Monday, March 31, 2014

God the creationist

We know the story of Jonah: God calls him to preach in Nineveh, but he flees; eventually he comes around to preaching an oracle of doom, but he is greatly angered by the fact that the people repent and God relents from punishing them. Now it is ironic that Jonah describes his allegiance to the other sailors during the storm as belonging to "the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1.9), because it is precisely creation theology that motivates God to relent of punishing Nineveh in the narrative of the book.

God attempts to make his decision not to punish Nineveh intelligible like this:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? (4.10-11)

The reasoning here is fascinating, because, as I've said, it is creation theology that motivates God's decision; it is the fact that the Ninevites are God's creatures, "a hundred and twenty thousand persons," including "many animals" as well, that moves God to keep from destroying them. Jonah is not himself a creator, and yet he is upset about the plant which sprouts and dies in the course of a day. But Yhwh is the Creator, and how can he fail to care to for his creation?

Athanasius said it well when he argued that the fallen condition of humanity in general was a motivation for the incarnation, in light of God's goodness as creator: For it were not worthy of God's goodness that the things he had made should waste away, because of the deceit of the devil. Especially it was unseemly to the last degree that God's handicraft among men should be done away, either because of their own carelessness, or because of the deceit of evil spirits. . . . it was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God's goodness (On the Incarnation, 6).

For Athanasius, whether man's downfall was self-inflicted or other-inflicted, it was not an option for the good God merely to stand and watch as his creation is undone. Likewise Yhwh in Jonah claims that he has pity for the Ninevites, even if and perhaps precisely because they do not know left from right, that is, they are gravely morally corrupted and do not know what is right and wrong. It is the mere fact that they are his creatures, and he is their creator, that is sufficient for God to desire their salvation, their deliverance, their repentance, and not their destruction.

This theology is miles away from a kind of Augustinianism according to which some persons, equally God's creatures, are nevertheless consigned to eternal destruction for the display of God's justice. No, the author of Jonah and Athanasius would insist that creation theology is what motivates divine ethics: God loves his creatures, and because he is a good creator, it would be beneath him to see his works undone and destroyed, whether they deserved it or not.

Importantly, too, this episode gives a critical insight as to the nature of the covenant with Israel. As Barth would say, the covenant with Israel is only instrumental, a means to accomplishing a greater covenant made with the world at large. God's dealings with the Israelite people have a greater scope, a greater purpose which extends beyond them only, just as Jonah the Hebrew is here sent for the reconciliation of the pagan sailors (1.14-6) and the Ninevites (3.6-10) to their Creator whom they had previously not known. God's salvific purposes include the world at large, and the covenant people are a means to accomplishing that goal, not the whole of God's salvific dealings.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The contradictory confession of Jonah

One of Jonah's most amusing moments is his confession of faith, offered to pagan sailors during a storm from the LORD that threatens to capsize their ship and drown them all: "I am a Hebrew. . . I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land" (1.9).

It's amusing that Jonah should speak thus because the storm was the LORD's doing: Jonah had received a call to go preach to the city of Nineveh, but Jonah instead decided to flee in the opposite direction to escape Yhwh's call (vv. 2-3). What kind of worship of God is that, when you flee from his call and refuse obedience?

Oftentimes in life our experience is exactly the same: we identify with God, we claim to worship him, but we make claims such as these in moments or in times when our behavior might suggest otherwise. If we are lucky we become aware of the hypocrisy at the moment, and through some kind of guilt or shame are motivated to change ourselves, to begin to live differently.

What Jonah does after is this: he offers to be thrown off the ship, so that calamity may not befall the other sailors (v. 12). It is not exactly clear what motivates him here, either: does he wish to die, so as to escape God's call in a sort of permanent way? Or is this an act of self-surrender to Yhwh, to accept whatever fate may come, motivated by pangs of conscience in the face of Jonah's own hypocritical witness to the LORD?

Jonah's prayer of thanksgiving for God's deliverance (2.2-9) comes before the fish spits him up on the land (v. 10) but after he fell into the sea (1.15-7), which inclines me to think the latter interpretation is better: Jonah gives himself over to Yhwh, ready to receive what the LORD will give him, expecting perhaps death and a watery grave, but receiving instead salvation.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

God is quick to forgive

The book of Jonah opens up with the following command given to the prophet by God: "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me" (1.2). Jonah, of course, heads in the exact opposite direction, fleeing his divine calling and the presence of God (v. 3).

Now, ignorant of the ending of the book, what reasoning might we impute to Jonah in this situation? Why would he flee? To me it seems plausible that his leaving would have been motivated by a fear of the reception of the message: the people of Nineveh are violent, evil oppressors, and if he foretold doom against them, it might prove to be the last message he ever offers. It wouldn't have been the first time a prophet of Yhwh loses his life because of the message, after all.

Interestingly, however, by the time we reach the end of the story and God spares Nineveh upon repentance, Jonah tells us what his reasoning was: "O LORD! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (4.2). Jonah tells us his motivation was the exact opposite of what we expected: he fled because he knew God would be disposed to forgive the people!

I greatly appreciate the stark contrast here between the world with which the author of Jonah presents us, and the world we may sometimes take ourselves to live in: for the author, God is ready to forgive even the most despicable people, so much so that it may inspire anger in us and in their victims; for us, God's forgiveness is something we dare not trust in, we may hardly be able to believe for ourselves, and certainly we are not so disposed to be quick to forgive, either.

This is something critically important for us if we are to be forgiving people: we have to come to see God, too, as eager to forgive, to restore, to reconcile. So long as we see God's forgiveness as something to be earned with great difficulty, and even then only offered to a certain few people whose sins may not be so grave, we will never be ourselves forgiving in the way we ought to. We will never live up to the example of Stephen, for instance. Jonah invites us to see God as ready to forgive, ready to relent, for the purpose of making us so, as well.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Stăniloae on the rationality of the universe

Yesterday I was reading from the first volume of Dumitru Stăniloae's The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994) and came across this intriguing passage early on:

We consider that the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually as long as the same Reason preserves its being. . . . In our faith, the rationality of the cosmos has a meaning only if it is known in the thought of an intelligent creative being before its creation and in the whole time of its continuing in being (p. 2).

This is a fascinating argument, but here it is really only asserted and not defended in any great detail. I will try to make the argument plausible by appeal to a line of thinking more familiar to me, namely that of my friend Bill Vallicella's A Paradigm Theory of Existence (Kluwer, 2002).

The world is rational, says Stăniloae, by which he means it is constructed in such a way that we can know it and understand it; it is not totally impenetrable to the intellect, but rather intelligible. Bill would add this is because individual existent things exhibit a proposition-like structure. What does that mean?

A simple attributive proposition roughly has the following logical structure: Fa, where F denotes some characteristic or attribute or property, and a denotes some individual thing. Thus the propositions snow is white, tigers are fierce, philosophy is long, etc., all exhibit that same structure: Fa. Now Bill would say that we can understand things and affirm propositions about them because the things themselves exhibit a proposition-like structure: they are themselves a composite of (if we may phrase things this way) a principle of intelligibility, that by which a thing is intelligible and has some reality (F), and a principle of individuation, that by which a thing is this particular individual (a).

Now Bill will insist that things are only intelligible, and we may only make true propositional affirmations about things, insofar as they have structure. If they did not have this structure, then how could we understand them through this structure? There would be a critical disanalogy in what we understand and the thing itself. But why do they have this structure? Why should they be intelligible in this way? Considered abstractly and free from prejudice, there is no obvious reason why the world should rational and intelligible in this way. It's certainly true that if it weren't rational or intelligible, we could not have meaningful experience of it, nor could we speak about it, but the fact that its rationality is a precondition of our discourse doesn't answer the question of why it should rational, and why we should be able to hold a discourse on it, in the first place. Importantly, too, there's nothing in the propositional structure of a thing that can explain its unity as such a structure: considered abstractly and generally, there's nothing about an a that requires that it be F, since a is possibly ~F, and G, and so on.

Now in the case of propositions, what gives them their unity is our mind in thinking them. I have a lot of words in my vocabulary, but when I form the thought snow is white, I unite a few of them in the critical way necessary for them to form a proposition. I, who stand outside of the composite proposition so to speak, confer unity upon it through an act of the will.

Therefore we may understand Bill and Stăniloae as affirming that the proposition-like structure of things likewise originates in a mind which gives them their fundamental unity. This what Stăniloae means: the world is rational, intelligible, capable of being thought, because in a critical way it is the thought of a being whose thoughts can bring things into existence. This is what Bill means: things have a proposition-like structure because they are so composed by a mind of sorts which brings them into existence.

There are two possible objections to make here, the latter of them more compelling than the former.

The former objection may go like this: things exhibit a proposition-like structure because our minds form the world in this way, so that it is intelligible; but this is a structure imposed upon things by the human mind, not one that is in the things themselves. The problem with this Kantian view is that it cannot escape positing a proposition-like structure in things themselves, because it speaks objectively of the interaction of minds with the noumenal world. We cannot even affirm that our minds impose a proposition-like structure upon things in experience without affirming a proposition-like structure in pre-mental reality, namely individuated minds with principles of both intelligibility and individuation. It is only because my individual mind as a certain power or capacity to interpret reality that it can impose any structure upon reality whatsoever, and so structure is already previous to mental activity. The first objection to the argument therefore fails.

The second objection is that it is not clear that the use of mental language to describe that which gives things their unified, proposition-like structure is appropriate. For to speak of a mind which unifies the various composites of reality is to speak of something with a proposition-like structure; it is to make an affirmation of the sort Fa. But if this mind unifies everything else, then it cannot itself be in need of something to unify it, it cannot itself exhibit a proposition-like structure. I think Stăniloae and Bill would here respond that the language of mentality in reference to this ultimate cause of the rationality of the universe is at best analogical: insofar as the universe is rational, its rationality must proceed from something in some sense rational; but it is a kind of rationality or rational being that is very, very different from the kind of rationality we exhibit.

To conclude, Stăniloae affirmed that there could be no other explanation for the intelligibility or rationality of the universe apart from some intelligence outside of the familiar realm of existence which in some way thinks it into being. This seems to me to be true enough. It's no answer to suppose that the world just is rational and that's all there is to it, because as I've noted, that is not the whole story. The world is rational in virtue of a fundamental unity of two principles in each thing, a principle of intelligibility and a principle of individuation. Now these two principles cannot explain this unity of themselves, since in general it is not necessary for any individual thing to be in any particular way or other: the material from which my body is made, for instance, need not have been structured in such a way as to compose a human body, as is evidenced by the fact that one day it will no longer do so, and previous to my birth it did not do so. But then there is an ontological "gap" which needs filling: there is unity, but within the composite thing itself there is no explanation for the unity. Therefore there must be something outside of every composite of this sort, something which is not in this way composite, which confers unity on the rest of them. To refuse to posit such a thing is to fail to account for a critical element of the problem we've set out to solve -- viz., the intelligibility of the universe -- and in some cases may even be a refusal to philosophize with integrity and seriousness, since the conclusion may not be palatable.

The astounding of God

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter [to the house of Cornelius] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles (Acts 10.45).

One perennial problem for Christians, Jews, and persons of all shapes and sizes is the constant disposition to try to delimit the range of God's activities, to define the parameters of the presence of his grace. Oftentimes we have difficulty believing that God might be present with that group of "believers," or that she might worthy to participate in various activities at our church, or that he might be doing the legitimate work of God even though his understanding is "false."

The first Judean believers in Christ had the same problem: they were astounded that God might have given the gift of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles, to ethnic outsiders who, in spite of all the favorable things which might be said about them (e.g., 10.2, 22), are nevertheless outside of the covenant and the promises. Now some of them repented of their excessive exclusivism in the face of God's work, but others (as we know well from the evidence of the Pauline corpus) maintained their hard-heartedness, refusing to accept the Gentiles on equal terms.

The problem is fundamentally one of theology. As many theologians appreciate, the covenant God made with the Hebrews was not pursued for its own sake, as if this particular covenant were the end of all of Yhwh's activities with humanity. Rather the covenant with Israel is instrumental in God's dealings with the entirety of creation, with all of humanity. The Jews were to be the means by which all the nations of the world are reconciled to God; they were to be "a kingdom of priests" (Exod 19.6), mediating between God and the world, and "a light for the Gentiles . . . that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Is 42.6, 49.6). It is Isaiah himself who says that the salvation of merely the Israelites is "too small a thing" (Is 49.6). The disbelief or astonishment of some at the sight of the reception of the Gentiles of the Holy Spirit perhaps originated from a failure to perceive that God's soteriological purposes include the Gentiles as much as the Jews.

Now this doesn't entail that every appearance of favorable religiosity is genuine; the lordship of Jesus Christ must still be preached, and it is at the preaching of Christ that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, not through other means. But when we find that someone has come to believe in Christ, we ought to rejoice that God has included yet another soul in his fold, not to object that it can't be, that his theology is heretical, that she doesn't dress as she should, etc. As I commented in an earlier post on Peter, God makes use of people whose vices we don't tolerate, just as he makes use of us whose vices are intolerable as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Duns Scotus on the existence of God, II

The previous post of the series addressed in brief Scotus' argument for the existence of a first efficient cause; this post will address Scotus' argumentation that such a being could not in principle be caused to exist by anything else.

Recall that Scotus' first efficient cause is defined thus: (i) it brings other things into existence of its own power, and (ii) nothing brings it into existence or actualizes it in any way. Scotus furthermore argues that such a being could not in principle be brought into existence by anything else. How?

Scotus says: Such a being [viz., a first efficient cause] cannot be produced and is independently able to produce an effect. This was proved above, for if such a being could cause only in virtue of something else or if it could be produced, then either a process ad infinitum or a circle of causes would result, or else the series would terminate in some being which cannot be produced and yet independently is able to produce an effect (p. 45).

His argument, then, seems to go like this. If something can be brought into existence, then its exhibiting its causal powers would ultimately be dependent in this case upon its being actualized by something else. This is true if it exercises its causal powers in a per se causal series, of course, but also even if it operates in a causal series ordered per accidens; as we have seen, per accidens chains are ontologically dependent on prior per se chains, as anything can only produce an effect in virtue of some form within it which gives it the power to act so. And as previously argued, such a chain of causes has to terminate in something which can produce of itself and is not -- cannot be -- actualized by anything else.

Another way to think of it may be like this. Anything that exists but is not produced by anything else must in some critical sense exist on its own, of itself. For that reason it could not in principle be brought into existence by anything else, since it would always preexist every causal chain of production. I can produce a child only because the child doesn't already exist; I can't produce my brother, however, because he already exists and so can't be produced. If the first efficient cause exists uncaused by anything else, therefore, in principle nothing could bring it into existence: it would always preexist every causal chain.

Scotus argues furthermore that if the first efficient cause has no efficient cause of its own, neither does it have a final, formal, or material cause. Arguing that the first efficient cause has no final cause, that is that it doesn't exist for the sake of producing anything in particular, he argues thus:

A final cause does not cause at all unless in a metaphorical sense it moves the efficient cause to produce an effect. Only in this way does the entity of what exists for the sake of an end depend on the end as prior. Nothing, however, is a per se cause unless the thing caused depends upon it essentially as upon something prior (ibid.).

This is not exactly the simplest passage to interpret, but the idea, I take it, is something like this. On Scotus' Aristotelian view, things have final causes, which are basically understood as that for the sake of which they exist. The final cause is typically that to which a thing naturally gravitates: e.g., as a tree towards growing, producing oxygen and fruits; a fish towards swimming, eating, and reproducing; etc. In a way, then, the existence of (say) a fish as a fish depends upon its fulfilling that which is a fish's final cause: if a thing did not swim, did not eat food, did not do all of the various fish-things, to that extent it is not a fish. This is what it would mean to say that the entity of what exists for the sake of an end depends on the end as prior.

Now if the first efficient cause had a final cause per se, that is to say, naturally and of itself, in virtue of what it is, then it would depend upon the fulfillment of that final cause in order for its existence. It would depend upon the fulfillment of that final cause as a prior condition of its own existence as an instance of its kind, in the same way that a thing must do fish-things in order to be considered a fish. But in a case like this, the first efficient cause would be actualized by something else: it would be made actual by the realization of its final cause, whereas we previously argued that the first efficient cause cannot be actualized by anything else.

Therefore the first efficient cause does not have a per se final cause, that is, it is not directed towards the production of anything in particular in virtue of what it is.

Likewise, Scotus continues, it cannot have any formal or material cause. Here the argumentation is a bit simpler to understand. A formal cause -- that is, the form by virtue of which a thing is actual, such as the arrangement of organic matter which makes it into a human body -- is an "intrinsic" cause of a thing, insofar as it is a part of the very existence moment-to-moment of a thing. The same is true with a material cause, the "stuff" from which a thing is made and by which it is individuated. Scotus notes that if a thing has no extrinsic cause, which is to say nothing outside of it which realizes or actualizes it in any way, then it could not have an intrinsic cause of any kind, either.

He argues like this, an argument hearkening back even to the neoplatonists:

Intrinsic causes are caused by extrinsic causes either in their very being or insofar as they cause the composite, or in both of these ways, for intrinsic causes of themselves and without the intervention of some agent cannot constitute the composite (p. 46).

On Scotus' ontology, things are composites of matter and form, just as a human body is a unity of organic matter and the particular arrangement of that matter required to form a human body. Now in general the unity of a composite of this sort requires the activity of an external agent, since the components themselves cannot of themselves explain the phenomenon of their unity. The parts of a bike do not explain why they are united in such a way as to form a bike, since they can clearly exist without being so united -- they once did before the bike was assembled. Likewise the parts of your body do not explain why they are united in a way that makes up a body; you can remove my organs, one by one, so that they are no longer united in a body-like way, which shows that the organs of themselves do not explain their unity.

Now if the first efficient cause is not caused to exist by anything else, then it cannot have internal composition of form and matter. For if it did, its internal composition would have to be explained by something else which composes it, it would need to be caused by something else, which we deny. This shows that the first efficient cause could not be a material being.

Should you not know justice?

Today I read some from the prophet Micah, who addressed the people of Judah during the time of the Assyrian crisis. His message is not particularly different from that of the other prophets, whether those of the northern or southern kingdom. Like Donald Gowan appreciates in Theology of the Prophetic Books (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), the prophetic kerygma is the death and resurrection of Israel: death by exile because of sin, but resurrection in eventual return to the promised land.

I am really fond of the polemics of the third chapter of Micah, when he speaks against the rulers and prophets. Notice what he says:

Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice? -- you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay the skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron (3.1-3).

He makes the rulers of the nation out to be a pack of murderers and torturers who cannibalize their constituents. This is in stark contrast to the expectation that they rule with equity and justice, for the good of the people. Micah condemns the rulers for going in the entirely opposite direction with their leadership: rather than ruling for the sake of their constituents, rather than ensuring that justice prevail, they rip the skin from the backs of their subjects and gorge on their meat. A powerful image!

Likewise he objects to the prophets whose messages are tempered by the favor (or disfavor) they receive from their audiences:

Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God (vv. 5-7).

The job of everyone who takes himself or herself to be a prophet is to speak the word of the LORD, and for so many this meant speaking an extremely unfavorable message to an unreceptive people. Jeremiah is one of the tragic stories of the Bible in this regard. He was given the prophetic burden by God, forbidden to marry or have a family because the people are going to die of horrible diseases anyway, and he received nothing but persecution for his message. In the end, he complains that Yhwh deceived him (Jer 20.7). In the face of such great prophetic struggles, the prophet who speaks nice to those who feed him (and bad to those who don't) is a disgrace, and the LORD hides his face from such people.

The chapter ends with one more piece of polemics against the rulers:

[Israel's] rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us." Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height (vv. 11-2).

The final line which speaks of Zion being plowed is famous for its extreme imagery: the very Hill of God, where Yhwh is supposed to reside amidst his people, will be entirely cleared and destroyed; it will be abandoned so that a wild forest will grow there. This is the result of the evil of the rulers and the upper class: they claim to be with God, they presume that God is with them, yet every day is spent in iniquity and injustice.

This is the message of the prophetic endeavor of the Old Testament in the end: there are expectations to be fulfilled by those who claim fellowship and covenant with God; the persistent and indifferent failure to fulfill expectations is met with judgment.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

John Duns Scotus on the existence of God, I

Recently I've been interested in reading the philosopher John Duns Scotus. I am in general very much sympathetic to the classical philosophical tradition represented by medievals such as Scotus and Aquinas, as well as by Aristotle, Plotinus, and others in the ancient world. In specific I've been considering Scotus' argument for the existence of God, at least the version to which I have access in the collection Philosophical Writings, tr. by Allan Wolter, O.F.M. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986).

John Duns Scotus in this work is concerned to prove the existence of a being which exhibits primacy as regards efficient causality, final causality, as well as pre-eminence. In other words, this being he is trying to prove is the cause of the existence of everything else, that for the sake of which everything else exists, and exceeds everything in perfection and value.

Here I want to address Scotus' argument for the existence of a first efficient cause, which he defines as something which exercises efficient causality (i.e., it brings things into existence) entirely of itself, with no assistance from anything else, and could not itself be caused to exist by anything else. We might classify his argument for this conclusion as a modal-cosmological argument, insofar as it has to do both with modality (possibility, necessity, contingency, actuality) as well as cosmology (origins of being, causality, etc.).

Before I begin, let me note that this post will make use of some of the technical terms of Scholastic philosophy (e.g., "substance", "accident", etc.), which do not have the kind of "street" meaning that an ordinary speaker of English would understand upon hearing or reading them. At times I may try to define them in context, but apart from a more sophisticated grasp of ancient and medieval philosophy in general, there is a real chance that you may not understand the argument as offered. That being said, the argument is roughly like this:

(1) Some being can be produced.

I take it here that Scotus is neutral between substantial and accidental being; that is to say, he is affirming the possibility of producing both individual existents (e.g., some horse, some human) as well as aspects of being in a thing (e.g., color of hair, weight, height).

(2) Therefore it can be produced either (i) by nothing at all,  (ii) by itself, or else (iii) by something else.

Scotus thinks the first two options are non-starters: nothing can come from nothing whatsoever, and equally obviously a thing could not bring itself into existence; in that case it would preexist its own existence, which is absurd. So (iii) must be affirmed. Let's call this other thing which can produce being A.

(3) A is either a first cause in the sense defined, or it is not.

If it is, then the desired conclusion is granted. If it isn't, however, then A either (i) is not actual, but could be actualized by something else, B, or else (ii) is actual, but can only actualize being through the assistance of another actual entity, B. But now the same questions can be asked of B: either it is first or it is not. If it is not, then it depends on something else, C, in order to produce being.

But Scotus posit that

(4) An infinite regress in this case is not possible.


(5) There is a first efficient cause, which ultimately grounds the possibility of the production of being because it is capable of producing being of its own, and it is not nor can it be actualized itself by anything else.

The critical objection at this juncture is to (4): why not allow an infinite regress? Scotus offers very elaborate argumentation at this point to prove that this is not possible. He first posits a distinction between two sorts of causal sequences or chains.

On the one hand, we have per se or essentially ordered causal series, in which a 'later' member of the series only acts by virtue of the continued activity upon it by a 'previous' member. One example would be a train pulling a long chain of cabooses: the various train cars only move forward because of the continued activity of the first car upon them (namely, by pulling). Another example would be this: a stone leaving an impression in sand as you push it along with a stick. In this case, the stone only leaves the impression in the sand insofar as the stick acts upon it, but the stick only exhorts force on the stone insofar as your hand pushes it, and your hand only insofar as you will to move it, etc. In such causal series, to summarize, the later members of the series only act in the relevant ways insofar as they are given the power to do so by previous members.

On the other hand, there are per accidens or accidentally ordered causal series. In these cases, a later member of the series exhibits the salient causal power independently of the continued activity of a previous member. For example, consider Paul, who has a son Peter, who in turn has his own son, James. Peter can exercise the causality involved in bringing James into existence independently of Paul, who by the time Peter had a son may have been long dead. In these causal chains, the activity of a later member does not depend on the activity of a former member.

Now Scotus argues that however we understand the causal series linking possible being to A, and A to B, etc., in the above argument, it cannot be an infinite chain.

No essentially ordered causal chain can itself be infinite, insofar as it involves derived power, whereas the derivation of power presupposes the ultimately independent existence of power. Consider this from another angle. Suppose James borrows a book from Peter, who borrowed it from Paul. Clearly the borrowing of a book presupposes the independent existence of a book, since if the book did not exist on its own independently of the chain of borrowing-and-lending, it could not be borrowed or lent in the first place. In other words, there is a critical presupposition of the infinite chain of lending and borrowing -- namely the existence of the book in the first place -- which the chain itself cannot account for; consequently the chain cannot be the whole story, it cannot be all that there is. Now suppose there were an infinitely long essentially ordered causal series. Insofar as each member of the chain does not exhibit the relevant causal powers on its own, the chain itself would need to be actualized by something outside of it, which cannot itself be a part of the chain and has the power to actualize and confer power to other beings of its own.

(Scotus gives further arguments as well. For instance, in per se causal series, as I've noted, all the relevant causal activity is simultaneous. Thus if there were an infinite causal series of this sort, there would be an infinity of beings simultaneously producing some effect -- something which no one posits or accepts.)

Furthermore, Scotus argues that even if there were an infinitely long accidentally ordered causal series, it would in turn depend on an ontologically prior essentially ordered causal series, which as shown above could not be infinite. Consider the example of Paul fathering Peter. Paul only can exhibit this causal power by virtue of his form as a healthy human male: in other words, it is only because of the continued proper-arrangement of the material stuff from which he is made that he can bring a child into the world; take away that arrangement (say, by cutting up his body, removing some critical parts, or aging and deforming it sufficiently) and he can no longer father any child. Therefore this accidentally ordered causal series, even if it did exist, would be ontologically posterior to an essentially ordered causal series, only by virtue of which the former is even possible, and this could not be infinite. An accidentally ordered causal series is only possible by virtue of a prior essentially ordered causal series, by which the members of the per accidens series exist in the first place.

Thus however you understand the causal chain in which some possible being, A, and B are involved, there must be a first efficient cause, which can bring something else into being entirely by itself and which is not actualized by anything else.

Dedicated messengers

Stephen's death in Acts is a violent and sudden one, the kind of death which would leave you reeling and shocked if it were put on film. Some people confront him suddenly, while he may have been doing some good work or whatever, and drag him before a council against his will (6.12). He's forced to testify regarding some accusations unfairly made against him (vv. 13-14). His long speech ends in polemics, and he only makes his accusers angrier and more violent (7.54). They rush towards him, drag him out of the city and stone him to death (v. 58).

His death is sudden, unexpected, shocking, and violent; it's the kind of death you don't want to die. More than that, his death was just the beginning of a more widespread persecution of the disciples of Christ (8.1). The persecution was so great that, apart from the apostles, the disciples were scattered into the surrounding countryside to find refuge (v. 1).

But here's the interesting thing: those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word (v. 4). Stephen was just killed in cold blood outside the city gates for this word, they are dispersed and separated from one another, and this motivates them to go on preaching!

Here we have a fine example of the motivational power of martyrdom: when one of ours is willing to die for the cause, this moves us faithful few to pick up the torch where he left off, to keep on preaching even when the going gets tough. This also speaks to the reality of the earliest disciples' experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit: threats of violence and persecution, even the murder of one of their shining stars -- all these are not enough to stifle the fire burning with them, that people know the good news of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Peter's fire and brimstone

In stark contrast to Stephen, who at the moment of his violent death displays an exemplary meekness and compassion even for his murders, Peter is a real hothead in the early chapters of Acts. In chapter 5 he scares Ananias and Sapphira to death after they hold back some of the money gained from selling their property, and in chapter 8 he goes bonkers on Simon, the magician from Samaria who offered money for the power of the Holy Spirit:

Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness" (vv. 20-3).

I can't say I find Peter's response particularly reasonable. Simon probably thought that what was going on with the apostles was a kind of advanced magic, something far beyond his own ostensibly impressive capabilities (vv. 9-11). Of course, it was not magic but the work of God through the apostles. But Simon had no way of knowing this, especially since this is evidently the first time the people in Samaria are coming into contact with the apostles' movement. Moreover, we might be led to believe that Simon's previous reputation of greatness inspired a bit of jealousy in him, but if that were so, he would have tried to hex the apostles or in some way compromise their competitor magic. No, rather he believes the message (v. 13), even if it was understood from his particular context and worldview.

In light of all this, I find Simon more or less a sympathetic character, badly misguided but not obviously ill-intentioned. Peter's response is fire and brimstone of the strongest prophetic sort, where even repentance won't guarantee forgiveness by God. It seems to me too strict, too mean, too unforgiving and intolerant.

This may just have been Peter's personality. We know from the gospels that he was a fiery type: he tells Jesus he is ready to die for him (Luke 22.33), and John specifies Peter as the nameless one who the other evangelists report as cutting the ear of a servant at the scene of Jesus' arrest (John 18.10). But he also had one major lapsus: he denied Christ three times before his crucifixion (Mark 14.66-72, John 18.15-26). It seems plausible to me, then, to understand Peter's fire and brimstone as zeal inspired by his restoration to the Lord after the denial.

Through this, we may learn the following lesson: the Holy Spirit can work with people where they are. They do not simultaneously become perfectly sanctified paragons of Christian virtue; God may work miracles and convict thousands of people to repentance even through Peter, one whose temper and fire is less than what the Holy Spirit produces (cf. with Stephen's death).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Forgiving your murderers

Stephen's dying words, as he is being pummeled to death with stones by the Jewish leaders and officials: "Lord, don't hold this sin against them!" (Acts 7.60).

I am always impressed by Stephen's power to forgive here, but really his own forgiveness is only secondary. What is truly impressive is that he calls for God to forgive as well, not to hold this instance of murder -- perhaps the most heinous of all crimes -- against his enemies.

John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, appreciates the power of Stephen's example in motivating us to forgive:

This is the other part of his prayer, wherein he joineth the love of men with faith in Christ; and surely if we desire to be gathered to Christ for our salvation, we must put on this affection. Whereas Stephen prayeth for his enemies, and those most deadly, and even in the very instant when their cruelty might provoke him unto desire of revenge, he declareth sufficiently what affection he beareth toward all other men.

And we know that we are all commanded to do the same which Stephen did; but because there is nothing more hard than so to forgive injuries, that we will wish well to those who would have us undone (Matth. v. 43, 44;) therefore we must always set Stephen before our eyes for an example.

There is an interesting consequence to this. Stephen forgives and furthermore calls God to forgive, not insofar as he was a softy, a bleeding-heart liberal who couldn't stand the strictness of God's retributive justice; rather it is because he was "full of the Holy Spirit" (6.5, 7.55). The Holy Spirit in Stephen moves him not only to forgive, but to plead with the Father that he forgive as well.

This tells me that God is not ultimately interested in judgment and punishment. What he wants is forgiveness, reconciliation, and he moves us to pray for these things, even as we are being murdered. Like Calvin said, we are called to forgive and to plead for forgiveness of our enemies with the Father as well. The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity, inspires us to embody the Son's example (cf. Luke 23.34) and pray to the Father that sins be forgiven, and that fellowship be restored. The goal of the Holy Trinity therefore is healing, reconciliation, and restoration. And I say that if there must be punishment, it is only ever ordered to this end, not for its own sake.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Stephen's polemics against the Temple

Stephen gives a long speech before the Temple officials and priests which spans chapter 7 of Acts. His discourse covers the history of the people of Israel, from the calling of Abraham to the Exodus from Egypt, to the conquest of Canaan, to the building of the Temple.

In many cases it is plain the details he mentions are a part of his polemics against the Temple officials who refused to believe in Christ. For instance, when he says that Moses presumed the Israelites would understand that he had come to save them but instead was rejected (vv. 23-9), there is a clear parallel to Christ, who came healing and doing good to all only to find himself crucified in the end. Likewise when he cites Moses' words that "God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people" (v. 37), it is plausible enough that he intended them to understand that Jesus of Nazareth was precisely this prophet.

But Stephen's speech ends on a strange note. At the close of his retelling of the history of Israel, before he engages in some direct polemics against the "stiff-necked" priests (v. 51), he mentions David, Solomon, and the building of the Temple. But afterwards he is sure to note that "the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands" (v.48). Why mention this? What is the connection to Christ?

Like I've noted before, a central point of contention between Jesus and his followers, on the one hand, and the Judean authorities, on the other, was the status of the Temple. Jesus considered the Temple corrupt and foretold its destruction (which would eventually be realized by the Romans in 70 C.E.). Jesus regularly offered himself as a sort of alternative to the Temple, healing and forgiving sins (consider the episode at Mark 2.1-12, for instance) much to the consternation of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious groups. God himself apparently makes appearances and works deliverance outside of the Temple, and this to the jealousy of the Temple officials themselves (5.17).

Stephen possibly stresses that God is not contained within the Temple for this reason: to verify, citing from Isaiah 66, that God is more than capable of being active outside of the Temple context; and evidence of this is the clear working of miracles through Christ, both during his earthly mission and now through his disciples. If God is not contained in the Temple, then this objection to the legitimacy of Jesus of Nazareth as Christ -- namely, that he was rejected by the Temple authorities (cf. the Pharisees' remarks at John 7.47-9) -- cannot be valid. If God is contained in the Temple, then there is no impossibility in his being present and active in someone outside the Temple system.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The apostles: nonviolent warriors

In Acts 4 the leaders of the Temple call Peter and John and question them regarding the miracle performed. Of course they couldn't say anything against them, since the man who was healed was standing them with them, but they nevertheless insisted that they no longer preach about Jesus Christ's resurrection (v. 18).

Peter and John's answer, however, is a classic one: "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (vv. 19-20). It wouldn't be the first time the Temple rulers put themselves against God and his word -- they had done that countless times during Jesus' own ministry -- and it wouldn't be the last.

Then the apostles regroup and pray to God in light of the threats they received. Among other things, they pray as follows:

And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus (vv. 29-30).

Here we get a nice example of the warfare of the apostles, so to speak; or perhaps better, the warfare in which the kingdom of God engages against the evils of the world. They don't pray for fire from heaven this time around; they don't pray that their opponents be stricken dead. While the authorities and rulers threaten beatings, violence, and murder, the soldiers of God's kingdom confront the powers that be with nothing more than faith in God, boldness in the Holy Spirit to preach the message of Christ, and miraculous deeds which give life to the dead.

In fact the apostles in Acts are regularly nonviolent, and oftentimes the victims of extreme violence. Stephen, for instance, as he is being stoned to death, prays to God that he not hold the sin of his murder against his murderers. Importantly, they are all like this because they are strengthened by the Holy Spirit (4.31, 6.5): the Holy Spirit of God present in them transforms them to embody the nonviolent fruit of the Spirit, such as love, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness (Gal 5.22-3).

This is what Christian ministry, and indeed Christian life, ought to look like: a nonviolent war waged against the forces of darkness wherever they may be, a war that by the power of God is life-giving, even if we die in the meantime.

Friday, March 21, 2014

God outside the Temple

The third chapter of Acts tells the familiar story of a crippled beggar healed by (Jesus through) Peter and John one day as they were going to the Temple. They were going in the Temple, but of course the beggar had to remain outside and beg alms from the faithful going in; he was not allowed to go in because of his condition.

When Peter and John come up, he sticks out his hand and asks them for some money with which to take care of himself. Evidently his state is so lowly that he doesn't even lift up his face to look at them, because Peter afterwards has to tell him, "Look at us!" (v. 4). The beggar's condition is a very sorry and tragic one: he's an old man, over forty years old (see 4.22), and perhaps has been like this for most or even all of his life. He's who has forever been removed from real fellowship with God and God's people: he's not allowed in the Temple (at least so I think), he's incapable of working and sustaining himself. He's miserable and an object of pity at best.

But one fateful day God comes outside of the Temple and visits this beggar. Peter tells the beggar these famous lines: "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!" (v. 6). The beggar gets up, his legs miraculously receiving power from God that moment, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he goes into the Temple courts jumping and praising God (v. 8).

God was thought to be located in the Temple in a special way, and I take it that the beggar's condition prevented him from entering into it. But one constant of Jesus' ministry was a pronounced judgment against the Temple: he performs miracles and offers forgiveness of sins outside of the Temple context, offering himself as an alternative to the Temple, bringing salvation to those who otherwise would have been excluded (e.g., Gentiles, sinners, the unclean, etc.). In this way Jesus announces the corruption of the Temple and the beginning of something new that God was doing.

The healing of the beggar who sat outside the Temple courts is exactly that: God performed a healing outside of the Temple by the name of Jesus Christ, not inside where the Temple authorities who rejected Christ were. It's simultaneously an act of incredible mercy towards a perennial outsider and a pronounced judgment against the Temple system and those who rejected Christ.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The promise is for you

I was impressed recently while reading Peter's sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2 by the following extreme contrast:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law (vv. 22-3).

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (vv. 38-9).

It impressed me that God promises the Holy Spirit to the very persons who killed Jesus whom he sent; Jesus Christ gives the Holy Spirit to the same persons who put him on the cross to be killed by gentiles!

In all of this God shows his wonderful grace towards us, in that he even makes use of our wickedness and sin in order that it may be undermined and done away with. For by means of the evil of the people who rejected Jesus Christ, both Jew and Gentile alike, God lifted the curse of the Law and of death from over their heads and took it upon himself, so that he might give those who rejected him life, peace, shalom, and -- ultimately -- his very self!

This is a God who truly, as T. F. Torrance put it, "loves us more than he loves himself" (A Passion for Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry, p. 14).