Friday, February 26, 2010

Joseph Priestley and Dr. Magee on the Trinity

Hi all,

I've often enjoyed reading Leonard Hodgson's Croall
Lectures (1942-1943) which eventually became a book
_The Doctrine of the Trinity_ (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1944). Hodgson proposed and advocated
a social version of the Trinity, yet he included
comments from Unitarians in his work, persons who
obviously took issue with Trinitarian dogma. On p.
219, Hodgson's work contains these quotes, which some
here might find of interest:

"It must be universally true, that three things to
which the same definition applies can never make only
one thing to which the same definition applies . . .
If, therefore, the three persons agree in this same
circumstance, that they are each of them perfect God,
though they may differ in other respects, and have
peculiar relations to each other and to us, they must
still be three Gods; and to say that they are only one
God is as much a contradiction, as to say that three
men, though they differ from one another as much as
three men do, are not three men, but only one man"
(Joseph Priestley).

"If ideas are attached to the words employed,
Trinitarianism is, in reality, either Tritheism or
Sabellianism" (The Right Reverend Dr. Magee, Bishop of



Monday, February 22, 2010

Did the Early Christians Offer Prayers to Jesus Christ?

Dear Lady,

You write:

"Dear Prof. Foster,
Which are the first episodes of prayers addressed to Christ?"

In answering your question, I will assume that prayer to Christ was not a first century practice. Even certain systematic theologians like Owen Thomas have pointed out that traditional Christian prayer follows the schema of "to the Father, through the Son and in [i.e. through] the holy spirit." See Thomas' _Theological Questions: Analysis and Argument_ (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1983. P. 71).

Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred between the years 98-117 CE, may possibly indicate that Christians invoked Jesus Christ in his time (To the Ephesians 20). However, one could no doubt understand his words as a reference to believers praying to the Father through the Son qua High Priest and Intercessor. While the middle recension of the Ignatian letters evidently does not contain the reading that explicitly speaks of praying to God through Christ, another recension does speak of the Son interceding for worshipers of God in his capacity as High Priest. At any rate, Ignatius of Antioch may well have advocated or espoused prayer to Christ.

Some slightly ambiguous evidence is also available for us in the Epistles of Pliny the Younger, who is known for writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan in 112/113 CE regarding Christians in Asia Minor, who would sing psalms to the Lord Jesus Christ quasi Deo. Did such hymns also include prayers to the Son of God? It is possible that this may have been the case, though I don't think one can say for certain, based on Pliny's letters alone (see the letters of Pliny X.96.7).

Origen too addresses the subject of prayer in De Oratione 15.1. There, he insists that, properly speaking, prayer should be addressed to "God the Father alone," although he also invokes Christ, "the very Logos himself." Nevertheless, in Contra Celsum 5.4, Origen demonstrates that he does not believe prayer in the absolute sense should be directed toward God's Son. See Jaroslav Pelikan's _The Christian Tradition_ 1:198-199.

You might also want to reference Arnobius of Sicca's Adversus nationes 1.36.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.

Best regards,

Professor Foster

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Justin Martyr on the Soul

Greetings all!

Someone has written to me as follows:

"I reached the conviction Justyn [sic] believed in a anthropological concept constituted by three elements:

- body
- soul
- spirit

The first two are subjected to the death.

Could you please tell me if my vision of this matter can be considered wrong? If so, why?"

I reply:

First, I would say that when one reads Justin's Dialogue, he or she must distinguish between the words of Justin, those of Trypho and those of the man who helped to convert Justin to Christianity. Second, as I read Justin, he does seem to espouse a tripartite anthropological theologia. However, he clearly appears to argue that the soul is able to survive death and subsist for all eternity.

In 1 Apology 20, Justin contends that Christians in his day affirmed that "the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those [souls] of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence" in eternity.

Also, in 1 Apology 44, we read:

"And whatever both philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things. And hence there seem to be seeds of truth among all men; but they are charged with not accurately understanding [the truth] when they assert contradictories."

In the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin does indicate that he rejected the Platonic immortality of the soul doctrine, as did Tatian. Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that he thought the soul survives the death of the body.

Finally, in the Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection 10, there is this fateful passage:

"The resurrection is a resurrection of the flesh which died. For the spirit dies not; the soul is in the body, and without a soul it cannot live. The body, when the soul forsakes it, is not. For the body is the house of the soul; and the soul the house of the spirit. These three, in all those who cherish a sincere hope and unquestioning faith in God, will be saved."

Best regards,

Professor Edgar Foster

Monday, February 15, 2010

Origen of Alexandria on XARAKTHR in Hebrews 1:3

Taken from Peri Archon (De Principiis) I.2.8:

'But since He is called by the apostle not only the brightness of His glory, but also the express figure of His person or subsistence, it does not seem idle to inquire how there can be said to be another figure of that person besides the person of God Himself, whatever be the meaning of person and subsistence. Consider, then, whether the Son of God, seeing He is His Word and Wisdom, and alone knows the Father, and reveals Him to whom He will (i.e., to those who are capable of receiving His word and wisdom), may not, in regard of this very point of making God to be understood and acknowledged, be called the figure of His person and subsistence; that is, when that Wisdom, which desires to make known to others the means by which God is acknowledged and understood by them, describes Himself first of all, it may by so doing be called the express figure of the person of God. In order, however, to arrive at a fuller understanding of the manner in which the Saviour is the figure of the person or subsistence of God, let us take an instance, which, although it does not describe the subject of which we are treating either fully or appropriately, may nevertheless be seen to be employed for this purpose only, to show that the Son of God, who was in the form of God, divesting Himself (of His glory), makes it His object, by this very divesting of Himself, to demonstrate to us the fullness of His deity. For instance, suppose that there were a statue of so enormous a size as to fill the whole world, and which on that account could be seen by no one; and that another statue were formed altogether resembling it in the shape of the limbs, and in the features of the countenance, and in form and material, but without the same immensity of size, so that those who were unable to behold the one of enormous proportions, should, on seeing the latter, acknowledge that they had seen the former, because it preserved all the features of its limbs and countenance, and even the very form and material, so closely, as to be altogether undistinguishable from it; by some such similitude, the Son of God, divesting Himself of His equality with the Father, and showing to us the way to the knowledge of Him, is made the express image of His person: so that we, who were unable to look upon the glory of that marvellous light when placed in the greatness of His Godhead, may, by His being made to us brightness, obtain the means of beholding the divine light by looking upon the brightness. This comparison, of course, of statues, as belonging to material things, is employed for no other purpose than to show that the Son of God, though placed in the very insignificant form of a human body, in consequence of the resemblance of His works and power to the Father, showed that there was in Him an immense and invisible greatness, inasmuch as He said to His disciples, "He who sees Me, sees the Father also;" and, "I and the Father are one." And to these belong also the similar expression, "The Father is in Me, and I in the Father."'

Michael V. Fox on Proverbs 8:22ff


"The word's [QANAH] lexical meaning, the semantic content it brings to context, is 'acquire,' no more than that. But one way something can be acquired is by creation. English 'acquire' implies that the object was already in existence, but this is not the case with QANAH. To avoid misunderstanding, the better translation in context is 'created.'

While both 'created' and acquired' are legitimate contextual translations of this verb, 'possessed' (Vul, KJV) is not. Though this mutes the theologically difficult implication that prior to creation God did not have wisdom, it does not really fit the context. The verbs in vv 22-25 relating to Wisdom's genesis describe a one-time action, whereas possession is continuous. Subsequent possession may be assumed, though prior possession is indeed excluded. God acquired/created wisdom as the first of his deeds. Wisdom was 'born' (vv 24, 25) at that time. She did not exist from eternity. Wisdom is therefore an accidental attribute of godhead, not an essential or inherent one" (Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York and London: Doubleday, page 279).


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity in relation to Natural Reason

"The truths that we confess concerning God fall under two modes. Some things true of God are beyond all the competence of human reason, as that God is Three and One. Other things there are to which even human reason can attain, as the existence and unity of God, which philosophers have proved to a demonstration under the guidance of the light of natural reason" (SCG 1.3).

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Problematic Nature of the Trinity Doctrine (A Paper in the Works)

The Problematic Nature of the Trinity Doctrine

Trinitarians and non-trinitarians alike have noted the problematic
nature of the Trinity doctrine. In the Aquinas lectures of 1969,
Bernard Cooke stated his disapproval of the arbitrary abstractness of
the Trinity, saying: "one must ask whether the revelation of Father,
Son, and Spirit can then be fitted into the formalities of thought set
up by such [philosophical] reflection" (16). The philosophical
reflection that Cooke references is the learned cogitation of men like
Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. In the writings of Aquinas,
the unicity of God is so neatly distinguished from the triunity of God,
Cooke worried that the divine nature might be viewed as "an infinite
neutrality" (16). This thought world, exclaims Cooke, is very different
from the Weltanschauung of the apostle John.

Cooke is not the only theologian to worry about deep-seated problems of
the Trinity. Cyril C. Richardson has also expressed his personal
reservations about the doctrine of God's triunity. According to
Richardson, the Trinity is "an artificial construct" (Richardson 148).
It arbitrarily tries to resolve the perennial problem of God's
simultaneous absoluteness and relatedness to the world, by formulating
a doctrine of necessary threeness in the Godhead. In fact, Richardson
writes: "there is no necessary threeness in the Godhead" (149). He
concedes that there are immanent distinctions in the godhead; but the
Trinity does not exhaust all of the distinctions that need to be made,
nor does it resolve the numerous antinomies associated with the
absoluteness and relatedness of God. Richardson asserts that this has
been true of every Trinitarian theory ever formulated. Is Richardson
correct? Does an analysis of the Trinity doctrine show that there are
insoluble difficulties connected with it? Is it indeed possible to
postulate a coherent statement of God's supposed threefoldness? The
purpose of this essay is to provide an answer to these questions, and
carefully analyze both terminological and logical problems related to
the Trinity. After scrutinizing the doctrine, I will briefly evaluate
the arguments on both sides and state my thoughts regarding the

The question of how to refer to the three persons (tres personae)
united in one divine substance (substantia) has been an ongoing debate
in Christian theology for centuries. Normally, when we moderns think of
a person, we envision reasoning, responsible, thinking centers of
consciousness--distinct and individuated from other centers of
consciousness. Nevertheless, if we apply such terminology to the three
persons of the Godhead, ineluctable conundrums result. The idea of God
subsisting as three centers of consciousness in one substance is a
notion repugnant to most Trinitarians. Karl Rahner writes, "this is the
very thing which is excluded by the dogmatic teaching on the single and
unique essence of God" (135). That is, the three persons cannot be
three separate centers of consciousness because: "this unicity of
[God's] essence implies and includes the unicity of one single
consciousness and one single freedom" that is determined by the
"mysterious threeness" of the triune Godhead (135). While this approach
eliminates the threat of tritheism, however, other problems ominously
hover above the orthodox dogma of the Trinity.
Not only have most modern theologians been disturbed by the implication
of the term "person," with reference to the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit; the word "person" also bothered Augustine of Hippo.
Consequently, the famed bishop formulated a psychological model of the
Trinity, likening the divine substantia to human memory, imagination
and will. Furthermore, Augustine wrote that the whole of the Godhead
resided in each persona. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is
fully God, and the Holy Spirit is fully God. Yet, there are not three
gods, but one God. While Augustine's model obviates the threat of
tritheism, Rahner suggests that his formulation is deficient because it
does not sufficiently explain the Father's begettal of the Son, or the
spiration of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, Augustine's analogy does
not give enough weight to the "historical and salvific experience of
the Son and of the Spirit" (135). It woefully fails to explain the
Trinity's relation to God's dealings within history (His economic
dealings). This renders the doctrine incomprehensible from an economic
(oikonomia) standpoint.

A third criticism of Rahner's is that Augustine's metaphor fails to
teach us that the God revealed in the oikonomia, is the same God of the
ontological Trinity. Consequently, if the ontological Trinity (God as
He is in Himself) is not equivalent to the economic Trinity, we can not
assume that God has disclosed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ (a
conclusion radically at odds with the revelation deposited in the New
Testament). Rahner thus concludes that interpretations of the Trinity
like Augustine's are gnostic in nature: they put forth the idea of a
God "behind" the God that Jesus Christ "explained" (exegesato). In an
effort to solve problems associated with the psychological analogy of
the Trinity, Rahner proposes viewing the persons of the Godhead in
terms of relations. However, does this positing of three "relations,"
as opposed to three persons, really solve the problematic implications
that attend the triune doctrine of God? For the following reasons, we
must answer 'no'.

For one, from Rahner's frame of reference, to think of the Trinity
numerically (one nature, etc.) is ipso facto not to think of God's
triunity at all! Rahner further insists that "the three persons are not
three distinct things per se but are three distinct things only in and
through their relations with each other" (Davis 139). He frequently
employs such terms as "relative realities" or 'mere and opposed
relations' to describe the personae of the Godhead, all the while
insisting that the Trinity is a "unity of three divine persons"
subsisting in "three distinct manners of subsisting" (qt. In Davis
139). The tres personae "are identical to the Godhead but only
virtually distinct from each other" (Davis 139). In this regard,
Stephen Davis comments:

Rahner calls relations 'the most unreal of realities' but insists that
they are absolutely real as other determinations. But I do not see how
this helps. There is nothing in my experience that helps me understand
the concepts Rahner is working with; thus they do not help me
understand the doctrine of the Trinity (140).