Personhood Backwards and Forwards and Monergism’s Essence

Kevin replies to my “Till . . . We Have Faces” in his “Masks and Modes.” As his reply unfolds along two lines of thought, so, too, will my reply.

1. Personhood Backwards and Forwards

Kevin goes to some lengths to defend himself from my charges of modalism. Unfortunately, the way he does so leaves my charges unanswered. Instead of showing how it is that his position does not radically identify person with nature, and thus logically entails modalism, he utilizes the terms I introduced into the issue but reads into them both more and less than I intended. This is, perhaps, not unjustified since the terms hypostasis and prosopos do have a range of meanings that differ somewhat between philosophical and theological contexts. I’ll take on the responsibility for not more carefully clarifying the terminology.

That being said, however, the substance of my charges against Kevin’s position remain and should be clear: he identifies person with nature. To do so in (strictly speaking) theological terms is to propose modalism. While Kevin is right to draw some distinctions between human and divine persons, what is true of both, as I have argued, is that a person is not strictly identifiable with his nature.

While Kevin has asserted that he thinks the same thing–i.e., that persons are not radically identifiable with their natures–nothing in his own arguments provides a basis for that assertion. Indeed, this has been my point. It is the substance of his argument itself that substantiates my charges. He has had ample opportunity to show, by way of argument instead of by mere assertion, how it is that his belief in monergism does not entail such a radical identification of person and nature. But he has yet to do so. Or, if he has, he has been too subtle for my poor thickheaded mind.

But so as to be clear about the mapping of personhood, backwards and forwards, onto God: I take as the fundmental starting point for talk of human personhood, the divine personhood of the Trinity and Christological personhood. In other words the Trinity and Christology are revelational facts that are not derivable from human experience and reason. Apart from revelation we would not know there is a Trinity or Christ is the incarnate God. We cannot argue from human personhood to Trinity or the Incarnation. But if the Trinity and the Incarnation are facts–and Christians take them to be so–then they are the fundamental realities that define human personhood. From these points only is it helpful to derive our concepts of human personhood as made in the image and likeness of this God who is Three-in-One and incarnate as two natures and two wills in one Person.

However, in that human personhood is intimately and inescapably connected to Trinitarian and Christological Personhood, what you say of one you say of the other. Any deviation from the Church’s understanding of the Trinity will affect one’s Christology and this will deform one’s understanding of personhood. Similarly, if one has a deficient understanding of human personhood, this will inescapably affect one’s Christological and Trinitarian understandings. So, it is not per se illegitimate for me to “backwards map” what I take to be Kevin’s understanding of human personhood on to Christological and Trinitarian dogma, because there is a related and necessary consistency that must be upheld among all three. What remains, then, is for Kevin to prove how his understanding of human personhood does not violate the Church’s understanding of Trinitarian and Christological realities.

This has consistently been my point. I believe that monergism is a heresy not because it emphasizes that humans cannot save themselves, not because it emphasizes the priority and sufficiency of God’s grace, but because its understanding of human personhood necessarily results in a deficient Trinitarianism and Christology. Kevin has yet to disprove my contentions.

So most of the substance of his recent reply to me, in that it focuses on disabusing me of the terminology I used to draw the distinctions between synergistic and monergistic views of personhood and their respective logical entailments, important though it is in terms of clarifying these matters, fails to do that which is necessary: arguing how it is that he can both maintain his understanding of salvation in the terms he accepts and not also logically conjoin his argument (if not his avowed beliefs) with modalism.

Take, for example, this paragraph:

The substance of Clifton’s response to me is an an argument that I regard personhood as an instantiation of a particular nature. Any prosoponic references are to be understood in this sense: as a name for the instantiation of a particular nature. But when, after arguing for what he believes my postion to be, he tries to show that it ends in modalism by mapping it onto God, Clifton has thrown in an unwarranted equivocation for the use of prosopon. If I believed that a nature and a person were the same thing or even if I subscribed to hypostatic personhood but believed that the relationship between the hypostasis and the ousia was such that there could only be a one to one correspondence, this would not be enough to convict me of modalism. At most, mapping these views onto God would result in unitarianism, that is, a denial of the Trinity. While modalsim also denies the Trinity, it offers the added bonus of trying to explain God’s manifestation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in terms of various modes or masks.

While it is true that unitarianism does not necessarily also entail modalism, clearly in Christian history and thinking, unitarianism and modalism have largely gone hand-in-hand. But I hardly think that Kevin wants to deny that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore he does not adhere to simple unitarianism. So while his quibble here is not without warrant, in terms of the diablog we’ve engaged in for a couple of months, it’s a red herring. If he holds to a radical identification of person and nature and that God is–in some way–Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then logically speaking he must hold to modalist conceptions of the Trinity (which would then entail a certain form of unitarianism).

So, let his technical clarifications of the terminological vocabulary (as it applies to this argument) stand. It still remains for him to demonstrate how it is his monergistic convictions do not entail modalism.

Let me further address a comment regarding what he takes me to assume in my arguments on personhood.

From what I can tell, Clifton’s understanding of my view of personhood is colored by an unspoken assumption; namely, that substantive personhood is only possible where there is libertarian free will.

This is true, but only in part. Rather, substantive personhood makes possible, and real, libertarian free will. That is to say, I do not argue from indeterministic willing back to personhood, but rather found indeterministic willing on the concept of personhood which undergirds synergistic views. In other words, substantive personhood makes real libertarian free will. If you hold one, I contend, you must hold the other. Obviously, I do not think Kevin’s is a substantive view of personhood, but is, if you will, a two-dimensional construct.

Finally, let me clear up one misunderstanding with regard to personhood, willing, modalism and this “backwards mapping” that Kevin demonstrates in a lengthy paragraph.

Clifton’s attempt to map my views of personhood onto God and Christ is, at best, backward. Consider the charge of modalism. In light of my interpretation of Jesus’ prayer in the garden, this cannot be the case. Whereas Clifton has presented the statement, “Not my will but yours be done,” as an interplay between the two wills of Christ- human and divine, I have presented it as an example of the Second Person of the Trinity talking to the First Person of the Trinity. Whatever legitimate criticisms anyone may have for this interpretation, “modalistic” is not one of them. No modalist is going to claim that one person of the Trinity can have a meaningful conversation with another person of the Trinity. In fact, modalists interpret all of the prayers of Christ in precisely the same way that Clifton has interpreted the prayer in the garden: Jesus’ human nature is praying to his divine nature.

While modalism and monothelitism are related in certain ways, Kevin combines two aspects of my attack on monergism and comes to a mistaken conclusion. My argument regarding Christ in the garden is primarily about libertarian willing based on Christological Personhood. It has little to do with charges of modalism per se. It is related, true, but nonetheless does not address specifically the concern he mentions.

My point about Jesus’ prayer had to do with the nature-willing schema more so than it did the person-nature schema. Here’s what I wrote:

Furthermore, on Kevin’s schema, a will cannot but will what its nature directs, specifically, it will always will in the direction of its strongest inclination. This is problematic, however, in the case of Jesus. Kevin and I agree that Christ had two natures, human and divine, and two wills, human and divine. Kevin notes that in Christ the union of those wills was accomplished in that the wills both willed the same thing. However, I don’t think the Scriptural witness bears him out. I turn to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37-44/Mark 14:33-41). There Christ asks that if it be possible that the cup he was about to drink (his death) might pass from him. Then he says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” Kevin’s view that Jesus’ two wills both willed the same thing cannot hold in light of this verse. For if they willed the same thing, then Jesus had no need to deny the object of his human will (drawing back from death), and would simply have acquiesced to the Father’s will.

Note carefully, though, what I am not saying. I am not saying that Jesus’ human will was opposed to his divine will. Nor am I saying that Jesus’ two wills were not in union. Let me be clear: there is no opposition, and there is union. But under Kevin’s schema, this cannot be the case.

I grant you that my argument may not have been clear enough and might have led Kevin to his erroneous conclusion about my use of the wills of Christ in the Garden. Hopefully this has clarified that.

Kevin goes on about our divergent interpretations of Christ in the Garden:

But this interpretation has its own set of problems, which can be seen if I turn the tables and map Clifton’s understanding of human willing onto Christ. I will agree with Clifton that willing, of any kind, is a function of personhood rather than nature. Note carefully, however, that I do not predicate the same thing of the will. Willing and the will are not identical. The one is a conscious act perfomed by a person. The other is the the faculty of choosing. As far as I have been able to tell, Clifton’s primary mistake is found in confusing the two. He has applied dithelitism, not to the faculty of choosing, but to conscious desire. Go back to his objection to monergism (or, more specifically, to the compatibilist views of the will underlying some forms of monergism) and to his interpretation of Jesus prayer in the garden. Monergism = practical monothelitism. Why? Because, if it is the case that human nature is such that the human will cannot cooperate with the divine will, then, even if Christ technically had two wills, his human will must have been suppressed so that only his divine will was functional. Clifton’s solution? Posit libertarian free will. Which is fine except that he takes the concept far too literally. Rather than granting Christ libertarian freedom as to his person, he gives this libertarian freedom to his human will. Thus, when Jesus prays, “Not my will but yours,” his human will, instead of being involuntarily suppressed as [supposedly] would be the case if compatibilism were true, submits itself to his divine will in a libertarian free act. This presents a problem. The issue is not whether the human will of Christ had libertarian freedom but that Clifton has even allowed for the possibility. It would be just as bad if he believed that the human will of Christ had compatibilist freedom. These are options predicated, not of the faculty of choosing, but of a person. If the human will of Christ is capable of free submission to Christ’s divine will, then, it is not a faculty of choosing but is the conscious exercising of choice. On this reading, Christ’s human will has done something that is only meaningful as a function of personhood. In order for Christ’s wills to function in the manner that Clifton has predicated- either freely submitting or requesting submission, each will must have its own hypostasis. How this understanding of the interactions between the wills of Christ is not Nestorian is beyond my ability to explain.

I certainly understand Kevin’s point here. But he’s apparently missed what I have actually said about this. For the most part I concur with with his comments above about willing and the will. I just don’t see how they apply to me. In a previous reply to Kevin I said the following:

It should be clear then that persons do not act by the necessitation of their wills and the strongest inclinations at the moment of willing preceding the act, but rather act by the employment of the will according to their personal mode of existence. This is true of the Trinitarian persons, of the Christ, and of humans. In the Trinity and the Christ, the personal mode of existence is such that person, nature and will are fused in such a way that the willing which accompanies their personal mode of existence is, properly speaking, non-deliberative. The Trinitarian Persons have no need to discriminate among the good acts available to Them, since all such goods acts are Their own generation. Similarly, the Person of the Logos has deified the human nature and will in the union in his Person of God and man, and in so doing, fixed the two natures and wills such that there is no need to discriminate among the real goods, since all such goods are immediately known to him, the human nature and will participating hypostatically in the goods brought forth by the Trinity. But in human persons prior to the eschaton, the person, nature and will are not so fused, and the personal mode of willing is precisely the deliberative will necessitated by the pre-eschaton human mode of existence. It is the nature of the human will, even when fallen, to seek its true object in the Creator. But since the human person is not deified, its discrimination among goods is not fixed in prudential virtue, and in the personal mode of willing human deliberation is capable of directing the will away from its natural object toward an apparent good.

In short, it is not that the will directs the person to an act, but that the person, in the employment of the will from his mode of existence, directs the will toward an act. This is not to say that human acts are never determined by the strongest inclination of the will. After all, akratic acts are a reality of human existence prior to the eschaton. But it does not follow that since some, or even most, human acts are so constituted that all human acts must be so constituted.

In other words, humans are not so constituted that they must always naturally will sin, which would attribute sin to God and would be a blasphemy. Rather, humans can freely will the good–as they have been created to do–and can employ their wills according to their personal mode of existence in such a way that they can truly and really choose to do acts that are good. But then it does not follow that since humans can freely will some acts that are good, namely they can freely will to choose their own salvation, that they are able to accomplish what they will to choose. No human can accomplish his own salvation. Only God’s grace can accomplish that salvation both in the willing and the choosing, and in the long ascetical pursuit of deification which God’s grace must also accomplish, not only universally in Christ, but particularly in the person. And, indeed, no synergist would ever claim differently.

Hopefully this will set the record straight.

But now we proceed to what has been the heart of my contention regarding monergism: it is essentially heretical.

2. Monergism’s Essence

What is the essence of monergism? Kevin appears to state that it’s all about God having done everything necessary for salvation; that there’s nothing left for us to do. But he gets at that negatively, by attempting to assert that will and nature have nothing to do with it. Yet he is not successful in divorcing monergism’s essential point from nature and the will.

Kevin wants to keep the monergism debate tightly within Protestant soteriological debates, indeed wants to ignore the matter of willing. But this won’t help him.

Finally, there is the matter of monergism. Even though Clifton only mentions it in the last paragraph of his post, it is the main topic of the series. He wants to identify monergism as heresy; however, his focus is too narrow- specifically, the relation between monergism and the will. In any event, the will does not become a primary factor in the defense of monergism until we get to the intra-Protestant debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. Here, the question concerns the relationship between faith and regeneration. What is the order? For the Calvinist, regeneration precedes faith. In Reformed theology, faith alone is the instrument of our justification. The order, then, is regeneration, faith, justification. This should not be taken to imply that faith is something that we must do in order to be justified. No one who is not justified is saved; however, all who are regenerated are saved. It is not the case that, of the those who have been regenerated, some might fail to exercise faith and thus fail to be justified. This is not so much a temporal order of conditions as it is a logical order of results. Faith, which is sufficient for us to be declared righteous, is the necessary evidence of our regeneration. Regeneration results from our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. We are regenerated because he is risen. This union results in our actual righteousness, which, before the return of Christ exists in an already/not yet state and which, after his second advent, will be made complete. Justification is the legal declaration that this righteousness is the case. Faith is the instrument of the legal declaration and not of our actual possession of righteousness. The actual possession of righteousness is that, without which, faith cannot be exercised. Once regeneration has occurred, the question of our salvation is settled. Because we have nothing to do with that regeneration, salvation is monergistic.

Kevin himself cannot get away from the matter of the will. Regeneration here is something God does, to whomever he does it (which isn’t everyone, since not everyone will be saved), and God does it irrespective of our willing it, since according to monergism, we can’t even will it. Despite Kevin’s contention that this is all about God, in fact, this is inescapably about human nature, the will, and, to be frank, double predestination. Salvation, damnation, it’s all God.

How this avoids the issue of willing and nature is beyond me. Perhaps Kevin can clarify how the will is not involved here from the get-go.

But more to the point, Kevin introduces a truncation of salvation that is not Scriptural, and certainly is not the historic Church’s position. If salvation is monergistic, then even if Kevin accepts synergistic sanctification, which he has, sanctification is not, logically cannot be, in fact, salvation. But this just doesn’t make sense.

Even if we grant Kevin that monergism is not about temporal process, but about logical categories, the fact of the matter is, under his terms, even sanctificatory synergism is still, ultimately, monergism. For if someone can resist God’s salvation after regeneration, then they can ultimately, through their own willing, fail to be saved. But if they can, through their own willing fail to cooperate with God in their own salvation, then what prohibits them from cooperating with their own willing in the regeneration God effects. If synergistic regeneration somehow fails to uphold God as sole and necessary source of salvation, surely a failure of perserverance after regeneration does so as well. So, in effect, the human will and human nature both before and after regeneration are radically identified. But if this is true, even of regenerate humanity, then the implications for Christology and the Trinity should, by this point in the diablog, be clear.

I still await Kevin’s argument showing this to not be the case.

Despite himself, after specifying all the details about when will enters the monergist picture, he goes on to say:

For the sake of argument, let me agree with the most un-Calvinistic of monergists and deny both total depravity and total inability. I will only affirm that everyone is sinful enough to stand in need of salvation. What is it then that makes synergism impossible? It is this and only this: everything that can be done has been done. As I have stated before, monergism is not the denial of a synergy between the human and the divine in the work of salvation. This synergy is found in the incarnate Word. The triune God has done everything necessary for our salvation. Even if we wanted to contribute, even if Calvinists were completely wrong and the will were not an issue, monergism would still be true for the simple fact that, when it comes to our salvation, there is nothing left for us to do. All of these discussions about the will and its relation to soteriology, Christology, and Trintitarian theology are fine in their own right and worthy of debate. Yet, inasmuch as they do not address the deeper point of monergism, which is not about the will, they have nothing to do with Clifton’s thesis that monergism is heresy.

On the contrary, despite Kevin’s stipulations, he cannot hold to the monergism he believes apart from a specific conception of the human will and of human nature. Monergists and synergists both believe that God has accomplished salvation for all men, that in terms of what is necessary for salvation, there is nothing more for God to do. In fact, monergists and synergists would both agree that God is the sole source of salvation, that man cannot save himself apart from God, that man cannot believe and live in that faith apart from God. The difference, however, between monergists and synergists is inescapably and precisely in the arena of divergent understandings of human nature and human willing. Monergists, I contend, have an understanding of human nature and human willing that ultimately distorts and perverts Christology and Trinitarianism. I believe that in this diablog I have solidly established this as a fact.

I’m still waiting for Kevin to demonstrate through argument how his monergistic convictions do not lead to the logical entailments I have claimed. I long ago agreed that Kevin does not follow his logic to its conclusion. I don’t believe that Kevin’s Christology or Trinitarianism are necessarily heretical–since he denies the specific heresies I have mentioned. But they avoid heresy not because Kevin’s monergism is, itself, biblical or orthodox, but because he steadfastly continues to jump off the train before it heads off the cliff. This is a good thing: his conscience won’t let him crash with the monergism train. But he could avoid all this by simply allowing monergism’s own logic to eat its own entrails, abandon monergism and accept the orthodox (and Orthodox) synergism of the historic Church and the Scriptures.