Vacuous Notes

Kevin’s reply to my third soteriological sidebar has a single point: he wants to assert that the debate on the generation of the Son cannot but be a debate within the very strict parameters of God’s nature and will. My argument has been that the generation of the Son, while inescapably involving nature and will, is by revelation and the Church’s experience (and not simply, despite his sarcastic question ending his second paragraph, by virtue of my own definition), first a personal generation, which generation hypostatizes the nature and will of the person so generating.

After a couple of paragraphs of throat clearing, Kevin gets to the heart of his argument in his third paragraph:

Bottom line- it is not possible to remove this question from the nature/will debate.

This, as it stands, is the whole of his argument. By a simple ispe dixit he has removed from the debate, so he thinks, Trinitarian modes of being and of personal exercise of the divine will. What is his evidence? Simply that he cannot apparently conceive of any other way to talk about filial generation and pneumatological procession. For he certainly offers no other evidence than his assertion. The rest of his argument begs this essential question.

He continues immediately from the above sentence:

But, as long as Clifton contends that it is, I have another question. What does this have to do with the larger debate? The subject is monergism and its relationship to the will. A significant ground of my own argument for monergism is the impossibility of libertarian free will. Whatever can be predicated of any person as such can be predicated of all persons. Consequently, if it can be demonstrated that the Father, a person within the Trinity has libertarian free will, then we must allow the possibility that any other person may have libertarian free will. If Clifton can demonstrate that the begetting of the Son is a matter of the Father’s will as unconstrained by his nature, he will have succeeded in shaking my own argument for monergism. Oddly enough, though, he removes the question from the nature/will debate. Which leads me to wonder just what, in his mind, the connection is. Either the Father’s begetting of the Son is a matter of libertarian free will, or, whether as an example of the will exercised according to the nature or not an example of the will at all, it is not relevant to the discussion.

Kevin’s failure to grasp the implications for monergism of Trinitarian person-nature dogma is not any proof that such a dogma has nothing whatsoever to do with monergism. It is simply prima facie evidence of the poverty of his imagination.

In point of fact, if God is three Persons, and if those Persons are really, if ineffably distinct, then there must also be a distinction of will. We know there is a such a distinction for Jesus’ himself noted that his will was to do the Father’s, and in the Garden he prayed, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done.” Either these are distinctions which make no difference, and are therefore merely nominal, or they are real distinctions. If the former, we have Sabellianism. But if the latter, how can the divine will remain one while also having these personal distinctions?

Quite simply, it is the same problem which confronts us with the Trinitarian Persons. How do we speak of three real and distinct persons without devolving into tritheism? And how do we insist on the unity of Persons without descending into modalism? It is incumbent upon us—in order to preserve both the unity of the Godhead and the Trinity of Persons—to address these matters with the distinctions between nature and modes (tropoi) of being, as well as the natural will and the personal mode of willing.

These distinctions are important, otherwise the Godhead has no libertarian free will, something I affirm, and so, apparently, unless I misunderstand him, does Kevin. As Kevin should know, the natural will is the energetic operation of the nature. It is the movement of the nature of a thing toward its telos, or end. For all other creatures than God, their respective teloi, are all in God himself. God, who is perfect being, and hyperousia (beyond being), has no other end than himself. All his natural willing is simply the energetic operation of his nature. This divine will is the same natural will among all the Persons of the Godhead. But the employment of this natural will among the Persons of the Godhead is not identical. This personal employment of the natural will is the mode of willing unique to each Person of the Godhead. The Son does not will to beget but to be begotten. The Father does not will to be begotten, but to beget. The Spirit does not will to send forth but to be sent forth. The Father does not will to be sent forth, but to send forth. The mode of willing of each Person is in complete union with the mode of willing of the other Persons, and that union arises from the single divine will of the divine nature. But that union does not eliminate the very real, if ineffable, distinctions between the modes of willing of the respective Trinitarian Persons.

If, as Kevin’s argument ultimately must conclude, the mode of willing is identical to the divine natural will, then there is no distinction between Person and nature. But if there is no distinction between nature and Person, then God is nothing more than his nature. And if he is nothing more than his nature, then his nature determines his will, and he cannot but will that which is his nature. If it is his nature to create, then he must create, he is bound by his own necessity. He does not have free will.

So, while perhaps in some respects it is true that nature and will must be a fundamental part of the discussion of Trinitarian modes of willing, Kevin cannot successfully argue that Trinitarian modes of willing must be subsumed under and within the nature/will debate. This is ultimately nothing more than Sabellianism in some respects, and Plotinian theology in others.

Kevin continues.

Still, despite his quest for irrelevance, Clifton has not succeeded. The question of the Son’s begetting cannot be removed from the nature/will debate and, despite his objections to the contrary, Clifton’s own explanations place him squarely on the side of will. They also create a situation of far more consequence than the debate between synergism and monergism. The point of my harmonization between Gregory and Athanasius was to show that their use of the will could not be the same. The essence of Arianism is found in the proposition that there was a time when the Son was not. If this statement is true, then the Son cannot be God. If it is not, then the Son must be God.

Kevin’s apparent misunderstanding of the the Cappadocians is evident in the above, for on his terms will is nothing else or other than the natural will. That is to say, he fails to grasp the distinctions in St. Gregory’s use of the tropological will and St. Athanasios’ use of the natural will. I do affirm the begetting of the Son in terms of the Father’s will, that is to say in terms of the tropological will of the First Person of the Trinity. But that will is ineffably distinguishable from the natural will of the Godhead, as I have indicated above. The natural will in the Son’s begetting, however, is wholly one, if, however, the Son and the Father employ their Personal willing in ways tropologically unique to such Personal willing. That the Son is homoousios of the Father is preserved in this natural will by which the tropological willing is unified. But that the distinction of the Persons are preserved from Sabellian heresy in that tropological willing must also be remembered. Kevin’s ignoring (or ignorance of) this classical Christian Trinitarian Personal distinctive is the undoing of his own argument.

This is important, for his criticism of my own argument founders on the loss of this distinction. This is evident in his attempt to criticize my argument from the standpoint of necessary and contingent being.

Clifton affirms the necessity of the Father begetting the Son. He claims that this begetting is, in fact, eternal. This is, as far as it goes, orthodox. However, the necessity of which Clifton speaks is only the kind wherein that which actually is the case is necessarily the case. While this is a legitimate use of necessity, it says nothing about whether something had to be that way in the first place. Every contingent thing is necessary during its actual state of existence. But nothing says that it actually had to exist. In denying the premise presented by Chris in the comments section, that “It is not the case that the Son might not have existed,” Clifton attempts to be consistent with his view of the necessity of the Son’s generation. Even though the Son has always existed, this did not have to be the case. The distinction between this view and that of Arius is that Arius flat out denies that the Son always existed. Clifton does not, in fact, he affirms that the Son has always existed. Unfortunately for his case, however, this is an affirmation that, logically, cannot be maintained.

A little background. In his own criticism of my third soteriological sidebar, Chris had laid out a syllogism which was his attempt to demonstrate the impossibility of the Son not having been begotten, and thus to somehow demonstrate that the natural/tropological distinction of divine willing could not rescue my argument regarding the divine essence and the Trinitarian Persons. My reply was to show that it is precisely the failure of maintaining these distinctions that leads to theological error. Chris responded that my position was simply Arian, and then signed off any further correspondence with me.

Returning to Kevin’s paragraph above: In attempting to make his point, Kevin assumes his conclusion in his premise. That is to say, he assumes without proof that God’s nature and Person are fused, and attempts to criticize my point.

But my reply to Chris’ original criticism was about the epistemic possibility of claiming that we could know definitively that what now obtains in terms of the divine essence and the relation of the Trinitarian Persons is the only way God could be. But in fact, we cannot know that. That is my point. To make such an epistemic claim is to claim to know the divine essence so fully as to know what possible ways such an essence could be. Since it is a given of Christian thought that we cannot know the divine essence at all, my criticism of Chris’ syllogism focused on the fact that he is making definitive assertions about how God might or might not have been.

Kevin next moves into discussion of necessity and contingency, but founders in failing to distinguish epistemological claims from theological ones.

Clifton denies the possibility of knowing how God might otherwise have been. We cannot know, by his account, whether or not the Father might have existed without the Son. This is wrong. The actuality of the Son’s eternal existence proves the impossibility of the contrary.

Kevin here merely repeats my own criticism of Chris noted above. I had said to Chris:


Your syllogism fails from the very first premise:
“We know,
1) It is not the case that the Son might not have existed.”
In fact, we know nothing of the sort. There is no way we could know anything of the sort, since we have no way of knowing how it is the God might otherwise be. All we can say is that we know that it is not the case that the Son has never existed. But that’s a far different matter from positing a theoretical proposition about how God might otherwise have been had he not been the way he is now. Since your first premise fails, the entire syllogism fails.

Read Kevin’s comment cited above, then read my comment immediately above. All Kevin does above, then, is repeat my own argument as a criticism against the very thing he is claiming I am doing. Clearly he is confused here.

His next confusion arises from the analogia entis, that somehow by arguing truths about his own existence he can then argue the relevant points about God’s existence. But as I have said repeatedly, this is an impossibility. Our ousia is incomparable to God’s hyperousia.

More to the point, Kevin’s arguments regarding temporality and the various possibilities of God’s theoretical modes of existence is mistaken in that the use of temporally located speech to speak of God is a non-starter. God is eternal and therefore outside of time. Kevin’s discussion about possibilities of existence, in terms of his (Kevin’s) own temporal being, do not and cannot map onto God. At least not the Christian God. Kevin’s description might fit the philosopher god (and I do not even think it fits that god), but it utterly fails to grasp the Christian God of personal revelation.

Kevin’s argument runs thus:

At the moment I am typing this (which must be distinguished from the moment anyone may be reading this) I am the only one in my immediate vicinity. There is no one that I have ever known for whom I can say with absolute certainty, “This person is currently alive.” From my limited perception of how things are at this moment, the statement, “Human person X might not exist” is true. It is not, however, true of me. I know that I’m alive right now; therefore, it is necessary that this be the case. There is no way that it might be otherwise. Even though I cannot say that I might not exist right now, I can say that I might not have existed right now. There are any number of ways that I could have been eliminated before now. Furthermore, I might not have existed at all. God could have chosen not to exercise the Kevin option. My existence could have been prevented all together.

For any point in my life, it is possible to say that I might not have existed. It is not possible, however, to pick any point from my conception up to the present moment and claim the possibility that I did not exist then. My actual existence throughout my life dictates the impossibility of the contrary. Admitting the possibility that I might not have existed is not the same as claiming the possibility that I never came into existence. Why not? Why is it that the present perfect and the simple past tense are not different means of expressing the same idea? First, I have limited the past tense to my actual existence. But I could have just given some dates. Given the propositions, “It is possible that I did not exist in 1960″ and “It is possible that I did not exist in 1980″ anyone who does not know me would have to agree. They may make educated guesses, but the possibility of both would remain. On the other hand, those who do know me well enough would also know whether the contrary disproved one or even both of these statement. They are, in fact, compelled to disagree with the second statement. The information content of the past tense is limited by how far back I decide to take it and by the prior knowledge of my readers as to my actual time of birth. The present perfect does not work in the same way. I cannot limit this tense to a particular time of my choosing. Instead, it latches on to a time when the contrary to my existence actually obtained. Despite appearances, the use of the past perfect here is not so much about ignorance of what might otherwise have been as it is of knowledge about what actually was the case at one time. “I might not have been” is a concept inseparable from “At one time, I wasn’t.”

This confusion of categories doesn’t help Kevin’s argument against my Trinitarian position in any way. But it sure does help him make the non sequitor leap from epistemological claims about God’s existence to Christological claims.

If we affirm that the Son has always existed, then we cannot say that he might not have existed. If we say that the Son might not have existed, then we must affirm that he has not always existed. The denial of the proposition “It is not the case that the Son might not have existed” logically entails the proposition “There was a time when the Son was not.”

In point of fact, I never made the claim that the Son might never have existed. I made the claim that we could never know it, precisely because a) God’s essence and his personal modes of being are beyond our rational grasp (God is hyperousia) and b) all we can know is that the Son as eternally existed (though that “existence” is beyond what we ourselves know and experience).

Kevin has been boxing at shadows here in a display of rhetorical vacuosity. I’ll turn to his other responses in due course.

[Note: the archive of links in this diablog can be accessed here.]

6 thoughts on “Vacuous Notes

  1. So, you are not saying that it is possible that the Son could not have existed, but that it is impossible for us to know whether it is a possibility. Did I understand that correctly? (Unfortunately, I am coming to this conversation late.)

  2. hmmmm…it seems that it IS possible for us to know that it is impossible for the Son to never have existed because God has revealed Himself as Triune. To posit that we cannot know that is to deny God’s self revelation. I would say that the possibility is ruled out by the “fact” of the truth of God’s nature as revealed to us by Himself. Or am I mixing categories of stuff here and making philosophical mud?

  3. Let me see if I can clarify that which I did not adequately clarify.

    There are, it seems to me, two things going on in my original criticism of Chris’ syllogism and his reply to me: an epistemic claim that is impossible per se, and a revelatory claim.

    The Son has revealed the Father to us, and in the revelation is the revelation of the Holy Trinity and all that that entails (the distinction between person and nature and so forth).

    Now this revelation to us makes it impossible for us to say that the Son might not have existed. But properly speaking this is not something we know, it is something we accept on faith. There is no way we could ever know God as Trinity (and therefore the Son as eternally begotten of the Father) apart from divine revelation.

    Thus, is it absolutely false for us to say that we know it is impossible for the Son to not have existed. In point of fact, we do not know that. We have no epistemic ground on which to make such a claim.

    It is only revealed to us. And that revelation we cannot know by virtue of human reason. We accept it by faith.

    It therefore becomes for us a first principle or a presupposition. It is not something we could every prove by reason (though we could demonstrate its coherence with other knowledge or revelation), and therefore properly speaking could never know.

    I was, therefore, not claiming that it is theoretically possible for the Son to never have been. I was making an epistemic criticism of Chris’ claim.

    I hope this clears that up.

  4. It seems to me that what Kevin and Co. worry is that if you don’t identify nature and person, you end up denying the eternality of the Son. This ironically is Origen’s position, which was the flip side of Arius. Both work with the notion of God as simple being. This idea is still rolling around Kevin’s head motivating his thinking.

    For Arius, the Son can’t be the same nature as the Father because the Father’s nature is Fatherhood. Contary properties (Father/Son) can’t be attributed to the same object.

    Consequently it LOOKS like if one says that the Son is distinguished from the Father in the way Clifton is pointing to, as if the Son’s existence is contingent and hence the Son would be a creature.

    Here is my diagnosis. The activity of fire is that of Heat. (at least in the ancient world) Heat is a primary and hence essential activity of Fire. Other activities of fire are not essential such that they can be produced by some other power.

    Hence there are some Powers of God that are not contingently generated from the Father-such is the Son and the Spirit. We need to enrich this picture in order to be clear. All of the activities of the Father are uncreated. Some have no begining and no end. Some have a begining and an end. Some have no begining but an end and Some have a begining but no end.

    What distinguishes the Son and the Spirit from these other activities are two points. First, the other activities are being or esse, while the Son and the Spiirt are not qua hypostases being or esse. The Son and the Spirit are activities of the Father in a unique way such that they are internal to the Father’s ousia/essence and Person. This is why the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. The other energies/activities of the Father are causally external to him, but the Son is in the bosom of the Father and makes him known.

    Consequently, it is impossible to try and give philosophical content to the personal generation of the divine persons. It is impossible to predicate either necessity or contingency to the Son’s generation, as Kevin seems want to do.

    On Kevin’s road, we wouldn’t end up with a Trinity, but something like Plotinus’ eternal world and here is why. If you attempt to explain the generation and plurality of the divine persons by giving philosophical content to the respective ideas and then explain each person’s existence, there will be no way to stop the dialectical process so that you will not end up with a Trinity of divine persons, but an infinite number of them. This was exactly what Arius was trying to stave off by a clean break, glossing all acts of generation as acts of creation. And this is exaclty why the Gnostics produced an infinite number of intermediaries between God and everything else-the dialectic never ceased for there was never any thesis that could not be opposed by some new antithesis.

    The Cappadocians did accomplish a break by simply denying a dialectical method and that one could important philosophical content into theological terms without all of the nasty side effects of Arius’ Hellenism. Consequently, any attempt to explain the divine persons as relations of will or “modes” of existence is doomed to failure. Necessity and Contingency are categories applicable to being/esse and the divine persons are not being for they subsist essentially in that which is not being, which is why it is impossible to posit any kind of relation or attribute BETWEEN them in terms of the person’s existence. There is no intervening principle between the Son and the Father in the Son’s generation which is why the Son is eternally generated from the Father without necessity or contingency.

    The underlying problem with Kevin’s approach is that it is ultimately at odds with Christian revelation for Hellenistic concepts cannot be adapted to Christian theology and hence can’t give content to what it means to be begotten, or proceeding or ingeneracy.

    Consequently, the generation of the Son is free, neither necessary nor contingent. The Hellenism here should be plain to see. Hellenism didn’t have a concept of person as something distinct from nature which is why it always reduced persons to nature in one way or another. Methodologically this usually played itself out as subsuming persons to abstract categories and this is exactly what Kevin is doing, subsuming the divine persons to WILL. Reformation theology then continues the Hellenism by dealing with theological questions, not by starting with the Revelation of the Person of Christ first, but why abstract concepts like “human nature” “providence” etc. apart from the Person of Christ. Truely the Reformation was the child of Rome.

    Clifton is exactly right to put the order the other way around. Clifton’s order of theology is-Persons, Activity and Essence, whereas Kevin’s is Essence, Attribute, Person, where persons are a species of attribute, that is persons are a type of attribute, which is just to say that persons are instances of natures. BINGO! Right back to Hellenism’s lack of a concept of a person.

    I know it is a great shock for Calvinists to hear that their line of reasoning regarding free will is not only not Biblical but is pagan. But that is because their inherit an intrinsically pagan notion of God from Rome. This is why the Reformers retained the Filioque and even pushed its dialectic further. You’d think if you were going to Reform Rome, the Filioque would be the first on the list. But it wasn’t because Rome and the Reformers had at bottom the same dialectical approach to theology.

  5. Clifton: You make it sound as if I had determined never to talk to you again! In fact, I only intended to conclude my series of comments on that particular post — on account of I had gotten the clarification I was after (so I thought), and I wanted to see Kevin’s next contribution before commenting further. In retrospect, I can see how one could interpret what I said as a disdainful, “you’re a heretic: I’m not talking to you anymore,” and if that’s how you understood it, I am sorry. I should have thought more carefully about my choice of words. Although I do think that your position (as I then understood it) is heretical, I am open to further interaction — if I’m still welcome here. Also, I agree entirely with Kevin’s response to this post, including his question mark regarding whether you do indeed subscribe to the semi-Arian position that we understood you to be affirming earlier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s