A Puritan Phaedrus

Peter_Sterry

There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)

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De Justificatione ex Sola Fide: Luther’s Rescue of Theology from Philosophy

It is true that Martin Luther had more than his share to say in denunciation of Pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle.  However, one should always seek to discover the context surrounding a particular theologian before defining that person’s “system of thought” or “theological meta-narrative.”  Theology done in this manner is minimalistic – the idea that if I know what X thought about Y then I don’t need to read X on Z to know what X thinks about Z. 

Concerning Luther, Heiko Oberman points to his training in Nominalism at Erfurt which may have been the source of his disdain for philosophy.  However, Oberman also notes that Luther critiqued both the via moderna and the via antiqua as neither allowed their philosophy to be guided by the Word of God. Luther reacted to a hyper-dependence on Aristotle, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” 

Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority in the course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil.  Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years. (Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 160)

Although I agree with Oberman’s assessment of Luther’s attitude toward philosophy I do not think that Luther thought of philosophy as completely useless for the church.  I believe that he considered it one of his main tasks to rescue the church from what he considered the infiltration and imposition of philosophy upon theology. He still thought in “Greek” terms of form and matter, substance, accident, etc. and he even agreed with Aristotle at points using him to correct his opponents.  

Evangelicals and Reformed folks point to Luther not only for their understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone but for their own identity.  The battle cry of many conservative Reformed folks is “justification by faith alone is the Gospel.” This (I would say minimalist) articulation of the Gospel is exclusive.  If works of any sort intrude into the systematic formula the Gospel has been compromised. If the ordo salutis is tampered with the integrity of that salutus is put in jeopardy. As Reformed Christians many use the doctrine of justification to exclude anyone who is not Reformed from the faith in order to secure his/her own identity as one of the elect.    

Where the doctrine of justificatione ex sola fide for Evangelicals and for the Reformed tends to be the answer to the question “why am I not Catholic?” for Luther it provided the answer to a much more important question: “what ever happened to the supernatural nature of salvation?”  For Luther the Roman Catholic version of Justification was a secularization of the Sacra Doctrina of Jesus and St. Paul. If works make a man righteous before God then the line between the sacred and the secular has become transparent.  Luther writes in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians

The sophists, as well as anyone else who does not grasp the doctrine of justification, do not know of any other righteousness than civil righteousness or the righteousness of the Law, which are known in some measure even to the heathen.  Therefore they snatch the words “do,” “work,” and the like, from moral philosophy and from the Law, and transfer them to theology, where they act in a way that is not only evil but ungodly.  Philosophy and theology must be carefully distinguished. Philosophy also speaks of a good will and of right reason, and the sophists are forced to admit that a work is not morally good unless a good will is present first. And yet they are such stupid asses when they proceed to theology.  They want to prescribe a work before the good will, although in philosophy it is necessary for the person to be justified morally before the work. Thus the tree is prior to the fruit, both in essence and in nature. They themselves admit this and teach that in nature being precedes working and that in ethics a good will is required before the work.  Only in theology do they reverse this and put a work ahead of right reason. (Jeroslav Pelikan, ed. p. 296)

Thus Luther sees the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification as a confusion between the roles of philosophy and theology and even a misinterpretation of philosophy.  By using the terms “do”, and “work” in their philosophical sense to explain justification the secular realm has encroached upon the sacred to the detriment of the supernatural.  He continues, demonstrating the role works do play in theology:

Therefore “doing” is one thing in nature, another in philosophy, and another in theology.  In nature the tree must be first, and then the fruit.  In moral philosophy doing means a good will and right reason to do well; this is where the philosophers come to a halt.  Therefore we say in theology that moral philosophy does not have God as its object and final cause, since Aristotle or a Sadducee or a man who is good in a civic sense calls it right reason and good will if he seeks the common welfare of the state and tranquillity and honest.  A philosopher or a lawyer does not ascend any higher.  He does not suppose that through right reason he will obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life, as the sophist or the monk does.  Therefore a heathen philosopher is much better than such a self-righteous person, because he remains within his limits, having in mind only honesty and tranquillity, and not mixing divine things with human. The sophist does not act this way.  He supposes that God pays attention to his good intention and his works.  Therefore he mixes human things with the divine and pollutes the name of God; these things he obviously draws from moral philosophy, except that he abuses this worse than a heathen does […] This is how you must answer all the passages of Scripture about works, in which our opponents stress the words “working” and “doing”:  These are theological terms, not natural or moral ones.  If they are natural or moral, they are taken according to their usage.  But if they are theological, they include right reason and a good will, which is incomprehensible to human reason, blinded as it is at this point; and another reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith.  Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing.  When we theologians speak about “doing,” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have no right reason and good will except faith. (Ibid., pp. 262, 263)

Because these “sophists” have blurred the line between civil “doing” and theological “doing” Luther reiterates this distinction between “doing” and “doing with faith.” The former is civil and is worthless before God whereas the second is a gift of the Holy Spirit and brings justification. Cain performed a good work that was moral but Abel performed a good work with faith.  What Luther is here arguing is a classic Medieval doctrine. Just as the unaided reason of man cannot attain the Beatific Vision the cardinal virtues without the addition of the theological virtues cannot reach justification.  Although the Roman Catholic church of his day also held to this distinction what Luther is implying is that the “sophist” position adds “doing” to the theological virtues and therefore negates the necessity of even having a category for the supernatural.  

I am inculcating these things so diligently in order to set forth the doctrine of faith clearly, so that you may be able to reply correctly and easily to the objections of our opponents, who confuse philosophy and theology and make theological works into moral works.  A theological work is a work done in faith; thus a theological man is a man of faith.  In like manner, a right reason and a good will are a reason and will in faith.  Thus faith is universally the divinity in the work, the person, and the members of the body, as the one and only cause of justification; afterwards this is attributed to the matter on account of the form, to the work on account of the faith. (Ibid., pp. 266, 267) 

Only with the divine gift of faith can man be justified.  Here, Luther is attempting to rescue the supernatural. A good analogy for how this works, he says, is given to us in the Person of Christ:

The kingly authority of the divinity is given to Christ the man, not because of His humanity but because of His divinity.  For the divinity alone created all things, without the cooperation of the humanity.  Nor did the humanity conquer sin and death; but the hook that was concealed under the worm, at which the devil struck, conquered and devoured the devil, who was attempting to devour the worm.  Therefore the humanity would not have accomplished anything by itself; but the divinity, joined with the humanity, did it alone, and the humanity did it on account of the divinity.  So here faith alone justifies and does everything; nevertheless, it is attributed to works on account of faith. (Ibid)

Just as Christ the man did not accomplish anything by himself but conquered death on account of the divinity so sinners are justified before God not based on civil righteousness but on account of the divine gift of faith, which (as Mannerma tells us) for Luther is the presence of Christ within the believer.  Thus one can see a bit more of the context of Martin Luther’s thought on Justification.  He was not seeking to do away with philosophy altogether but he was seeking to put it in its proper place. Philosophy as long as it remains the ancillae theologiae is welcomed by the theologian. However, when moral philosophy encroaches upon theology and the faculties of man are given more power than which they are naturally endowed philosophy must be shown its place as subordinate to theology and the doctrines of the pholosophi must be refuted.  For Luther as soon as “doing” is added to justification one has replaced theology with philosophy and therefore justification coram Deo with justification coram humano.

Christ the Medium

Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his book Metaphysics and the Idea of God, concludes that Jesus is the solution to the over-abstraction of the concept of God by modern philosophy.  Jesus is concrete.  He is real and actually existed in history as the Principium of all creation.  Pannenberg did not say anything new by employing this argument for the reality of Truth in Christ.  St. Bonaventure said the same thing in the 13th century. According to him the Idea of God is the Word who is Jesus.  For the Father to know himself is for him to know the Word and the Spirit.  Because the Ideas of all things find their unity in the Word for God to know his creation is to know his essence as it exists in the mirrored form in creatures.

When the Word took on flesh he fulfilled the role of medium between creation and God.  He is the ultimate convergence between phusis and Theos.  Men therefore can have knowledge through the illumination brought through the image of the Word inherent in him. But of course true knowledge comes through faith and the indwelling of the Word Jesus Christ in the believing person. The hypostatic working of Christ’s human mind with the divine is the Exemplar of the mind of the redeemed man. The church has the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Pannenberg uses a form of Medieval Exemplarism following in the reappropriation of neo-Platonism by St. Augustine and its continuation by Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al against the radical Hegelian and Heideggerian fissure between theology and philosophy.

The Emergence of the Principle Corresponds to the Emergence of Creatures

When Thomas Aquinas wrote his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences he placed God at the center and everything else in relation to Him, emanating out in creation and returning in final glorification.  Jean-Pierre Torrell explains the organizing ratio of this plan:

If we do not remember the biblical affirmation of God as the Alpha and Omega of all that is visible and invisible, this plan may seem only a rather flat assertion.  We do not perceive all its depth until we grasp the organizing ratio that gives it its intelligibility. Thomas sees the ratio in the fact that the creation – the emergence of creatures from God, the principle – finds its explanation in the fact that even in God there is an “emergence of the Principle,” which is the procession of the Word from the Father. The divine efficacy that works in the creation is thus related to the generation of the Word, just as the formal cause of the grace that will permit creatures to return to God is linked to the spiration of the Holy Spirit.  More precisely and fully, we might therefore say that the divine missions ad extra are explained according to the order of the processions of the divine persons ad intra. (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1:  The Person and His Work, p. 43)    

This view of the Word as the Principium of all creation effects one’s understanding of grace.  Since all created things owe their being and sustenance to the Word it cannot be denied that there is an inherently gracious element in creation.  Also, viewing Thomas’s conception of the relationship between the works of the Trinity ad extra and the works of the Trinity ad intra one can have a broader appreciation for Karl Rahner’s contribution to this most important of issues – while maintaining a critical eye.  God’s creating (and recreating) work is the climax of the relationship of signus to res. “And he was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.” (Matt. 17:2)

If Christ Is the One Idea…

This does not mean that all esse commune (created being) is redeemed by virtue of the incarnation or his one act on the cross. Of course there is an eschatological element in which all of creation has the promise of redemption now through Christ’s realization of that promise.  However, those who espouse a universalist atonement based on folks like Aquinas attributing Platonic principles to Christ’s being are incorrect.  I agree that the Logos ensarkos (i.e. Jesus) is the One through whom all things were made and are recreated.  Through his incarnation the Son united himself, not only with humanity, but with created being, esse commune. Although, just as Christ’s two natures are united via the Holy Spirit, esse commune is only recreated by this One whom St. Augustine defined as that Bond of Love between the Father and the Son – the Paraklete. In other words, there is no redemption without Pentecost just as there is no Atonement without Golgatha.     

Aquinas: The Son Is the One Idea

Commenting on Colossians 1:16 Thomas says:

He [Paul] says that the Son is the first-born of every creature because he is generated or begotten as the principle of every creature. And so he says, for in him all things were created.  

With respect to this, we should note that the Platonists affirmed the existence of Ideas, and said that each thing came to be by participating in an Idea, like the Idea of man, or an Idea of some other kind. Instead of all these we have one, that is, the Son, the Word of God. For an artisan makes an artifact by making it participate in the form he has conceived within himself, enveloping it, so to say, with external matter; for we say that the artisan makes a house through the form of the thing which he has conceived within himself. This is the way God is said to make all things in his wisdom, because the wisdom of God is related to his created works just as the art of the builder is to the house he has made. Now this form and wisdom is the Word; and thus in him all things were created, as in an exemplar: “He spoke and they were made” (Gen 1), because he created all things to come into existence in his eternal Word. 

The Errors of Aulen’s Christus Victor Model

*The following is the conclusion to a review I did of Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor. Therefore it is lacking a bit in context, but still important for anyone who is privy to the issues.*

Because Jesus was God and man one cannot argue that the Atonement involved a total God-to-man movement or a total man-to-God movement; one must affirm that it was both.  Through the Incarnation God moved to man and through the Atonement the God-man moved back to God.  Gustaf Aulen’s dichotomy between what he terms the classic view and the Latin view of the Atonement is unwarranted.  Anselm, for sure, reinterpreted the ransom theory but still saw Christ’s sacrifice as a victory over the devil.  Luther was liberated by the story of Christ overcoming the Law and death, but he also understood Christ’s sacrifice to include punishment for man’s transgressing of the Law.  Because Aulen sets up the classic view as a model in opposition to the other historical understandings of the Atonement he falls into the error of generalization, thus creating false dichotomies between historical figures and their words.  This also leads him to an overall neglect of the humanity of Christ, thus presenting a rather Docetic picture of the Atonement. Continue reading “The Errors of Aulen’s Christus Victor Model”