning things into existence from the void of nothingness, not just at a moment in the past but at every instant of creaturely existence. In James Ross’s lapidary sentence: “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer.” The Trinity sings into reality that which is genuinely other than himself, yet which depends totally on his creative act and presence. Hence we must speak of an “infinite analogical interval” between Creator and creature, similarity comprehended within apophatic dissimilarity. The creatio ex nihilo points us to the transcendent Mystery who surpasses metaphysical distinctions and categories, who exists beyond unity and difference, the one and the many, motion and stillness, substance and form.

The implications of the creatio ex nihilo for the Church’s understanding of Trinitarian divinity could be ignored for a time but not indefinitely. If the fourth century Church was to affirm, against Arius, the generation of Christ from the substance of the Father—“God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—then a rejection of subordinationist metaphysics was necessary. “For the God described by the dogmas of Nicaea and Constantinople,” writes Hart, “was at once more radically immanent within and more radically transcendent of creation than the God of the old subordinationist metaphysics had ever been. He was immediately active in all things; but he occupied no station within the hierarchy of the real” (p. 149). Perhaps we should think of the Nicene revolution as a creative moment akin to the movement in modern physics from the Newtonian model of the universe to the Einsteinian model—a matter of insight rather than logic. Paradigm shifts require something more than deduction. What is needed is an act of imagination, a thinking outside the parameters (see Garrett Green, Imagining God). It wasn’t that experimental evidence had disproved the Newtonian model. Einstein, rather, dared to look at the whole of the data in a new way. “Newton, forgive me,” he wrote in his Autobiographical Notes. “You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought—and creative power.” Robert Sokolowski suggests that the distinction between the world (which need not be) and its infinite Creator (who eternally exists in transcendent aseity) is “glimpsed on the margin of reason” (p. 39). It is not merely one mystery alongside other divinely-revealed mysteries but “the condition for our ability to assert the other Christian mysteries as mysteries” (pp. 38-39). The apprehension of the triune God who transcends transcendence and immanence lies in the liminal space between faith and reason.

Finally we may return to the contest between the unitarian and trinitarian models of God. In What is the Trinity? and other writings, Dale Tuggy maintains that the Nicene formulation of tri-hypostatic deity represents a negation of the biblical testimony to the one God and offers in evidence the teachings of orthodox theologians from the second- and third-centuries. He has a point. These theologians did employ the Hellenistic category of graded divinity to assert the inferior status of Jesus Christ. They did not question the inherited ontology of subordination; they presupposed it. This metaphysics thus functioned as an interpretive lens and boundary, and as long as it remained unchallenged, the Christian mind was constrained. The full and equal divinity of the Son and Spirit, upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ firmly rests, remained unsayable. Despite this constraint, the Church of course continued to proclaim the Lordship of the risen Christ and the gift of new creation through faith in his Name; continued to gratefully confess the sheer giftedness of world and cosmos; continued to live in the power of the coming Kingdom; continued to hope for the eschatolo­g­ical judgment when “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:28); continued to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father through the Son by the Spirit; continued, in other words, to live in the Holy Trinity—but the catholic doctrine of the Trinity remained tacit, implicit, lived rather than clearly thought. (“We can know more than we can tell,” Michael Polanyi reminds us.) What was needed was a new act of paradigmatic imagination. What was needed was a St Athanasius:

The Trinity is holy and perfect, confessed as God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or extrinsic mingled with it, nor compounded of creator and created, but is wholly Creator and Maker. It is identical with itself and indivisible in nature, and its activity is one. For the Father does all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit. Thus the oneness of the Holy Trinity is preserved and thus is the one God “who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4.6) preached in the Church—“over all,” as Father who is beginning and fountain; “through all,” through the  Son; and “in all” in the Holy Spirit. (Ep. Serap. 1.28)

Orthodox Christianity dares to believe that in this confession the voice of the Spirit may be heard.

(Go to “Analytic Theology and the One God“)


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“Remember me, that I am your creation; remember me, that I guarded the treasure entrusted me”

And about the third hour of the day, there was a great clap of thunder from the heavens, and a sweet fragrance, which caused all those present to be overpowered by sleep, except for the Apostles alone, and three virgins, whom the Lord appointed to stay awake so that they might be witnesses of Mary’s funeral rites and her glory. And behold, the Lord came on the clouds, with a multitude of angels beyond number. And Jesus himself and Michael entered the inner chamber where Mary was, while the angels sang hymns and remained standing outside her chamber. And as soon as the Savior entered, he found the Apostles with holy Mary, and he embraced them all. After this, he embraced his own mother. And Mary opened her mouth and blessed him, saying, “I bless you, for you have not grieved me with regard to the things you foretold. You foretold that you would not allow angels to come again to seek my soul, but that you would come for it yourself. It has happened, Lord, according to your word. Who am I, lowly one, that I have been counted worthy of such glory?” And having said this, she brought the course of her life to fulfillment, her face turned smilingly towards the Lord. And the Lord took her soul and placed it in the hands of Michael, after wrapping it in veils of some kind, whose splendor it is impossible to describe.

The Apostles looked on as the soul of Mary was given unto the hands of Michael, filled out with all the members of human being, except for the form of female and male, but with nothing else in it except the likeness of the whole body and a brilliance seven times greater than the sun. Peter was filled with joy, and asked the Lord, “Is then the soul of each of us bright, as Mary’s is?” The Lord said to him, “O Peter, the soul of all those being born in this world are like this, but when they depart from the body, they are not in such a brilliant condition, because they were sent here in one state but are later found in another. For ‘they loved the darkness’ of many sins. But if someone guards himself from the iniquities of this world’s darkness, and so leaves the body, his soul will be found to be as bright as this.” Again, the Savior said to Peter, “Take care to keep Mary’s body, my dwelling place, safe. Go out of the left side of the city, and you will find a new tomb; place the body in it and remain there, just as she commanded you.”

After the Savior said this, the very body of the holy Mother of God cried out before everyone and said, “Remember me, King of glory! Remember me, that I am your creation; remember me, that I guarded the treasure entrusted me.” Then Jesus said to her body, “Surely I will not abandon you, the treasury of my pearl! Surely I will not abandon you, the guardian of the treasure entrusted to you, who were found trustworthy! Far be it from me to abandon you, the ark who steered the way for your own steersman! For be it from me to abandon you, the treasury who remained sealed until you were sought!” And saying this, the Savior disappeared.

Archbishop John of Thessalonica

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