31 July 2002

I’m going to return now to the discussion of nominalism that I began earlier, but I’m going to have to break it up into a series of shorter posts for it to be manageable. Eventually I hope to write this up as some kind of essay, but I’m not there yet. I’m going to continue here at present by means of a double detour through Reformed theology and Thomas Aquinas.

There are certain varieties of Reformed apologetics and philosophy that identify themselves as “presuppositionalist” in character, thereby distinguishing themselves from “classical” or “evidentialist” approaches, particularly various attempts at constructing “natural theology” (for a broader explanation of what so-called presuppositionalism is all about, I have "A Primer on Presuppositionalism" that might be helpful).

One could explain these differences in approach (between presuppositionalism and evidentialism) theoretically or practically, but I would prefer to do so historically. Far too often, I think, Reformed thought of various stripes fails to take itself as historically situated, embedded within the larger narrative of western (Christian) thought. But if we are truly presuppositional in our outlook, then it will be necessary to explore fully our own presuppositions and their genealogy.

My basic contention is that “presuppositionalism” only makes sense against the background of a certain kind of Enlightenment rationalism and the natural theology that was associated with it (Paley comes to mind, but the roots go much further back). When presuppositionalism inveighs against “classical” or “evidentialist” apologetics, it is that historically specific kind of apologetics that was fully complicit with the “modern” with its commitment to foundationalism, universal reason, scientific models of knowledge, and the like. That modernism, in turn, is indebted to certain trends that already were in place, for example, in the thought of John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) and then the later nominalists.

To trace this history I must begin with the views of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). You may detect that I read Thomas as himself something of a “presuppositionalist,” rather than as a “classical” or “evidentialist” theologian (I’ve argued here before for this kind of interpretation of Thomas). And I think this can be fairly well substantiated from the last century or so of Thomas scholarship. Nonetheless, the typical presuppositionalist reading of Thomas (a reading which you find not only in Cornelius van Til, but equally in Herman Dooyeweerd and even Francis Schaeffer) is certainly mistaken, on at least two counts:[a] it views Thomas Aquinas through the lens of a latter “thomism” (particularly the 19th and 20th century neo-scholasticism that found its last champions in Mercier and Garrigou-Lagrange) and this thomism is more indebted to Cajetan, Bellarmine, and Suarez than to Thomas himself;

[b] it anachronistically reads back into Thomas a kind of evidentialism that, in fact, did not come into its own for at least 400 years after Thomas' death (though that kind of evidentialism arguably had its roots in early 17th century Catholic theologians like Lessius; see, e.g., Michael Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism).
The story of how we get from Thomas Aquinas to the later nominalism and evidentialism that is often identified with “classical apologetics” goes something like the following.

We need to begin here with the (modernist) notion of “nature” as that is understood in distinction over against “grace” and various concomitant distinctions such as reason and faith, nature and supernature, sacred and secular, and so on. It is, after all, only within a system that makes such distinctions that we can even have a sphere of what is purely natural or impartially rational, a neutral secular “reason” which can claim to arbitrate the claims of the Christian faith or a fully "natural theology." And only on that presupposition can the typical description of classical apologetics make any sense.

But when we turn back to Thomas Aquinas we find that he draws no such sharp distinctions and does not isolate a particular area of human life as somehow neutrally free from the claims of faith or the influence of grace. For Thomas the “natural” is not the self-contained world of manipulable matter that is the opposite of “artificial” (as it became in later thought) and so the “supernatural” is not some second story of “stuff” that is somehow added to a more basic nature.

On the contrary, for Thomas “natura” has to do with kinds of things, their origins and ends, and what they do (including making “artificial” things), as they are organized in relation to one another in a single whole. All things within their fundamental relations to other things within this whole are “natural.” Those very same things, however, are “supernatural” in terms of their absolute origins since all creation is ultimately pure gift (i.e., grace) and they aim at God as their end since life within God is the graciously given goal of all creation. “Natural” and “supernatural” for Thomas, therefore, are adjectival or adverbial and have no reference to a distinction in substance. Nature is always-already “graced” (de Lubac speaks here of a single "double-gift" of creation and grace; see my essay "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace").

Since the creation is from God, is directed towards God, and stands in relation to God, it is like God and revelatory of God. Nevertheless, this revelatory likeness is only analogous—thus the notion of an analogia entis or “analogy of being.” Analogy implies both likeness and unlikeness. Since everything is created by God it images him (supremely human beings, individually and corporately); but since everything is created by God it images him only within the greater and absolute divide between Creator and creature. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had formulated this in the following way: for every similarity between God and the creature there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine).

Contrary to the contentions of some presuppositionalists, this is decidedly not “chain of being” thinking, but a sophisticated account of the absolute distinction between Creator and creator and the all-encompassing Lordship of God over his creation. As we shall see, it is in fact the later developments in Scotus and nominalism that move in the direction of a “chain of being.”

In any case, part of the upshot of this is the fact that, according to Thomas, when we say “God exists” and “creatures exist” we are using the term “exists” analogously, not purely univocally (and not equivocally either, since a real likeness is there). To use terms univocally is to use them with precisely the same meaning, for instance, the way the term "dog" functions in the sentence, "My dog is bigger than your dog." To use terms equivocally is to use them in significantly different senses, for instance, the way the term "chair" is used in the sentences, "The chair of my department is retiring" and "The [desk] chair has a broken leg." To use terms analogically is to use them in a way that assumes real similarity and connection, but within difference, for instance, when we say that a person is "healthy" and that certain foods are "healthy."

Applying this theologically, Thomas would say that for God to “exist” is to exist non-derivatively, independently, originally, a se, etc. For us to “exist” is to exist derivatively, dependently, createdly, in deus, etc. In God, existence and essence are co-terminous and identical. In the creature, there is a real distinction between existence and essence (we don’t have to exist) that gives primacy of act over form as the concrete and particular subsistence of things. Nevertheless, for Thomas, there are real analogies between the divine existence and creaturely existence, founded upon the doctrine of creation.

Precisely what this means and how it works out in metaphysics, epistemology, language, and the like—and how nominalism undermines this basic picture—will have to await a further post.

30 July 2002

Most people don't know that I occasionally write poetry. It's not great poetry, but I sometimes like to tinker around with words, their ambiguities and varying shades of meaning, how sounds come together and play off of one another. Philosophy and poetry are probably not all that different. In fact, I recently commented to Aaron Belz that I suspected that all good philosophy is really a kind of poetry--after he had just turned my comments on "fiveness" below into a poem.

In any case, here's a poem I wrote a couple of years ago and of which I was reminded while getting a quick bite in a local diner earlier today:Fix

no sooner
than the half-empty
bottomless cup again
returns to the ringed counter,
do my 3am eyes
trace her tightly
uniformed curves
reflected within formica--
and the burnt stale
odor steams up
once more

I sip caffeine to stall
that stabbing ache
that's never really gone
and glance up around
the all-night diner--
stainless steel retro
like adam west
back in some kitschy
neon eden

the dingy busboy
somehow can show teeth,
a smiling minister
to filthy flatware,
even as that patron
eyes him with a
crucifying gaze

on her cigarette break
leaves of the
unread Times
fall from my lap
and I swill down to the
bitter grounds
as I perceive faintly,
"Take that, sir?"
and offer him
the emptiness of my cup


28 July 2002

I do still plan to get back to my views on late medieval theology and "the modern," but Allen asked a while ago in the comments about my views on "postmodernism" and its relationship to Christian faith. As some of you who read this blog regularly probably already suspect, I do have some deeply postmodern sympathies, whatever that may mean.

This is part of the problem: "postmodernism", everyone seems to agree, remains a terribly difficult notion to define precisely. And there are various strands of postmodern thought, some of which seem to me more congenial to Christian faith than others. One thing all strands of postmodernism seem to share, however, is a purported rejection of what has come to be seen as characteristic of "the modern" (of course, by that definition, Giambattista Vico and Nicolas of Cusa might qualify as postmodernists).

The further questions, then, include: [a] how a particular brand of postmodernism diagnoses the problems with the modern, [b] what it proposes as a solution to those problems, and [c] how it stands in relationship with the pre-modern. At each of these levels, there are places where I find myself in some agreement with certain postmodern perspectives, and places where I would significantly diverge.

With regard to the first question, the difficulties of the modern that are typically diagnosed from the standpoint of postmodernism include the following:
  • construction of false dichotomies such as:

    faith vs. reason,
    individual vs. corporate,
    subject vs. object,
    citizen vs. the state,
    sacred vs. secular,
    mind vs. body, and so on;

  • embracing unworkable forms of epistemological foundationalism;


  • setting up false notions of subjective "interiority";


  • strategically displacing metaphysics with epistemology in such a way that the metaphysical foundations of the modern become maximally hidden;


  • creation of grand metanarratives in which the Enlightenment turns out to be the goal of history;


  • mystifying politics in such a way that individual freedom is seen conditioned upon more intrusive disciplinary technologies and/or foreign imperialism;


  • projecting a false economics whether capitalist or socialist;


  • tending toward logical positivism and other forms of hyper-empiricism
Further diagnoses that move beyond this list of symptoms toward deeper difficulties suggest, for instance, that there is a dispersed and anonymous field of power relations involved in the construction of what is taken to be knowledge within the modernist program. Others point to the way in which language tends to arrange itself along lines of difference that construct and perpetuate these peculiarly modern difficulties. Still others make analyses from the standpoints of phenomenology, neo-marxism, feminism, queer theory, ecology, or the like.

I am largely (though not entirely) in agreement with the basic diagnosis of modernist symptoms and would probably add some of my own (e.g. privatization of religion, valorization of religious "inwardness" apart from external signs and means, the nelgect of formal and final causality, etc.). And I would also be sympathetic with certain analyses of the underlying problems, especially those which critique "onto-theology," question metanarrative schemas, and attempt to uncover underlying violence--broadly speaking, those analysis of the broadly deconstructionist and phenomenological variety. As Merold Westphal notes, figures like Nietzsche can be read as perceptive theologians of original sin. Nonetheless, I would, naturally, give a more theological diagnosis of the disease underlying the modernist symtoms, pointing especially to shifts in the late medieval era that I have associated before with nominalism.

As for the second question--a solution to these modern difficulties--proposals range from varieties of anarchist micropolitics and deconstructionist interventions to political movements and a multiplied diversity of competing narratives. While some of these proposals have much in them that is commendable, again, my proposal would be more theological, focusing upon the Christian biblical narrative, the centrality of liturgical and sacramental action, and a return to the pre-modern Christian synthesis in order to move forward into the postmodern, finding perhaps a number of counter-modern fellow travellers along the way (Vico, Luther, Jacobi, de Lubac, etc.).

This last bit leads to the third question concerning the relationship between the pre- and postmodern. In some postmodern authors there is a seeming return, not to patristic and medieval Christian sources, but further back to ancient Greek and Roman paganisms. This is seen already in Nietzsche and has various continuing echoes in authors ranging from Michel Foucault to Martha Nussbaum. From a Christian perspective, however, this return to the dynamics of late antiquity can be read instead as the culmination of modernism itself (rather than as a true rejection of it) necessitating a re-narration of modernism akin to Augustine's narration of the ancient in City of God. Such a reading of the modern/postmodern would be a subversive task attempting to show a fundamental continuity in its ontological assumptions as embodying a primordial violence that remains analogous to that upon which ancient city states were founded from Athens to Rome. Such assumptions can be questioned and shown to be unsubstantiated from the standpoint of the Christian narrative with its own trinitarian ontology and ethic. This is the kind of project that thinkers such as René Girard and John Milbank have begun.

In the end, then, I do think that postmodernism provides a great opportunity for us as Christians, theologically speaking. For several centuries now Christian faith has vested too much of its interest in the modern project, giving rise, arguably, to trends ranging from theological liberalism to evangelical revivalism. And there is much value in a critique of this investment. Moreover, the demise of the modern also means the demise of the "secular" and all the ways in which it has been constructed in order to insulate us from religious claims and the demands of the divine presence. Finally, the return to pre-modern authors, re-reading them now no longer through the lens of modernist, provides us with new prospects for retrieving earlier Christian reflection and thought with which to move forward. All of this is fraught with dangers, not the least from non-Christian postmodernists who have another story to tell. But the opportunties granted are ones we cannot afford to miss.

Over on her blog, my wife Laurel has welcomed guesses for when our baby will be born. One doctor gave us August 13 as a due date. Another, August 17. Since "Claire" is one of our top name choices, I suggested that maybe the kid will come as early August 11, the date upon which St. Clare of Assisi is commemorated. But, of course, births have a way a being unpredictable.

Still, feel free to weigh in with your own attempt at fortune-telling. There will be a prize for a correct guess.

Since I'm still placing well on Craig's "Leaderboard", I've become curious how many actual hits I get on this thing. So I added a hit counter (all the way down at the very bottom).

23 July 2002

I'll get back to nominalism one of these days. In the meantime, I'll take up an earlier question: what five books do I think everyone really should read (other than the Bible, of course)?

There's no one right answer to this question, I suppose. I even doubt there are five books that everyone should read since different people have different inclinations, interests, callings, and gifts. Still, I assume there are some books that are more deserving of wide attention than others. Though I'd probably say something different next week, here are my five suggestions:

[1] Aurelius Augustine, City of God (with Confessions a close second). Not only do you get a comprehensive Christian philosophy and theology, you also get a philosophy of history that does for cultural psychology what the Confessions did for Augustine's personal psychology, summarizing and critiquing the ancients along the way. It's "History of World, part one" from the standpoint of Christian faith.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. The pinnacle of medieval philosophy and theology, a great synthesis of the church Fathers, Scripture, philosophy, and theological reflection by the greatest theologian of the middle ages. Towards the end of his life Thomas said, "all I have written now appears to be of little value," but the acheivement is, nonetheless, remarkable.

[3] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (or possibly Discourse on Method). At our present stage in history it is still important to understand the shape of the "modern" that has so profoundly affected us, from the Enlightenment onwards. Descartes' Meditations provide a brief synopsis of the modernist ethos and contain all its subsequent problems in seed form.

[4] The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition. Though I prefer many of the more modern revisions of the prayerbook, the 1662 edition sets a high standard and provides a sound basis for devotion, liturgy, and spirituality. It is Protestant and Reformational and provides a way through the modern, beyond Descartes, carrying us through on prayer rooted in ancient patterns.

[5] Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest. This is my favorite novel and, many respects, I think, gives us the ultimate response to modernism in the form of a narrative that breathes and transmits what has always been central to the Christian faith and tradition. The narrative form, moreover, provides a way in which that faith can be appropriated within a post-modern world.

19 July 2002

Peter Leithart has an intriguing new essay on the biblical doctrine of justification over on the Theologia website entitled, "'Judge Me, O God': Biblical Perspectives on Justification."

In an e-mail, however, someone asked me whether the article was compromising the Protestant doctrine that justification is "synthetic" rather than "analytic." I think the right answer, in terms of that particular question, is "no." Still, I'm curious how the distinction between analytic and synthetic--with its roots in Hume, its fuller expression in Kant, and its importance in logical positivism--came to be used in the exposition of Protestant dogmatics. Does anyone have any insight on that?

I also think its only fair to point that the whole philosophical distinction between analytic and synthetic has been under fire for more than a century, first in Hegel, but also in Wittgenstein and Quine (see particularly Quine's essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"). Despite my fondness for all things philosophical, I'm not sure we should hang our doctrine of justification on a distinction that is under suspicion and considered by many to be somewhat dubious. I also wonder, given that dispute in philosophy, what implications it might have for how we formulate doctrine? Do the reasons that strike against the distinction shed any light on how we should best think about justification?

Food for thought.

Just a couple words more about universals. In Aristotle's language, universals are the "forms" of things that exist in the things themselves and generally inseparable from some kind of physical instantiation, though Aristotle's theory of forms itself was woefully incomplete and developed in very different directions by later thinkers such as Aquinas.

Generally, "forms" are real, active, dynamic structures within things that explain the distinctive behavior and various latent potentialities of the thing given the material of which the thing is composed. Forms are what cause the thing to be the kind of thing it is, constituting it as that kind of thing, and they do so in such a way that this causation is everywhere simultaneously present within the thing (e.g., as the structure of a wave is everywhere simultaneously present throughout the water through which it moves, explaining the behavior of the water even though the wave-form itself is not made of water since it is moving through it). Forms can have a multiplicity of physical instances and even be realized within various kinds of matter (e.g., the principle of an arch, whether made or brick or stone or concrete block). They can be intelligently apprehended in the thing, conceived, and often defined or described, even mathematically.

Forms account for the replication of things whether an animal species, a song, a genetic code, a book, or a computer program. They account for the scientific behavior of things in a law-like way. They also explain how certain structures can be transmitted or replicated without being fully realized and manifest during transmission or replication (e.g., the color of a thing does not color the atmosphere between the object and you, a program isn't running as it is being downloaded from the internet). Scientific descriptions that describe the behavior of things and predict outcomes are not generally explanatory in the way forms are, but simply are reflecting the regularities that forms produce. But forms go beyond mere regularity to embrace purpose and design.

That, at least, is roughly what I understand forms to be. Hopefully this is suggestive enough so that one can grasp the concept of a universal and how they may be both really in things and shared by them.

18 July 2002

A couple of folks asked me to say something about nominalism--that is, the late medieval philosophical and theological perspective that goes by the title "nominalism" and is associated with thinkers such as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel.

It seems to me that the best way to deal with this is in several posts, first briefly defining "nominalism", second explaing the philosophical and theological context in which it arose, and finally explaining what I take to be some of its disastrous results.

The term "nominalism" arises in the context of medieval discussions of universals and nominalists were opposed to realists with regard to universals. "Universals" are, roughly speaking, those aspects of reality that things share in common and are able to be understood by the human mind, abstracted from the particularities of the concrete, individual things themselves.

So, for instance, consider what it means for there to be "five" things in a group: five chairs, five glasses of water, five things to do before breakfast, five math equations in one's mind. Each of these groups has the quality of "fiveness" in terms of its membership and thus it is something that all of these groups share in common. A realist about universals would say that there really is such a thing as "fiveness" that each of these groups has. We can think about it, talk about it, and abstract it from the particular things. We can grasp this "fiveness" is such a way that, in the future when we come into contact with a completely new group of five things, we will recognize it as having this "fiveness" as well. When we apply the term "five" to these various groups, we are truly saying something about the reality of those groups, even if, given the differences between the groups, the term "five" is being used analogously (i.e., expressing similarity within difference).

Realists about universals may disagree about whether or not a universal like "fiveness" can exist apart from actual groups of five things, but they are all agreed that this quality of "fiveness" is something that really exists in the groups of things and is shared by them. Plato was a realist of one sort, Aristotle of another. So were Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

Nominalists, on the other hand, deny the real existence of universals. For them things in themselves have no real commonalities at all, but are isolated individuals that are each unique. Thus when we attribute "fiveness" to various groups of things, we are using the term equivocally (i.e., expressing a completely different meaning) in terms of reference since there is no one thing that all these groups really have in common. Thus "fiveness" is really just a word, a name (nomina, thus "nominalism") that functions as a kind of mental "place-holder" through which we groups things for the purpose of convenience or function. The name taken in itself, indeed, is completely univocal (i.e., expressing one simple, undifferentiated meaning) and does little to communicate the reality of the individual things to which that name is applied.

This view had some earlier medieval precursors in Roscelin and Peter Abelard and was developed more fully in the later middle ages through the thinking of Henry of Ghent, John Duns Scotus, and especially William of Ockham.

From Russ, a quotation from Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713), a French Reformed theologian who taught theology at the Academy of Sedan, which was opposed to the Academy of Saumur where Amyraut taught (edited slightly for clarity):God ordinarily confers His grace at the time in which He represents it: the elect infants of those in covenant are, previous to their Baptism, children of wrath; they are not loved by God with the love of complacency till they are baptized and washed from those stains, with which we are all born.

By Baptism the liability arising from original sin is so removed: [a] that none who are baptized are condemned on account of original sin, [b] that infants legitimately baptized and dying in infancy are certainly saved and that this baptism is an indubitable proof of their election, [c] that baptism is as necessary to salvation as food to life or medicine to healing, [d] that God can and does save some infants without baptism—but this is done in an extraordinary way.
Something tells me Reformed theologians today would be far less keen to say something of that sort.

Various books have arrived.

The first is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins 2001), a novel we are reading for one book club I'm in. I have no idea what it is about, except what I can glean from the back cover.

Then there is Richard Hays's The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperCollins 1996). This is for another book club I belong too, one that meets more sporadically, consists mostly of academics, and has been reading theological works.

I also picked up a copy of Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey (Doubleday 2001). It was recommended to me by some friends and sounded intriguing.

Finally, I obtained copies of The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O'Donovan (Cambridge 1996) and (in the recommendation of Russ) 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven': Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Wesleyan 1978). The former is one of the best books on the Christian faith and politics that I've ever read, packed full of history, theology, philosophy, exegesis, and insight. The latter takes me back to my college senior thesis on the early American Puritans, supporting and deepening some of what I had argued then about the deficiencies of Perry Miller's interpretation (though I'm still a fan of Sacvan Bercovitch).

13 July 2002

I added a couple of new links to the left including Berek, who is a philosophy guy like me, and James F. Ross (under the "pages" category), who was one of my favorite philosophy profs as an undergrad at Penn.

Over on his blog, Rick asked the question, "So what's wrong with saying baptism works ex opere operato?"

Not a bad question since most Christians, traditional Protestants included, maintain that in baptism God does something and what God does in and through the sacrament is something objective and effectual. As the 39 Articles say, sacraments are "certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God's good will towards us by which He doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken but strengthen and confirm our faith in Him" (Article 25). Or as the Westminster Standards maintain, sacraments are "effectual means of salvation."

So, then, why do Protestants generally get all bent out of shape by the phrase "ex opere operato"--that what is accomplished through the sacrament is accomplished in the doing of the sacrament?

There are several reasons, the primary one being historical, given what the phrase had come to mean for some (nominalist) theologians at the time of the Reformation (that the sacraments work "automatically") and given the dominance of certain (quasi-Thomistic) ways of understanding sacramental causality (that the material element of the sacrament is itself a "cause" of grace). Moreover, the Protestant Reformers understood the notions of sin and grace rather differently than some of their Roman Catholic counterparts and thus in rejecting ex opere operato, they were rejecting a particular notion of what it might mean for a sacrament to "cause" or "confer grace" and the kinds of effects that such words might envision.

Still, to be entirely fair, the phrase "ex opere operato" does need to be understood in its larger context.

First, the term itself seems to be first used by Peter of Poitiers in around 1205 and then was picked up by subsequent theologians like Thomas Aquinas and pope Innocent III.

Second, it should be noted that the term "ex opere operato" originally arose in the context of and as an affirmation of heretical and schismatic baptisms. It was intended as an affirmation of their validity despite the questionable sanctity or orthodoxy of the minister. It was not intended as a theory of how "grace is caused." It only came to take on that further meaning later.

Third, only in the context of (some) late medieval nominalist theology did "ex opere operato" come to mean that grace was conferred "automatically" or "magically" (due in part to the ways in which nominalism had shattered the philosophical underpinnings of earlier medieval theology). The emergence of this "automatic" view of the sacraments and its growing influence on popular piety was the immediate context of the Reformers. Thus, in their eyes, "ex opere operato" came be to regarded as a serious error since, for them, rightly or wrongly, it was synonymous with the sacramental abuses they were presently facing.

Fourth, dogmatically, the precise phrase is not often used in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church. Rather one primarily finds things like Canon 6 of the Council of Trent's Decree on the Sacraments, which condemns the teaching "that sacraments of the new law do not contain the grace which the signify, or that they do not confer this grace to those who present no obstacle." Canon 8 of the same decree does go on to use the phrase "ex opere operato", but only to oppose those who maintain that faith receives grace only apart from any sacramental means, a view that was not in the mainstream among Protestants.

Thus, it seems that there are three fundamental teachings that are dogmatically defined by the Roman Catholic church with regard to sacramental causality:[1] It is God (in Christ by the Spirit) who acts in the sacraments to give grace

[2] The sacraments confer the grace they signify

[3] But this grace is sometimes not conferred due to the recipient setting up an obstacle to it
So far as I can determine, it is not a matter of official teaching for the Roman Catholic church:[4] Precisely how sacraments confer or cause the grace they signify, or

[5] Precisely how the dispositions of the recipient of a sacrament relate to the conferring of grace, either as conditions for or obstacles to receiving that grace
So, for example, with regard to sacramental causality there were several mainstream views even at the time of the Reformation.

Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans taught that the rite itself was an "efficient instrument" used by God to produce grace, where God in Christ by the Spirit is the cause of grace but such grace is effectively received through the sacrament as an instrument.

One group of Franciscans, following Bonaventure, considered the rite and other human actions as "moral causes" of grace just a prayer can be consdered the cause of its being answered since God freely choses to answer it.

Other Franciscans, following Duns Scotus and others, saw the sacramental rite as having an "occasional causality" so that the rite causes grace not becuase of anything that those who perform or receive it do, but because God has made a solemn promise (pactum) to give grace on those occasions when Christians do particular actions. (It is within this kind of theology in its later developments, by the way, that theologians such as Gabriel Biel emerged; this theology also equally serves as the medieval predecessor for Reformed covenant theology).

Jesuits and other later theologians offered various other theories and revisions of earlier theories. All of these different theories were represented at Trent and the Council's decree on the sacraments was not intended to chose among them or settle the matter entirely.

Today many Catholic theologians focus upon the communal and symbolic context of the sacrament as central to sacramental causality, as well as the way in which Christ did not merely institute the sacraments extrinsically and explicitly, but embodied them in his own person and work. This comes out in the focus of the Second Vatican Council upon the Church itself as the "basic sacrament" of Christ's action in the world by the Spirit. It also comes out in the Council's focus upon the centrality of Christ and the paschal mystery--what Jesus accomplished once and for all in the cross and resurrection and what he continues to actively do within his Church on the basis of that prior accomplishment. Notions of sacramental causality, therefore, have to be appropriately adjusted to the ways in which theology has continued to develop.

With this background and history, I think Protestants can readily admit that what "ex opere operato" was originally intended to express is perfectly consonant with Protestant doctrine. After all, we are not Donatists. We may well also find certain medieval theories of sacramental causality to be compatible with Protestant understandings of sin and grace, not to mention how those categories have been further repristinated and developed by more contemporary figures such as Rahner and de Lubac. One could make a case, then, even from within mainstream Protestant theologies, that the phrase "ex opere operato" is a perfectly appropriate and meaningful description of God's work through the sacraments, at least if that is rightly understood.

But I think it is also important for Roman Catholics and those of us Protestants who have a stronger sacramental emphasis to realize the theological context in which Protestantism came to understand and then reject the notion of ex opere operato (and I am reminding myself of this here as well). When most Protestants hear the phrase, they hear it with a historical understanding that is thoroughly shaped by the theological currents of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Prior and later developments are not part of the equation and there is little understanding of the theological variety that was present within medieval theology. Thus the phrase is quite misleading to the typical Protestant ear and, in most contexts, probably should be avoided.

Still, there are ecumenical reasons why, within a limited context and with proper qualifications, it could be used in order to build bridges with those brothers and sisters from whom we still remain separated.

10 July 2002

Happy Birthday, John Calvin!

Generally the commemoration of a saint occurs on the anniversary of his or her death (which, in the case of Calvin, falls on May 27; he died in 1564). Nonetheless, here is a prayer in honor of God's work through Calvin:Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; and, taught by the writings of your servant John Calvin, may see in the blessings you give us the fruits, not of our deserving, but of your pure bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. (prayer from james keifer's christian biography site)Also, be sure to check out Valerie's hilarious graphic of Calvin the party-boy.

09 July 2002

Cool! My copy of The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism arrived today from a used bookstore in Salisbury, England. It is a study document produced by the Church of Scotland in 1958 by a special commission on baptism headed up by T.F. Torrance. It really is an excellent study and resource.

08 July 2002

There was a brief exchange in the comments between David Heddle and me, probably not an entirely satisfactory conversation. I still feel as if we were talking past each other to some degree.

In any case, the comments led to some further thoughts about how people talk past each other, misconstrue and distort one another's views, draw unwarranted conclusions from others' words, and often seem incapable of understanding what the other person is trying to say (not that David did any of this). This seems to happen more often in certain evangelical circles than one would reasonably expect (and particularly so in Reformed circles, so it appears to me). I wonder sometimes why this is and find it a disturbing phenomenon.

Perhaps an example would help me communicate the kind of thing I'm thinking of. I've had or have seen some version of the following conversation more than once in the past year:

Person A: "What do you think of N.T. Wright's views on imputation?"

Person B: "Which views would those be?"

A: "Well, he evidently denies imputation in What St. Paul Really Said and elsewhere."

B: "Really? I hadn't noticed that...and I've read the book several times. From what chapter are you drawing that conclusion?"

A: "You know...all the stuff about the 'righteousness of God.' He says that doesn't mean a righteousness from God that God imputes to us for justification."

B: "I was aware of that...He sees that righteousness as God's own righteousness in being faithful to his covenant promises by send Jesus as the Messiah in whom the covenant promises are fulfilled."

A: "Exactly! A clear rejection of imputation."

B: "I'm sorry, I'm not following you..."

A: "Well, Lutheran and Reformed exegetes have always understood the 'righteousness of God' to refer to an imputed righteousness that comes from God and is given to us. You interpret that differently and you are obviously denying imputation."

B: "Again, I'm not sure how that follows. The references to the 'righteousness of God' in Romans were never the entire exegetical basis for the doctrine of imputation...and there have been Reformed exegetes who have understood those passages differently."

A: "Oh, so you're one of those 'new perspective' people too."

B: "What I think about the new perspective is beside the point. All I'm saying is that Wright's point is that the justification we receive is Jesus' own justification by the Father into which we are incorporated and that our incorporation is marked out only by faith. I'm not sure..."

A: "So, now you deny sola fide too."

B: "No...not at all. I was trying to say that Wright's corporate christology and forensic interpretation of justification entail precisely what imputation is all about. You should read some of the Dutch..."

A: "See! You're into this 'corporate christology' stuff too, denying the individual character of salvation. I can't believe you are rejecting the Reformed faith this way. What's happened to you?"

B: "I'm beginning to feel this conversation isn't getting us anywhere."

A: "Fine. Try to change the subject. I've got better things to do anyway. Bye."

Granted, this is merely how such conversations appear from my side of them. Anyone have any great insight into the nature of this kind of miscommunication? I'd appreciate any counsel.

I've added Valerie's blog, kyriosity.

06 July 2002

Links to the left have been updated. I've added various folks: poetwarrior, some of the Orthodox guys, another Lutheran, etc.

If I've overlooked you, it may be that I'm not aware of you, though it could also be an editorial decision to omit you. But feel free to let me know who you are, if you'd like me to take a look at your blog or web page for consideration.

Yesterday I received my copy of the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland. I haven't had a chance really to peruse it yet, but it looks like a good liturgical resource.

05 July 2002

What three questions have haunted my life the most? Not an easy question, but a good one to ask oneself, no doubt. Instead of single questions, I'll suggest three areas of interest and the sets of questions they each produce:

Suffering and redemption. I've never been able to shake off the wrenching conversations between Ivan and Alyosha in Dostoyevski's The Brothers Karamazov or the redemptive suffering of the pastor in Bernanos' Diary of the Country Priest. By faith I know that Jesus Christ has entered into every human suffering and remains there present by his Spirit with those who find themselves there too, in order that suffering might be redeemed. Christ has been gassed in Auschwitz, raped in prison, left weeping as a widow, and lost in the darkness of Alzheimer's.

But what does this mean for me and for those whom I love? How can the presence of Christ be made known more clearly? How can I re-tell my own story and narrate the stories of others so that Christ might appear as an actor in those stories, as the one who was there all along? How can I more effectively be one manifestation of that divine-human presence in suffering, whether in the touch of a hand, the caress of a cheek, or the sharing of tears? How can I seek to know and make known the truth that, in the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, "grace is everywhere"?

The fragmentation and sectarianism of Christ's church. The Christian church is in shambles, new denominations and sects popping up all the time, many of which have little understanding of the historic Christian faith and deny themselves the gracious presence of Christ as he has promised to make himself known in Word and Sacrament. This is scandalous.

How have things gotten so bad? Is there any path to greater unity? How can the Gospel of reconciliation be known when we all break bread at separate Tables? How are we to be known by our love, when vitriol and invective are our stock and trade? Why is it that so many Christians seem to fear other Christians and resist any attempts to build bridges or refuse to hear what others are trying to say?

The interstices between trinitarian theology, ontology, epistemology, covenant, word, and sacrament. This is probably my primary professional interest as a philosopher. Post-modernism provides a unique space, beyond the "modern", in which the riches of the Christian tradition--patristic, medieval, and reformational--can be retreived and renewed in order to speak the Gospel more clearly and make Christ known among and through his people.

How can philosophy, together with theology, assist in this task? How can the history of the descent into the modern be narrated in order to better read the past and strip theology of its modernist accretions? How does the doctrine of the Trinity--which says that ultimate reality is relational and that divine truth exists in only in community--generate an ontology and epistemology? How is this trinitarian contribution to philosophy worked out properly among the covenant people, particularly in language (Word) and action (Sacrament)?

These three sets of questions, I think, would be those which have "haunted me" the most.

04 July 2002

I get e-mails and comments occasionally asking me to make some remarks on a particular issue or to answer a particular question. So far, I haven't responded, but since I'm not exactly bursting with ideas of what to post about, perhaps I'll begin responding to these requests. Allen recently asked what three questions have haunted my life the most. Craig wanted to know more about my views on "ecumenism." And Scott e-mailed me ages ago suggesting I post something about what 5 (or was it 3?) books I think everyone really ought to read. I'll give these some thought and post some reflections soon.

It's getting up to 99º F today in Philadelphia. And it's the July 4th holiday. So I'm doing the sensible thing and working on remodeling in a sweltering, essentially un-airconditioned third floor room of our flat-roofed house. All the sweat makes me feel like I'm actually accomplishing something.