Observations at the End of the Week, Beginning Next’s

I wanted to say, regarding the Time of Nick, that it seems an odd choice when it comes to Reformed views to find the standard bearer is Gordon Fee. However representative his commentary on that portion may be, of all the people that spring to mind when one thinks of Reformed views Gordon Fee is not the first. I only mention it because I had to take some pills for the aftereffects of the cognitive dissonance when I read that part.

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Reading in the Cappadocian fathers I learned several interesting things. I learned about Gregory of Nyssa that he is probably the deepest of three fathers, the most penetrating thinker. Gregory Naziansen (you say Naziansen when you omit the preposition, and when you include it you say of Naziansus, which I spent years not realizing), on the other hand, is like a theological battering-ram; he is very forceful in expression. You know what is interesting about all three? They write in polemical contexts, they are at war. They speak constantly of their opponents, are weary of still fighting but persist, and always seem to be arguing to destroy enemies’ positions. There’s a lot of that in what they write. In short, it is the Church Militant you get in the Cappadocian fathers.

My teacher observed about the earlier fathers that it is their polemical works that are the ones we really value. When they’re onto their positive concerns it is kind of squirrelly. My limited exposure affirms that.

Gregory of Nyssa makes at least two interesting points. He (and Basil of Caesarea, his older brother) is going after the pneumatomachoi (pneumato = spirit, machoi = those who fight, against the Holy Spirit). These interesting chaps accepted the deity of the Father and of the Son but then decided to draw the line with the Holy Spirit, denying he is also God (so you can call them binitarian heretics too). Gregory showed that the language of Scripture though not equal in quantity is equal in quality—ways and titles, for example—that makes it impossible to deny the deity of the Spirit.

The second thing I observed is more philosophical. There’s a question that arises as to whether acknowledging three persons does not really lead to tritheism. After all, you, me and someone else, all of us being humans, are one human kind in three persons. How do we know that the divine is not just genetic, a classification of a kind of being, not just one being? Gregory of Nyssa goes to some pains to demonstrate that even though we cannot know God’s unknowable nature, we can know that when God acts, he only does one thing. Even when the activity has different stages—the Father ordains, the Son accomplishes, the Spirit applies—it is one activity that is carried out—redemption. He does one thing, because there is only one who is responsible for it, only one agency, and therefore not three, but one God. Apparently the notion is problematic to some theologians, but since I’m not a theologian, I think it is ingenious.

You know what else happens? Nyssa and Naziansen both offer etymologies for the Greek word for God, and they are entirely different. Nyssa says the word for God comes from the word for beholding. Naziansen, if I remember rightly, says it comes from a word for fire.

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I’m done reading Augustine on the Trinity. What has that done for me? After years of not reciting the filioque clause I can start again (though I don’t believe Scripture requires that we recite creeds in Church—those God has placed over me do). Augustine both demonstrates and believed it, even using the language of procession (which I’m going to look up in Latin at school on Tuesday). Augustine says this: the Spirit is not only called the Spirit of the Father, he is also called the Spirit of the Son. Why? Because they have the Spirit in common. That they have him in common argues for communion. He is that communion, as Lewis also explains. Augustine goes on from there to say that as the Son is God’s Word uniquely, the Spirit is God’s Love uniquely, and to elaborate that which if you are not familiar with already, I will not burden you with further. But I do think he makes the case for the Spirit being in some way common to both the Father and the Son quite beside the common essence. I’m sold.

Augustine spends a lot of the book, having established the doctrine of the Trinity, trying to find it in man, since man is in God’s image. I am left wondering if it necessarily follows that the image of God in man must be Trinitarian. I think the reasoning is that it is the greatest thing about God that we know, in terms of being awesome and incomprehensible.

I still think he’s following a red herring the way many theologians do. The point of the image is that the human being is the image, whatever else you may or may not be able to say about it. I think the point is not to give us something to puzzle out, but to reassure us. God, who is wholly other, who is Creator and therefore in no way creature, with whom because of this we have no real point of contact, is still one we can know in relationship. This is simply because we are like him since we are made in his image and likeness. When we grow so philosophically sophisticated that we say with Pseudo-Dionysius that God is not even being, that nothing can be predicated of him because he is, in fact, nothing like anything else in his unknowable essence, then we can still say that we can know him. It doesn’t leave us alone in the cosmos, unable to have contact with him even when we realize that it is absurd for a creature to know its own creator. We are like him because he made us in his image and likeness, and since we are like him, we can know him. And, after the fall, he can become like us to rescue us and restore us to communion.

Nevertheless, Augustine gets a lot of excellent, difficult mileage out of it. It is rich philosophical territory, besides having random things noted that one would not expect the sainted Bishop of Hippo to find occasion to mention. What I think is also going on is that he does what he said in the earlier books about faith in search of understanding. I do not think his speculations about the image of God in man are explanations of what the Trinity must be, but rather attempts to understand what he grasps on trust, to find his way from bare faith toward a greater understanding. It also struck me that that is something we no longer do. Of course, I read Augustine with some care and contemporary writers with considerably less, so I may just be ill-informed.


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