Princeton Barth-Aquinas Conference: Recap part 2

Well, it looks like all of my recap of the Barth conference is really going to be retrospective.  You can find great overviews of the whole conference covered between Travis' blog and Nathan's blog.  Like the first part, I'm going to aim for theological recap with some evaluation.

The second set of speakers on Monday were nominally presenting de trinitate.  First up was Guy Mansini, OSB.  Fr. Mansini wanted us to be clear at the start about his monastic vocation, perhaps because he wore clerics rather than his Benedictine habit.  (The Dominicans in habit were quite self-evidently monastic.)  And it was quite relevant for his analysis of humility and obedience in the second person of the trinity.  Using the Rule as a means of demonstrating humility and obedience (and creating and enforcing it -- quite a bit of coverage of the function of the Rule as a practical social means), Fr. Mansini approached the question of Christ's subordination to the Father.  He opened with a paraphrase of a passage on repentance in Lewis' Mere Christianity:
In fact, it needs to be a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it. (57)
God can share only what God has, and repentance God has not -- so God needed to take on human nature.  The moderns, of course, find Lewis naïve; it is too superficial to say that there is no such thing as divine repentance or divine suffering.  [Here, of course, is the debate on impassibility.  And perhaps the Fathers are naïve, but perhaps they simply have other epistemological commitments than we do.  Augustine is quite sophisticated, as were Plato and Aristotle.]  At any rate, Fr. Mansini sets up the typology between a view of God as lacking human nature, and an integral view of the humanity of God.  And attempts to stand between them.


The Rule belongs to this attempt, not only for its exemplification of the qualities in question, but for its hermeneutical bent: the monastic life takes the scriptures as practical examples for life.  Even as Thomas uses them for a sort of master Christian philosophy, he remains within this mode.  Fr. Mansini pointed out something here which I think was one of a few signal points of the whole conference -- that while humility and obedience are not among the divine names, Thomas subverts Aristotle by placing them within what is otherwise a frame taken straight from the Nicomachean Ethics.  [Key for a reason which came up repeatedly in the closing plenary: the use or supposed disavowal of philosophy for theology.  Thomas, while clearly making heavy use of the Aristotelian framework that was in play in the medieval scholastic period, does not rely upon it -- Augustine always trumps Aristotle.  Something I've said about tools applies here to philosophical frameworks: they are non-teleological entities.  The ends-orientation always comes from the user.  And certainly, one tool will always be better for a given job than another -- but this depends significantly on what job, and who is performing it.  Think of philosophies like programming languages.  A good programmer maps the problem algorithmically before setting it in a language -- even if through practice those processes blend together.  As long as you are more concerned with solving your problem, you will bend the language stylistically to the given end.]

In the end, the question came down to Thomas' discussion of natures.  There is one divine will, even if there are multiple supposits in the godhead.  For Thomas, will is the rational ordering of the appetitive faculties -- appetite following intellect.  Good Aristotle there.  Will is ordered toward the nature of the willing being, just as it is ordered toward the ends of that being -- and here I note that above we're speaking in human terms, since "man is the rational animal," but humans bear the imago dei.  Will is the appetite of the intellect, and if there are multiple wills, there are multiple intellects, and so multiple personal entities, with separate natures and ends, and so three Gods.  Obviously false; there is one divine will, the appetitive and ends-ordering faculty of one divine intellect, even if it operates in three hypostases.  And so, in the end, if there is one divine nature, the Son's humility and obedience are of the assumed nature, and not of the divine nature.  [Hey, we return to the Fathers.  How nice!  It meshes with something Fr. Mansini said early on: "The Fathers are those to whom Christian things first appeared."]

Bruce McCormack followed that patristic synthesis with a conciliatory discussion of the processions and missions -- aka the respective grounds of what we often call the immanent and economic trinities.  And he began with what I think is the second signal insight of the conference, from Barth's reading of Aquinas in Münster: Aquinas knew everything, had come up with objections and refutations on every point -- except the one thing he didn't know: that man is a liar.  And because man is a liar, we must understand everything else differently.  [n.b.: I'm not going to try to keep "Aquinas" and "Thomas" straight -- it seems to me that the Catholics were more likely to refer to him by name, and the Protestants by origin.]  The reality of sin in Barth changes everything, and grounds the disagreement with the analogia entis and natural theology.  But as long as we keep this one insight in mind, McCormack feels that great convergence is possible between Barth and Aquinas.

That said, he went on to recant a little, and the recantation seems to have been the basis for the paper.  God is free to create, as long as we aren't talking about voluntaryism and a two-act play of necessity and freedom.  And so he pulls out a recent (seems to be unpublished) analysis of Aquinas by Matthew Levering in which the act of creation is a single act with two terms -- one the generation of the eternal divine being, and the other its effect upon creatures.  God wills both Godself and other things to be.  This makes the creation an effect of the processions by which we see the self-creation of the trinitarian life of God.

This certainly has interesting implications.  It's built on the notion that the Father is never the Father without the Son, and so the procession of the Son simultaneously constitutes the Father.  [For which reason I continue to fiddle with the idea that the Spirit is the primary form of God, which has quite a bit of traction with the Hebrew scriptures.  But I digress -- McCormack isn't going there.]  The result is a creation simultaneous with the self-creation of God, such that there was never a time when God was not the creator, as well as the Father and the Son -- removing the trouble of a time-before-which with respect to divine being.  But it raises some questions for me, namely: we are that which God wills Godself to be in relation to?  In what sense do we speak of creation as such being distinct from the being of God?  ... distinct from the incarnation?

At any rate, McCormack dives fairly quickly into trinitarian interrelationships within the life of God.  The persons within the trinity are subsistent relations, constituted by their interrelationships.  And yet they do not derive from the essence of God, as though the essence were divided -- the processions of persons within the trinity derive from the actions of God.  And if we deny that there is any pre-requisite ontological being, it makes perfectly rational sense for the Father and the Son to be mutually created in the incarnation.  [Assuming, of course, the view that the Father pre-existed, which does seem to be the ground of most of the anti-trinitarian heresies.]  So God didn't need to be, to become, and incarnation and creation become the twin consequences of the one act.

As to missions, since creation is taken care of, only the Son and Spirit have them.  The Father does two things: begets, and sends.  Christ is begotten by the Father for the sake of creation, and the Spirit is sent by the Father (and the Son) for the sake of creation.  What about creation?  For Thomas (according to Levering (according to McCormack)), the processions are the creation as it overflows from the divine goodness in self-creation.  Because God is actus purus, in whom the interior knowing and willing and the exterior exercise of power are one, God's self-knowledge is causative.  Another bonus for McCormack is that then election cannot be a separate act, because that knowledge is already wrapped up in the creative exercise of power.  [And I'm reminded here of Bonhoeffer and the penultimate, as well as Sartre and mauvaise foi -- human issues, both.  Human knowledge can be without being translated into action, which is sin, and demonstrates the essence/existence conflict.  God lacks this problem.]  So God wills God's own goodness absolutely, and in so doing wills the existence of non-self things suppositionally.  These other things are not lacking to God's essence, but are created as the objects and arena of God's actions.  [Apparently, the being of God is being-for-the-other.]

McCormack then turns to Barth to speak of "God's unsublatable subjectivity," a subjectivity which exists without becoming epistemologically controllable by the knower.  [IOW, God is not mutually dependent upon the creation, but free.]  This is justified by the veiling of revelation in created subjectivity -- sub contrario specie -- as God gives Godself to be known as both subject and object of revelation without becoming externally determined by the knowledge conveyed.  [It seemed a small point.]

So, finally, if we have either an unknown pre-existing [X] of a God before the incarnation, or no pre-existing God, McCormack takes the horns and says that there is no pre-existing God who is other than the Father and Son in their self-creation.  By removing creation from the realm of separate actions of God, and including election as the key self-knowledge of the creating God, we get a creation which is defined by God's action toward it, and we remove the perennial problem of choice among possible creations.  If our creation is an outcome of the divine self-creation, there is no second act of divine choice involved, in terms of which we therefore must rationalize this world as somehow the best of all possible worlds, or otherwise answer the theodicy question.  This world is as it is because it is the world toward which God has elected to act in grace through the missional processions of the Son and the Spirit.

Having listened to all this, and it being the end of a long day of lectures, I was kind of at a loss in the discussion section that followed -- I can see what the whole mess does, and it ties up several other messes rather neatly, but it raises its own set of issues, and I'm not entirely clear that it's better.  Specifically, while I see how it resolves many of McCormack's issues in view of the aseity of God, I deal in the view of the creation itself, and the theological import of our stories about it, and I'm not clear that this lines up with the stories without forcing them to bend.  For me, this falls in the category of things one might be obligated to say if one found oneself in this particular conundrum -- necessary in this language and this set of propositions, but only so.  And yet it tickles the back of my brain.  It's like finding a new kind of wrench advertised in a catalog, and seeing the manufacturer demo tape.  A neat toy, maybe practically useful for my set of jobs, but I'll have to try using it and see how it comes out.  It might be too specialized to earn a spot in the tool case.

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