What Rattles Around after Reading Secondary Literature

“Whereas in Thomas’ metaphysical ontology the natural and supernatural realms are organically joined by the Being of God in whom we participate by reason and faith, the metahistorical alternative retraces nature and supernature, creation and redemption, to the Person of God, and points to God’s will as – to use air traffic terminology – the ‘ceiling’ of theology. His eternal decree of self-commitment has established the limits of theology which to surpass is to trespass, yielding sheer speculation.”

Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation, 6-7

Aristotelian definitions yield a great deal, and they are therefore prized. One may question whether in this case too much is yielded. The alternative, however, is radically to limit what can be said. My sense is that a third, a Platonic alternative, more concerned with gestures, with identifying symbols in their place, is harder to understand and to use but may yield both language and possibility. I am not, however, a theologian.

I am also struck with the contrast that Oberman’s own emphasis makes between being and person. Does that use of the word person not sound an awful lot like Van Til? I hate to introduce that name to a discussion of anything, but I only do it in hopes of finding munitions.

“The warning against vana curiositas and academic speculation gave weight and new authority to experiential – the experience of man and nature, of history and society, of daily life – which would soon put the validity of the tradition to the test.”

Ibid., 16

Oberman is more interested in the development of the scientific method (38) than he is in the late 16th century puritan (and beyond) development that leads to experimental Calvinism. Still, his answer will serve for a beginning answer to the question, how is it that practical rather than speculative theology is often and still preferred? It seems that the answer has to do with what we conceive reality to be.

Politics and polity were also affected.

“Nominalism did call traditional truths and answers into question in order to replace them with a new vision of the relationship between the sacred and the secular by presenting coordination as an alternative to subordination and partnership of persons instead of the hierarchy of being.”

Ibid., 29

In theology, a new distaste was introduced.

“In other words, the transcendence of God is what really concerned the nominalist here. The distinction – and this we have not seen before – works itself out in two different ways: in theology and physics, which includes, of course, astronomy. In theology . . . the irrelevance and irreverence of speculative theology and man’s absolute dependence on God’s own revelation.”

Ibid., 193-4

So that, “In both theology and physics the distinction between possibility and reality helped to free man from the smothering embrace of metaphysics.”


The “smothering embrace of metaphysics” is all the vast realm of possibility. Once it has been eliminated, a reduced reality can be explored. Highly unsatisfactory, I think.

Oberman also makes a comparison between theology and physics, and you can see it clearly in the realm of astronomy. Without speculation, you get rigorous observation: practical, sensible, useful astronomy. With speculation, on the other hand, you get astrology. That he should insinuate a parallel between theology and physics is unfortunate, though I am sure it is intentional. Obviously Oberman, great historian though he is, finds both the comparison and the distinction useful. And the distinction is useful, when we can usefully distinguish possibility and this limited notion of reality as that which we perceive, we get applied science. We get, as I am not tired of observing, a whole set of goods of lesser value. But do we not also lose a whole set of goods of a higher value? We get a theology that is anti-speculative, and on the move. Could we expect that it will be metaphysically ill-informed?

* * *

I proceed now more specifically to Calvin. Why did Calvin, Steinmetz asks, reject the medieval distinction between absolute and ordained power of God? There, if anywhere, was some kind of remaining metaphysical distinction!

“Calvin rejects the distinction in part because he fears that it encourages the natural human tendency to speculate about the being and nature of God apart from revelation.”

Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 48

So far, so continuous.

“Calvin is unwilling to entertain even a hypothetical separation of God’s power from his justice. Of course, Scotus and Ockham do not seriously intent to separate God’s power from God’s justice, except as an experiment in thought. But Calvin refuses to do even that. God’s power and justice are so tightly bound together that they cannot be separated. What the scholastics regard as a useful experiment in thought, Calvin regards as shocking blasphemy.”

Ibid., 49

Have we come a step further, or is this a step back? Is this Calvin making an intellectualist point? Can it be he is giving them some of their own medicine?

“Calvin reads the distinction between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata, not as a distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, but as a distinction between potentia ordinata and inordinata, between ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered’ power. What the scholastics call the absolute power of God is a disordered power because it disjoins God’s power from his justice. In that sense all power of God, realized and unrealized, actual and potential, is potentia ordinata, power ordered by God’s justice.”

Ibid., 49

It is always useful to note that Calvin never received formal theological training. One of the things Steinmetz demonstrates is that Calvin was aware of the theological conversations of his day, but his approach may not have been guided. This, of course, does not mean his thinking is to be despised. It must be understood, and he must be sorted out. We do see, however, that he appropriates late medieval developments in his own way. It turns out it is his own zeal for order that accounts for his rejection of that distinction.

For Calvin “Reformation is the re-ordering of the lives of the faithful. Confusion and dispersal is the undermining of the God-intended order by Satan and his evil instruments.”

Oberman, 237

One can only wish Calvin had been more interested in metaphysical order. Clearly, he is not behaving as a voluntarist at this point, though he seems to be operating on unacknowledged nominalist assumptions. It is as if the framework of nominalism cannot be questioned, though the conclusions it requires can. I am no theologian. I do think, however, that inferior theology is what results.






Things I Came Away with

I came away with all four volumes of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, which is considerable to come away with from anything for free. It was thanks to my brother, who exploited the fact that at Ebenezer RC, where he is the minister, a spare set was on hand. I am eternally in his debt.

I came away with another mountain experience. We went up to see the sequoias. Those massive and fibrous trees like to grow up high to begin with. Up there the pines have elaborate an bright green growths of lichen to windward. It was cool, it was fragrant with cedars and pines, the trees were preponderant, the mountains waited, all was well. It is giant country up there, and the only regret is coming away from it at all.

From the plane I watched the sun-touched tips of the mountains, then the mesas far below. I saw the wrinkled land, and the curving ridges. Colorado had a lot of high country under snow. I saw the straight lines of L.A., the close-set houses, the massive freeways and the sea. I do not understand why people close their windows on a plane. Had a guy try to close mine, stared at him, responded that I did mind when he asked and got an apology from him. I peer out of the plane constantly. I want to see.

I came away with the curious fact that the ARBCA RBs are all literal 6 day creationists. I also, come to think of it, came away with the same fact about the RCUS. I personally do not get what it matters. It is not something people get worked up about in the OPC. I can believe God made the world in six seconds, six minutes, six days, or something else if it proves a good and necessary interpretation. I don’t know why exactly it matters to people. I shall have to inquire and find out.

I interpret those portions of Genesis literally because it obviously is setting up a pattern for the week, and a natural law basis for the one-in-seven day of rest. Something I came away with was a distinction I was not formerly aware of: the distinction between natural and positive law. So the command to observe one day in seven can be derived from natural law: always universally applicable. But the day on which it is actually done is a matter of positive law. This distinction, apparently, was really useful to particular Baptists when debating Presbyterians about Scripture’s commands regarding baptism. Something to investigate.

I was in a house in La Mirada that made me think of the long paperback days of youth. In that distant epoch I read fantasy and science fiction, a good portion of which was written by Californians. Maybe it was the fact that the house was filled with old things, many of them books. There was a record player and a boom box, a 13 inch TV and almost nothing defiling the place that was recent. I think it was also the eucalyptus, the cypress, the slant of the sunlight, the mountains in the blue distance, the endless skies. California is a lot like Mexico City at that point, somehow. Has a rainy season, has predictable weather, is mild and mildly tropical, and you can get tacos on every corner.

I came away with a sense again of the remoteness and otherness of California. It is big, it is wide, it has huge natural features, it is sprawled, it has endless cities and endless orchards and endless deserts and unending mountains, it is western and it is magical. Of course, every place has its charms, as long as you don’t look for the charms of other places there. I was still glad to come away and get back to Philadelphia in the woods, of limited horizons and tangled roads, of my Ford Focus and not some egregious SUV, of long lawns and narrow streets instead of wide streets and short lawns.

Travel Food

Philadelphia airport at 4:30AM last Thursday had twenty people in line waiting for McDonald’s to open. There were places open without lines. And yet there are airports in which there is no McDonald’s. I was in SFO, a pretty upscale airport from the look of it. All kinds of effete, organic, exotic and unappealing places and only one recognizable fast food place: Burger King. Who had the line? Which place had poles and ropes to manage the line? Not the fad-food places. Nor was there a Starbucks in the whole stuck-up place.

You know what I noticed about California? It is no wonder they seem to be the place from which all this organic, crazy, diet-food comes from. They have more hamburger joints than any other place on the planet. All the hamburger fast-food chains are there, and they have as many little and local as well. It is a fast-food paradise. They do hamburgers like we do pizza and cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. No wonder they start getting concerned about their diet.

They also have good Mexican food out there. I had tacos in rural California, breakfast burritos almost every day, and good and highly authentic street tacos at the SCRBPC. I think tacos are balanced. Tacos are the healthiest most robust, nourishing food you can get. The ones I had with cabbage down below the sequoias were the best; and balanced. Good sauce out there too, and they know how to heat up the tortillas.

By Grace Alone: Three Observations and a Hymn

The first observation is that I’m grateful for the intelligent use of the blue Trinity Hymnal that is made at Calvary OPC in Glenside. English hymnals have a lot of hymns compared with what is available in Spanish. I think, however, that the whole range is seldom used, and many of the worst get more than their fair use. It seems that at Calvary there is a special talent for using the best the hymnal affords, which is considerable.

The second is that whoever put that hymnal together really had a thing for Arthur Sullivan. Now I love opera and I really get a kick out of having it come up in worship. I do not think it belongs there, but I feel more amusement than indignation when it appears, for whatever reason. I associate Sullivan’s work with opera though I’m not familiar with the G & S repertory. There’s usually something not altogether right about a hymn-tune written by Arthur Sullivan, but Leonminster seems the exception. It retains dignity.

The third is that I will always be grateful for the stress on grace alone I have found in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In Baptist churches there is such a stress on conversion that we often inadvertently suggest that the Gospel is something we once needed and got, that it is something for the unconverted, and that it is therefore not something believers need on an ongoing basis. That is not the case in the OP churches I’ve attended, so much so that they can be puzzled at the concept of an evangelistic sermon. The Gospel is the constant message, the heart of every sermon, and the Christian life is a gospel life, one of daily turning from sin and daily turning toward Christ, in whom must repose the only hope of salvation. Horatius Bonar is not high on my list of religious poets, but what he states in this lyric makes it for me the most OPC hymn ever, and I love that it is clear, that it is swift to its point, and that it lingers on assurance.

Not what my hands have done
Can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne
Can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do
Can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears
Can bear my awful load.

Thy work alone, O Christ,
Can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
Can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God,
Not mine, O Lord to thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest
And set my spirit free.

Thy grace alone, O God,
To me can pardon speak;
Thy pow’r alone, O Son of God,
Can this sore bondage break.
No other work, save thine,
No other blood will do;
No strength, save that which is divine,
Can bear me safely through.

I bless the Christ of God;
I rest on love divine;
And with unfalt’ring lip and heart
I call this Saviour mine.
This cross dispels each doubt;
I bury in his tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear,
Each ling’ring shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace;
I trust his truth and might;
He calls me his, I call him mine,
My God, my joy, my light.
’Tis he who saveth me,
And freely pardon gives;
I love because he loveth me,
I live because he lives.

Permanence and Change

Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa has an account of his sister Macrina’s life. A surprisingly large portion is dedicated to her impassibility in the face of death, which is contrasted with the passibility of Gregory and the mourners. It seems to me the main point of his hagiography: her saintliness was demonstrated in her control of passion. I would not be surprised to find the parallels between Gregory’s account and Plato’s of the death of Socrates numerous.

After the death of their mother, Macrina and her brother Peter “devoted themselves in a still more sublime fashion to philosophy.” It is not how we usually speak of piety, which is what Gregory has in view. He is writing the life to illustrate a Christian ideal, to show how a saintly person to whom he was close lived. One of the things you see is how much a man of late antiquity he is. To them philosophy was not what it most immediately is now to us.

“Self-control was their pleasure, not to be known was their fame, their wealth was in possessing nothing and in shaking off all material surplus, like dust from the body; their work was none of the concerns of this life, except in so far as it was a subordinate task. Their only care was for divine realities.” It might be Porphyry writing about Plotinus. Gregory would not, I think, be put off by that comparison. The only distinction he would want to stress is that unlike Plotinus, Macrina really was dealing with divine reality; that she had the advantage of the truth.

Macrina’s wish was to be buried were her parents lay. So they dig up the grave in order to lay her there. But, thinks Gregory, I remember the story of Noah. I can’t look on the corruption, the shame of my parents. What can he do? He gets inspiration from the same story, and they place a sheet over the decomposing bodies before he can look in to deposit Macrina’s.

Impassibility is the virtue of a saint. Corruption is shame. What is the common factor? Change. Change is a real problem. It reminds me of a quotation from Aquinas in which he is describing the consummation, the state for man of eternal life. It is described a perfection of immobility. A perfection of immobility! Not exactly what springs to mind as the best way to sell people on heaven. Even admirers of Aquinas find it hard to stomach. But I think it at least shows that change does not mean for us what it meant for antiquity or even for the Middle Ages.

I don’t care if you don’t agree with Aquinas—so much the worse for you. What really interests me is understanding what is must have been like for someone to say with all seriousness that what we most long for–the possession of those things which God promises–is a perfection of immobility. There is a mysticism of permanence there, a fascination.

How Gregory of Nyssa can believe as he does in human impassibility intrigues me. Was he naïve? I do not think it can really be said of him. Of course he believed in all sorts of miracles and wonders, but that was late antiquity: Apuleius did, Plotinus did, nobody reputable would have believed otherwise, and they were intellectual giants. We, in turn, live in a world in which change is exalted. Are we any less creatures of our times than Gregory was of late antiquity? We’d like to think not, but the test is in how we behave. We do not speak, do we, as Gregory did. Part of that is that we know better. But part of that, I think, is also that we are missing something they had.

What Augustine Actually Said about the Beatific Vision

Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognize God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual, and shall see Him, not as now we understand the invisible things of God, by the things which are made, and see Him darkly, as in a mirror, and in part, and rather by faith than by bodily vision of material appearances, but by means of the bodies we shall wear and which we shall see wherever we turn our eyes.  As we do not believe, but see that the living men around us who are exercising vital functions are alive, though we cannot see their life without their bodies, but see it most distinctly by means of their bodies, so, wherever we shall look with those spiritual eyes of our future bodies, we shall then, too, by means of bodily substances behold God, though a spirit, ruling all things.  Either, therefore, the eyes shall possess some quality similar to that of the mind, by which they may be able to discern spiritual things, and among these God,—a supposition for which it is difficult or even impossible to find any support in Scripture,—or, which is more easy to comprehend, God will be so known by us, and shall be so much before us, that we shall see Him by the spirit in ourselves, in one another, in Himself, in the new heavens and the new earth, in every created thing which shall then exist; and also by the body we shall see Him in every body which the keen vision of the eye of the spiritual body shall reach.  Our thoughts also shall be visible to all, for then shall be fulfilled the words of the apostle, “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the thoughts of the heart, and then shall every one have praise of God.”

-Augustine, City of God, XXII, 29


Since the heavenly bodies are in constant motion, so far as we can judge, it may seem that if their substance remains, they will keep on moving also in the state of consummation. And, indeed, if motion were possessed by heavenly bodies for the same reason as that for which it is possessed by elements, such an assertion would be logical. Motion is found in heavy or light elements to promote the perfection they are to attain: by their natural motion they tend to the place that suits them, where they are in a better condition. Hence in the ultimate state of consummation each element and each part thereof will be in its own proper place.

But this cannot be maintained of the motion of heavenly bodies, for a heavenly body does not come to rest in any place it may occupy; as it travels naturally to any particular place, it no less naturally departs thence. Therefore heavenly bodies suffer no loss if they are deprived of motion, because motion is not found in them for their own perfection. Also, it would be ridiculous to contend that a heavenly body is moved in circles by its nature as an active principle, in the way that a light body is impelled upward by its nature. For, as is evident, nature tends invariably in the direction of unity; and therefore that which by its very concept opposes unity cannot be the ultimate goal of nature. But motion is opposed to unity, in the sense that what moves varies in its mode of being by the very fact that it is in motion. Therefore nature does not produce motion just for the sake of motion, but in causing motion has in view the terminus to be reached by motion.

For instance, a body that is naturally light seeks an elevated place in its ascent; and so of other bodies. Consequently, since the circular motion of a heavenly body does not tend to a definite position, we cannot say that the active principle of a heavenly body’s circular motion is nature, in the sense that nature is the principle of the motion of heavy and light bodies. Accordingly there is no reason why heavenly bodies should not come to rest, without any change in their nature, even though fire, if its nature is to remain constant, cannot cease from its restlessness as long as it exists outside its proper sphere. Nevertheless we say that the motion of a heavenly body is natural; but it is natural not by reason of an active principle of motion in it, but by reason of the mobile body itself that has an aptitude for such motion. We conclude, therefore, that motion is communicated to a heavenly body by some intellect.

However, since an intellect does not impart movement except in view of some end, we must inquire what is the end of the motion of heavenly bodies. The motion itself cannot be said to be this end. For motion is the way leading to perfection, and so does not verify the concept of end, but rather pertains to that which is tending toward an end. Likewise we cannot maintain that a succession of locations is the term of the movement of a heavenly body, as though a heavenly body moved for the purpose of actually occupying every position for which it has a potency; this would entail endless wandering, and what is endless contradicts the notion of end.

We ought to think of the end of the heaven’s motion somewhat as follows. Any body set in motion by an intellect is evidently an instrument of the latter. But the end of an instrument’s motion is a form conceived by the principal agent, a form that is reduced to act by the motion of the instrument. The form conceived by the divine intellect, to be realized by the motion of the heavens, is the perfection of things. as achieved by way of generation and corruption. But the ultimate end of generation and corruption is the noblest of all forms, the human soul; and the soul’s ultimate end is eternal life, as we said above. Accordingly the ultimate end of the movement of the heavens is the multiplication of men, who are to be brought into being for eternal life.

Such a multitude cannot be infinite; the intention to be realized by any intellect comes to rest in something definite. Consequently, once the number of men who are to be brought into being for eternal life is filled out, and they are actually established in the possession of eternal life, the movement of the heavens will cease, just as the motion of any instrument ceases after a project has been carried through to completion. And when the movement of the heavens ceases, all movement in lower bodies will cease by way of consequence, excepting only the movement that will be in men as flowing from their souls. And thus the entire material universe will have a different arrangement and form, in accordance with the truth proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 7:31: “The shape of this world passes away.”

Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae, 171