You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Like A Record

Prosblogion is a blog for the philosophy of religion, written by philosophy profs and grad students. The discussion is always sufficient to give the average person a mental nose bleed. Fairly recently, a post engaged Alvin Platninga’s curent endorsement of a Felix Culpa type theodicy/defense after a long personal history of advocating a free will defense. What was interesting about the discussion was that you had all of the basic ingredients of the Origenist dialectic-freedom, foreknowledge, universalism, supralapsarianism, impeccability, Hickian soul making, etc. This I suspect is due to a few major defects in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.

The first is that most analytic philosophers care little for history and end up sometimes creating more problems. This is also true of analytic philosophers of religion. They tend to get wind of a theological idea and then run with it. (You can expect to see this quite soon with theosis. Academics are sheep who follow fads and “theosis” is at the moment a fad. ) This was the case with Peter van Inwagen’s And Yet They Are Not Three Gods But One God which sparked “Social Trinitarianism.”  That in part was supposed to be an attempt to give a philosophical gloss to the Cappadocian model of of the Trinity. I think Sarah Coakley has clearly demonstrated that whatever Social Trinitarianism amounts to, it isn’t what the Cappadocians had in mind. Now I have great intellectual respect for Peter van Inwagen and I have serious theological disagreements with Sarah Coakley’s feminist outlook but in the main, Social Trinitarianism is not Cappadocian. (Not that my respect or disagreements would bother either of them, should they become aware of it.)

The second problem is that in my experience most analytic philosophers of religion have not much  more than a superficial grasp of core theological doctrines. There are esceptions, but most of these conctrate on a specific thinker/problem or a small group of them. Added to this is the hegomony of the “three A’s”-Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Whenever you read the contemporary literature there is usually to be found a reference to the “traditional view” of God, providence, etc. This is code for the “three A’s.” And because contemporary analytic philosophers of religion practically never peek outside the neighborhood of the “three A’s” they work within the presuppositional confines of that tradition. (I recall my shock one time when Eleonore Stump remarked that she “had given up trying to understand the Cappadocians.” That might explain why in her seminar on Aquinas’ metaphysics of God she couldn’t refute this argument.) And this is why the discussion goes round and round, bringing us back to the same two ends of the dialectic-either agents will be free but not good or good but not free. Towards the Good-Universalism, predestinarianism, and towards freedom-Socinianism/Open Theism, Social Trinitarianism, Annihilationalism/Conditional immorality, with positions like Molinism and Lutheranism left of center and Arimianism being right of center. The analytic philosophers of religion who construct and endorse these views aren’t even seemingly aware of the Origenist assumptions common to all views on the spectrum that drive the constellation of problems. Most of the contemporary writings then are just modern versions of On First Principles or On the Predestination of the Saints.

Simon Gaine’s little book on free will in heaven is a perfect example of the historical hegemony and ignorance induced by an unhealthy devotion to the “three A’s.” Origen gets about a page of discussion but then he moves on to Augustine, skips right over the relevant historical period as if it never happaned so he can get to the meaty stuff of the scholastics where the question meets its supposedly most developed form.  Of course, it just isn’t so. The question met its most developed form in and between the condemnation of Origenism in the 5th Council and the Dyothelite/Monothelite controversies of the sixth through seventh centuries. Gaine should have read this book, this book , this book or this book, instead.

And this is why I think you will see the rise of Universalism and Hickish soul making added for good measure. Plantinga has already shifted from one end of the spctrum to the other. I think it won’t be too long before he will come out of the universalist closet but I suspect that David Bently Hart might beat him to the coming out party. And of course we have the Origenism in Balthasar which filtered down to the “dare we yet hope” soft universalism. I am sure that influence has some part to play in the coming universalism. And of course, it won’t be too hard I suspect for Plantingian types to swallow the monergism of universalism. Universalism is just Calvinism for literally everybody.

Oh Origen, spin it baby!

18 Responses to You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Like A Record

  1. photios says:

    1) Wrong. The book opens with the intention of investigating and discussing certain aspects to his brother bishops in response to what Augustine said in his commentary on the Creedal Symbol. The discussion of Arians or and other heresies are a side issue. The context of the work is not like the anti-Donatist and anti-Pelagian works which have a different intention and dialogical import. So you’re just straining to make your case, but being a philosopher you probably don’t spend enough time reading patristic (that is, CHRISTIAN) texts.

    2) You are trying to shift ground and back peddle. Rather, you made the claim that we should read these texts as implying the same meaning of simplicity. I brought up the issue of Romanism because it is a program that has institutionalized a hermeneutic of compatibility at whatever cost whereas there might not be any compatibility in actuality. This has been the main stay since the days of Alcuin with the filioque: any patrisitic text that might imply (but actually did not) a filioquist reading was then forced to be read this way (i.e. that doctrine develops). This is necessary to the readership audience of this blog.


  2. Brandon says:

    The occasion of De Trinitate is not polemical, but rather at the request of Bishop Aurelius of Carthage.

    I think it is an extraordinarily odd view to think that one can only engage in polemics against a position on a ‘polemical occasion’. Have you never come across a polemic that was not commissioned or in the context of a dispute? One can, of course, write a polemic against a position under just about any circumstance; trying to pretend otherwise is nonsense, and leads to exaggerating things like the role of the one-many dialectic in Augustine’s argument. Again, the book opens with an attack on the Arians, first Scriptural (roughly Books I to IV), then in terms of theological language that are shared between Arians and orthodox (roughly Books V to VII), then in terms of the soul when it is made like God through love of God (roughly Books VIII to XV), with Book XV emphasizing the limits of the discussion in Books VIII to XV. This point, that the whole book is devoted to arguing against those who think that the Son is inferior to the Father, is laid out quite clearly in Book XV. Not all the handwaving and the imagining of dialectics around every corner will change plain facts.

    Since I’ve been talking about the Church Fathers, and you’ve suddenly switched to “Rome’s finest theologians,” I don’t know what your point is in the next several paragraphs. Likewise, and no offense, but not a single person reading this should care in the slightest bit whether Photios Jones regards Augustine as an ecumenical teacher or not, so I don’t even know why you brought it up.

  3. Brandon,
    The occasion of De Trinitate is not polemical, but rather at the request of Bishop Aurelius of Carthage. Augustine has a seperate treatise against the Arians where he is primarily polemical.

    One can see that Augustine is being speculative in De Trinitate when he investiages all the different takes on which the dialectic arranges the outcome of the One-Many problem, and He goes on to reject all those conclusions that would seem to be false and investigates other ways one might understand the problem.

    Look at the way Eriugena in ‘The Periphyseon’ and in his book ‘On Predestination’ when He talks about simplicity. He uses dialectic in a way that ended up pissing off both sides of the debate because they thought he was just talking nonsense (vis. he talks in contradictions as Hincmar of Rheims and Ratramnus noted): God is whole in His part and part in His whole, fully beyond predications and fully and *uniquely* every positive thing we say of Him. The kicker was that he was articulating simplicity with a both/and dialectical framework that He learned from reading Dionysios the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor. For Eriugena, simplicity is not some concept in which every positive expression of God is convertible to absolute unity as Augustine speculates in the City of God and De Trinitate.

    Eriugena’s contemporaries thought he was nuts, but he was just articulating the faith that he learned from East and West.

    Now you tell me, Ive talked with some of Rome’s finest theologians about simplicity and every one of them to the tee think that if I expressed it the way Eriugena/Maximus/Dionysios/Cappadocians do that THAT is not what they are saying. I’ve had personal debates with Fr. David Balas in the past and he was very insistent that simplicity entails division of attributes only in our manner of thinking for Augustine and that in God they are all convertible to the divine essence. Scotus on the other hand, from the limited reading I’ve done on him recently, appears to be a different animal and would have to be treated seperately as I think he is a little more unique. I believe his view departs from Augustine in significant ways though. For Dionysios, the divine names aren’t concepts in which we are to attempt philosophical speculation and to solve philsophical (non)-problems that we perceive. They are part of the spiritual life in which one purifies the heart with noetic prayer that transcends all concepts that are unknowingly-known. Simplicity is more of something that is indicative of experience in the spiritual life.

    Why does Dionysios speak in these contradictions? To quote Fr. John Romanides: “in order to give expression to this immediate knowledge of God which transcends concepts, imagery, and even knowledge and vision itself, being an unknowing and unseeing, not because it is not a real experience, but because it transcends all categories of human experience and must therefore be expressed by opposites.” Unknowing because the experience is beyond all rational concepts, Knowing because it is Real, Immediate experience.

    When simplicity is taken out of its monastic, spritual, and dogmatic context and recontextualized into something it was not intended for by the Fathers (i.e. speculative, philsophical, and academic), it takes on NEW meaning. That is my historical observation with the term. It’s a transubstantiation from a Christian context to a Gnostic one. Not necessarily in being identical or tied to a specific Gnostic doctrine but rather in the technique of recontextualization.

    I don’t view Augustine as an ecumenical teacher so I don’t hold him to the same criteria as I do a Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, or Maximus. So in that sense, I have the freedom to read him at face value and not force a weird interpretation to make him fit a standard his work is not meant to be.


  4. Brandon says:

    Hi, Perry,

    Re Hughes, I’ve long since done it (and here). There are other things that could be criticized about Hughes’s discussion (I would say a few things slightly differently, and I think I would pull my punches less than I did two and half years ago when I wrote these, but they are still more or less right). You can tell immediately that Hughes is getting into a muddle just by reading him, though; he knows enough to see that Aquinas explicitly and deliberately attributes things to identitas that are inconsistent with Hughes’s interpretation of the term, and therefore Hughes has to take some elaborate detours arguing that Aquinas is confused about what he himself means.

    The Protestant scholasticism story seems to me even less plausible than getting it directly from Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas themselves; it’s easy to find people who do at least a little reading of those three, but how many analytic philosophers really spend any great amount of time studying Turretin or Gerhard, even at secondhand? And at this point, in any case, with trickles of trickles of trickles, we are beginning to get very, very far removed from the three A’s themselves. No doubt they do have more exposure to the three, in bits and pieces; my point that the three A’s in bits and pieces arranged according to the problematics of modern philosophy is only superficially related to the three A’s themselves.

    I’m not sure your critics are without a point: since the apostles’ preaching and Fathers’ doctrine have established one faith for the Church, we should out of piety assume that the Fathers are all consistent with each other except where we actually have proof in hand that one is diverging from the others, and should read claims that God is simple as the same in (say) the Cappadocians and Augustine except to the extent we actually have evidence that the latter diverges from the former. You are right, though, that whether this evidence exists would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis, and trying to override any evidence actually collected in particular cases by just a general, undefended assumption of uniformity is not a rational way to proceed.


    And, again, my point was that the evidence seems to be against analytic philosophers of religion (in general, at least) having any profound acquaintance with the tradition even in the West. I cannot count the number of analytic philosophers of religion I’ve known who will talk about the Filioque despite no acquaintance with II Lyons (although it’s a much smaller number than those who presume to discuss ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ with regard to the Incarnation who have never even bothered to read the documents for III Constantinople).

    Moreover, Augustine, for instance, has regularly been misread even in the West, for instance, by people not taking into account, to take just one example, that he is a polemical theologian, not a speculative one — virtually all his major theological works are polemics and should be read as such. Thus, for instance, the De Trinitate was explicitly written not so much to be an account of the Trinity as to be a polemic against the Arian view of the Trinity. But it is only occasionally read this way, despite the fact that hardly anything can be more obvious to anyone who actually reads from beginning to end. And Augustine in particular, even when read, often gets read through later doctrinal filters rather than in his own right — in fact, so often that everyone has to be careful in reading him if they are interested in historical accuracy. So this attempt to argue some elaborate sort of guilt by association looks dubious.

  5. Brandon,

    Nothing I said would imply that a deep understanding was “automatic” from being competant in the original languages. My comment was motivated by your remark about the semantic range for “idem” in Latin.

    As for the Social Trinitarianism, that whole thing is a big ball of confusion, which I have tried to stary away from.

    As for Hughes, I often hear that he made crucial mistakes but to date, I haven’t seen any demonstration to that effect. If you have something in mind, perhaps you can write a post on it. Most reviews I have seen have been rather sparse on demontrations.

    As for the case by case, that cuts both ways. My critics never tire of pointing to cases where the Cappadocians or Maximus say that God is simple as if this is proof that their teaching is isomorphic with Augustine.

    I don’t think that analytic philosophers of rel have a passion for Augustine, Anselm or Aquinas. What I do think is that they have far more exposure to them trickled down through Protestant scholasticism, through their own study or what is handed on to them by others who’s AOS is in them.

  6. photios says:

    That won’t work really because they aren’t simply “discovering” the “three A’s,” it is simply handed on as part of the historographical tradition of the West after the schism.


  7. Brandon says:

    You’ve had luckier experience than I’ve had. But would you really think people could automatically have a deep understanding of the Greek Fathers merely because they can read them in the original Greek, or even if they read them that way fairly regularly for the purpose of working on philosophy papers? It seems neither necessary nor sufficient.

    Both of the points I mentioned I mentioned because they seem to me to be fairly widespread, so it would be impractical to give you a list of names. With regard to Augustine, it’s a fairly common theme in papers on the so-called “Latin Trinitarianism” when that is taken as the contrast case to “Social Trinitarianism”. And with regard to simplicity just about anyone who reads ‘identitas’ as ‘identity’ without recognizing that this needs defense on a case-by-case basis would count, whether it is relative identity theory, or the muddle Christopher Hughes gets himself into in On a Complex Theory of a Simple God and discussions that follow him uncritically.

    What I find odd is that you think that analytic philosophers “care little for history” when it comes to the Greek Fathers, but suddenly develop a passionate interest in it when they turn to Latin Fathers and doctors, that they have “not much more than a superficial grasp of core theological doctrines” but somehow this superficial grasp becomes less superficial when Augustine’s in the vicinity, and that the analytic tendency, to accept contemporary philosophical problems as the reference point and then just find things in the Fathers that seem at superficial glance to be vaguely analogous to these, nonetheless doesn’t interfere with their understanding of the “three A’s”.

  8. Brandon,

    In my experience many of them did and do and were quite capable of reading them in Latin.

    As for simplicity and Augustine’s Trinitarianism, who do you have in mind?

  9. Brandon says:

    Added to this is the hegomony of the “three A’s”-Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Whenever you read the contemporary literature there is usually to be found a reference to the “traditional view” of God, providence, etc. This is code for the “three A’s.

    Well, no; do you honestly think analytic philosophers of religion usually spend much time reading Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas? And when they do, do you really think there’s much effort put into understanding them rather than just ‘getting wind of a theological idea and then running with it’? And so you have people making grand pronouncements about Aquinas’s account of divine simplicity who haven’t the faintest clue of the range of meanings that can be borne by the Latin word ‘idem’, or who attribute “Latin Trinitarianism” to Augustine despite the fact that doing this requires ignoring both the first half and the last book of the De Trinitate, and so on to everything else. The only asymmetry is that they usually have read passages, out of context, from the three A’s, whereas I suspect there are quite a few who might have difficulty naming even a single text by any of the Cappadocians. What the “traditional view” usually seems to mean is the view that they picked up in Sunday School at some point, or the view that they think must have been the standard view throughout history, because it’s the sort of thing they can make sense of without having to look anything up.

  10. STK — For your money, GHD is a better buy and obtainable. It has all the stuff about Maximus and all the Fathers. But maybe you already have it. Farrell told me one time that GHD is like Free Choice on steroids, or maybe it was speed I can’t remember now.


  11. Thanks for the suggestions.

  12. Andrew says:


    I know that Whittier College (of all places!) has a copy. I don’t know if you have access to some sort of interlibrary loan, but that might be something to look in to.

  13. Todd,

    Try McGuckin’s Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, from SVS.

  14. I have been trying to get a copy of “Free Choice in Saint Maximus the Confessor” for several years, but everywhere I look it is listed as out-of-print and unavailable.

  15. photios says:


    God, History, and Dialectic by Joseph P. Farrell (

    The Essence-Energies Distinction and Its Importance for Theology by Christos Yannaras (talks as much about the Person-Nature distinction as it does the title) google it.


  16. Thank you for this post.

    I like your last comment: “Universalism is just Calvinism for literally everbody.”

    I would say that it is Karl Barth who opens up this correlation by asserting that the negative effects of predestination are completely taken up by Christ (“God elected as his own portion the negative side of the divine predestination…”).

    If you don’t mind, I have an unrelated question for you. What are the must read books to understand the distinction between nature and personhood? I am a catachumen who will be received into the Church on Lazarus Saturday, and I have been loosely following your blog for a few months, but so far I am only able to vaguely articulate this important distinction.

    I am also a student of philosophy and theology and have done most of my research with contemporary continental Jewish and existentialist philosophers. What I am interested in pursuing is an investigation of the difference between the self as individual (found in Sartre and much of Western philosophy) and the self as person (which according to Zizioulas only begins to be articulated by Buber and Levinas).

    I think that understanding the difference between nature and persons will allow me to orient myself vis a vis the recent philosophical climate.

    Thank you for your time, and I appreciate any resources that you can point me towards to learn about the theological anthropology that you represent and defend here.


  17. anon says:

    Fascinating that there’s quite a bit of tolerance displayed in the comments, esp. the post ” Christians in the world of philosophy”.

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