Friday, July 18, 2008

The Incarnation

Yesterday I received in the mail and subsequently read Gordon Clark's last published work, left slightly unfinished (two ending paragraphs are supplied by his student John Robbins).

Clark gives partial vindication to Nestorius (though not his followers), while coming down rather firmly on the framers of the Chalcedonian Creed, as well as nearly every single theologian (there are fewer than you might think) to have subsequently discoursed on the relation between Christ's divinity and His humanity. Perhaps only Charles Hodge escapes with a modicum of approval in this area, but only because he attempt to define his terms where everyone else has merely accepted the language without articulating its meaning.

The basic argument of Clark is as follows: granted that Christ possesses both full deity and full humanity. Why then is he not both the Divine person or Logos and the human person called Jesus? If Christ's human nature (a term conflated with substance, which Clark shows to be an undefined and therefore meaningless word) possess an intellect, will, and all the other qualities of humanity, why not also is it a person (a term that Clark does wish to define)?

Amid Clark's frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with those who have come before and have lacked his genius (note that he doesn't claim to be a genius), there is much of great interest and import in his little book of seventy-eight pages.

1. He drops the term substance, preferring to define essence (ousia) as the definition of a thing, as he did in his treatise on the Trinity.

2. He defines person as the complex of propositions which an individual thinks concerning him/herself, which is also seen in his treatise on the Trinity.

3. He spends a few pages refuting the use of the term "infinite," because it is not a Biblical term and it does not accurately define God. He proves that dropping the term in no way denies God's omniscience or his omnipotence.

4. He gives another delightful quote on the doctrine of divine simplicity: "It is an honorable view that all the attributes are identical in God, and sometimes visibly so in history; for when God demolished the walls of Jericho, the single action was both an instance of grace and an instance of wrath. In greater generality, knowledge is power, omnipresence is omniscience, mercy and truth are met together, and righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

5. He admits the difficulty resulting from the two-person view with regard to distinguishing what actions or statements of Christ can be properly accomplished by his divine person or by his human person. Certain actions are easily distinguished: when Jesus says, "I thirst" it must be his human person, for the Logos is impassible and incorporeal and has no thirst. Also, certain statements could only be said truly by the divine Logos, "I and the Father are One." But many other statements and actions (such as miracles) are indistinguishable.

6. One of the more interesting discussions, in my opinion, is the relation of the body to the soul. He does not develop the topic in detail, but he does refer to Augustine, affirming his view that the body is the instrument of the soul, which is the higher being, and therefore the body does not act upon the soul, but the soul upon the body. Thus, the theory of sensation, or indeed any theory of knowledge that lends itself to sensation, is false: the body does not provide information to the soul, but the soul uses information to operate the body. This view is perhaps the most controversial in our day and age, since we tend to give great importance to emotion, the physical world, and are skeptical of immaterial reality.

7. Another interesting and brief discussion concerns the nature of Truth. What is truth? Hegel and Kant made concepts the definition of truth. But how can "cat," "God," or "philbert" provide knowledge as bare terms? Propositions, which are the meanings of declarative sentences, are the definition of truth. "Cat" is neither true nor false, but "The cat is calico" can be evaluated as to truth. "God" is a term that has perhaps been defined in more ways than any other important concept, yet its truth as a concept depends upon the propositions attached to it. An important foundational point, often overlooked by even the brightest of persons, is the proper use of the verb "to be." Considered as a substantive verb, or a verbal noun, "being," the term conveys no meaning, for anything that may be stated or thought can be said to exist or have being: my dream "exists" as a dream; the grubblysnort "exists" as a thought in my mind. Rather, the only meaningful use of "to be" verbs are as a copula, designed for the use of predication, that is, the distinguishing of the various aspects that define a thing: "God is Truth," "The sun is hot."

I am continually amazed at the breadth of Clark's understanding. Moreso than any other person I have read, he demonstrates the ability to comprehend the various disciplines of knowledge into a coherent whole. He demonstrates this in his application of mathematics and physics to the problems of the term "infinite" and the necessity of immaterial existence. But the real marvel is his ability to commit himself to a knowledge grounded in Scripture and to grasp the implications Scripture has upon the whole of knowledge. Many times in this short work he demonstrates the incompatibility of certain conclusions based upon their contradiction of a Scriptural proposition. Whatever else one may disagree with or appreciate in Clark's conclusions, everyone--really, everyone--should seek to imitate his commitment to a Biblically grounded knowledge: not only in word, but in practice; evaluating every conclusion by the light of God's revealed Truth.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Trinity

I have continued to read, despite the lack of evidence by way of reviews posted here. The following is but a brief summary, but I hope a helpful one.

I have been recently reading several Gordon Clark books (The Trinity, The Doctrine of Man, Faith and Saving Faith) and in two of those books he addresses an issue of terminology that he finds to be confusing and unclear.

With regard to the Trinity it is the issue of the use of the terms "ousia" and "hypostasis," which came to represent different meanings in the Western and Eastern Church.

Clark in several places recommends a better term to denote the "essence" (the singular aspect) and "personhood" (the triune aspect) of the Trinity. In his analysis of Augustine he recommends he term "definition" to replace Augustine's "substance" or "essence." Thus, the definition of God is singular, whereas his personhood is triune. He makes the same recommendation in responding to Berkhof, noting that the attributes predicated of God constitute the definition of God--i.e. the attributes are identical in the Being named by the term God. To quote: "If now the attributes are identical in God, and if that unity may be designated by the name sovereignty or omnipotence, and if therefore the terms love, justice, grace, and whatever, are used to designate the various effects God produces in the world, the whole confused discussion of the classification of attributes may be dropped."

What of Personhood then? Taken as attributes of God (or distinctions within the definition) the persons of God (Father, Son, Spirit) are not co-extensive: the attribute of Fatherhood does not extend to the Son or Spirit, nor the attribute of Sonship extend to the Spirit or Father, and so forth. The particular predicates attached to one cannot be attached to the other, yet certain predicates belong to all three (e.g. omnipotence). For defining Personhood, Clark mentions three possible choices regarding individuation and discards two because they are inimical to the other conclusions concerning the Trinity. The one open to him is the Platonic/Leibnitzian theory of individuation, which states in brief that man is a collection of his thoughts concerning himself. So too the Trinity is the collection of God's thoughts concerning Himself, with each person thinking particular thoughts of himself that are not coextensive with the other persons (Clark's example is when Christ thinks "I or my thoughts will assume or have assumed a human nature,"). Because God's thoughts are eternal, the collection of propositions that define His persons are immutable and remain unconfused (however much our thoughts concerning Him languish in confusion).

Thus, Clark's emendations to the doctrine of the Trinity are to remove the term substance and replace it with the term "definition," which is more easily recognized in its immaterial unity; and to define the individual persons according to the qualitative theory of individuation, which considers an individual as the collection of thoughts one predicates of oneself. Thus, God is defined by his attributes, with each of the Persons retaining certain predicates coextensively as well as retaining certain predicates individually that cannot be appended to the other persons.

To those who would reject a theory that "reduced" God or any other person to a system of propositions, the task is open to provide a more coherent and understandable theory to which we may assent.