I’ve been following Jonathan Prejean and Dr. Eric Svendsen silently on their debate over Christology, and I can’t help but notice how much of the conversation sounds like an interaction between an Orthodox and a Barlaamite. Where Svendsen appears to represents a Palamite paradigm that revelation is the sole starting point for answering theological questions, and Jonathan Prejean thinking that we need to get our “philosophy” straight before we understand revelation. Though I think much of Dr. Svendsen’s critique of Roman theology can often be polemical and bitter because he sees as a corrupt institution, he is undoubtedly right about his insistence on the primacy of revelation as this is probably the main point that also divides Orthodoxy from Rome. The ecumenical councils in the East are considered by the Orthodox Church as a long divorce from Gnostic and Hellenistic principles introduced in the East by Origen of Alexandria (as Alexandria ran deep with Middle Platonism and then later Neo-Platonism), as we celebrate in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy an anathema of the philosophers and those that follow their [dialectial] methods to solve theological questions. To make a short story long (pun intended) theology is not a science as Thomas Aquinas thinks, and I have reservations that the Reformed and conservative protestant exegetes are truly divorced from this principle inherited from Carolingian/Medieval Catholicism, as their grammatical-historical method seems to turn theology into a science too, rife with dialectics, divorced from the lived and liturgical experience of the Incarnate Christ. Nonetheless, Svendsen’s approach to the question at hand and insistence that divine revelation be the paradigm is far more acceptable of how an Orthodox approach these questions. However, it does seems that much of their discussion seems focused on philosophical paradigms. I will discuss briefly, from an Orthodox perspective, where I think they both confuse person and nature.
Jonathan Prejean remarks:
“A “person” is nothing other than the real instantiation of a nature, so this says nothing other than “something is what it is.””
What is wrong with this here? Does an “instantiation of a nature” pick out something that is absolutely and irreducibly unique? No it does not. Jonathan is still picking out general concepts that fall on the side of “nature” because they are things that we have in common and can be demonstrated and compared to other things that we experience in the world. At this point, you are still defining ‘person’ based on properties that are shared in common among one or more persons, since this is easily demonstrated. Ergo with Svendsen, though I much appreciate his somewhat silence for the biblical mystery, he does the same thing when he asks the question of Jonathan:
“If he has a human body, human emotions, a human intellect, a human mind (the biblical “nous”), a human, spirit, a human soul, a human will, human understanding, human wisdom, etc., what, pray tell, is lacking for this to be a “human person”?”
Again, these are all things that fall on the side of nature, because they are properties that are shared in COMMON to persons. Why start with general categories and work to the particular? How could any of these things be unique when they are first considered apart from asking the Questions: “Who is He? and What is He doing?” Why focus on abstract properties like “human spirit,” “human intellect”? Why not consider first the Person and what He does and then make deductions about the content of abstract properties of spirit and intellect based on the type of acts of said Person that are being done? Svendsen seems to be trapped in that good ol’ Augustinian mindset of essence–attributes–persons in which a Christian doctrine of person will never be found. General concepts are started with, and persons in the final end are still defined by generalities. It is only when we first consider this ‘Who’ (the absolutely unique and particular) can we say that ‘intellect,’ ‘will’, wisdom, and such are given their uniqueness and particularity because each of us expresses this property uniquely and irreducibly. Dr. Svendsen, why the lapse into being ‘philosophical,’ where is the primacy of revelation at this point? Does revelation consider a ‘Who’ as defined and constituted by all these general categories? One of the things I’ve always felt intuitively about sola scriptura is that it wished to restore that primacy of revelation before doing what medieval theologians considered to be “natural theology.” Perhaps this is another part that should be further investigated. Likewise, with Jonathan defining a person as an ‘instantiation of a [rational] nature’ is not surprising given his presuppositions and does seem to prove Dr. Svendsen’s point about Jonathan being too rational and philosophical, because the very nature of the speculation built upon [fallen] human reason very well could be wrong. If something is speculative based on reason, how could it possibly be of any dogmatic value?
If “a person is nothing other than the real instantiation of a [rational] nature,” and Christ has two natures (human and divine) as Jonathan confesses, then I would like to know how he doesn’t escape the same Nestorian charge. There is just no definition of a person that is categorized by natural properties or things that are considered to be in common. This is what makes Christianity so radically different from Hellenism.
St. Cyril’s problem was that he did not always employ a consistent set of terminology to be faithful to the content he wished to express. This can be seen from his use of physis to designate the single subject (the WHO), which for him meant hypostasis and hypostasis meant person. From a ‘Cappadocian’ stand-point, where a consistent set of terminology had been used, the use of physis for hypostasis (= person) is unacceptable. It should be noted, however, that Cyril never used ousia to designate what is the single subject, and his compromise with John of Antioch in 433 for other formula usage shows his flexibility that his successors (i.e. Dioscoros, who I consider orthodox in content) did not have. I think it would help Dr. Svendsen if he gave Orthodox sources a shot and not take someone’s word for what they say.
Fundamentally, Hellenism—whether Aristotelian or Platonic—does not have a [christian] doctrine of person, and that is one of the things that makes Christianity so divorced and so unique from Hellenism. Philosophy is precisely not the hand-maiden of Theology and Athens does not supply the philosophical content for Jerusalem. St. Athanasios once remarked that opposite properties are reconciled in a single person (i.e. Christ). This is foolishness to the Greeks.