Monday, June 3, 2019

Irenaeus on the Trinity [Review]



Trinitarian apologists are often accused of quote-mining the patristic authors for anything that seems to bear a resemblance to succinct formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity in later, pro-Nicene writers. The fact is, however, that while some Christian apologists engage in that kind of superficial reasoning, not all of us do. Some of us go back to the sources themselves and then diligently search contemporary scholarship to gain a better understanding of how they and their colleagues interpret the fathers, and why they it is they affirm or deny a given father holds to one of the cardinal doctrines of the faith. Some of us understand that scholarship often times is driven by philosophical commitments that are assumed to be true and, therefore, are functioning as the grounding of all subsequent conclusions surrounding the church fathers and what they could or could not have known and, by implication, what they did or did not teach directly or indirectly in their texts. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those doctrines whose complexity over time has led unbelieving scholars to conclude that it is not deducible from the Scriptures but was, instead, the hybrid offspring of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism as funneled through later church fathers who would write on the subject. But as Jackson Lashier’s book Irenaeus on the Trinity makes evident, this is not the case.

In fact, Lashier’s work helps us see that the closer one’s theology is tied to the Scriptures, the more clear he is in articulating what is essentially a pre-Nicea pro-Nicene form of Trinitarianism, complete with a distinction between the ontological and economic Trinity. By contrasting the philosophical terminology of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Theophilus of Antioch surrounding the ad intra and ad extra personal relations of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit to one another with Irenaeus’ Biblically constrained language of God’s “two hands,” one readily sees that the former is more prone to misinterpretation than the latter. That is to say, the earlier fathers’ language regarding the Son and the Spirit as the 2nd and 3rd divine “entities” lent itself to the ontological subordinationism and hierarchy within the divine essence/Godhead that Irenaeus’ Gnostic opponents had built into a complex hierarchical ontology of aeonic emanations. Thus, Lashier argues that Irenaeus’ departure from the nomenclature of Justin, Athenagoras, and Theophilus (in most cases) is not due to his lack of a doctrine of the ontological and economic Trinity (a claim which some scholars have advanced over the past 100 years or so), but is due to his desire to employ the language of Scripture in order to avoid bearing a superficial resemblance to the subordinationist theology of the Gnostics.

What is more, by avoiding the Platonic notion of orders of being, or ranking of being, Irenaeus is able to show the equality of the divine persons from the Scriptural teaching that creation, redemption, and restoration are all solely the works of God, and yet they are acts attributed to the Father and the Son and the Spirit. The Father and Son and Spirit all create, all redeem, and all restore – they are perfectly equal, differing only in their ad intra and ad extra relations to one another.

Lashier is, of course, careful not to use later terminology developed at Nicea and beyond, lest his readers suppose he is reading back into Irenaeus’ writing orthodox Christian doctrine that wouldn’t come into being until a few hundred years later. Rather than speaking of the ad intra and ad extra relations of the divine persons, Lashier speaks of Irenaeus’ understanding the relation of the divine “entities” to one another before in creating, redeeming, and restoring all things. This is helpful not only in clearing Lashier of any charges that he is reading back into Irenaeus, but also in understanding that the specific terminology could very well be changed without affecting the substance of the doctrine. This means that Irenaeus’ doctrine of the Trinity may be translated without much difficulty into Nicene terminology, which further implies that the closer the fathers remained to the Scriptures, the more clearly they articulated a doctrine of the Trinity that is nearly identical to what we find articulated in the later in church history by pro-Nicene theologians.

Some attention is paid to the hermeneutical practices of each of these early church teachers, with some attention also given to several key texts which have a long history of being interpreted as articulating the doctrine of God’s Triunity, despite being parts of the Old Testament. For instance, the presence of the Voice of God in the garden of Eden is identified as the Logos, as is every instance of God personally speaking to individuals face to face (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Manoah, Samuel, etc). Similarly, Abraham’s meeting with Yahweh at the tents of Mamre (cf. Gen 18) was interpreted as the Lord meeting with his two “angels,” or “two hands,” an interpretation that is found much later in St. Augustine’s De Trinitate as well.

Unlike the philosophical depictions of the Trinity given by Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Theophilus, Irenaeus’ exposition of the Scripture brings the three persons into relief, compromising neither their undivided essence and attributes nor their distinct relations to one another (ad intra) and toward the creation (ad extra). Irenaeus on the Trinity is a helpful tool for the scholar, or pastor, or academically inclined Christian who wants to deepen his knowledge of church history and its more well known figures. It also is helpful in providing Christians with an understanding of how the church fathers approached Scriptural interpretation, a process which involved interpreting all of Scripture in light of all of Scripture.


You can find Lashier’s dissertation on the same subject for free here.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Contra Atheism [Pt. 4]

§ VII. Is God Real?

Consequently, atheism is only intelligible iff God is real; but if atheism is intelligible, then God is real, and atheism is necessarily false. This means that given atheism, atheism is logically possible but ontologically impossible. The assertion “God is not real” is proof that he is, in fact, real, and it implies that the atheist knows this to be true. This is so because he utilizes universal truths – e.g. the laws of identity, non-contradiction, excluded middle, deductive inference, etc – which he believes will lead him to objective truth – i.e. knowledge of things as they are apart from his subjective apprehension of them. If the atheist truly does not view the laws above mentioned as anything more than social constructs, then he can offer his opinion about theism, as well as his opinions on any other matter – including, in fact, his opinions concerning what reality is – but he cannot hope to come to know the truth about theism or atheism, or any other matter. Professing himself to be wise, he has become a fool.

§ VIII. Concluding Remarks

In his paper “Atheism,” philosopher Gordon H. Clark, in accord with the view expressed by the present author, wrote the following –
At first it may seem strange that knowledge of what God is more important than knowledge that God is. His essence or nature being more important than his existence may seem unusual. Existentialists insist that existence precedes essence. Nevertheless, competent Christians disagree for two reasons. First, we have seen that pantheists identify god with the universe. What is god? —the universe. The mere fact that they use the name god for the universe and thus assert that god "exists" is of no help to Christianity
The second reason for not being much interested in the existence of God is somewhat similar to the first. The idea existence is an idea without content. Stars exist—but this tells us nothing about the stars; mathematics exists—but this teaches us no mathematics; hallucinations also exist. The point is that a predicate, such as existence, that can be attached to everything indiscriminately tells us nothing about anything. A word, to mean something, must also not mean something. For example, if I say that some cats are black, the sentence has meaning only because some cats are white. If the adjective were attached to every possible subject—so all cats were black, all stars were black, and all politicians were black, as well as all the numbers in arithmetic, and God too—then the word black would have no meaning. It would not distinguish anything from something else. Since everything exists, exists is devoid of information. That is why the Catechism asks, What is God? Not, Does God exist?1
Clark understood that the question of God’s “existence” needed to be clarified in order to be understood and addressed. Once this is done, it is plain to see that atheists are not concerned with the “existence” of God but with his “reality.” This “reality” must be defined as well, but for the atheist there is no way of justifying a concept of such an objective “reality.” Apart from a non-empirical, disembodied, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, omnipresent mind, the universal truths requisite to cogent reasoning and speculation in the matters of metaphysics, epistemology, and even science do not “exist,” i.e. are not “real.” They are, instead, mere assertions whose truth value is uncritically accepted by the atheist in his complaints against Christianity.

In his attempt to identify God as unreal, the atheist turns to creation and imbues it with divinity. Not only does matter become the source of all power, all order, all modes of being, all knowledge, all history, whose ever evasive essence can only be known by a process of negative abstraction from reflection on physical things (i.e. the via negativa) – it becomes the teleological terminus of all of the atheist’s thinking and acting. Whereas Christianity loudly proclaims Soli Deo Gloria!, the atheist affirms Solam Materiam Gloria! And by so doing confirms that his lack of belief in other gods, including the one true God, does not indicate that he lacks belief in all gods. For the atheist, there is only one ontological entity greater than which none may be conceived; and that entity we all know as Matter.

1 “Atheism,” Trinity Foundation, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/PDF/The%20Trinity%20Review%200032a%20Atheism.pdf, Accessed April 25, 2019.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Contra Atheism [Pt. 3]

by Hiram R. Diaz III


§ V. Disambiguating “Existence”

Having demonstrated that the popular definition of atheism as a lack of belief in gods is untenable, we may now return to the question of existence. As we mentioned earlier on, assertions like “x exists” are either tautologous or non-tautologous. If they are tautologous, they are asserting nothing more than the proposition “This logical subject of predication is this logical subject of predication” or “x is x.” If they are non-tautologous, they are signifying some undefined property by the word exists. Assuming that the atheist intends to communicate something non-contradictory when he denies the existence of God, we must seek to understand what he means by the term exists.

As we begin, let us note that if by saying “There is no God” the atheist means “God cannot be empirically verified” or “There is no empirical being to which the term God properly applies” then he is confusing categories. As the London Baptist Confession of 1689, following the teaching of Scripture, states –
The Lord our God is…a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.
The lack of empirical evidence for a being who is immaterial does not demonstrate that there is no such immaterial being. Some atheists will retort that immateriality is problematic, for it seems to allow us to affirm that there are other immaterial beings in addition to God. This, however, is neither a logical nor ontological problem. It is a problem for the materialist who believes that “existence” is synonymous with an empirically verifiable material instantiation of a given entity. But arguing against the idea that there is a God on such a basis is an exercise in fallacious, circular reasoning.

What does the atheist mean by the proposition “There is no God”? Given that he cannot say that a lack of empirical evidence regarding a non-empirical being is proof that there is no such being, we can only conclude that his proposition means “There is no non-fictional being to which the term God properly applies.” More to the point, the atheist’s belief is that God is not real. Unlike the unclear assertion that “God does not exist,” the proposition “God is not real” asserts that a particular logical subject [viz. God] is merely conceptual [i.e. is not real].” And while this is much clearer, it still suffers from a host of problems which we will now examine.