Sunday, July 31, 2005

Minucius Felix and God's Gender

Appealing to the familiar Platonic passage in Timaeus 28C, Minucius Felix recognizes God as the parent of the world, the one who constructed all things in heaven and on earth. This Father-Creator, nevertheless is ineffable and incognoscible for the legal advocate. Yet, somehow, he maintains that acknowledging God as a parent and becoming one of his spiritual children promotes unity:

Thus, in short, we do not distinguish our people by some small bodily mark, as you suppose, but easily enough by the sign of innocency and modesty. Thus we love one another, to your regret, with a mutual love, because we do not know how to hate. Thus we call one another, to your envy, brethren: as being men born of one God and Parent, and companions in faith, and as fellow-heirs in hope. You, however, do not recognize one another, and you are cruel in your mutual hatreds; nor do you acknowledge one another as brethren, unless indeed for the purpose of fratricide.[1]

It seems that Minucius does not think of God the Father in gendered terms. First, he believes “Father” is a referring expression that one can clear away and achieve a more perspicuous vision of the divine one in se. It does not predicate what God is quoad se. Second, Minucius prefers the designation “Parent” to Father. Even when employing these appellations, he qualifies his usage by associating Parent or Father with creation or spiritual redemption. This study therefore submits that he appears to view “Father” as a metaphor for the divine one.

[1] Octavius 31: “Sic nos denique non notaculo corporis, ut putatis, sed innocentiae ac modestiae signo facile dinoscimus; sic mutuo, quod doletis, amore diligimus, quoniam odisse non novimus; sic nos quod invidetis, fraters vocamus, ut unius dei parentis homines, ut consortes fidei, ut spei coheredes. Vos enim nec invicem adgnoscitis et in mutual odia saevitis nec fraters vos nisi sane ad parricidium recognoscitis.”

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Minucius Felix and God the Father

Minucius Felix reasons that one who upholds God’s majesty readily acknowledges that humans cannot comprehend the omnipotent deity:

This God cannot be seen; He is too bright for sight. He cannot be grasped; He is too pure for touch. He cannot be measured; He is too great for our senses—a boundless infinity, sharing with Himself alone the knowledge of His vastness. But the understanding we have is too limited to comprehend Him and that is why we measure Him worthily when we say that He is immeasurable.[1]

The apologist’s teaching here brings to mind concepts found in Philo, who stresses God’s beyondness, ineffability and utter incognoscibility. Minucius Felix contends that one cannot know God by means of the senses or the intellect: the divine one is completely uncircumscribable and incomprehensible, he asserts. While it is possible that one can detect hints of Stoic or Gnostic influence in his particular brand of apophatic theology, these are by no means the only notions that modified Minucius’ thought.[2] Additionally, Minucius follows conceptually in the steps of his Christian apologetic predecessors. One can particularly witness this in his emphasis on the anonymity of God. “Do away with divine names,” Minucius exclaims, because they are fusei and not qesei.[3] In this way, he contends that humans should abandon all titles for God including “Father” and simply invoke the Christian God as deus, a practice that supposedly upholds the divine transcendence (= beyondness) with all claritas:

Nor should you seek a name for God: God is His name. We have need of titles in cases where we want to separate individuals from a large group; we use, then the distinguishing mark of personal names. But God is unique; all He has for title is God. Should I call Him father, you would consider that He is earthly; should I call Him king, you would suspect that He is made of flesh; should I call Him lord, you would certainly understand that He is mortal. Remove the aggregate of names and you will clearly see His splendor[4]

Daniélou considers this view “radical” and he attributes it, in part, to the influence that Stoicism more than likely had on the working concepts of Minucius.[5] Moreover, the statement in the Octavius is reminiscent of what one reads in the Philonic corpus. It stresses the absolute ineffability of God without equivocation, as suggested in the maxim: “It is easier to say what God is not than to say what he is.” Minucius is convinced that names diminish God.[6] Therefore, when one clears away designations such as “Father” or “Lord” or King, one then allows for the manifestation of God’s glorious splendor to obtain.

[1] Octavius 18.8: “Hic nec videri potest: visu clarior est; nec conprehendi potest nec aestimari: sensibus maior est, infinitus inmensus et soli sibi tantus, quantus est, notus. Nobis vero ad intellectum pectus angustum est, et ideo sic eum digne aestimamus, dum inaestimabilem dicimus.”

[2] Daniélou, Early Christian Doctrine, 3:192-193.

[3] See Plato’s Cratylus. Daniélou, Early Christian Doctrine, 3:193. D.A. Black, Linguistics; Octavius 16.

[4] Octavius 18:8-10: “Nec nomen deo quaeras: Deus nomen est. Illic vocabulis opus est, cum per singulos propriis appellationum insignibus multitudo dirimenda est: deo, qui solus est, dei vocabulum totum est. Quem si patrem dixero, terrenum opineris; si regem, carnalem suspiceris; si dominum, intelleges utique mortalem. Aufer additamenta nominum et perspicies eius claritatem.”

[5] See Daniélou, Early Christian Doctrine, 3:189-207 and Colish, The Stoic Tradition, 2:30-31.

[6] Daniélou, Early Christian Doctrine, 3:192.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Arnobius of Sicca, God the Father and Souls

Arnobius rejects the inherent immortality of the soul. Humans are not born with deathless souls, he avers, in an attempt to refute Platonism, Neoplatonism, hermetism, the Chaldean Oracles and other writers of the period.[1] The Christian neophyte considers the aforementioned philosophers “new men” (novi viri) who introduce novel ideas at odds with the Christian faith:

Wherefore there is no reason that that should mislead us, should hold out vain hopes to us, which is said by some men till now unheard of, and carried away by an extravagant opinion of themselves, that souls are immortal, next in point of rank to the God and ruler of the world, brought forth by that Begetter and Father, divine, wise, learned, and not touchable by any contact with the body (Adversus Nationes 2.15).

God the Father is the one from whom souls causally emanate. Arnobius consequently reasons that it is the height of folly to assume that the souls of human beings resemble the Father with respect to immortality (Adversus Nationes 2.16). God has reserved deathlessness and indestructibleness for himself. However, human souls “have one origin, we therefore think exactly alike; we do not differ in manners, we do not differ in beliefs; we all know God; and there are not as many opinions as there are men in the world, nor are these divided in infinite variety” (Adversus Nationes 2.15).

Not only has God the Father begotten human souls, but if a multitude of gods exists, as the Greeks and Romans claimed, then these deities are evidently subject to the vicissitudes of temporality since the omnipotent Father generates them temporally posterior to himself:

For if we all agree that there is one Father of all, who alone is immortal and unbegotten, and if nothing at all is found before Him which could be named, it follows as a consequence that all these whom the imagination of men believes to be gods, have been either begotten by Him or produced at His bidding. Are they produced and begotten? they are also later in order and time: if later in order and time, they must have an origin, and beginning of birth and life; but that which has an entrance into and beginning of life in its first stages, it of necessity follows, should have an end also” (Adversus Nationes 2.35).

The general consensus among theists of Arnobius’ time was that there is one Father of all things, who has begotten divine but lesser entities, divinities naturally having their origin in him and existing temporally posterior to the one Father. Arnobius reasons that if the gods whom the Father generates have a beginning, they must also have a terminus. Since these gods evidently experience both natality and the cessation of life, they are of necessity inferior to the Father, in some respect. Of course, the apologist intends for his line of reasoning to function as an argumentum reductio ad absurdum. Nevertheless, apart from assessing his logic for soundness and validity, Arnobius’ words illuminate his concept of divine paternity. God is not a literal Father: divine paternitas marks God as the source of all things. However, does Arnobius think that God is masculine quoad se? Alternatively, does he believe that God merely reveals a masculine side pro nobis?

[1] See McCracken on book two.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Arnobius of Sicca

Arnobius (fl. 284-305 CE) probably taught Lactantius the art of rhetoric.[1] He was born in the large rustic Sicca Veneria (Proconsular Africa in Numidia) near Carthage and in due course converted to Christianity. His writing style resembles that of a neophyte layman expressing himself sincerely, but simultaneously lacking the necessary epistemic wherewithal to formulate theological concepts methodically, though he does appear skillful when it comes to subverting pagan arguments reared against the Christian faith.[2] Conversely, in some respects, his thought is evidently “unorthodox.”[3] For instance, Cruttwell writes that while Arnobius speaks of Christ in glowing terms and confesses him as truly God, “he yet regards Him rather as the Divine Revealer of the One God than as Himself the object of worship.”[4] Cruttwell’s claim is not technically correct since Arnobius does confess that he and other contemporary Christians worship Christ as God (Adversus Nationes 1.36). However, Arnobius apparently vacillates between a ditheist and subordinationist outlook.[5] He views Christ as more of an exalted sage, who is to some degree less majestic or divine than the Father is (Adversus Nationes 1.53). Concisely speaking, the Son is a demiurgic type being for the Christian rhetorician. Nevertheless, he is (in some sense) God.[6]

[1] Tixeront, Handbook of Patrology, 125.

[2] Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca, 16-18; Micka, Problem of Divine Anger, 158; McGiffert, History of Christian Thought, 43.

[3] See Hagenbach, Textbook, 234-235. Simmons 16; McGiffert, History of Christian Thought, 43. See De viris illustribus 79; Adversus Nationes 3.8-15.

[4] A Literary History, 638-639.

[5] See A.C. McGiffert. A History of Christian Thought. 2 vols. New York, 1933. See 2:43-44 about Arnobius’ ditheism and modalism. In this, I am heavily indebted to McCracken 1:27.

[6] See Adversus Nationes 1.38; 1.56; 2.65.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Tertullian and Stoicism

Tertullian was much indebted to Stoic metaphysics.[1] For the most part, he chose to utilize the four Stoic categories of being rather than the well-known ten ontological predicates of Aristotle. One category of Stoic metaphysics is relative disposition.[2] Stoic relative states or dispositions differ somewhat from Aristotelian relations in that the Stoics do not think a specified entity’s particular constitution as such is dependent on its corresponding relative state. All that relative dispositions tell us (according to the Stoic thinkers) is how some particulars relate to other particulars in the world.[3] The Stoics do not believe that the constitution of one relative state qua relative state is dependent on its being “toward something” (ta pros ti).[4] As Catherine Lacugna explains, “In the case of the father-son relation, if the child dies, the man ceases to be a father but he does not cease to exist. By contrast, in the use made by theologians of Aristotelian philosophy, a father is constituted as father by his son, and vice versa.”[5] Similarly, in the Greek Trinitarian tradition “relation will show only how, but not what, something is.”[6] On the other hand, ancient Latin trinitarians generally perceived the triune relations as constituting the persons, making them what they are, as opposed to Greek thought, which suggests that relata simply manifest the mode wherein the three divine persons subsist.[7]

Tertullian, although he is a Latin theologian, nonetheless favors the Stoic and eastern Christian understanding of relations as being ta pros ti in the world without necessarily thinking that one relative disposition constitutes another relation ontologically. He clearly relied on the metaphysical categories of the Stoics.[8] That is probably why Tertullian could coherently argue that while God is eternal or everlasting, there was a time when the Son as such or the Father as such did not exist even though God is from eternity to eternity (Psalms 90:2).[9] The relative dispositions (in Tertullian’s estimation) do not constitute the divine persons qua persons.

[1] See Daniélou 3, passim; Colish, Stoic Tradition.

[2] The other three categories are substrate, quality, and disposition. A. A. Long analyzes all four Stoic categories in Hellenistic Philosophy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 160-163.

[3] Lacugna, God for Us, 59.

[4] Long, Hellenistic Philosophy, 163.

[5] Lacugna, God for Us, 59.

[6] Ibid, 59.

[7] Marsh, The Triune God, 155.

[8] See Colish, Stoic Tradition.

[9] Bigg argues that Tertullian did not differentiate between eternity and time: “Eternity, in his case, simply means all time, time without beginning and without end, not that life of spirit to which time with its sequences does not belong at all” (394).

Thursday, July 14, 2005

God the Father-Part 4

Although the canonical Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures do not categorize YHWH as the Father of the holy angels in an explicit manner, they do imply that YHWH is the Father of all the holy spirit creatures by means of a literary phenomenon that Max Black calls "metaphorical entailment." The OT writers apply the terminology “sons” to the sacred spirits that seem to comprise God’s heavenly regiment. For instance, one finds the Hebrew expression “sons of God” (bene elohim) used with reference to the angels in Genesis 6:2; Job 1:6; 2:1-6; 38:4-7; Ps 89:6.[1] The term “son” entails the correlative relational concept “father.” If the angels are (metaphorical) sons, then they must have a (metaphorical) father. Therefore, one can evidently say that YHWH is a Father to the bene elohim via a process of metaphorical entailment. The one term “sons” implies the corresponding term “father.” Moreover, Scripture indicates that the angels are created sons of God, not literally begotten progeny.[2] It thus seems apropos to consider YHWH a Father to the holy angels in a metaphorical sense.

[1] The intertestamental literature also refers to the angels as “sons.” See Jubilees 5:1; Enoch 6:2. Jubilees 2:2; Sla. Enoch 29:3.

[2] Wolfson, Philosophy of the Church Fathers, 289.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

God the Father-Part 3

YHWH was viewed as a Father for pious individual Israelites too: “While the exact nuance of the term ‘Father’ remains hazy, there can be no doubt that even on the individual level the relationship between God and the Israelites was seen from a family point of view.”[1]

An important development manifestly began to transpire in the intertestamental Wisdom literature of the Second Temple period. It appears that devout Israelite writers started to address God openly as Father (Wisdom 14:3). Geza Vermes even contends that Second Temple Judaism came to view their status of being God’s figurative children chiefly as a matter of merit, not hereditary privilege.[2] He quotes Jubilees 1:24-25 in support of this position: “I will be their Father and they shall be my sons, and they shall be called the sons of the living God.” Vermes’ thesis commends itself in many ways. Yet, it may be difficult to sustain this suggestion in light of pre-intertestamental texts that also identify pious Israelites as children of God by merit. In any event, Scripture does point to certain godly Israelites being sons of YHWH. The sagacious writer of Sirach addresses YHWH as the Lord, Father and Master of his life (Sirach 23:1, 4) and exclaims: “O Lord, you are my father, you are my champion and my savior; do not abandon me in time of trouble, in the midst of storms and dangers” (Sirach 51:10). The author of 3 Maccabees additionally invokes God as “Father,” forthrightly utilizing the conventionalized expression of intimacy “O Father” (3 Maccabees 6:3, 8). The salient point here is that individual ancient Israelites viewed God as their Father and invoked him by conscripting paternal speech in their prayers.[3] Furthermore, it is significant that “Father” is qualified by the appositional expressions “champion,” “savior” and “creator.” These terms explain how the ancient Israelites viewed God as Father.

[1] Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 173.

[2] Vermes, Jesus in His Jewish Context, 35.

[3] This paragraph is much indebted to Witherington’s The Shadow of the Almighty, 13-14. Moreover, see Vermes, Religion of Jesus, 176 for Pseudepigrapha, Philo, and DSS quotes.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

God the Father of Israel-Part 2

YHWH is also father to the King of Israel. (2 Sam 7:12-14; Ps 2:6-7; Mal 2:10). The nomenclature “sons of God” was familiar in the ancient Near East, particularly in Egypt.[1] Hence, YHWH’s designation of Israelite kings as “sons,” is not wholly surprising.[2] God begets the king in that he installs him upon the divine throne as the God-given leader of Israel (1 Chron 28:5; 29:23).[3] The name “Father” assures God’s people that the promise found in Psalms 2:7 is binding and immutable respecting Israel’s human ruler: the Davidic promise will inevitably come to fruition (Isaiah 55:1-5). Even in its Messianic sense, the term “Son” in the second psalm only has reference to the king’s function; it does not convey the thought of a divine generatio but rather “an investiture with royal dignity.”[4] Artur Weiser points out that the OT rejects the notion of God literally procreating a kingly human son (Ps 89:26).[5] The psalmist, he observes, excludes the view of God physically generating the Israelite king by employing the word “today” and the familiar adoption formula “you are my son” in connection with the generative language of Psalms 2:7. The King consequently becomes God’s Son through the process of enthronement. He is thus God’s vice-regent and figurative royal offspring.[6] The language in the second psalm turns out to be metaphorical.[7] The foremost ruler for whom God is “Father,” however, evidently is the Messiah (Psalms 2:1-6). But this text does not substantiate the eternal generation doctrine.

[1] ABD 6:128-129.

[2] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 14.

[3] Ibid, 15. Cf. Vermes, Jesus in His Jewish Context, 29.

[4] Brunner, Dogmatics, 1:210.

[5] Weiser, The Psalms, 113.

[6] Ibid.

[7] add note.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

God, the Father of Israel-Part 1

The Hebrew prophets do not describe God as “Father” with any frequency in the canonical writings of ancient Judaism.[1] The divine appellation “Father” (awb) only occurs approximately twenty times in the OT.[2] Nevertheless, these relatively infrequent occurrences do allow one to ascertain that ancient Judaism viewed God as a Father in four primary ways.[3]

(1) God is Father to the nation of Israel since he brings it about that the children of Israel exist as a nation qua nation (Exodus 4:22-23; Deut 8:5; 32:6; Ps 103:13; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Mal 1:6; 2:10; 3:17). In contrast to immortal deific fathers in Greek mythology, when Israel speaks of God as the one Father, “the idea in the background is not the biological one of procreation, but the theological one of election.”[4] The Israelite view of a divine Father also stands in stark contrast to the god of Stoic pantheism, which both the apostle Paul and Lactantius bear witness to in their respective theological writings.[5] Unlike the deity of Stoic philosophers, YHWH is a personal Father for the sons of Israel, one who guides the nation through the Middle Eastern wilderness and administers a discipline rooted in love (Deuteronomy 1:31; Proverbs 3:12). He is not merely a universal and immutable force that mechanically governs the cosmos or an impersonal fire that orders ta panta: YHWH carries Israel in his everlasting arms and leads the nation with figurative cords of love (Deuteronomy 33:2; Hosea 11:2).[6]

Kasper further argues that ancient Israel believed God had “the attitude of a father.”[7] Therefore, it seems that “Father” is a well-established metaphor for the divine in ancient Judaism: the term thus forms part of an asserted unfamiliar identity synthesis (i.e. a metasememe) that communicates the notion of God providentially and personally guiding Israel, the seed of Abraham (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8). The usage of the term “Father” as a divine title in the OT “is clearly a metaphor, an image employed to express some aspect or aspects of God’s relationship with God’s people.”[8] The prophet Jeremiah also indicates God’s paternity with respect to Israel is figurative, when he speaks of YHWH “becoming” a Father to Israel (Jeremiah 31:9).[9] Hence, as Vermes writes, though the communal address, “Our Father” is “relatively late,” the metaphor of God as Father (awb) to the Israelite nation appears to have been a leitmotif in the sacred documents of early Judaism.[10]

Marianne Meye Thompson has proposed yet other ways in which ancient Israel viewed God as Father. She contends that YHWH is the Father of Israel in that he functions as the tropic familial head of the nation. That is, God is the progenitor of Israel, bequeathing life and an inheritance to his metaphorical progeny: he is the figurative patriarch of the clan. Moreover, YHWH has deep affection for those he deems offspring. Therefore, as Father, he provides for, disciplines and lovingly corrects his children.[11] Finally, Thompson thinks that YHWH is the pater postestas, whom the Israelites should obey and reverence (Mal 1:6).[12] She wishes to suggest that the OT concept of God the Father is a particular as opposed to a universal concept. Thompson seems to argue that one can only apprehend the notion of God as Father in ancient Judaism by becoming acquainted with the Hebrew and ancient near eastern culture in which such a notion was forged. Modern scholarship seems to support her intuition.

[1] See Fortman, The Triune God, 4.

[2] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 14; Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 106.

[3] Fortman writes: “More recent scholars find no evidence in the [OT] that any sacred writer believed in or suspected the existence of a divine paternity and filiation within the Godhead itself” (The Triune God, 4).

[4] Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 79. Scholars consistently appear to understand God’s fatherhood as one of election rather than procreation. For instance, John W. Cooper maintains regarding Deut 32:6: “The fatherhood of God is connected here with the election and salvation of his people” (Our Father in Heaven, 106). See also Thompson, The Promise of the Father, 45. O’Collins further contends that there are no biological connotations associated with the OT divine term “Father” in The Tripersonal God, 14.

[5] See Acts 17:28 and Divinae institutiones .

[6] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 17-19. Contra Kelly, however, Michael Frede believes: “There is nothing impersonal about Aristotle’s God, or the God of the Stoics, or the God of Numenius or Plotinus.” See “Monotheism and Pagan Philosophy” in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pages 48-49. Compare Metaphysics 1072b24-30 and Discourses.

[7] Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 80.

[8] Marsh, The Triune God, 29.

[9] Add note on state of Hebrew qal perfect from Gesenius.

[10] See Tobit 13:4 and Josephus in Ant. 5.93 and Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 175-176.

[11] Thompson, The Promise of the Father, 45.

[12] Marianne Thompson, Promise of the Father, 18. See Tg. Isa. 63.16 and 64:8. See Thompson, Promise of the Father, 48.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Thomas Aquinas, Metaphor and Divine Paternity

Writing in the thirteenth century of our common era, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE) also explained the nexus between God’s self-disclosure and metaphorical vocalizations in the following way: “Now we are of the kind to reach the world of intelligence through the world of sense, since all knowledge takes its rise from sensation. Congenially, then, holy Scripture delivers spiritual things to us beneath metaphors, taken from bodily things.”[1] While Aquinas believes that metaphors have their proper place in Christian discourse, he does not think that tropic speech is the only vehicle that believers can employ to reference or invoke God. Although Aquinas is intimately familiar with the vital role that metaphors play in Christian language and speech, he apparently chooses to predicate the term “Father” of God properly, not metaphorically (See ST 1.33.2).[2] The basis for Aquinas’ non-metaphorical employment of the divine designation “Father” primarily lies in the distinction he makes between the thing signified (res significata) by a particular signifier and the human mode of signifying (modus significandi) itself.

Aquinas insists that the paternal nomenclature used of the putative first divine person in the triune Godhead hypostatically and eternally distinguishes him from the Son and holy spirit (ST 1.33.2).[3] While Aquinas maintains that the Father, Son and holy spirit are all fully God, he still considers them distinct persons or subsisting divine relations. The respective eternal names and modes in which they putatively subsist are what differentiate the three persons (tres personae) one from another. Accordingly, Aquinas initially predicates paternity of God, then of creaturely essences, with respect to the entity signified (res significata) by the concept “father.” That is to say, Aquinas reckons that in the strictest sense of the word “father,” there is only one referent to whom the concept fittingly applies. That is, of course, God: “And call no [man] your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Mt 23:9 KJV).

Human fathers, on the other hand, are authentic male parents (in the res significata sense) only to the extent that they partake theomorphically and analogically of God’s paternity. The “Angelic Doctor” (Angelicus Doctor) bases this argument on his reading of Eph 3:14-15: “I bend my knee to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is named” (flecto genua mea ad Patrem Domini nostri Iesu Christi ex quo omnis paternitas in caelis et in terra nominatur).[4] Nevertheless, he reasons that humans do not initially affirm that God is “father” in accord with the modus significandi sense. From this perspective, rational creatures first impute paternity to biological, forensic or sociological male figures before attributing it to God.[5] Although Aquinas reckons that “Father” is a divine proper name (nomen proprium) with respect to the res significata sense, and thus not a metaphorical concept that rational creatures employ in the science of God-talk, he still recognizes the integral role that metaphors play in communicating divine verities.[6]

1 Aquinas ST Ia.I.9, Responsio.

2 Zonana in Boeve 57.

[3] Nevertheless, he knows that Father is a “relational term” and not a name in the sense that YHWH or I AM are evidently nomina (ST 1.13.11). See Cooper, Our Father, 120. Aquinas, of course, employs the term “Father” in other ways as well.

[4] ST 1.33.2, Reply 4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See ST 1.33.3.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Augustine of Hippo and Metaphor

One can witness this emphasis on metaphorical terminology in Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). For instance, the ancient North African bishop openly suggests that rhetorical tropes are fundamental to Christian discourse or speech. One way he demonstrates the indispensability of metasememic terminology with respect to the Christian church is by favorably citing the ancient Hebrew prophets as examples of those who obscured celestial truths under the guise of figurative speech.[1] If one assumes that the prophets employed metaphor in the manner that Augustine indicates, one might still wonder why they utilized this particular rhetorical trope to shroud divine veritas.

<>There are two primary rationales for the prophetic use of metaphoricity to conceal truth, according to De doctrina Christiana. (1) Augustine contends that the holy prophets intentionally obscured divine verities by means of metasememes in order that the minds of the godly might be exercised and the mental faculties of the impious might be “converted to piety or shut out from a knowledge” of the divine mysteries.[2] (2) He further maintains that the Bible writers expressed themselves tropically so that God might grant his church an opportunity to partake in the supernal esteem vouchsafed to the sacred prophets of antiquity. While the dignity of the Christian church evidently does not equal that of the ancient Hebrew prophets, it nonetheless approaches the God-given glory of these mantic spokespersons, Augustine writes.[3] The inclusion of metaphor in Holy Writ, the ancient bishop insists, is what makes it possible for the ecclesia to partake of the prophets’ divinely imparted grandeur.[4]

Augustine further contends that there is yet another significant reason why metaphoricity features prominently in Scripture. Metaphor is one way that humans communicate theistic notions. He ultimately believes that there are three basic ways to articulate concepts about God. The threefold distinction that the bishop posits is substantial, relative and metaphorical predication. One cannot mentally grasp Augustine’s metaphorology unless he or she sorts out these three vital distinctions.[5]

[1] See Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana 4.7.15. Compare Divinae institutiones 1.11.24, 30.

[2] De doctrina Christiana 4.8.22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Another reason that the Bible supposedly uses tropes to delineate the divine reality is highlighted by Augustine in De Trinitate 7.4.7: “The super-eminence of the Godhead surpasses the power of customary speech.” See Frye in Kimel, Speaking the Christian God, 33.

[5] On the Trinity, page xxxiii by Gareth B. Matthews.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

What is a Metaphor?

It is very difficult to say what a metaphor is. Some years ago, one writer listed 125 definitions for the term "metaphor." But I prefer to think of it, thanks to Philip Blosser and others, as a rhetorical trope that asserts an unfamiliar identity synthesis between two hitherto disparate entities, names, semantic fields, genera, etc. Regardless of one's preferred denotation for "metaphor," I think it is safe to say that these tropes generally are not metaphysical pronouncements. That is, they assert that s is p without metaphysically predicating p of s. Hence, when one encounters the metaphor "sleep" for death in Scripture (John 11:11-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), there is no need to assume that death and sleep metaphysically resemble one another. The comparison between sleep and death is rhetorical, not intensional, which is to say that when encountering the assertion "death" (s) is "sleep" (p), one need not draw the inference that one can dream when he/she is dead or snore or experience distinctive brain states commonly associated with sleep. Death does not exemplify the literal properties of sleep, for all we know. The same principle seemingly applies to other metaphors. When a frustrated woman says, "All men are dogs," does anyone assume that she means men have fur all over their bodies, four legs and bark every now and again? She certainly does not mean that men are "dogs" on a much higher level than four-legged canines are. They certainly do not have the properties commonly exemplified with the genus "canine." If these things are true with respect to dogs and sleep, why should one think any differently when it comes to the metaphor "Father" for God? Why assume that God is masculine because He is Father? Why think that God is "Father" metaphysically rather than construing the metaphor "Father" (if it is in fact a metaphor) as a rhetorical trope? These are my reflections for the day. Shalom!

Metaphors and Revelation

Metaphors and Revelation

Humans evidently cannot name God unless God first reveals himself to finite beings.[1] The Christian transcendent object of reverence discloses himself and his onomata or prosreseis in creation, Scripture and Heilsgeschichte. Justin Martyr (Apology 2.6) appears to insist that humans derive the names, which they employ to address God, via a posteriori reasoning—by making inferences from the divine effects to the primum movens. In essence, Justin maintains that rational creaturely essences on earth evidently assign a specific functional designation to God based on his general or special revelation to humanity.[2] Consequently, the Martyr would undoubtedly agree with Herman Bavinck who considers divine names neither “arbitrary” nor “mere inventions” of human minds. In fact, Apology 2.6 confirms that Justin believes the mortal naming of God is grounded in divine revelation.[3] But if humans affix designations to God based on revelation, could theological speech (la parole) or language (la langue) be as vulnerable and historically conditioned as Donald Bloesch or Thomas A. Marsh claim? Granted, the divine one mediates his supernatural revelation through finite noetic structures, which by nature are fallible and limited (Rocca). The Christian tradition nonetheless affirms that God the Father unveils himself or the divine name in the act of revelation.[4] Hence, while theological metaphors may not narrate the entire divine story—they may even suppress certain aspects of God’s nature quoad se at times—in order to qualify as revelation, the metaphors that Christians use to describe God must in some sense be reality depicting.[5]

Gerald O’Collins and Daniel Kendall, contra Bloesch, insist that theological metaphors “refer to and describe reality.”[6] Concurring with Janet Soskice, they argue that metasememes (=metaphors) speak about one thing in terms that appear suggestive of another thing.[7] For instance, God evidently does not instantiate the literal mind-independent properties of a rock, but the ancient prophets speak in ways that imply there are various similarities between God and a rock. Likewise, God is called “a sun and shield” in Psalms 84:11. Again, the deity apparently does not exemplify the literal predicates that structurally constitute the sun or a shield. In these instances, the Bible writers are presumably employing tropes to speak about one animate entity (God) in terms of created inanimate entities (rock, sun and shield). Metaphor thus allows those who composed Scripture to describe the supreme reality adequately, though indirectly. Far from being inadequate or vulnerable, then, theological metaphors seem to accomplish what “proper terminology” (De Oratore 3.152-155) cannot achieve. They convey truths that non-tropic expressions attributing literal properties to a particular subject cannot communicate.

[1] Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 139.

[2] See Bloesch, The Battle for the Trinity, 25. He notes that we do not name God; God names himself “by showing us who he is.” See Exod 3:14. Cooper adds that “rightly naming God is an activity in which humans truly recognize who God has identified himself to be in the various modes of special and general revelation” (160). Assigning the deity a nomen or nomina means that we “acknowledge” and “discover” the names God has given Himself in revelation (ibid). Justin’s thoughts do not seem to be at odd with these observations.

[3] Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 145.

[4] Magnesians 8.2; Dialogue with Trypho 62.4; Tatian’s Exhortation to the Greeks 4; De Anima 18.

[5] See John Sanders.

[6] The Bible for Theology, 83.

[7] Bible for Theology, 83.