Monday, February 19, 2007

Augustine and Maximos on Free Choice

As I mentioned in my post on the metaphysics of Saint Maximos the Confessor, Joseph Farrell does an admirable job of putting his explanation of the theological themes involved into their historical context. This feature of his analysis is strikingly evident in his assessment of the problem of free choice in the two Saints. After noting that the differences between East and West often amount to problems in the order and manner in which the West frames its questions, he puts Saint Augustine's position into the context of Arianism on the one hand and the simplistic analysis of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus on the other:
For the Arians, the opposition of Christ's will at Gethsemane to the Passion was a true opposition, and therefore, Christ was not God. For St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the same confusion of opposition and distinction held true, but that meant rather that Christ's words - - "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; Nevertheless, let not what I will but thy will prevail" - - indicated that the Son had no special will of his Own in contradistinction to the Arian position. For St. Augustine, there are indeed two wills in Christ, the divine and the human. But, because he, like the Arians and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, cannot disentangle distinction from opposition, these two wills are opposed.
The importance of this, for Farrell, lies in his belief that this reading of St. Augustine explains why, in Farrell's analysis, St. Augustine treats Christology as a whole as somehow subordinate to the theme of Predestination, and this is what he means when he speaks of the West putting questions in the wrong way or in the wrong order. Nor does it end with St. Augustine:
If this point were to be put in scholastic terms one would perhaps say that the treatise on Christology is a part of the much broader treatise on predestination, or providence, as is indeed the case in the general arrangement of the Summa Contra Gentiles of [St.] Thomas Aquinas, where in the first book God in His essence and attributes is discussed, followed by three intervening books [that] discuss providence, and finally by the last book entitled Salvation in which the persons of the Trinity are discussed. In this general arrangement one may perhaps see the seeds of the modern "Christologies from below" being already sown.
I think Farrell is on to something here, though I'm not sure I would follow him in his conclusion that the West generally muddles issues that the East sees with preternatural perspicacity. Certainly the doctrine of Saint Augustine has a tendency to make some of us nervous, while the view of Saint Maximos, grounded as it is in metaphysics rather than logic, has a certain appeal. I doubt that it is warranted to go much beyond that as a general conclusion about the relative merits of East and West.

Where I think Farrell tends to stray, if that is the proper word, is when he appears to endorse the rather muddled metaphysics of later Greek theologians whose positions are more political than philosophically nuanced. This is particularly the case with the claims, made rather strenuously by Photios of Constantinople, that a confusion between Person and Nature lay behind the West's mistaken endorsement of the Filioque.
Most importantly, Photios asks whether the Spirit's procession is to be seen as a procession from the one divine person of Christ, or from His two natures, the point being, that if one could so confuse person and nature, the[n] the Spirit might just as easily be said to proceed from His humanity, since that, technically, was anointed, and therefore Christ.
It is rather ironic that Farrell does not submit Photios to the same critical scrutiny here as he did earlier and so effectively in the case of St. Augustine, for here is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse and coming up with an incorrect analysis due to a mistaken method of putting the question. As we have already seen in the posts on the Filioque controversy (for example, here, here, and principally here), Trinitarian doctrine cannot be understood independently of the predicational analysis of the metaphysical structures involved, and from that point of view it is quite clear that it is not a confusion of Person and Nature that explains the West's commitment to the Filioque, but a desire for coherence (a property that was not always essential to the style of Photios). Be that as it may, Farrell rightly locates the Filioque controversy within the context of the Spanish Adoptionist heresy (though that connection is well known among scholars of the problem) and likens Saint Augustine's doctrine of predestination and his "bottom-up" Christology to the metaphysical confusion underlying the Adoptionist controversy.

While that is, indeed, an interesting connection, I doubt very much that it is necessary to establish the attractiveness of Maximos' idea that the two wills in Christ are not opposed in the way that Saint Augustine imagined. It gives a kind of genealogy of Augustinianism, but it can hardly serve as a refutation of it, any more than Nietzsche's genealogy of morals establishes the arbitrariness of all moral discourse. More to the point is Farrell's intuition - - surely correct - - that divine simplicity is underinterpreted in the writings of St. Augustine. Simplicity is not a univocal term, but Saint Augustine tends to treat it as though it were, and this leads him to assert that whatever is true of God is necessarily true of his attributes as well, one the grounds that the notion of truth itself with regards to a metaphysical simple can only be understood in this way. Augustine's motive for treating God as an essence rather than a substance was not without merit, however (De Trinitate 7.5.10):
[if God may be called a "substance"] then there is something in him as in a subject, and he is no longer simple; his being, accordingly, would not be one and the same with the other qualities that are predicated of him in respect to himself...But it is wrong to assert that God subsists and is the subject of his own goodness...that God himself is not his own goodness, and that it inheres in him as in a subject.
Arguably there are more sophisticated ways to handle the problem that Saint Augustine has set himself, but I think Farrell pushes his thesis too hard when he uses this maneuver on Augustine's part as a pretext for asserting that
the question for St. Augustine then became one of securely maintaining the real distinction of persons in the face of a simplicity [that] had already nullified the real quality and distinctions of the attributes amongst themselves. Here the subordination of the persons and attributes to the essence in the ordo theologiae also provides St. Augustine with the means to attempt to distinguish the persons from each other. Having assumed an absolute, definitional simplicity, the persons can no longer be absolute hypostases, but are merely relations, since the names Father, Son, and Spirit are terms relative to each other.
Unless sincerity of assertion can persuade, this fails to persuade. While it seems sensible to say that St. Augustine has maintained "an absolute, definitional simplicity" that may not hold up very well under intense critical scrutiny, in the absence of any non-polemical definitions of persons, hypostases, relations, and the metaphysical structures behind them, this particular claim falls rather flat. Sadly, it is just such a non-polemical explanation that Farrell fails to provide.

This does not diminish the importance of Farrell's book, of course: in many ways it is quite clever, and it is certainly a stimulating read. In particular, he manages to make some very good historical sense out of the position of Maximos on free choice; I will turn to that topic in a subsequent post.


NeoChalcedonian said...

Do you agree with Farrell that the essence/energies distinction is necessary for libertarian freedom in the eschaton? Is there real plurality in God?

Vitae Scrutator said...

A very good question. Strictly speaking, I myself do not think that the essence/energies distinction is necessary for libertarian freedom in the eschaton, but I do believe that Farrell has done a remarkably good job of making the whole doctrine clearer. Part of the difficulty in this matter, I think, lies in a kind of cognitive dissonance between East and West. Whereas in the West there has been a rather long philosophical tradition of regarding the metaphysics of essence as essential, if you will pardon the pun, to understanding the nature of God, and because the tradition from which this view flows regards the simplicity of God as also "essential" in some sense, it has become a staple of Western theology as such. In the East, by contrast, the simplicity of God is rather more a symbol of his unity and singularity. To attempt to adopt a position in this debate strikes me as rather perilous, since one wants above all to avoid begging the question against either side.

Not long ago I posted some comments on the metaphysics of energeiai, but I cannot pretend to be an expert in such matters: my own metaphysics is thoroughly Western in orientation. (I should add, however, that Farrell does an excellent job of making Eastern metaphysics palatable to a Westerner!)

However, I do plan to say much more about libertarian freedom in a future post, perhaps by Wednesday of this week if I have the time. In that post I will try to make it a point to address this question of the distinction between essence and energies, because you're quite right that for Farrell this distinction is quite important, and serves to explain many of the differences between East and West, in his view. I confess that upon first reading his book I found myself wondering whether his argument was sound, but the more I think about it the more attractive it seems.

So, to answer your question: the only way to respond to the question "Is there real plurality in God" one must first explore what is meant by "plurality" and what by "real", as well as what is entailed by conceiving of God as "simple". These are not, I'm afraid, simple questions, if you will pardon another pun, and I am not at all sure that I am up to the task of disambiguating them. If we are to make sense of Trinitarian doctrine, however, we really must grapple with the problem of plurality in unity, and I hope that, if this answer to your query has been vague and non-committal, I will be able to make up for it in some subsequent posts to follow shortly.

Vitae Scrutator said...


My apologies for the confusion. I started the mirror site at StBlogs as an experiment, and so far it's still pretty much the Beta version of this site, but I can't get the two sites to share comments.

From my own point of view it doesn't matter which site you comment on, since I get emails of everything anyway. It might matter to other folks who only read one site or the other, but so far nobody has complained about missing any comments.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

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