Theology does not begin with “being”

“Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence but we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear. If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith.”

Basil the Great, Letter 236:6

19 Responses to Theology does not begin with “being”

  1. Death Bredon says:

    Indeed, Augustine tells us plainly in his Confessions that he was able to come to Christianity because to identified God with “ipse esse,” being itself. (I want to say he did this in Chapter VII).

    Then, Acquinas cemmented Augustine’s exenstential theology with his complentary twist in which he identifies God with “actus rea,” act itself, which is simply a clarification for Acquinas having no real difference in meaning from Augustine’s forumal.

    Plainly, then, the Germanic Sectariant Church [a/k/a Roman Catholic Church (sic)] conflates the God of empirical Revelation with the ideal of being or existence — at least in its official dogmatic formularies. Hence, traditional western Christianity constitutes a syncretism between Christian Revelation and Classical Rationalism.

    Thus, at the very beggining Basil nailed Augustine’s fundamental error, which was subsequently dogmatized by Germanic/Cluniac Christianity.

    Xp

  2. Elliot B says:

    Oops, I was hosting a friend here all last week, forgot to say thanks for the clarifications.

    As an aside, has either of you read Westphal, Luc Marion, Stein, et al on the idea of “God beyond being”? Would you call this a Byzantine appropriation or something else?

    Cheers,

  3. dts says:

    ok…

    So this discussion is a bit out of my league, I must admit (or perhaps I am just out of practice). Is this idea of not beginning with a general ontology why Robert Jenson and other Barthians are so into the Cappadocians?

    Forgive me if that is an ignorant question. I am still learning. I don’t even know if Basil is considered one of the Cappadocians…I kind of just assumed he was but I always hear that term thrown around and don’t know who they are.

    I am willing to be educated.

  4. Photios Jones says:

    Jason Loh,

    For Orthodox, grace just is God’s life which is uncreated. “created” grace is foreign to Orthodox thinking.

    On uncreated grace try these:

    http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.02.en.the_cure_of_the_neurobiological_sickness_of_rel.01.htm

    http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.03.en.franks_romans_feudalism_and_doctrine.01.htm

    http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.15.en.notes_on_the_palamite_controversy.01.htm

    Photios

  5. Jason,

    Re: Hypostases. I don’t take being or activity to be an abstraction but rather concrete. They are things persons do and I don’t know what could be more concrete than that. I always took Calvin to continue the Latin tradition of glossing persons as relations. This is why he denies that the Father alone is autotheos because the Son is just as much a relation of the essence to itself as the Father is. I don’t know how Calvin can deny the Father as the personal source of the Son without glossing persons as relations. As I have gone back over time and re-read some of Calvin’s material, I am struck by how superficial and textbook his treatment is of the Trinity and Christology.

  6. Jason Loh says:

    Perry,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Another issue which I have been reflecting on concerns the issue of “uncreated grace”.

    Is there such a notion in Eastern Orthodox thinking?

    Thanks again.

  7. Jason,

    Re: Merit. You are quite right to note that a person of themselves apart from grace can merit nothing on our schema. Hence the Orthodox view precludes Pelagianism. This is why none of the “techniques” of the hesychasts could guarantee a vision of the divine light. This does not preclude a person’s action being meritorious when they work with God in the divine activities. The act pleases God and because of the human person’s participation the human person is morally praiseworthy.
    Since the imago dei, qua 2nd potentiality is never lost even the wicked retain some participation qua nature in it. It is an actual as yet unactualized power. The fact that in some, the logoi of their nature is never personally actualized I take to be the diastemic distance between nature and grace. This retains the distinction between nature and grace without failing into a number of mistakes. First it precludes the idea that grace comes in from the outside or is extrinsic. Second, it secures the idea that even nature is a grace since the logoi or energia of humanity is a divine procession.
    As to the Presbyterians, I agree that they are pre-lapsarian Pelagians and that this is born out in the notion of the Covenant of Works. It is a well attested but often ignored fact that the Reformed by and large identify nature and grace prior to the Fall.

  8. Photios Jones says:

    Consciousness is something that the Three Persons have in common. It doesn’t characterize the Persons for this very reasons. Is it unique to one person or can you say it about more than one?

    What can only be said about one hypostasis is said of only that one and is the irrepeatable, irreducible, absolutely unique characteristic; what is said about all three is what is in common. It’s a very very simple rule, but not understood by the Second Europe because they want to start with what is in common (Being and Essence) and then dialectically analyze It by relations of opposition to differentiate. Basil’s Letter 38 should be read over and over.

    Photios

  9. John,
    I don’t think it is right to say that the three persons are three centers of consciousness and here is why. Consciousness isn’t personhood. Christ has two intellects or consciousnessess but he is one person. Therefore to be consistent, the three persons of the Trinity can’t be qua persons three centers of consciousness.
    The idea of consciousness as personhood derives from Plotinus and other middle and late Platonists and works its way up through the Latin medievals in various forms up to the modern period via Locke. So i fyou want a grasp on how most moderns frame personhod, take a look at Locke and then Hume & Kant. This doesn’t meant that those thinkers are the only way moderns think of it, but they are fundamental for understanding the modern gloss.
    Here are some other reasons for thinking that the divine persons are not three centers of consciousness. If the persons are unrepeatable and can’t be duplicated, then how can there be three of the same things? That is if personhood is irreducible then persons resist any theoretical analysis, which is why psychology will always be the science of hasty generalization.
    Also, Orthodoxy doesn’t pour into a theological grid conceptual content from philosophy. This is why we don’t know what say INgeneracy is or what only begotten is or what spiration is, but we do know that there are three persons. So trying to gloss the divine persons are centers of consciousness seems to me like trying to pour into theology conceptual content from philosophy.
    Moreover, since this is true of divine persons, it is also true of human persons as I hinted at above. Human persons are not reducible to some *thing* which is why they have free will.
    I hope that helps.

  10. Cyril Jenkins says:

    What’s up?

  11. John Ramsey says:

    I have been silently following your site and posts for some time and this topic has some relevance to the following email sent to our diocese today and I am interested what your thoughts are about it:

    ‘I am writing a book about the Trinity and am researching the Orthodox viewpoint. Could you please tell me if the Orthodox Church regards the three persons as three centres of consciousness or the Divine essence as a centre of consciousness? I read the following quote from an Orthodox person and wondered if it was true:

    “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, share the same…being…with three persons or centres of consciousness…always acting in concord and unison as one being.”

    [from (http://www.paulosmargregorios.info/English%20Articles/what_do_the_orthodox_believe.htm)%5D

    So my questions are:
    1) Are the Divine persons centres of consciousness (realities which are conscious of one another).
    2) Is the Divine essence a centre of consciousness (a reality which is conscious)? ‘

    Thanks for your opinions on the matter.

  12. William says:

    Any books you would recommend I read on Triadology and Christology speicifically?

  13. Photios Jones says:

    Elliot,

    The issue here isn’t so much what Basil means by being, but the ordo theologiae: The categorical order in which we first consider. The Cappadocians consider first Person and are unconcerned with programs of natural theology. The reason for the heretics errors is first considering Being.

    Photios

  14. Jason Loh says:

    Perry,

    You are right: Nature is attached to the Person because as you say, the Hypostatic Union is personal — *not* natural. So, my expression concerning “adherence” and nature would need to be refined avoid the extremes of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.

    Having said this, I agree with you that “merit” is an “anomaly”. HOW CAN A DIVINE PRESENCE (AS CONSTITUTING THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DIVINE-HUMAN RELATIONSHIP) BE MERITED IN THE FIRST PLACE? If Divine Energies is by Revelation, and Revelation comes by grace as it is in rerum natura (by its very nature), then, the recipient of Divine Energies can only be granted access by grace. This entail that either, his participation in the Logos was never lost (so that he retains his image and potentiality to fulfil his destiny), or a “diasthema” between nature and grace.

    The Presbyterian doctrine of the “Covenant of Works” is essentially Pelagian, for its glosses over the reciprocal nature of the divine-human relationship, at least from the pre-lapsarian perspective.

    I also agree with you that, “Persons” are “metaphysically thicker” than “Essence” (i.e. having more depth of reality). This can only be the case as Being apart from Personhood sounds like an abstraction to me. I would still hang on to my western catholic tradition, but like Calvin, recoil from the notion that “relations = persons”. Relations EXPRESS Persons *but* do not CONSTITUTE Them. Unfortunately, the above theological maxim, by virtue of Papal Infallibility, has become “dogmatised” within Roman ecclesiology.

    Lastly, I have learnt a lot from your website, although I do not agree with the Palamite tradition, siding with Thomism (as per Hagia Sapentia) most of the other time. So, I’m wondering why “Energies of the Trinity” is not updated every so often unlike the other blogs like Pontificator’s?

  15. Elliot,

    being or existence is not a reified category, but existence had better be reified in some sense, lest to exist means nothing.

    Second, it seems hard to reconcile both Basil and the citation from John with the idea that God is self subsisting existence, or existence in the most unqualified way. What would that be other than existence in general? Are universals qualified in any way? If so, how would they then be universals? Is the universal of existence existence of a certain sort? It doesn’t seem so.

    I understand the Scholastic reading of it, namely that Basil is talking about the being of creatures, not divine being. But the fact that he is talking about existence in general signals that he is not talking about the collective being of creatures but of being in an unqualified way.

    I don’t know how God can be said to be a different level of being, when John says he is hyper ousia, wrongly translated as super-essential, but meaning beyond being.

    A more effective line agains Sabellianism is simply to deny that God is being in any sense. Consequently there is no proper description of the divine ousia, even analogically for it is not being. You can only gloss an analogy if there is something common to both, but there isn’t.

  16. Elliot B says:

    [Oops, re-post…]

    Hi, guys,

    I wonder if you could unpack this quote (above) a bit. The term “existence in general” seems ambiguous. It seems you take St. Basil to mean existence as a “category” is no good (least of all as a foundation) for understanding God. Thus you seem to focus on the word “existence” as a reified category/substance. I however focus on “in general”, and take this to mean “mere existence” as known generally by existents (mortals) is not a proper description of God’s ousia. As St. John Damascene says,

    “We believe in one God: one principle, …uncreated, …unlimited, … unbounded, … simple, uncompounded…; power which no measure can give any idea of but which is measured only by His own will…; contained by nothing, but Himself containing all things, being their Conserver and first Possessor…, removed far beyond all things and every substance as being supersubstantial and surpassing all, super-eminently divine…; above essence and life and speech and concept; light itself… and being insofar as having neither being nor anything else that is derived from any other; the very source of being for all things that re…; one substance, one godhead, one virtue, one will, one operation, one principality, one power, one domination…” (Orth. Faith 1.8).

    I quote all that by way of saying it seems uncontroversial and not particularly Orthodox to claim God can’t be described in terms of general existence, as He belongs to an entirely different “level” of being, so much so that being as we know it is but an apophatic reflection of the divine life. Clearly, God does not partake of being, or stem from being; quite the reverse. And what is that “super-existence”? The common divine essence, not “mere existence.” The divine godhead *is* in so unique a manner that anything is only by analogy. St. Basil is, after all, addressing Sabellianism in this section of the letter. As such he is trying to deny the three (Sabellian) hypostases partake of *general* (sub-divine) existence. Instead, they share a common “superexistential,” “suprasubstantial” divinity. I quote from immediately following your quote (above):

    “We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, ‘I believe in God the Father.’ The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; … so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say ‘in God the Holy Ghost.’ Hence it results that there is a satisfactory preservation of the unity by the confession of the one Godhead, while in the distinction of the individual properties regarded in each there is the confession of the peculiar properties of the Persons. On the other hand those who identify essence or substance and hypostasis are compelled to confess only three Persons, and, in their hesitation to speak of three hypostases, are convicted of failure to avoid the error of Sabellius….”

    Your many quotes here are helpful, but I feel they could often use just a little more explication so we (or I, at least) better know where you’re coming from with them.

    So: Why should I take this passage from St. Basil to be a unilateral denial of (divine) “being”, and not a mere rejection of God as one among many existents on the plane of “existence in general”?

    Many thanks, God bless!

  17. Elliot B says:

    Hi, guys,

    I wonder if you could unpack this quote (above) a bit. The term “existence in general” seems ambiguous. It seems you take St. Basil to mean existence as a “category” is no good (least of all as a foundation) for understanding God. Thus you seem to focus on the word “existence” as a reified category/substance. I however focus on “in general”, and take this to mean “mere existence” as known generally by existents (mortals) is not a proper description of God’s ousia. As St. John Damascene says,

    >>>>>>>>>>”We believe in one God: one principle, …uncreated, …unlimited, … unbounded, … simple, uncompounded…; power which no measure can give any idea of but which is measured only by His own will…; contained by nothing, but Himself containing all things, being their Conserver and first Possessor…, removed far beyond all things and every substance as being supersubstantial and surpassing all, super-eminently divine…; above essence and life and speech and concept; light itself… and being insofar as having neither being nor anything else that is derived from any other; the very source of being for all things that re…; one substance, one godhead, one virtue, one will, one operation, one principality, one power, one domination…” (Orth. Faith 1.8). >>>>>>>>>>>>”We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say, ‘I believe in God the Father.’ The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; … so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say ‘in God the Holy Ghost.’ Hence it results that there is a satisfactory preservation of the unity by the confession of the one Godhead, while in the distinction of the individual properties regarded in each there is the confession of the peculiar properties of the Persons. On the other hand those who identify essence or substance and hypostasis are compelled to confess only three Persons, and, in their hesitation to speak of three hypostases, are convicted of failure to avoid the error of Sabellius….”

  18. Photios Jones says:

    William,

    That is exactly what he is saying. A good chunk of the debate between the Cappadocians and Eunomianism is over the ordo theologiae.

    Photios

  19. William says:

    Photius,

    Today, I read your paper “Synergy in Christ” straight through, it was absolutely terrific. Before it was all flew over my head but now that I’ve gained some more familiarity with some of the basic concepts I was able to understand what you were getting at. Great stuff!

    Photius and Perry,

    Is Basil saying that our thoughts about the Godhead must begin with the distinct Persons of the Trinity and not the essence as defined by some non-Christian cosmology within which the Trinity must be grafted onto?

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