Several friends have objected to this statement of mine from a recent post on natures and substances: “‘The finite cannot contain the infinite’ was an axiom of Greek philosophy. But the incarnation says the opposite.”
My friends have said (nicely) that this statement was at least unguarded and at worst ignorant. They’re right on both counts. It was misleading and, not surprisingly, left the impression that I was abandoning a key idea of Reformed Christology. I was not. On his blog (http://calvinistinternational.com/2012/07/09/blaming-the-greeks-and-repeating-the-past-a-liberal-methodology/), Steven Wedgeworth quotes from several Church Fathers, and cites Edward Willis’s 1966 study Calvin’s catholic christology. The function of the so-called extra Calvinisticum in Calvin’s theology,. I affirm the so-called extra-Calvinisticum, and agree it has a patristic pedigree. In the same sense that human minds cannot “comprehend” the infinite God, a human being cannot “contain” Him without remainder.
Yet there’s more to say on this, much more. I won’t address all the Christological questions here, which are vast and complex. I also won’t directly response to Steven’s suggestion that I’ve adopted a liberal theological method. Here, I simply want to clarify the point I was making in that earlier post, and to indicate reasons why I find some Reformed Christological formulations wanting.
So, for starters, the overall point of my post was that when theologians use philosophical categories and terms, whether from ancient or modern philosophy, they can end distorting Christian truth, sometimes in subtle ways that they may not even recognize. Put the non capax formula to side for a moment: It’s unquestionable that the gospel cannot be explicated in Hellenic philosophical categories without drastic revision of those categories. Rowan Williams points out in his Arius: Heresy and Tradition that Arius followed the philosophical tradition in his assumption that the Absolute must by definition be unrelated, because relation implies relativity, hence non-absoluteness. To confess an absolute Father who has an eternal relation with a Son is to undo a fundamental premise of the ancient tradition. Adrian Pabst (Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Interventions)) has recently worked out in some detail what he calls a patristic “fusion” of Greek metaphysics with the Bible, but Pabst also shows that the biblical teaching about creation ex nihilo and Trinity radically altered the understanding of matter and relationality. One man’s “fusion” is another man’s “evangelization of metaphysics,” I suppose.
This general point does apply to the relations of “finite” and “infinite,” though not in the way I stated. The statement in my earlier post was wrong partly because it implies that “Greeks” conceived an “infinite” God who was incapable of inhabiting “finite” creation. In fact, Greek thinkers did not have a uniform conception of infinity, and many did not believe “God” was infinite. On the one hand, as Heinz Heimsoeth puts it (The Six Great Themes of Western Metaphysics and the End of the Middle Ages), for many Greek thinkers “the perfect is the formal-complete, it is always unbounded. The unbounded is undetermined, uncertain; it is like chaos, which lacks all form and measure” (p. 83). Yet, “the unbounded, too, is somehow connected with reality; the spatial, for example, also exists, even if merely as appearance and not as ‘true’ being. Thus for Plato and Aristotle the infinite falls on the side of what barely exists, that is matter; but was truly exists – contributing being, order, and stability to all reality – is the determinate and determining idea or form that sets a limit” (p. 84). In later Greek thought, a new concept of the infinite comes to the fore: “Here infinity means divine perfection. And this means not just a vague transcendence beyond anything we can grasp and comprehend . . . insofar as God is related in knowledge and activity to all existence and becoming in all places and times, he sums up all these dimensions within himself.” For Plotinus, the infinite is not fearsome unbounded chaos, but “absence of all deficiency.” Because the One is infinite in this sense, “the total fullness of the world in its immense series of descending gradations can emanate from it and the inexhaustible power of countless forms of matter that is ever indeterminate and ever-to-be-determined as well as for matter itself flows form it” (pp. 87-88).
Without going into the ins and outs of these different notions of infinity, it seems clear that the earlier understanding of infinity is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of God and with the doctrine of the incarnation. On the earlier understanding, the infinite cannot have a “nature,” and is subject to no definition of any kind, because a definition would, contradictorily, set boundaries to the unbounded. If one operates with the earlier understanding of “infinite,” the incarnation is rendered simply impossible. On this earlier understanding of infinite, an infinite God would have no definable qualities. The Church Fathers understood this, or at least came to understand it over time. If Michel Rene Barnes and others are to be believed, Gregory of Nyssa grasped that defending Christian doctrine meant developing a specifically Christian notion of the infinity of God, clearly much closer to Plotinus than to earlier thinkers. My point in the earlier post, poorly stated as it was, was that philosophical categories can obscure and mislead Christian theology; philosophical notions can become forms of intellectual idolatry.
All that said, I think that Reformed theologians – theologians in general – still have plenty of work to do in Christology. And, whether or not it has anything to do with those beleaguered Greeks, there are odd things going on in some Reformed theology. Steven Wedgeworth quotes this from Richard Muller: “Older Reformed theology mediated long and hard on the inability of finite man to reach, to understand, and to have communion with an infinite God—and, as a result, many of the distinctions found in the orthodox system relate to the way in which this chasm is overcome by the acts of God in history.” But where does this “chasm” between God and man come from?
If Muller means that God is God, and man is God’s creature, he’s of course correct, and that is a fundamental truth of Scripture and the Christian tradition. Christian faith does not, obviously, lend itself to pantheism. But a great deal depends on how we understand the Creator-creature distinction. The Spirit of Yahweh is within creation as soon as creation exists; He is near, nearer than anything. God created human beings as His image in communion and for communion. Yes, God is God Most High, but it’s also true that “in Him we live, move, and exist.” As John Frame has said, God’s nearness is not a contradiction of His transcendence. He is not near in spite of being transcendent. He is near precisely because He is transcendent, near because He is bound by no limits of space or time. The “chasm,” Muller says, is overcome by “the acts of God in history,” but in high decretal Calvinism aren’t all events acts of God? The blackout in DC, the breeze from my ceiling fan, the aroma of the roses outside the door – isn’t God ultimately doing all of that? And if so, isn’t the chasm always overcome? And doesn’t a chasm that is always and everywhere bridged cease to be a chasm? It seems to me that Muller’s theologians expended a lot of effort on a non-existent problem, a problem that doesn’t arise, so far as I can see, from anything in Scripture. I lay no blame; but if theologians expend effort on a problem that doesn’t arise as a problem in the Bible, it seems clear that something else is going on. Some extra-biblical understanding of finite and infinite is the source of the static.
Applying his understanding of the Creator-creature distinction to Christology, Muller says that the infinite God “graciously grasps the finite” and thus “shattered the Kantian barrier from his side.” But I don’t believe in a Kantian barrier, so I see nothing of that sort to shatter. God doesn’t dwell in a noumenal realm, nor are we limited to the phenomena. I’m with Barth on this point: The incarnation is no contradiction of God’s infinity; it’s the climactic expression of that infinity. God is so boundless that He can take flesh and live a human life from conception to grave and beyond without denying Himself, without ceasing in any way to be the infinite God that He is.
There is of course much more to say on all of this. I am sure that much of this too is misleading and ignorant, and I rely on my friends to continue to tell me so.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, July 9, 2012 at 8:01 am
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