Category Archives: Philosophy

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I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.

B”H

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Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God

pdc.jpgHasker, William. 

Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God

Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology

New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. viii + 269. Hardcover. $99.00.

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With thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy!

An appeal to mystery has always been a mainstay in trinitarian theology. Whether attempting to describe God apophatically or cataphatically, the Christian tradition has always ultimately been forced to throw up its hands and say, “I just don’t know…” It’s not that Christians don’t know that  God is Trinity—we know it by revelation—it’s just that we don’t know how God is Trinity. I believe that  Philip Ryken and Michael LeFebvre got it right when they noted that our problem isn’t so much logical as it is analogical. God is unique; there’s nothing like God in existence for us to compare him to and get a completely accurate picture. And yet we wrestle with the seeming logical incoherence of the Trinity all the time.

It’s interesting to note that many who have tried to solve the alleged problem of the Trinity throughout history have either abandoned the faith when they couldn’t or have fallen into one heresy or another when they thought that they had (see the first chapter of James Anderson’s Paradox in Christian Theology for examples). The last few decades have seen philosophers of religion working in the analytic tradition turn their attention to this matter while coming up with some very different conclusions. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about some of this work is the desire and attempt to adequately account for God’s revelation in Scripture while seeking to maintain Christian tradition and simultaneously providing a rigorous philosophically coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

William Hasker, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Huntington University in Indiana, offers up Metaphysics & the Tri-Personal God (hereafter MTG) as “the first full-length study of the doctrine of the Trinity from the standpoint of analytic philosophical theology” (back cover). One might be tempted to challenge this claim in light of Thomas H. McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?, but in point of fact, McCall’s work turns out to be much more survey and prospect than a full-length study in its own right. In this sense Hasker is something of a trendsetter, elaborating on subject matter that has only really appeared up until this point in journal articles and anthologies.

MTG is divided into three parts of near equal proportion. The first part discusses “Trinitarian Foundations” and focuses on early Patristic trinitarian theology with an emphasis on the work of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine.  The second part, “Surveying the Options,” turns to an explanation and brief examination of the trinitarian theologies of modern systematic (Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, and Zizioulas) and analytic (Leftow, Van Inwagen, Brower & Rea, Craig, Swinburne, and Yandell) theologians. The third and final part, “Trinitarian Construction,” finds Hasker mounting a case for his version of social trinitarianism, which he believes to be faithful to both Scripture and the Pastristic tradition.

Hasker is not among those who believe that the word “person” in reference to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a mere placeholder, i.e., something to say rather than say nothing at all (à la Augustine). He believes that the same (or at least a very similar) concept of personhood that we apply to human beings is applicable to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, each is a “distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action” (22, 255-56). Where many social theories break down at precisely this point Hasker grounds the perichoretic unity of the three persons in their sharing a “single trope of deity” (a concept appropriated from anti-social trinitarian Brian Leftow), which he explains by an appeal to the metaphysical notion of constitution (i.e., each person is constituted by the divine nature without being identical to it).

Throughout the course of Hasker’s descriptive and constructive tasks he repudiates the classical doctrine of divine simplicity while defending the classical doctrines of the Son and Spirit’s eternal generation/procession. This seems to be trademark of Hasker’s work in this volume. At every point we find a theologian who is seeking to be faithful to the tradition (so far as he understands it) but who isn’t content to stay stuck in a mode of thinking that was adequate for fourth century thinkers but is considered by many to be outmoded for today’s philosophers and theologians (some might call this chronological snobbery).

There are a few things about MTG that I liked very much. First I have to readily admit that Hasker’s version of social trinitarianism—an elegant fusing of various theories taken from his peers in the field along with some fresh insights—is perhaps the most palatable version on file. His use of Leftow’s “single trope of deity” is a helpful way of looking at the divine being without falling into the modalism inherent in Leftow’s own proposals. I’m also partial to the notion of “constitution” although I’m persuaded that the impure version of relative identity that Rea & Brower argue for is stronger than Hasker would have us think.

I also appreciate Hasker’s writing style, which for the most part is easy to understand and to the point. At times he can get a bit technical but the interaction with his dialogue partners requires it. His critiques of Craig & Swinburne are especially poignant and to be considered carefully by those holding to similar social theories. In the end I’m still unconvinced that Hasker’s accounts of constitution, perichoresis, and a single trope of deity do the heavy metaphysical lifting required to elevate social theories of the Trinity above the appearance of tritheism but his is the best attempt to overcome that obstacle that I’ve seen to date.

Not everything that Hasker does and argues in MTG is helpful though. On the minor end of the spectrum is the brief attention given to debunking divine simplicity (55-61). Hasker’s case feels like an introduction to an argument rather than a developed argument in and of itself. A bit more troubling is his tendentious (and anachronistic) reading of the Fathers. Hasker has an odd way of arguing that if they didn’t explicitly condemn social trinitarianism then that means they were not anti-social trinitarians, and if not anti-social, then pro-social (e.g., 44-45 cf. 49). Unfortunately there’s no sustained interaction with the likes of Stephen Holmes, Karen Kilby, or Sarah Coakley who all argue against social trinitarianism in the Fathers.

Likewise, Hasker’s reading of Gregory of Nyssa leaves something to be desired. While he is correct in arguing that Gregory affirmed three persons in the Trinity, Gregory’s understanding of the divine persons was not what Hasker proposes. Remember, Hasker tells us that each divine person is a “distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action,” and yet Gregory says that “the will of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is one” (NPNF2 5.132); and that “there is no delay, existent or conceived, in the motion of the Divine will from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit” (NPNF2 5.335). Likewise, Nyssa focused heavily on the one divine action of the three divine persons (see Giulio Maspero, “Unity of Action” in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, 771-72).

There’s also the issue of Hasker’s use of “split brain” and “multiple personality” studies in psychology as an argument for the viability of multiple persons within God (231-37). To start, the split brain cases cited show the two hemispheres of the brain operating independently, but not simultaneously; features that both fail to account for the personal activity that we find in the Trinity. Concerning multiple personality, Hasker’s case studies suggest multiple consciousnesses that do operate independently, but I’m afraid that they don’t necessarily yield multiple human consciousnesses. It’s entirely possible that such cases are evidence of demon possession (see Mark 5:1-20), a possibility that’s not even mentioned let alone explored.

But one wonders why (or how) exactly Hasker believed that even if he were able to convincingly show “multiple centers of consciousness, supported by a single instance or trope of humanness” (237) that his “trinitarian possibility postulate,” which says, “It is possible for a single concrete divine nature—a single trope of deity—to support simultaneously three distinct lives, the lives belonging to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” (228) would be true. It seems backwards to reason from the creature to the Creator, and yet this is precisely the heart of Hasker’s case throughout. What we can say about God is determined by what we can say about humans.

And this is why, in the end, I believe that Hasker has failed to make his case (although I’d highly recommend interested readers to judge for themselves whether this is so). There’s little reference to Scripture in this volume and yet it is precisely in God’s revelation through Scripture that we find the bedrock of trinitarian theology. What we can confidently say about God is constrained by exegesis and it is at the exegetical level that we are forced, in the end, to appeal to mystery. We just can’t know more than God has revealed. Hasker’s conception of the Trinity ends up looking all too familiar and thus removes God’s uniqueness. I can appreciate the desire to solve the mystery, but I pity the man who thinks he has.

B”H

The Moral Disciple: An Introduction to Christian Ethics

pdc.jpgVan Til, Kent A. 

The Moral Disciple: An Introduction to Christian Ethics

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. Pp. x + 160. Paper. $18.00.

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With thanks to Eerdmans for this review copy!

Kent A. Van Til’s The Moral Disciple is a primer on ethics that could be used in undergraduate courses in Christian colleges, group studies at local churches, or by interested laypersons who want a solid introduction to this foundational aspect of the Christian worldview. I limit this volume’s use to Christian colleges because Van Til unapologetically sets God and Scripture as the sources from which we derive our ethical imperatives and standards. I can’t imagine secular institutions having much use for such truths.

This slim volume is divided chiastically into four parts: 1) Introducing Christian Ethics; 2) Character; 3) Norms; 4) Consequences. The first and fourth parts each contain two chapters while the second and third parts contain three chapters apiece. From vice and virtue to conscience and consequence, a variety of complex ideas are explained simply through a number of case studies and a bevy of summary sidebars, which allow the reader to see ethics in action. Each chapter is concluded with a list of several questions along with a list of works cited and recommended reading.

Van Til seems, as far as I can tell, to be an astute philosopher, which aids him in the task of making his explanations terse and practical. On the philosophical end there’s not much to quibble with, if anything at all. On the theological/exegetical end there’s a tiny matter or two that one might take issue with. For example, the suggestion that the command to “love one another” is a metaphor or simile (7) is kind of weird but no big deal really.

Twice Van Til seems to disregard the context of a biblical passage in making a point.  In one instance he says that the “point” of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is the removal of dietary/ritual regulations under the law (115), but surely the “point” of Peter’s vision had to do with the gospel being preached to the Gentiles, not dietary laws as such. In the second instance he suggests that 2 Corinthians 6:14 refers to marriage (116), which is a common enough interpretation, but one that isn’t borne by the text.

These are obviously minor complaints. The only thing I would have liked to have seen included in this book that wasn’t is a concluding summary chapter. As it stands the sidebars contain all the summary the reader needs, but to have it all collated with some concluding thoughts would have been helpful. A Scripture index would have been nice as well. But in all I think that this is a fine resource for introducing thoughtful believers to Christian ethics.

B”H

An Emphasis on “The True”?

In his article on W. V. Quine in A Companion to Analytic Philosophy, Peter Hylton says that it is helpful to place Quine’s work in the context of “twentieth-century scientific philosophy.” He describes the aims of this movement saying:

Perhaps most notable is the emphasis on knowledge, and its objects, rather than on ethics or politics or aesthetics or history or the human condition, as the primary concern of philosophy; an emphasis, one might say, on the True rather than on the Good or the Beautiful. (182)

That’s an interesting way to put it considering what follows, namely Hylton’s comment that “[i]t is characteristic of scientific philosophy to take the natural sciences as paradigmatic of all knowledge” (182). The natural sciences rule out God-talk a priori, in fact, they effectively replace God, especially in Hylton’s description of them as “paradigmatic of all knowledge.” But to speak of “truth” apart from God is nonsense. John Frame was right to note that:

Truth, like knowledge and wisdom, comes by grace, by trinitarian communication, by Word and by Spirit (Dan. 10:21; John 8:31f.; 14:6; 17:17 [cf. vv. 6, 8; 2 Sam. 7:28; Ps. 119:142, 160]; Rom. 2:8; 2 Cor. 4:2; 6:7; Gal. 2:5; Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5: 2 Thess. 2:12; 1 Tim. 3:15; Jas. 3:14; 1 Peter 1:22; 2 Peter 2:2; Rev. 6:10; 15:3; 16:7). (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 49)

B”H

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity

OHT.pngEmery, Gilles and Matthew Levering, eds.

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 632. Hardcover. $150.00.

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With thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy!

It’s quite common to talk about the rise, fall, and resurgence of Trinitarian theology. One is hard pressed to open up any of the dozens of recent books on file and not find a reference to the role that Friedrich Schleiermacher played in its demise or the role that Karl Barth and Karl Rahner played in its renewal. But for as ubiquitous as this claim is, it is equally wrong, or at least in need of nuancing as editors Matthew Levering (Professor of Theology at the University of Dayton, Ohio) and Gilles Emery (Professor of Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland) point out in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity. They rightly note that “in reality reflection on the Trinity has never ceased to be fruitful and give rise to new approaches” (1).

There was never a dark age of theology where the Trinity was forgotten and in need of rescuing and this volume helps to bring this to light. It does so by gathering essays from an interdisciplinary and ecumenical (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) group of scholars, which include some of the best in the fields of biblical studies, historical, and systematic theology. While not slavishly tracing the development of Trinitarian theology throughout the ages, they helpfully show that it has always been a topic of conversation from the time of the Scriptures to the present day. A summary of each of the 43 essays in this massive tome would be cumbersome, and the editors have done a much better job of that than I could anyway, so I will offer a brief overview and some reflective comments on the overall usefulness of this resource.

The volume is divided into seven disproportionate parts. Part 1 contains six chapters on “The Trinity in Scripture” although only four of them are properly devoted to Scripture (Seitz on the OT; Rowe on Paul & Hebrews; Gathercole on the Synoptics & Acts; and Ben Witherington on the Johannine Literature). Khaled Anatolios’ chapter discusses “The Canonization of Scripture,” which isn’t so much about the process of canonization as it is about how the canon determined the contours by which the Church Fathers, namely Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and Augustine formed their theology/apologetic. Mark Edwards’ contribution is geared more toward patristic exegesis but serves to segue into the next section. Part 2 contains four chapters on the “Patristic Witness to the Trinitarian Faith” and spans the Ante-Nicene Fathers to the “Late Patristic Developments in the East,” notably concluding with the Trinity’s relation to the rise of Islam, a subject that deserved treatment in part 7 of the book but unfortunately received none.

Part 3 contains five chapters covering “Medieval Appropriations of the Trinitarian Faith” and offers a nice array of essays that span the particular to the general. For example, Lauge O. Nielsen treats the Trinitarian theology of four theologians in particular: Alcuin, Gottschalk, John Scotus Eriugena, and Anselm of Canterbury, while Russell Friedman more generally treats 13th to 15th century Trinitarian theology. Karl Christian Felmy comprises a nice middle ground between general and particular in discussing the controversies, theology, and major players in “The Development of the Trinity Doctrine in Byzantium.” Part 4 contains nine chapters spanning “The Reformation to the Twentieth Century.” There’s considerable diversity in this section as it covers both Catholic and Protestant Trinitarian theology in the 19th century as well as modern Orthodox thinking; the contributions of major figures like the magisterial Reformers and the top theologians of the last generation (Barth, Rahner, and von Balthasar); and there’s even a foray into the discussions taking place among contemporary analytic philosophers.

Part 5 contains eight chapters on “Trinitarian Dogmatics” that are smartly arranged according to most of the major loci of systematic theology. Kathryn Tanner’s article on “The Trinity as Christian Teaching” serves as something of a prolegomena, while the following four essays comprise the theology proper, dealing with the divine Persons and their names (Te Velde), Patrology (Durand), Christology (Weinandy), and Pneumatology (Marshall), respectively. The remaining essays can be categorized according to theological anthropology (Saarinen), ecclesiology/sacramentology (Morerod), and soteriology (Keating). Part 6 contains seven chapters on a variety of issues pertaining to “The Trinity and Christian Life.” One expects articles on liturgy & preaching (Wainwright), morality (Cessario; Hall), and prayer (Murphy), but chapters on art (Bœspflug), feminism (Harrison), and politics (Bauerschmidt) were surprising though they shouldn’t have been—the conciliar debates have shown us how the Trinity and politics impact each other and art is an integral part of all life. Treating feminism seems dated but Harrison, in usual fashion, offers helpful correctives to extremes on both sides of the debate.

Part 7 contains four chapters of “Dialogues.” In two of those chapters (Fergusson and D’Costa respectively) the doctrine of the Trinity is set as the point of reference for ecumenical dialogue and advancement among the major branches of the Christian church, as well as the guiding principle, along with the mysteries of the Church and kingdom, for our engagement with and understanding of non-Christian religions. Charry discusses the respective Jewish and Christian doctrines of God through examples of Jewish-Christian dialogues throughout history, being careful not to frame the issue so as to give preference to the Trinity an thus eliminate true dialogue. I have to admit confusion over exactly what Rowland contributed; I simply couldn’t understand it. This volume is rounded out with a concluding chapter from the editors on the prospects of Trinitarian theology followed by a general index that combines cited authors and subjects.

Not since the 1999 volume The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity have I seen such a diverse collection of essays from such an esteemed group of contributors. But in addition to having a stellar lineup, this volumeis surprisingly accessible, and geared toward those eager to learn (as evidenced in the suggested reading lists and bibliographies at the end of each chapter). I expected quite a bit of technical discussion, and it’s there to be sure, but I’d have no problem directing beginning students to parts 1 & 2 of this volume in order to get their bearings in the field. Now I will admit that as one advances through the chapters they’ll notice that the reading gets tougher, but I think that’s reflective of the shifts in Trinitarian theology from the Bible to the modern age, with the biblical faith and witness veering more toward lucidity and modern reflections being somewhat muddled (as seen, e.g., in my utter confusion over what exactly Rowland was saying).

There were a number of standout essays, notably Christopher Seitz on “The Trinity in the Old Testament” in which he persuasively argues that the “literal sense” of the Old Testament points to the Trinity more than simply mining for “threesomes” in the text ever could. He also helpfully (and rightfully) highlights the rigorous exegesis of the Church Fathers in their debates and doctrinal formulations. Had the Trinity not been in the Old Testament then one wonders how patristic exegesis yielded so robust a doctrine. It’s unfortunate that Seitz’s was the lone essay on this topic. George Hunsinger’s “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity, and Some Protestant Doctrines After Barth” is about as good of an introduction to Barth’s Trinitarianism as one could hope for in less than twenty pages. I only wish he had more space to expand his appropriately critical comments on Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jüngel, all of whom he finds at odds with both Barth and Rahner in some form or other.

But for as satisfied as I am with this volume I will admit to being a bit greedy. I would have liked to have seen the “Dialogues” section beefed up with a chapter on the Trinity and Islam (as we find in the recently published Cambridge Companion to the Trinity with David B. Burrell’s chapter “Trinity in Judaism and Islam”). I also found myself wishing that there was a standalone chapter on the filioque, one that addressed its history and theology. As it stands, Bruce Marshall devoted a few pages (405-10) to it in his chapter on “Trinitatian Pneumatology,” and David Fergusson gives it just over a page (550-51) in his chapter on “Ecumenism and the Doctrine of the Trinity Today,” but there’s no real sustained engagement with the doctrine. And while I’m wishing for more (in a massive 600+ page volume mind you!), I would have appreciated a bit more with regard to the Trinity in analytic philosophy. There’s a lot going on in that field and one short essay doesn’t quite capture the gist of it.

While I’m nitpicking allow me to lodge an aesthetic complaint or two. I was irked by the inconsistent use of transliterated and untransliterated Greek throughout the volume. Surely this is something that should have been caught in the editorial process and given some kind of uniformity before it went to publication. And the recommended reading at the end of each chapter lacks uniformity as well. Under the heading of “Suggested Reading” in many chapters we read, “The following are recommended,” followed by the authors’ names and the year of publication in parentheses (see, e.g., 26, 67, 265). Then we find those recommended volumes in the subsequent bibliography. Some chapters omit the “The following are recommended” introduction to the list (see, e.g., 413, 470). Other chapters simply have a bibliography under the heading “Suggested Reading” (see, e.g., 279) while others annotate their “Suggested Reading” (see, e.g., 122, 136). As silly as it sounds, things like this actually hinder the reading process, at least for readers such as me.

These wishes and aesthetic gripes aside, I’d heartily recommend this volume to anyone who can get past the prohibitive price tag and procure a copy. In a perfect world it would be re-released as an affordable paperback and put into the hands of every student of Trinitarian theology.

B”H

Corrupting Worldview

Once again, taking up Bahnsen’s definition of worldview as “a network of presuppositions regarding reality, knowing, and conduct in terms of which every element of human experience is related and interpreted” (Pushing the Antithesis, 42-43), I notice that “everything in the world” that John refers to in 1 John 2:16 directly affects these foundational presuppositions. The lust of the flesh corresponds to reality (metaphysics); the lust of the eyes corresponds to knowing (epistemology); and the pride of life corresponds to conduct (ethics). One could say that every non-Christian worldview “comes not from the Father but from the world.”

B”H