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Archive for January 2018

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions: Augsburg Confession, Article I

Article I: Of God

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

They condemn all heresies which have sprung up against this article, as the Manichaeans, who assumed two principles, one Good and the other Evil- also the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all such. They condemn also the Samosatenes, old and new, who, contending that there is but one Person, sophistically and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but that “Word” signifies a spoken word, and “Spirit” signifies motion created in things. (From Project Wittenberg)

While there is certainly discussion of meta/ontological concepts in this article (e.g., una essentia divina), their use is not to establish new teaching, or as the ground of argumentation, but to affirm what has already been taught by the Church. There is nothing new taught here, or new arguments made; this article serves to make clear the Reformers’ agreement with the statements of the Council of Nicea concerning God as Unity and Trinity, while condemning all teachings and teachers at odds with the the Creed’s teaching concerning the Trinity. Note also that the Apology emphasizes that the teaching of the Creed is founded on and in line with Scripture. As there is no disagreement with the Roman party, there is no extended argumentation in this article.


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15 January 2018 at 1:58 pm

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 8

Before we dive into the arguementation used in the Augsburg Confession, let’s summarize what’s come before: Paying close attention to our ontological and metaphysical assumptions cannot and will not solve all our problems, and certainly will not end all theological debate, or even most of it. We still have the necessity of interpretation — and there will still be (room for, actual, and defensible) disagreement. What we do gain is an awareness that unless we test our assumptions about the world against the Word of God, we will make grave theological mistakes when we argue from them. And what is most insidious about these mistakes is that they feel right precisely because they will be fully compatible with our preconceptions about the world and its background processes.

Lutherans have an head start in coping with this postmodern age (and in whatever age is to follow), if we would only grab hold of it — Christ is what, is who is preached because Christ and/in the Word are/is our grounding. If the hearer comes to faith, one teaches even more Christ, and the world governed and shaped and made by the Word follows. There is not a metaphysical system to learn along with it, or which is necessary for Lutheran teaching to either be secure or sensible (other than, perhaps, the recognition that when God speaks, what He says is, or happens). Our grounding is Christ and His Word; everything else is sand.

Luther did not give in to the temptation to search for a clarity other than that of the reliable word of promise. Therefore, the world is not perspicuous to him, not through and through calculable and disposable; his theology is unyielding to any historical-philosophical speculation of unity. To the extent to which his theology contradicts such speculations — for instance, the illusion of a constant progress of world history — it is sober, realistic, and full of concrete experience of the world.

We cannot speak of God unless we eliminate elements contrary to God’s own Word; those corrupting contradictions have to be excluded…[t]hese potentialities [ ] in Reformation theology have a future if they are used to actualize the common Christian faith. At the same time, they can serve as critical principles to analyze and correct the historical developments both in Protestantism and in other traditions. — Peter Widmann, “‘Reformation’ as an Assertion of the Common Christian Faith”, p. 249. In The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology

• • •

[T]he much-invoked but frequently misunderstood “worldliness” of Luther is something thoroughly theological. For with this worldliness the world is perceived as created by God’s reliable word and preserved throughout constant threats. This perception is a forensic one — a perception of judgment and grace. — Oswald Bayer, “Creation as History”, p. 259. In The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology

 • • •

On the basis of the baptismal description of justification as the burying of the sinner and the raising up of the new person in Romans 6:3–6 and Colossians 2:12 Luther spoke of justification as the killing of the sinner, the abolition of the sinful identity, and the resurrection of that sinner as a new creature in Christ, ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’ (Eph. 2:10), so that those who have been ‘made wise for salvation’ may be ‘equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:17).

This definition leads to the conclusion which Gerhard Forde has pronounced in the twentieth century’s falsely framed dispute about whether justification is forensic or effective. The wrong question was posed in this debate because of a failure to understand Luther’s fundamental approach to ontology. His was an ontology of the Word: reality is what God says it is. The justifying word pronounced in absolution creates the new reality of the redeemed and re-created child of God. This new creature lives by faith, and faith flows into the new obedience which is the result, rather than in any way the cause, of justification. Thus, of justification, understood as the execution and burial of the sinner and the resurrection of the new child of God, Forde states simply, “The absolutely forensic character of justification renders it effective — justification actually kills and makes alive. It is, to be sure, ‘not only’ forensic but that is the case only because the more forensic it is, the more effective it is!” [] For “the death inflicted by the justifying word which reduces us to nothing is the real death, the true spiritual death, the death of sin, the death of all defiance against the God who ‘will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.'” God’s Word “is the death knell of the old and the harbinger of the absolutely new…the unconditional word, the promise, the declaration of justification is that which makes new, that which puts the old to rest and grants newness of life. — Robert Kolb, “A ‘Missourian’ Reaction to the ‘Abiding Differences and Ecumenical Blessings’ Of ‘Unsettled Discussions’ on the Doctrine of Justification”, p. 287. In Dialog 44.3 (2005), 285–289.

• • •

So long as Holy Scripture was generally accepted as God’s Word, it was only a question of construing the text correctly. What God says is by definition true. It describes things as they really are, even contrary to all appearances: “Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). In theology therefore a proposition is true if and only if it is entailed by the canonical text, correctly construed. — Kurt Marquart, “The Sacramentality of Truth”, p. 181. In Lutheran Quarterly 22.2.

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15 January 2018 at 1:56 pm

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 7

One consequence of a “Scripture Wins”, Meta/Ontological Agnostic position is that there is no longer a need to cling to the tired language of paradox. These so-called paradoxes are such only to those whose preconceptions are violated; Scripture, however, does not seem terribly enthused about such language.

The erasure of paradox is not the same as the elimination of the observed phenomena. Simul justus et peccator is just as true (i.e., Scriptural) in this account of things as it is in traditional, paradox-oriented accounts. However, it may now be recognized not as a difficulty to be tolerated, accepted, or lived with, but instead as a description the way things actually are in a sin-broken world. Notice how Paul, in Romans 7, does not dwell on what we might choose to call the paradoxical experience of willing one thing yet doing quite another. He instead accepts this as the way things actually are, yet looks ahead to the redemption of our bodies in the resurrection of the dead and the end of this battle with and within himself. What we as Lutherans have consistently said to ourselves and to others, that we live in tension between two equally true poles, is much better and more simply explained as the clear presentation of the way things actually are for sinners in the world. It is far easier to grasp this, and leaves much less room for getting lost in implications. The reason we resort to the language of paradox is that we assume that our assumed metaphysics accurately expresses the way things actually are; this is incompatible with our Confessions (see some similar cases/statements: SA [II].5, II.8, 15; (confession); AP 22, 23.8; etc.).

The sensible objection arises: if this is an equivalent form of the traditional language of paradox, why change? There are two primary reasons. First, this language is far more accurate, consistent, and rooted in Scriptural language. While there is nothing specifically wrong with the use of paradox to express what is found in Scripture, it sets an unnecessary bar in place for both non-Christians exposed to Lutheran teaching and for Christians from other traditions. Both find the language of paradox to be non-rational (and unsatisfying), and neither has their presuppositions about the structure of the world challenged through contact with the Word when the answer “It’s a paradox!” is set before them. Lutherans born into this find no real issue with the language, or grasping what is going on, but it is nigh impenetrable for many who come from “outside”. Second, the language of paradox easily leads to wooly thinking and excessive attempts to explain what is meant by and because of the paradox at hand.

That having been said, the language of paradox will still be useful in demonstrating to ourselves and others the cases where beliefs about the metaphysical structure of the world are at odds with Scripture. Working to eliminate reliance on meta/ontological assumptions not rooted in Scripture is not so much a way of thinking or a method as it is a self-diagnostic tool.

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15 January 2018 at 1:50 pm

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 6

Sola Scriptura, no matter what other effects it may generate, forces those who hold to it to allow Scripture to “win” when it comes into contact with presuppositions about the structure of the world. This is what the Reformers did (consciously or unconsciously; the latter is the most likely by far) in the construction of the Augsburg Confession.

This is the general thesis of this series of posts: The Augsburg Confession contains a curious set of arguments, the style and basis of which we may — and ought — reclaim for ourselves today.[10]

Piepkorn argues[11] that we (as Lutherans) are not bound to hold the metaphysical assumptions of the writers of the Lutheran Symbolic books. Quite so. But what should be determined is whether a particular metaphysical assertion is a presupposition imported by the author of the portion of the Symbolic book in question, or if it is taken from Scripture, so as to not chuck out the baby with the bath-water. It is also important to recognize that these arguments, which do not rest on prior ontological/metaphysical assumptions, were made as they were because of Luther and Melanchthon’s (and then their followers’) approach to the text of Scripture, and not because they were consciously avoiding ontological moorings.

Thus what is suggested here is not at all part of the (still ongoing) project to disengage Christian theology from Greek thought (as discussed in the previous post); it is instead a suggestion that the way of thinking and arguing as found in the Confessions is proof that one particular culture’s ontological assumptions are not necessary for orthodox understanding and formulation of the faith. This method of argumentation is, rather, due to its ontological agnosticism[12], much more easily translatable from culture to culture, from worldview to worldview, than Ontological Assumption-based modes of Christian thought.

It must be stressed, however, that the presence of ontological agnosticism (except where Scripture speaks, and speaks clearly) does not mean that there are not ontological conclusions to Lutheran arguments, nor ontological realities described or exposed to us in Scripture. The Confessions clearly hold to particular ontological realities: these would, for instance, include the happy embrace of the Nicene Creed’s pronouncement that Christ is one substance with the Father (though note that this is a prior, settled argument within the Church which is accepted and not argued for within the confines of the Augsburg Confession); and also the reality that in baptism a spiritually dead man becomes a living man in Christ. Such conclusions are perfectly legitimate; the arguments standing behind them, however, are not governed by extra-Scriptural ontological assumptions.

This identification of Lutheran aontological argumentation is not new. Marion, among others, points us to Heidegger’s 1951 remark in his God Without Being: Hors-Texte that

Being and God are not identical and I would never attempt to think the essence of God by means of Being. Some among you perhaps know that I come from theology, that I still guard an old love for it and that I am not without a certain understanding of it. If I were yet to write a theology — to which I sometimes feel inclined — then the word Being [Sein] would not occur in it. Faith does not need the thought of Being. When faith has recourse to this thought, it is no longer faith. This is what Luther understood. Even within his own church this seems to be forgotten. (Marion, p. 61)

While Heidegger’s understanding of Christian faith is thoroughly lacking, he had an eagle’s eye for where and when the concept of Being was or was not applied.

There is thus no need or place for speculative theology, as it is an attempt to slip past, to sneak around the Word. This is the legacy of the Augsburg Confession: real problems, real objections, real, practical theology for the sake of poor sinners.

[10] The same is true throughout the whole Book of Concord. Notice the firm rejection of ontological explanations in the Formula of Concord; twice those who look behind the words of Scripture, or the knowable surface of reality (if there is a substratum at all) are slapped down (Ep., SD I, III). Luther’s catechisms have no time for ontological or metaphysical speculation, and the gem at the center of it all, the Smalcald Articles, are up to the top of the head in the Word.

[11] Arthur Carl Piepkorn. “Suggested Principles for a Hermeneutics of the Lutheran Symbols”. Concordia Theological Monthly 29 (January 1958): 1–24.

[12] i.e., not believing that one’s beliefs about the hidden structure of the world are a true picture of what is, but are instead useful placeholders that allow us to function. Where Scripture speaks, and tells us how things are — there is no such agnosticism in those cases.

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15 January 2018 at 1:45 pm

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 5

To say that “Scripture Wins” is in no way to say that there is a dead-simple, literal reading of Scripture all the way through. The heavy hermeneutical lifting must still be done, with all that entails; what is suggested here, however, is that an examination of meta/ontological preconceptions which may be influencing our reading or use of of a text ought to be a part of that work.

I believe that the necessity of this task was identified by Luther, and is the deep source of his repeated objection to the use of Aristotle in the Church. The problem, for Luther, is not that Aristotle has particular ideas about the world (right or wrong), or that those ideas are shared or taught; the problem is that those ideas were allowed to stand over the express and clear Word of God — the problem is that they were used as and believed to be an accurate description of how the world works behind the scenes. Luther had no problem with reason, or logic, as such — the arguments he uses in his works should make that clear enough. Where his objections emerge is when reason (fronting for the preconceived notions about the world held by many in the Church, with Aristotle standing in for the lot of them) is given a non-ancillary position. This is basic stuff for anyone who has spent any amount of time with Luther, or with Lutherans. We hammer hard at maintaining the distinction between the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason (and at avoiding the application of the former to Scripture and matters of faith).

There are those, however, not few in number, who have heard Luther’s objections without understanding his reasoning. A recent attempt to reroute the thinking of the Church was the dehellenization project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They hoped to root out the Greek philosophical assumptions and ideas which had wormed their way into Christian thought, assumptions and ideas which seemed to have become the lenses through which Scripture was read. Even if this would have been possible, the error into which they fell was to then — unconsciously — replace these assumptions and ideas with their own, thinking all the while that all they were doing was cutting away the brambles. They still — whether they knew it or not — held themselves and their preconceptions as superior to Scripture.[9]

[9] This appears in many forms over the years, and not only in the dehellenization project. For example, the same process happens in the attack on the Reformation by Benedict XVI in his infamous Regensburg address (“Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections”; I have some other comments on this here. This lecture is, contrary to how things were reported in the media, minimally about Islam and maximally against the Reformers). Unsurprisingly, Benedict wants to retain his ability to speak past scripture, and attacks sticking to scripture (even with detailed hermeneutical work supporting arguments from Scripture) as a form of dehellenization. So long as Scripture is allowed to stand there can be no development of doctrine; that is intolerable for any enthusiast, not only the Bishop of Rome.

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15 January 2018 at 1:36 pm

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 4

Or, A Not-So-Common Example: Perditory.

If disagreement over just what the Lord’s Supper is functions as a large-scale example of the danger of unexamined preconceptions, the idea of Perditory is a fine small-scale example of the same danger. What is Perditory, you ask? It is a logical — albeit unscriptural — concept growing out of the same metaphysical assumptions which lead to the teaching of Purgatory. If there must be a purification of Christians before they enter heaven (sort of sanding down the eight-ball so it will fit into the pocket), then why wouldn’t there be an equivalent place for those going into hell, so that nothing good which attaches to them will end up in perdition? The idea that both good and evil acts are things which are attached to souls/things/people as barnacles attach themselves onto a ship (so to speak) leads to a concept such as Perditory (just as it led to Purgatory). As has been noted already: we have ideas about the world, and we naturally spin them out to see where they go. This idea falls down, however, when its background presupposition — that good and evil are (or at the least function in the same way as) things — is set against Scripture.[8]

It boils down to this question: does Scripture or an assumed metaphysics win? If an assumed metaphysics trump Scripture, then there is little reason to hold to Scripture as an authority for much of anything at all either for you or your worldview, as you have everything you need already in your prior assumptions (Scripture may still, however, be a fine tool indeed to establish authority over others who may or may not share your presuppositions). A majority of errors throughout the history of the church come not from a simple misreading of Scripture, or a lack of respect for its authority, but from the deep-seated human desire to defend a received view of how the world works, to make God and His Word compatible with, or palatable for, the errant’s culture. Thus, again and again, Scripture is not understood as speaking against the assumed worldview, but is instead re-read to fit, and even defend, the assumed metaphysical structure of the world which would otherwise be problematical at best because of its actual conflict with Scripture.

(A Note on Perditory: there has been more than one at-length discussion of Perditory on the internet. Sadly, the more detailed discussion which appeared at the old Pontifications site (now succeeded and replaced by the newer (and infrequently, if ever, updated) Pontifications site is no longer available. Another, less formal discussion of this idea is found here.)

[8] Notice how hard it is for support to be found for the idea: an apocryphal text (2 Maccabees 12:38-45) is its strongest textual backing! Yet it endures as a teaching of the Roman church — precisely because unexamined presuppositions are accepted as the Truth of Things.

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15 January 2018 at 1:32 pm

Ontological and Metaphysical Preconceptions, Part 3

Let us begin with the basics: it is a given that we humans hold to particular ontological and metaphysical commitments.[5] These commitments provide the framework our understanding of the world hangs upon, for both individual humans and collective bodies. Some such commitments (usually ontological) are shared by nearly everyone, and are regarded as certain or nearly so. Few, if any, would doubt the existence of the moon as an actual physical object, with fewer still denying ontological status to a rock thrown directly at their head. Some other commitments (most often those concerning the underlying, metaphysical structure of the world) are assumed without the possibility of direct confirmation.

These commitments tend to directly affect our actions, as well as forming and directing other beliefs we hold, even if they are unprovable. This is as true for theologians as it is for busdrivers. Our ontological and metaphysical assumptions both govern the endpoints and set the boundaries for our theological thought. The primary error stemming from this tendency (which of course leads to more, and deeper error) is the understandable, and more-than-common assumption that one’s own metaphysical beliefs are, or at least are in correspondence with, the truth of things. In Christian contexts, this truth is assumed by those committed to it to be obviously, certainly in agreement with Scripture; this truth is then in turn, quite naturally, found in Scripture.[6]

Error does not reside in the simple fact that we do hold such assumptions; we need not only a story of who we are but a set of beliefs about what the world is and how it functions, and we have to have such assumptions to function on a day-to-day level. These frameworks are also necessary for humans as groups, given how they are constructed and embraced by both societies and individuals; we set down stories, narratives to explain how our world works beneath even what we can examine, past what we are able to prove. The fact that such stories exist and are used is not what causes the error examined here; error instead comes from our unintentional, though mistaken, tendency to take those beliefs as true maps of reality — maps which we can then follow, unproblematically, to other, deeper truths.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the Lord’s Supper. In the Lord’s Supper we see a clear instance of ontological assumptions governing the understanding of Scripture on both sides of the question, with the Lutherans standing in the middle; this is not because Lutherans tend to “split the difference”, find a “middle way”, or are “comfortable with paradox”, but because we are, on one hand, happy to let Scripture interpret Scripture, and on the other, (sometimes consciously, oftentimes unconsciously) unwilling to impose a world-structure other than the structure of the Word between the text and its interpretation.[7] Lutherans have ontological categories and metaphysical assumptions, just like everyone else; at their most “Lutheran”, however, those preconceptions are jettisoned when they are found to be in conflict with the plain Word of Scripture. There ought not be explanations as to why our assumptions really are in line with Scripture; instead, when those assumptions come into conflict with Scripture, Scripture wins.

[5] For instance, see W. V. O. Quine’s, “On what there is”.

[6] Such error may perhaps reveal its presence in how clear the citations used in its defense from Scripture are when set in relation to the assumed truth. Red flags ought to rise for us (and klaxons sound) when the verses cited in support of a doctrine require arguments that they are indeed connected in some way to the matter at hand.

[7] A contemporary example of someone whose assumptions are on their sleeve (and, while acknowledged, are left themselves essentially unexamined) is that of John Milbank, whose philosophical preconceptions plainly condition his reading of Scripture; his adherence to Aristotelian categories lead to their natural end in his arguments. See especially his Being Reconciled.

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4 January 2018 at 11:53 am