What’s wrong with the Ontotheological Error?

Since Marilyn McCord Adams has been front and center for a few days, you might enjoy her address “What’s Wrong with the Ontotheological Error?” last Fall in Baltimore at the annual AAR & SBL meetings. You can listen to it here or read it published at The Journal of Analytic Theology.

Christ & Horrors—Part 10


With this post we conclude the relevant portions of MMA’s Ch. 5, beginning with Part 7 and continuing right on to this Part 10. Once this ruminates a bit we’ll return with a post to process her arguments out loud.

Metaphysical refocussing: Arguably, semantics presupposes metaphysics; putative truth conditions vary with ontological commitments. Metaphysical revision might dictate a change in the semantics as well. Medieval Latin school theologians have modified Aristotle by endorsing

(T10) it is metaphysicall possible for a primary substance x that is essentially of substance-kind K also to possess/be/come to be of substance-kind K’ (where K is not the same as K’) contingently and non-essentially.

For them, the flip side of this claim is that

(T13) it is metaphysically possible for any creatable substance nature to be ontologically dependent upon something else as its subject.

In the Categories, Aristotle advances individual substance things as necessarily primary substances, the ultimate subjects which it is metaphysically impossible to subject to (in the sense of ontologically dependent upon) anything else. Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham concede that Aristotle not only captures the way things for the most part are. He gives a correct analysis of the metaphysical default position: apart from Divine intervention, individual substance natures will be primary substances and no creature has power to subject them to (make the ontologically dependent upon) anything else. But they reasoned that the case of Incarnation reveals something about individual substance natures that Aristotle was in no position to know: viz., that each and all of them has the metaphysical possibility of being subjected to (made ontologically dependent upon) something else by Divine power. Ockham went on explicitly to draw the conclusion that not only Divine persons, but each and every created individual substance (e.g., Socrates, Beulah the cow, Brownie the donkey, Fido the dog), has the metaphysical possibility of being an “alien” supposit for a created individual substance nature of another kind.

My suggestion is that these metaphysical revisions complicate our semantics. Once it is claimed that not only Aristotelian accidents but individual substance natures can be ontologically dependent, once it is admitted that alien supposition is possible, then one has to relativize the predicates to the substance nature in question: not just “x is F” but “x is F qua N.” Where N is the nature that x cannot exist without, then “x is F qua N” collapses into/entails “x is F.” But where x is an alien supposit of N, “x is F qua N” does not entail “x is F.” Suppose God caused Socrates to assume a bovine nature. From “Socrates is rational qua human” we could infer “Socrates is rational simpliciter” because Socrates is essentially human. But from “Socrates is not rational qua bovine” we could not infer “Socrates is not rational simplicity” because Socrates is not essentially a cow but only an alien supposit of the bovine nature. Socrates would really share the same substance-kind — bovinity — with Beulah. Both Socrates and Beulah would be cud-chewers qua bovine. But Socrates would not share with Beulah the predicate “cud-chewer simpliciter” because of the way Socrates possesses bovinity.

14fc9c8ba40dcb4101837830997ef9e8Likewise, “the Divine Word is omniscient qua Divine” entails “the Divine Word is omniscient” because the Divine Word is essentially Divine. But “the Divine Word knows neither the day nor the hour qua human” does not entail “the Divine Word is ignorant simpliciter,” because the Divine Word is an alien supposit of the human nature. This result is not un-Chalcedonian, however, because the difference between valid and invalid inferences from the secundum quid to simpliciter propositions does not reflect the content of the human nature predicated but the different ways in which Socrates and Christ have their natures. Chalcedon requires us to attribute a real human nature — a real human body and a real human soul — to Christ. But Chalcedon also requires us to attribute them to Christ in a different way from the way we attribute them to Socrates. Qualifying the predicates captures the point that the subject is characterized or denominated by the nature for which it is an alien supposit. Since it is not characterized simpliciter, you do not get contradiction — which is the very result we want.

If one asks what I mean by “qua” when I say “x is F qua N,” I mean that N is the nature by virtue of which x is F. But “by virtue of which” is ambiguous between two meanings, both of which I intend. In some cases, N is the nature by virtue of which x is F because N entails F: e.g., “Socrates is rational qua human” “the Divine Word is omniscient qua Divine.” In some cases, N is the nature by virtue of which x is F because N entails the real possibility of F. In Aristotelian metaphysics, the substance nature makes a thing of such a kind as to have accidents from various determinable ranges and not to be able to have accidents of other kinds: e.g., being an angel makes something the kind of thing that can have thoughts and choices; being a body makes something the kind of thing that can be colored. Being human makes the Divine Word the kind of thing that can eat figs, but it doesn’t settle the question of whether He will actually eat figs during His earthly life.

One further point requires clarification. My soteriological plot requires God to perform human actions and to suffer human pain and grief in roughly the ways that the Gospels describe. It is easy to imagine, however, that since the Divine Word is essentially God the assumed human nature is like a ventriloquist’s puppet which the Divine Word operates through Its Divine thought and will. Divine determinism is, of course, an ancient and honorable if controversial position in philosophical theology. Certainly, medieval Latin school theologians agreed that God creates and sustains all creatures, and concurs in the exercise of their active and passive causal powers. Certainly, the Blessed Trinity will do for Christ’s human nature whatever the Blessed Trinity does for any other creature — create, sustain, and concur. What is important for present purposes is to see that our medieval Aristotelian account of hypostatic union does not, by itself, imply the determination of the Divine Word’s human agency by Its Divine agency, or that the Divine Word is related to Its human agency only through the mediation of Its Divine agency. This is easier to see by considering the different example of Socrates’ assuming (becoming the alien supposit for) an individual bovine nature. When Socrates chewed cud or swatted flies with his tail or became agitated at the swishing of the matador’s red cape, his human nature would not ipso facto be engaged at all, for his human nature included no power to mobilize such bovine activities before, and acquires none with the hypostatic union. Socrates’ acting and suffering through his bovine nature would be unmediated by his human nature. Socrates is the ultimate subject of bovine acting and suffering because of the ontological dependence that the individual bovine nature bears to him.

5.3 Systematic preferences
My focus on horrors leads me to agree with Swinburne that the Divine nature is mutable and passible, although ever exercising self-determination over whether and how it changes. Taking a page from Hartshorne, I want to say that Divine omniscience involves God in feeling all our feelings, while Divine love for the world expresses Itself in the Trinity’s experiencing God-sized grief and frustration over human horror-participation. Such Trinitarian sympathy would mean the Godhead changes and is very likely acted upon. But it would not suffice for Divine solidarity with humans in horror-participation, for, however ghastly the things that we and God experience, the Divine mind cannot be “blown” by them; Divine meaning-making capacities cannot be stumped by them. God’s comprehensive consciousness recontextualizes them in a field that includes joy and delight in the Divine perfections, in the Divine persons’ love for one another, in cosmic excellences beyond our ken (See the YHWH speeches in Job 38—42:6). Even in the midst of horrors, Divine imagination already sees a way around them, Divine power is mobilizing ways and means to make good on them, not only globally but within the frame of each and every individual horror-participant’s life. As Anselm says, Divine Wisdom doesn’t start what it can’t finish, and Divine Power always finishes what it starts. Put otherwise, even if Divinity is mutable and passible, the Divine Persons in Their Divine nature are not vulnerable to horrors. For God to share the horrors, God has to become a kind of thing that can be radically vulnerable to horrors. And this will require a finite range of consciousness with limited powers to cope.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 9

tumblr_mn4rdqX1ah1rvkkr4o1_500We’re continuing on here with MMA’s Ch. 5 (section 4) of Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Ch. 5, pp. 108-143). You may have noticed that I’m not including her footnotes either. I should be able to finish up her Ch. 5 in one more post. Then a post to assess things.

4.2 Characterization and contradiction
No sooner is characterization secured than the contradiction problem raises its head. Indeed, it might seem that Christology is trapped in a dilemma: either the Divine Word and the human nature are united enough for characterization — in which case the Divine Word is the subject of contradictory properties simultaneously, or they aren’t united enough for characterization — in which case Nestorianism seems to follow.

Limited denomination? Traditional Christology requires that the Divine Word and the human nature be joined in such a way that the Divine Word can be characterized from it. But the traditional tag — communicatio idiomatum or sharing of the predicates – was recognized early on not to mean that whatever is truly predicable of the ontologically dependent thing is truly predicable of that on which it ontologically depends. (i) This is trivially true, since the ontologically dependent thing is ontologically dependent on its subject, but the subject is not ontologically dependent on itself as on a subject. (Ontological dependence is not a reflexive relation: a thing may be independent, but nothing can be ontologically dependent on itself!) Likewise, the assumed nature is really distinct from the Divine Word, but the Divine Word is not really distinct from Itself. (ii) More substantively, neither the essence nor the definition of the ontologically dependent thing would be truly predicated of its subject. Whiteness is essentially a color and a quality, but Socrates is not essentially or otherwise a color or a quality. What is true is that by virtue of the ontological dependence of whiteness on Socrates, Socrates is denominated from these, so that Socrates is colored and Socrates is qualified. (iii) Again, the origination properties of the ontologically dependent thing are not thereby truly predicated of the subject on which it depends. Socrates’ whiteness may begin to be at tm, but it does not follow that Socrates begins to be at tm. But Socrates is denominated from this origination property, so that it is true that Socrates begins to be white at tm.

All the same, these more technical observations do not seem to address the cases most important for Christology: that the Divine Word walked and talked, touched and spat, was ignorant of the day and the hour, suffered within the frame of a finite consciousness, was possessed of a mind that could be “blown,” whose meaning-making functions could be brought at least temporarily to a halt by the pain and degradation of crucifixion.

Qualifying the assertions: One ancient and honorable way to handle the Contradiction Problem is to explain that it is qua Divine that God the Son is eternal but qua human that He is born of a virgin, qua Divine that God the Son is omniscient but qua human that He does not know the day or the hour. Recent philosophers cast suspicion on these moves, however. Without further metaphysical underpinnings it is easy to reduce to an absurdity. Why could we not equally well claim that “x is a round square” is not contradictory even though it implies that “x is a figure without angles and x is a figure with four right angles,” because really “x qua round is without angles and x qua square has four right angles,” and angleless pertains primary to round while four-times-right-angled pertains primarily to square?

Medievals probed how the “qua” should be understood to function and distinguished three principle ways, (1) Reduplication: Strictly, they held that in statements of the form “x qua G is F” the “qua G” functions to give the reason why the predicate F attaches to the subject x. Accordingly, such propositions were expounded by something like the following: “x is F and x is G and all Gs are F.” Thus, Socrates qua human is rational” is true, while “Socrates qua white is rational” is false, because all humans but not all white things are (necessarily) rational. Qua-propositions reduplicatively construed are of no help with the Contradiction Problem in Christology, however, because “x qua G is F” entails “x is F.” On a reduplicative analysis, “The Divine Word qua Divine is omniscient” and “The Divine Word qua human is ignorant of the day and the hour” entail “The Divine Word is omniscient yet ignorant of the day and the hour.”

The Transfiguration _4(2) Specification: Less properly, the qua-clause is taken to qualify the subject term x, by “distracting” it from standing for the whole and making it stand instead for the named part (the G in “qua G”) of which the predicate F is literally true. Consider the ancient example “the Ethiopian is white with respect to his teeth.” Taken specificatively, “with respect to his teeth” distracts the subject term — “the Ethiopian” — from standing for the whole Ethiopian to standing instead for his teeth, which are literally and truly white. Likewise, in “Christ qua Divine is omniscient,” the subject term stands for His Divine nature or for the Divine Word which is really the same as the Divine nature, while in “Christ qua human does not know the day or the hour” the subject term stands for His humanity. When the qualification is taken specificatively, the inference “x qua G if F; therefore x is F” is invalid. Contradiction is averted: it will not follow from “the Ethiopian is white with respect to his teeth” that the Ethiopian is white; and it will not follow from “Christ qua Divine is omniscient and Christ qua human does not know the day or the hour” that Christ is omniscient and Christ is not omniscient.

To apply the specificative analysis to the Christological propositions is to treat Christ as a whole made up of really distinct parts, which can serve as really distinct subjects of the contradictory properties. The trouble here is the same as that for mere aggregation: the specificative interpretation threatens to remove contradiction at the expense of characterization, for it is not generally true (indeed is very often false) that a property truly predicable of one part is truly predicable of another part or of the whole of which it is a part. Yet, God, the Divine Word, is supposed to be the One Who is not only omniscient, but ignorant of the day and the hour!

This difficulty did not escape medieval attention. Aquinas and Soctus both distinguish two kinds of cases. (i) Sometimes a prediate F applies to a part P where the predicate F is the type of predicate that could also apply to other parts or to the whole W of which P is a part. For example, the table leg might weigh two pounds, but weight is a property that pertains to the other legs, to the table top and to the whole table. Thus, one can’t infer from the fact that the table leg weighs two pounds that the whole table weighs two pounds. (ii) But there are other cases in which a predicate F applies to a part P (a) where P is the precise or only part of W to which F could apply, or (b) where P is the principle part by virtue of which F would apply to the whole.

For an example of (ii.a), hair is the only part of Socrates that could be literally blond. Aquinas says, because of this, Socrates’ having blond hair makes it at least figuratively true that (the whole) Socrates is blond. Analogously, since Christ’s human soul is His only part that could be ignorant of the day and the hour (because the Divine Word is essentially omniscient), it is at least figuratively true that (the whole) Christ is ignorant of the day and the hour. This way, we can have figurative characterization without contradicting the literal truth that Christ is omniscient.

For an example of (ii.b) Aquinas and Scotus identify the heart or the chest as the principal subject of health. Aquinas is willing to say that Socrates is figuratively healthy because his heart/chest is healthy. But Scotus is willing to allow that — if the heart/chest were really the principal or only relevant part — we might even say that Socrates is literally healthy because his heart/chest is healthy. Scotus does not find this much help with the Christological characterization problem, however, because neither the human nature nor the human soul is Christ’s principal part. These observations would not allow us to infer from “Christ qua human is ignorant” or “Christ qua human is a creature,” that Christ is ignorant or that Christ is a creature. Likewise, with “an Ethiopian is white with respect to his teeth”: “Whiteness” is apt to pertain to other body parts (e.g., skin) as much as to teeth, so that whiteness in the teeth is not sufficient to make it appropriate to call the Ethiopian as a whole white. By contrast, skin might seem to be his principal colored part, by virtue of whose blackness it would be appropriate to say that the Ethiopian is black.

(3) Qualifying the predicate term: The remaining alternative is to let the qua-clause qualify the predicate term. Scotus says that the qua-phrase distracts the predicate term: on this analysis, the predicate in “the Ethiopian is white with respect to his teeth,” is not “white” but “white-toothed.” Likewise, in “Socrates is blond with respect to his hair” the predicate is not “blond” but “blond-haired.” In “Christ qua human is a creature,” the predicate would be “created human,” and “Christ qua human is a creature” would not entail “Christ is a creature.” In general, “the Divine Word is F-qua-Divine and not-Fqua-human” seems both to keep characterization and to avoid contradiction! Was this not the desired result?

In his book The Metaphysics of Christology, Richard Cross remains dubious. On this analysis, where the qua-clause is taken to qualify the predicate term, it turns out that, in “the Ethiopian is white with respect to this teeth” and “Socrates is white ,” different predicates are asserted of the Ethiopian and of Socrates, for the Ethiopian is said to be white-toothed, while Socrates is said to be white simpliciter. Likewise, Christ or the Divine Word will be said to be humanly ignorant, while Peter and Paul are ignorant simpliciter. Christ or the Divine Word will be denominated from the assumed nature, but the same predicates will not be true of the Divine Word as of mere humans. Cross charges that this is theologically inadequate, because Chalcedon asserts that “our Lord Jesus Christ…is the same (homousios) with us as to His manhood.”

Cross worries that two-natures Christology is locked in yet another destructive dilemma:

Either [a] the qua-phrase distracts the subject or [b] it qualifies the predicate.
If [a] it distracts the subject [to the human nature itself], then [c] the human-nature predicates aren’t predicated of the same subject as the Divine-nature predicates [viz., the Divine Word].
If [b] it distracts the predicate term, then [d] the Divine Word doesn’t have the same predicates predicate of It through Its human nature as we do through our human nature.
Each of [c] and [d] fails to conform to the requirements of Chalcedon.
Both ways [e] the simple literal predication of the human nature property of Christ and/or the Divine Word is ruled out — which also fails to conform to the requirements of Chalcedon.

My own reply is that Chalcedon’s demand that Christ be homousios with the Father with respect to Godhead and homousios with us as to His manhood does not require the simple predication of the human nature or the predicates that flow from it. It takes a brief metaphysical excursus to grasp what I have in mind.

(Pictures here and here.)


Christ & Horrors—Part 8

maxresdefaultFollowing on the heels of Part 7 in this series, here begins section 4 of MMA’s aforementioned Ch. 5. It’s heavy lifting. I apologize for those who have no patience for philosophical speculation. But I think she provides a coherent model for understanding the Incarnation.

4 Medieval metaphysics, Aristotle revised again!
4.1 Real distinction and characterization
Like Aristotle but contrary to Swinburne, medieval Latin school theologians take human being for a real, not a nominal essence, one that is — in all non-miraculous cases — contemporary-sense essential to the primary substances that have it (e.g., to Socrates, to Plato, and to each of us). That meant that for them — unlike Swinburne — their endorsement of (T10) carried with it the claim that a given natural kind might be essential to some, but only contingently characterize others.

Not only do they treat natural kinds as susceptible of real definition[, T]hey reify the natures by treating them as really constitutive of the things to which they belong. They read Aristotle to be claiming

(T12) a primary substance (e.g., Socrates) is necessarily identical with the individual substance nature (Socrates’ humanity) that is contemporary-sense essential to it.

Their endorsement of (T10) drove them to draw a further distinction that never entered Aristotle’s mind, to contemplate Aristotle’s contrast between primary and secondary substances by positing two types of concrete individual substance things: primary substances (e.g., Socrates or Beulah the cow) and individual substance natures (Socrates’ humanity; Beulah’s bovinity). They needed to claim that it was possible for something that is not essentialy human (preeminently, a Divine person, the Divine Word, Who is essentially Divine) to unite itself to a really distinct concrete individual human nature in such a way as to be characterized by it and to be the ultimate subject of the actions and passions that are done and suffered through it.

Faced with an analogous problem — how to unite really distinct Divine and human souls — Swinburne throws up his hands, insists that it is impossible. If the only type of union available between really distinct substance things were aggregation, then Swinburne would appear to be right. Mere aggregation can unite any really distinct things into a whole (e.g., the Taj Mahal and the honey bee in the hive), but the union would be too loose for Christological purposes, because it does not support any literal sharing of attributes (communicatio idiomatum) — any literal denomination or naming of one part from another (e.g., the Taj Mahal is not truly said to be a honey–maker, nor is the bee truly called a beautiful building).

Medievals recognized three ways in which one thing might be named from or denominated from something:

(a) per se denomination: the Divine Word is Divine per se and Socrates is human per se; the Divine Word couldn’t exist without being Divine, and Socrates couldn’t exist without being human;
(b) per accidens denomination: Socrates is white per accidens. Socrates is really distinct from whiteness and is contingently white in the sense that Socrates could exist without being white;
(c) extrinsic denomination: Socrates is older than Plato and shorter than Aristotle and uglier than Alcibiades.

harris_cartoonBy [T9] the Divine Word as essentially Divine could not be human per se and essentially. But extrinsic denomination seems too loose to reflect human nature’s actually belonging to the Divine Word as Its own. Accordingly, Scotus and Ockham take as analogy denomination per accidens.

Medieval Latin Aristotelians reify not only substance natures, but some or all accident natures, qualities chief among them. Yet, from their Aristotelian point of view, white Socrates is not a mere aggregation of Socrates and whiteness; whiteness inheres in Socrates. Likewise, they want to say, the Word made flesh is not a mere aggregate of Divinity and humanity; the individual human nature is assumed by the Divine Word.

But what is the metaphysical difference between mere aggregation and inherence? Medieval Latin Aristotelians cite three features:

(a) co-location: Socrates and his whiteness are in the same place at the same time;
(b) potency-actualization: the whiteness actualizes a potency for being white in Socrates;
(c) ontological dependence: the whiteness essentially depends on Socrates for its existence in a non-efficient-causal way.

(a) does not seem relevant to angels (as essentially immaterial substances) and their inhere accidents. Likewise, it is of no help in understanding the Divine Word’s relations to the human nature, because the Divine Word is either nowhere (because immaterial) or everywhere (by virtue of Divine knowledge and power) and no more where the human nature is than where everything else is.

Medievals rules out (b) on the philosophical ground that the Divine Word as simple cannot be a subject of inherence. They also excluded it on philosophico-theological grounds. Philosophy tells us that, when whiteness actualizes a substance’s potency for being white, it affects how it is qualified; and when a substantial form actualizes matter’s potency to receive it, it affects the substance-kind to which its subject belongs. Medievals reasoned that human nature is a substance-kind. If it actualized the potency of some subject to receive it, it would affect the substance-kind to which its subject belonged. Since the Divine Word is essentially Divine, such potency-actualization would result in a metaphysically impossible and theologically impermissible confusion of natures! Likewise, the other way around, if the Divine Word were supposed to inhere in the human nature!

Scotus concludes that the most relevant relations is (c), an accident’s ontological dependence on its subject. Scotus emphasizes that this relation is not to be identified with (although it bears some analogies to) efficient causal dependence. All creatures are efficient causally dependent on all three persons of the Trinity as their first efficient cause. But not all creatures are assumed by the Divine persons. Likewise, a subject (e.g., the intellect) may be an efficient partial cause of some of its accidents (e.g., an act of understanding), but this is a different relation from the ontological dependence the accident has on it as its subject. Scotus declares that ontological dependence of a broad-sense property thing on a subject is sufficient for characterization. Even if whiteness did not actualize a potency in Socrates, Socrates would be the subject on which the whiteness ontologically depended and that would be enough to make it true that Socrates is white. Likewise, ontological dependence by the assumed human nature on the Divine Word is sufficient for the Divine Word to be contingently denominated from the human nature.

Even if the Divine Word had no potency to be actualized by the individual human nature, it might seem that, if the Divine Word is first not-related and then related, the Divine Word undergoes a change—contrary to Divine simplicity and immutability. To avoid this, Scotus invokes the doctrine of non-mutual relations. Sometimes the truth of “aRb” requires a relation thing R in a and a co-relation thing R’ in b (e.g., where this wall is similar in color to that wall). But other times it is enough if a is the term of a relation-thing R’ that inheres in b (i.e., if bR’a). Scotus imagines that the Divine Word (a) will be the term of such a dependence relation (R’) that inheres in the assumed human nature (b) without any corresponding R-thing inhering in It (a), and that this will be enough to make “the Divine Word assumes the human nature” true.

Although this idea of non-mutual relations was widely accepted among medieval Aristotelians, anyone who — like Swinburne — denied immutability and impassibility to be essential to Godhead could allow that the Divine Word acquires a new relation of assuming when it assumes the human nature. Nor would this necessarily renew their worry about the fusion of natures, for it is one thing to suppose that human nature inheres in by actualizing a potency in Divinity or Divinity inheres in by actualizing a potency in humanity. It is another to suppose that Divinity is first not inhered in and then inhered in by the co-relative of the ontological dependence relation in the human nature — that is, by the relation of sustaining or supporting or suppositing the human nature.

What is key is that the ontological dependence relation that Scotus identifies be sufficient for characterization. Scotus says that it is: the ontological dependence of whiteness on Socrates suffices for the truth of “Socrates is white,” and the ontological dependence of the human nature on the Divine Word would suffice for the truth of “The Divine Word is human” and be enough to license the further creedal predications: “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried, but rose on the third day.”

(Pictures here and here.)


Christ & Horrors—Part 7

divinesparks11One of my top three reads for 2013 was Marilyn McCord Adams’ (MMA) Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology. Parts 1-6 are available for catch-up if you like. In the next few installments I’d like to present her Ch. 5 in which she attempts to work out a metaphysics of Incarnation faithful to Chalcedon, that is, a view of Incarnation where the Son is truly incarnate without ceasing to be all he eternally is in experienced triune relation and uninterrupted creational vocation. I’m going to re-present her entire chapter 5. It’s a piece of ‘metaphysical thinking’ — so both our Orthodox friends and Barthian-McCormack fans might wince a bit. But once presented, we’d like to come back and focus on those features we find especially helpful. Her Ch. 5 divides in to smaller sections numbered 1 through 4. This post (Part 7) contains sections 1 and 2. Section 3 of her chapter covers Richard Swinburne’s work on the Incarnation. I’ll be omitting this section and moving in Parts 8 and 9 to present sections 4 (which comprises MMA’s view) and 5 (Conclusion). If you’re familiar with the earlier posts on MMA, you know she’s a brilliant, thoroughly thoughtful and articulate writer.


5 | Recovering the metaphysics: Christ as God-man, metaphysically construed

Central to my “Chalcedonian” approach to Christology is the insistence that it is God who becomes human. Positively, from the viewpoint of my cosmological hypothesis, Incarnation is key to satisfying God’s unitive aims in creation. Negatively, Divine solidarity is key to the solution of human non-optimality problems: Stage-I defeat requires that it is God who participates in horrors. Both ways identify God as the One of Whom we affirm that He was born of the Virgin Mary; that He walked and talked; spat and touched; ate, drank, and slept; that He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, was buried but rose on the third day.

Yet, common sense joins with philosophy and Myth-of-God-Incarnate theologians to press Mary’s question: “how can this be?” (Luke 1:34). By way of an answer, I shall outline two accounts of the metaphysics of Christology: one offered by Richard Swinburne in his book The Christian God; and the other inspired by a family of formulations defended by thirteenth- and fourteenth-century medieval Latin school theologians. Like all theories, each has its costs and benefits. My own preference is for the second, but I believe that either is sufficient to rebut the mythographers’ charge that the notion of a God-man is unintelligible.

1. Doctrinal desiderata
First, a brief reminder of the historical parameters of the discussion is in order Chalcedon laid it down that

(T1) in Christ there are two distinct natures—one human and one Divine;


(T2) in Christ, there is a real unity of natures in a single person or supposit;

While Ephesus made their corollary explicity;

(T3) in Christ, there are two wills—one human and one Divine.

Already in the first quarter of the sixth century, Boethius took it for granted that “person” or “supposit” (suppositum, hypostasis) means the same thing in the doctrine of the Trinity (one God, three persons) as in Christology (two natures, one person), because the second person of the Trinity (i.e., God the Son, the Divine Word) was supposed to be the One Who became Incarnate. Boethius’ definition—

(D1) a person is an individual substance of a rational nature;

and its implicit companion understanding:

(D2) a supposit is an individual substance—

had the authority of a classic by Anselm’s time. Thirteenth-century medieval Latin school theologians had reached consensus on the following interpretive theses:

(T4) in the Incarnation, human nature is assumed by the Divine Word;
(T5) the Divine Word is its own supposit/person and hence the single person or supposit in Christ;
(T6) the Incarnation of the Divine Word is a contingent matter of Divine free choice;
(T7) the Incarnation of the Divine Word is reversible (having become human, the Divine Word could cease to be human) but will in fact never be reserved.

Yet, both Boethius’ definition and medieval Latin school theology’s metaphysical developments of these doctrines found their philosophical roots in Aristotelian philosophy, to which we now turn.

nativity2. Aristotelian background
Metaphysics is inherently controversial. But in the Categories, Aristotle aims to articulate the common sense view that there are things, which are characterized by features, some of which are more permanent than others.

Seeking to order such intuitions, he distinguishes substance from accidents, and primary substances (eg., Socrates, Beulah the cow, Brownie the donkey) from secondary substances or substance-kinds (e.g., man, cow, donkey).

(i) The secondary substance or substance-kind is “said of” the primary substance and is that through which the primary substance is constituted as the very thing it is (e.g., Beulah the cow is made the very thing she is by bovinity; Socrates, the very thing he is by humanity).

(ii) Accidents “exist in” primary substances and characterize them in ways that the primary substance could exist without (e.g., Socrates is pale in winter but becomes tan in summer, was once, but in adulthood is no longer, shorter than his mother, etc.).

(iii) Primary substances neither exist in (like accidents) nor are said of (like secondary substances) anything, but are the ultimate subjects of the properties.

Aristotle took the substance- and accidents-kinds with which he was concerned to be natural kinds, not nominal essences — kind-terms (like “desk” or “bachelor”) that are the products of human linguistic conventions. Human and whiteness are real essences: what -it-is-to-be human or white is what it is prior to an independently of human attempts to conceptualize and talk about the world.

Medieval interpreters, harmonizing across Aristotle’s works, read him as an essentialist — that is, as holding that

(T8) for each primary substance x, there is a secondary substance-kind K that pertains to it per se and is essential to it, in the sense that x could not exist without being a K.

Because the necessary connection is not between concepts (as in “a bachelor is an unmarried, post-pubescent male”) but between the thing (Socrates or Beulah) and the kind (humanity or bovinity), the connection is said to be necessary de re. Because such essential substance-kinds constitute the primary substance as the very thing it is, Aristotle also held:

(T9) for each primary substance x, there is only one second substance-kind K that pertains to x through itself and is essential to it, in the sense that x could not exist without being K.

It is impossible for any substance individual to have two substance-kind natures essentially, for that would involve its being constituted as the very thing it is twice-over!

How, then, can one individual be both Divine and human? If the Divine Word is constituted as the very thing It is by Divinity (together with the person-distinguishing property of Filiation), how could it take on human nature as its own? This problem remains commonsensical. What Beulah is is a cow. Surely, Beulah could not also be a donkey; nor could Beulah be a donkey instead!

Unmodified Aristotelian essentialism raises a problem for how a substance individual could have two substance-natures essentially, in such a way that it could not exist without them. Unmodified Aristotelian essentialism rests here, because it doesn’t envision any other way for a substance individual to have or be characterized by a substance-kind.

But the doctrine of the Incarnation does not assert that the Divine Word possesses two substance-kinds essentially (and so does not run afoul of [T8] and [T9]. Rather it maintains that the Divine Word is essentially Divine, couldn’t exist without being Divine, but contingently begins to be human (in c. 4 BCE). The doctrine of the Incarnation holds that

(T10) it is possible for a primary substance x that is essentially of substance-kind K also to possess/be/come to be of substance-kind K’ (where K is not the same as K’) contingently and non-essentially.

Nowadays, this is terminologically confusing because substance-kinds are often referred to as essences, setting up an equivocation between contemporary-sense essential possession (x possesses K essentially=def x couldn’t exist without possessing K) and essential possession as possession of a substance-kind as one’s own (x’s being K where K is a substance-kind). But the former usage of “essential” refers to the way the property is possessed (in such a way that the thing couldn’t exist without it), while the latter refers to the type of property possessed (a substance-kind property rather than an accident). Commentators needlessly worry that if the Divine Word does not possess human nature in the way that we do—i.e., contemporary-sense essentially, in such a way that we could not exist without being human—then the Divine Word isn’t fully or perfectly human—i.e., doesn’t really possess all of what goes into being a human being. What the doctrine requires is that the Divine Word—while essentially Divine—contingently come to possess human nature in such a way as to be characterized by such features. So far as I know, no one (not even the total absolute kenoticists of chapter 4) has envisioned the Divine Word’s possessing human nature essentially in such a way that the Divine World couldn’t exist without being human. Most Christian theologians would agree: not only is this false; it makes no sense!

Even if Incarnation does not require the idea that one substance individual has two natures contemporary-sense essentially (in such a way that it could not exist without them), mere characterization is enough to make the so-called Contradiction Problem arise:

1. Jesus is God (Chalcedonian definition).
2. Jesus is a human being (Chalcedonian definition).
3. God is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, eternal, immutable, impassible, infinite (partial analysis of what it is to be God).
4. Human beings are rational animals and so generable and corruptible, mutable and capable of being causally affected and suffering; finite and so of limited power and knowledge (partial analysis of what it is to be a human being).
5. Therefore, Jesus is infinite and finite, immutable and mutable, omnipotent but limited in power, omniscient but limited in knowledge, immutable and impassible, ingenerable and incorruptible but susceptible of growing in wisdom and stature and suffering death on a cross—which is multiply contradictory.

Faced with statements apparently of the form “x is F and x is not F,” one may choose between two basic strategies for removing the contradiction and eliminating the assertion that genuine contradictories are true of the same subject in the same respect eternally or at one and the same time. One is to argue that it is not really the same subject x that is the proximate subject of contradictory properties, so that really the situation is that x is F but y is not F, or that z is F and y is not F (where x is not identical with y, and y is not identical with z). The other is to argue that the predicates only appear but are not really contradictory, so that it is not a matter of x’s being F and not F, but of x’s being F and not G. Obviously, one can also combine the two strategies, insisting that same-subject and same-property affirmed and denied are both only a matter of appearance.

In Christology, however, these strategies represent complementary risks and temptations. The first — arguing that different subjects are Divine and human, respectively — seems to flirt with Nestorianism. The second—maintaining that the predicates are not really contradictory — may redefine Divinity and humanity in ways that no longer capture what Chalcedon intended (a problem charged against some versions of partial absolute kenosis descussed in chapter 4).

(Pictures here and here.)


Christ & Horrors—Part 6

Identity_Crisis_6BWith Adams, I want to take Jesus’ humanity seriously and I agree that in the end this means affirming things about Christ that most Evangelicals aren’t likely to feel comfortable agreeing to. But attributing (willful) sinfulness to Jesus is something I’m unable join Adams in. One reason for my disagreement with her on this point is biblical. I think the NT authors did believe Jesus to be sinless and it seems to me this aspect of his humanity wasn’t incidental to their understanding of his soteriological role. The other reason involves the logic of horror-defeat as I would understand it. I don’t see that the solidarity required by his job description requires sinfulness.

Adams interprets the traditional “sinless” passages as not requiring maximization. She is methodologically committed to the proposition that human nature in its present environment is by definition inevitably subject not just to vulnerability to those experiences which may be falsely interpretedbut to actual failure in meaning-making and its existential despair (together with the sinful dysfunctions that naturally follow). Christ shares all these with us, including the debilitating effects of horror. This leaves me wondering just what it is that qualifies him to be our horror-defeater.

For Adams the sinfulness of the horror-defeater is ultimately beside the point. It’s not part of the job description. But it doesn’t follow from this that you or I qualify to be humanity’s horror-defeater. Only God can accomplish such defeat. But the defeat is accomplished not by means of an earthly career insulated from horrors. God must participate in our horrors to defeat them. Horror-participation becomes horror-defeat when God is its subject. Exactly how the defeat obtains in Jesus’ experience Adams never says except to say that it must begin by assuming that Jesus actually suffers horrors (i.e., the failure to truthfully negotiated his meaning and identity in the world and the existential despair that accompanies such failure) and not just suffers the same circumstances which we failure to negotiate truthfully but which he successfully negotiates. In short, Jesus saves not by “staring down” horrors (as I would have it) but by “surviving” the lost of personal meaning they inflict. But don’t a lot of people “survive” their horrors in this sense? Yes. Lots of us do, but this wouldn’t qualify any of us to be the world’s Savior. What qualifies Jesus’ horror-participation to be horror-defeat is that horrors are in this one human being’s case the personal property of God. God is their subject.

despairGranted, Adams admits we can’t have Jesus descend too far into wickedness. He can’t be a Herod or a Hitler. His meaning-making capacities have to be sufficiently functional to manage whatever prophetic and teaching ministry his vocation requires. Look at Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist and St. Paul. Their sinfulness didn’t disqualify them from prophetic or revolutionary roles. Similarly, Adams believes, Jesus needn’t be morally infallible or absolutely dysfunction-free. On the contrary, Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” Adams interprets this to include Jesus growing up, for example, with the same racist attitudes toward non-Jews common to Jews of his day. The same is true for whatever common prejudices any young Jewish boy would have had to negotiate.

Each word of Heb. 5.8 is crucial. Jesus “suffers” to learn obedience. Jesus suffers to learn “obedience.” Jesus suffers to “learn” obedience. Jesus’ character emerges developmentally through the same trials and errors and within the same constraints we are naturally limited to. And this means Jesus grows morally and spiritually into the obedience which his role as horror-defeater requires rather than emerging from the womb with pre-installed supernatural upgrades that insulate him against failure to self-identify truthfully before God and the experienced loss of personal meaning such failure results in. For Adams, Jesus was non posse non peccare with the rest of us. There is simply no other way to be human in this world (prior to the final glorification of the cosmos). But these failures of personal meaning (i.e., these “horrors”) save us in Jesus’ case (and not in any one else’s case) because they are God’s failures. They’re God’s loss of personal meaning. And as I understand Adams, this saves us just because the horror which is so finally and hopelessly destructive in our case is in God’s case united hypostatically to a person who is in his divine nature an incommensurate good of infinite value which cannot suffer horror or end in personal destruction. God defeats horrors by simply experiencing them (i.e., experiencing loss of personal meaning) and surviving the ordeal and not by experiencing them without loss of personal meaning. That’s my read on her thus far.

I don’t think this a viable Christology.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 5

CHRIST_SUFFERING_FOOLS_by_vmaximusAdams concludes chapter 3 with introducing her answer to the question of who and what Jesus must be in order to provide Stage 1-3 horror-defeat. Reconceptualizing the natural human condition as “vulnerability to horrors” with the “inevitable loss of meaning” such horrors precipitate and the ‘sin’ that follows as a consequence, and her agreement with the patristic conviction that “what is not assumed is not restored,” Adams concludes that it takes a God-man to do the job–all of which I agree with. I nevertheless have mixed feelings about her chapter 3 conclusions. Here I want simply to present Adams’ views without comment and postpone my critique for the following post.

To being with:

“Because State-I horror-defeat turns on Divine solidarity with human horror-participation, it sets up counterpresumptions that Christ’s ante-mortem human nature will be as much like ours as possible, and that Christ will identify more with our present condition than with any putative past or future uptopic state. First, and most obviously, Stage-1 defeat requires that Christ share human vulnerability to horrors which arises from our being personal animals in an environment of real and apparent scarcity.”

Christ’s body “must be urged on by life instincts of hunger, thirst, and sex, and threatened by the built-in seeds of its own demise.” This is all involved in his “assumption” of the
temptationnature needing restoration. Christ grew from infancy to adulthood facing and struggling with all the same developmental issues we face. He had to grow in his understanding and abilities and experience all the paradigm-shifts common to human beings. Following Forsyth, Adams argues that “Jesus struggled to win the right focus for, and eventual mastery with respect to, His vocation.” The cry of dereliction is to be read in the Lutheran sense as viewing Jesus to have shared our sense of abandonment by God and of divine condemnation “which,” Adams feels “is surely incompatible with simultaneous beatific intimacy, and plausibly at odds with any simultaneous face-to-face vision at all.”

“When His subjective world goes to small at six months, or at the terrible twos or the Oedipal threes, or at adolescence, He must share our initial incompetence and confusion, the anxiety and tension that goes with floundering around for a new integration. This includes the trial and error of false and rejected solutions, at the cognitive and emotional, moral and spiritual levels. Moreover, fully to embrace our vulnerability to horrors would mean struggle and the not merely apparent but real possibility of His not striking an appropriate Eriksonian balance, even of going seriously wrong.”


“[S]haring our vulnerability to horrors means living in a horror-prone environment: in a material world like ours, with real and apparent scarcities that arouse fear and provoke competition; being reared by and living among other human beings who have negotiated their own radical vulnerability to horrors in skewed and neurotic ways.”


“[T]he Synoptic career does not require Him to have attained the optimal Eriksonian balance at every developmental stage, nor to have arrived at the threshold of His free from neuroses. Biblical prophets, John the Baptist, St. Paul, voices God’s message, despite their eccentric and abrasive sides.”

She’s not saying we’re “free to attribute to Jesus Down’s syndrome or paranoid schizophrenia.” But she “leaves it open whether He was dyslexic or beset with other ‘learning disabilities’.” And not surprisingly at this point:

“Jesus’ New Testament roles as teacher, preacher, and healer do not by themselves require sinlessness or moral infallibility. St. Paul enters all those roles, despite his self-declared status as ‘the worst of sinners’….Role-wise, it is John’s presentation of the relation between Jesus and the Father as that of exemplary mutual indwelling that sets the highest standards…For now, it is enough to note that the role – by itself – does not force maximization.”

For Adams, Christ’s human nature is what allows him to join us in horror-participation, and thus…

“…this identification with us in horrors is essential to Stage-1 horror-defeat and means that Christ’s ante-mortem career will not fully anticipate Stage-2 and Stage-3 defeat. The result is that we do not need to take on a commitment to Christ’s utter human sinlessness. We are free instead to admit that Jesus had to outgrow parochial racism under the tutelage of the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman (MT 15:21-28/MK 7:24-30) and to acknowledge that He might have been harsh with His blood relatives!”

If you’re panicking at this point, perhaps this will help (and perhaps it won’t):

“Overall, Christ’s soteriological role as horror-defeater combines with His Gospel career to set the following limits on how much and in what ways He identifies with us. First, Christ could have only those human faults and psychological peculiarities compatible with such clarity of Godward orientation that people could reasonably take Him to speak and act of God’s behalf in His prophetic ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing. Second, He could participate only in those horrors that could beset a self-conscious, highly integrated servant of God.”

Let me steal two more quotes from much later in the book that expand on just what Adams insists Christ’s sharing our human nature entailed:

“My focus on horrors leads me to agree with Swinburne that the Divine nature is mutable and passible, although ever exercising self-determination over whether and how it changes. Taking a page from Hartshorne, I want to say that Divine omniscience involves God in feeling all our feelings, while Divine love for the world expresses Itself in the Trinity’s experiencing God-sized grief and frustration over human horror-participation. Such Trinitarian sympathy would mean that Godhead changes and is very likely acted upon. But it would not suffice for Divine solidarity in human horror-participation, for, however ghastly the things that we and God experience, the Divine mind cannot be “blown” by them; Divine meaning-making capacities cannot be stumped by them. God’s comprehensive consciousness recontextualizes them in a field that includes joy and delight in the Divine perfections, in the Divine persons’ love for one another, in cosmic excellencies beyond our ken…Put otherwise, even if Divinity is mutable and passible, the Divine Perfections in Their Divine nature are not vulnerable to horrors. For God to share horrors, God has to become the kind of thing that can be radically vulnerable to horrors. And this will require a finite range of consciousness with limited powers to cope.

Hold onto your hats. One last elaboration:

“God’s feeling in the Divine nature all the pains that creatures feel will not constitute adequate solidarity with human horror-participants. Divine consciousness is of immeasurable scope. God’s clear and comprehensive awareness of the Good that God is would radically recontextualize any creaturely pain and suffering that God might feel: what swamps a human consciousness would be a minuscule fragment of what occupies Divine attention…To show solidarity with horror-participants, God must experience evils within the limits of a finite human consciousness, with a mind that can be “blown” and at least prima facie unable to cope with horrors. The two-natures theory, Incarnation of a Divine person into an individual human nature, fills this bill….” [emphases in all quotes mine]

The smelling salts are in the cabinet. I’ll be voicing my agreements, reservations, and objections in upcoming posts in this series.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 4

fatherForgiveLGChapter 3 (“Sharing the horrors: Christ as horror-defeater”) of Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology is a wonderful chapter that has me equally excited and skeptical, apprehensive and suspicious. Here she begins to answer the questions she posed at the conclusion of the previous chapter, namely:

If our fundamental problem is our vulnerability to horrors, and if salvation is the defeat of and our healing from the dysfunctional effects of horrors and the eventual removal of this vulnerability from the cosmos, who and what must Jesus be and what must Jesus’ relationship be to God and to us if Jesus is the one in whom this salvation-as-horror-defeat is achieved?

We have a “soteriological job description” (i.e., Stage 1-3 horror-defeat), but what are the qualifications to be this horror-defeater? Adams agrees “it takes a God-man to do the job,” and she aims to work out the identity of this horror-defeater consistent with the Chalcedonian Creed (451 BCE) and a conviction she shares with Gregory Nazianzen (4th century Archbishop) that “what is not assumed cannot be restored.” As she argued in the previous chapter, because divine being is the only incommensurate good sufficient to accomplish this horror-defeating work, Jesus must be divine being. But because human embodied existence is the context to be assumed and in which its healing defeat must be accomplished as horror-defeat, Jesus must be human being.

Perfectionist treatments
Adams summarizes two different answers to the question ‘Who/What must Jesus be to be our savior?’ before offering her own qualified diagnosis. I want to quickly review these two approaches in this post (Part 4) and her own offering in Part 5.

The first sort of answer she calls perfectionist Christologies. These attribute to Christ’s human nature “maximal supernatural upgrades in grace and knowledge” which essentially insulate Christ from any genuine participation in the very vulnerability which is the arena in which (Adams argues) our horror-defeat must transpire. She explains—

“These thinkers begin with distinctive systematic presumptions… Some harbored a presumption against Incarnation, vigorously voiced by non-Christian (Jewish and Muslim) monotheists and reinforced by a Platonizing appreciation of the metaphysical “size-gap” between creatures and God. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm in effect concedes that Incarnation is prima facie metaphysically indecent (why would a being a greater than which cannot be conceived unite itself with what is ‘almost nothing’?) and therefore something God would undertake only if the fulfillment of Divine purposes made is conditionally necessary to do so. Given the fact of Incarnation, non-Antiochene patristics and early medieval theologians transmuted the presumption against Incarnation into a presumption of perfection, that, other things being equal, the human nature God made God’s own would have to be as perfect as it is possible for a human nature to be.”

Essentially this perfectionist tradition merely adds normal human functioning and growth “into a soul already equipped – ab initio and permanently – with as much supernatural knowledge of God and creatures as a human soul is capable of….” This approach, Adams feels, actually disqualifies Jesus from being our horror-defeater, for the job is to defeat horrors not just insulated ‘inside’ a human nature but ‘with’ or ‘by means of’ that nature, i.e., in terms of the capacities and vulnerabilities definitive of that nature. This is the human side of the qualifications. But there’s also a divine side of the job description (Part 5) which limits how much and in what ways he identifies with us.

Turn-of-the-century British Christology
She also briefly reviews the ways British theologians (Charles Gore, Frank Weston, Peter Forsyth, William Temple) departed from this perfectionist approach. She agrees with the basic direction in which they move (because by her account they took Jesus’s embodied, social context and human development seriously) but disagree with them where “they share the conviction that sin is the main soteriological problem, and that One Who saves us from sin must be sinless.” Thus British Christologians have a “soteriological plot [that] tends to be moralistic and moralizing,” while her approach will not require Jesus to be impeccable or sinless. Stay tuned for Part 5!

“Broadly speaking, turn-of-the-century British liberal theologians deplored the a priori character of such patristic and medieval Christology, with its tendency to make the metaphysical “gap” and the presumption of perfection decisive. On the contrary, Christology should begin with Holy Scripture, and with then-contemporary higher critical exegesis of it which treated the Bible as a historical document.”

What this meant in practice was that Scripture’s portrait of Christ was not infallible, historical inaccuracies abounded, the text couldn’t be trusted, and for some that miracles were impossible, etc. Though they denounced the philosophical presuppositions of the perfectionist Christologies which in their view failed to take the real humanity of Christ seriously, they had philosophical presumptions of their own that disqualify their view in Adams’ mind. And we’ll get to Adams’ arrangement of these concerns next.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 3

4871279What a challenging and insightful book Marilyn McCord Adams has given us. She opens (in “Posing the Problems”) by arguing that human existence involves “inevitable vulnerability to horrors” (“horrors” being “crises in personal meaning-making” precipitated by intentional acts of violence, innocently through unintended choices or by natural evils). Adams is a believer in free will (of the libertarian sort) though she says standard free-will explanations of our predicament don’t account for all horrors. Apart from our being free, the fact is that “human psycho-spiritual powers are not reliably great enough to achieve and sustain an appropriate functional coordination….” Given the natural contingencies and mismatches (mismatches described in Part 2) that define our life, horrors are inevitable, which leads Adams (as it does us all) to wonder why God would decide to include such inevitability. In this Part 3 I’d like to explore her answer, what she calls her “cosmological hypothesis.”

“…God must love material creation with a love that dual-drives towards assimilation and union. On the one hand, God wants matter to be as Godlike as possible while still being itself…Human nature crowns God’s efforts to make material creation – while yet material – more and more like God. On the other hand, God’s passion for material creation expresses itself in a Divine desire to unite with it, not only to enter into personal intimacy, but to “go all the way” and share its nature in hypostatic union.” (Emphasis mine)

The first assimilative aim goes a short way in explaining why God would create us in our sort of material world: we need room to grow into Godlikeness. But letting creation go to “do its thing” makes us radically vulnerable to horrors. Why, Adams wonders, wouldn’t God “settle for natural kinds that exhibit lower grades of Godlikeness but whose specimens are not so vulnerable to functional ruin” (e.g., pebbles and streams, mountains and frogs)? The answer for her comes in God’s unitive aim wherein God aims to share created nature in the most intimate way possible — hypostatic union. God’s assimilative aim entails a certain “letting go” of creation so that it can “be itself”  in its Godlikeness while God’s unitive aim drives toward personal intimacy via hypostatic union. Personally I see these two as a single purpose at work in all that God creates but reaching its peak in divine-human hypostatic union in Christ. Ultimately it’s the Incarnation that fulfills God’s purpose for creation.


“[B]ecause God this aim is prima facie self-defeating, Divine intimacy with human persons – among other things – takes the distinctive form of identification with us in horror-participation, which prima facie defeats the positive meaning of God’s human career. Divine solidarity with us in horror-participation weaves our own horror-participation into the warp and woof of our own witting or unwitting intimate personal relationship with God.”


“Because Divinity so mismatches creatures that a metaphysical size-gap yawns between us, Divinity is a good incommensurate with both created good and created evils. Likewise, personal intimacy with God that is on the whole and in the end beatific is incommensurately good for created persons. By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.” (Emphasis mine)


“…God – metaphysically speaking, what God is – is the incommensurate good, radically outclassing any created goods or evils. Generally speaking appropriate relationship to good things is good-for us. We are good to children when we feed them nourishing food, provide them with a stimulating education, give them opportunities to view the world’s great art. Likewise, appropriately relating us to the right goods is one way for God to be good-to us. Christian tradition affirms that intimate relationship with God which is on the whole and in the end beatific is incommensurately good-for created persons. My conclusion is that the only currency valuable enough to make good on horrors is God, and the horror-participation’s overall and eventual beatific intimacy with God.” (Emphasis mine)

This beatific effect of the divine incommensurate good is made available to humankind through the Incarnation, though given our vulnerability to horrors this means God in Christ also becomes vulnerable to horrors; and his horror-defeating work is our salvation.


Adams describes:

“To defeat horror-participation within the individual created person’s life, God must weave it into the fabric of that individual’s intimate and (overall in the end) beatific personal relationship with God.”

Horror-defeat takes place in three stages:

  • Stage-I Horror-defeat: Divine intimacy between God and Creation via incarnation/hypostatic union becomes the occasion of divine horror-participation. Here the “materials for lending positive meaning to any and all horror-participation” are made available within history.
  • Stage-2 Horror-defeat: Because meaning-making is a personal activity, and because our meaning-making capacities are so often distorted, these capacities require healing and coaching.
  • Stage-3 Horror-defeat: The relation of embodied persons to their material environment must be renegotiated so that we are no longer vulnerable to horrors.

Stage-I horror-defeat is achieved in Christ’s facing-down and defeating our horrors on the Cross. Stage-II horror-defeat describes the life-long incorporation of Stage-I truths into our experience (privately and in the Church as that community where “healing” and “coaching” occur). Stage-III horror-defeat is the future glorification (“renegotiation”) of the material cosmos rendering it void of vulnerability to horrors.

She ends this chapter with the only question worth asking at this point: Who would Christ have to be, what relationship to God and humankind would Christ have to have, to accomplish this saving work?

Now we’re talkin’.

(Pictures here and here.)

Christ & Horrors–Part 2

McCord_Adams_Horrendous_EvilsMarilyn McCord Adams argues that the explanatory power of standard “free-will” approaches is impotent in the face of “horrendous evils”:

“Since incorrigible ‘ignorance diminishes the voluntary’, it follows that we cannot be morally responsible for the horrors we perpetrate. I am not saying that white segregationists who set German Shepherd police dogs on African American or fire-bombed churches or lynched and shot activists did not know enough about what they were doing to be seriously wicked. My claim is that there is a vast surplus left over…

“Traditional free-will approaches – with their move to shift responsibility and/or blame for evil away from God and onto personal creatures – are stalemated by horrendous evil. Human radical vulnerability to horrors cannot have its origin in misused creational freedom… Even if Adam’s and Eve’s choices are supposed to be somehow self-determined, the fact that the consequences amplify far beyond their capacity to conceive and hence to intend – viz., to horrors of which ex hypothesi they had no prior experience and of which they could therefore have no adequate conception – is not something for which humans are responsible. Rather it is a function of the interaction between human agency and the wider framework within which it is set, and God is responsible for creating human beings in such a framework!”

I might quibble over whether and when the notion of “morally responsibility” is applied. Where she denies that agents cannot be morally responsible for unforeseen horrors they perpetuate because they could not have conceived and thus intended them, I think we are at least sometimes responsible for the unintended consequences of our actions. There is a responsibility to be borne by people like Pol Pot and Hitler for the millions who suffered because of them though they were not personally present to pull every trigger or close every oven door in spite of the fact that they could not have conceived (and so intended) all that followed from their choices.

But we’ll leave that aside, because Adams is right that morally innocent people do sometimes perpetrate unintended horrors on others. Adams suggests as an example women who took thalidomide drugs during pregnancy on then up-to-date medical advice and bore children without arms and legs. And there is natural evil (mudslides, tornadoes, tsunamis) to consider as well, for these precipitate crises in personal meaning-making and the loss and even ruination of personal meaning. Point is, “horrors” understood as “crises in personal meaning” may or may not be morally perpetrated, and to that extent free-will approaches are stalemated.

Adams adds:

“…the fundamental reason why the human condition generally and Divine-human relations specifically are non-optimal is that God has created us radically vulnerable to horrors by creating us as embodied persons, personal animals, enmattered spirits in a material world of real or apparent scarcity such as this. Sin is a symptom and a consequence, but neither the fundamental explanas nor the principal explanandum. The real roots of our non-optimality are systemic and metaphysical.”

Those familiar with Boyd’s theory of natural evil will notice immediately that this contradicts Boyd’s view that natural evil isn’t ‘natural’ in the traditional sense (i.e., not an ‘agentless’ perpetuation of suffering) but is in fact ‘moral’ because it’s caused by malevolent demonic agents at work in the material creation. Adams doesn’t take this approach:

“There is a metaphysical mismatch within human nature: tying psyche to biology and personality to a developmental life cycle exposes human personhood to dangers…The fact that human psyche begins in groping immaturity and dependence, stumble-bumbles by trial and error towards higher functioning, only to peak and slide towards diminishment – makes our meaning-making capacities easy to twist, even ready to break when inept caregivers and hostile surroundings force us to cope with problems off the syllabus and out of pedagogical order…

“Human psyche is so connected to biology that biochemistry can skew our mental states (as in schizophrenia and clinical depression) and cause mind-degenerating and personality-distorting diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and some forms of Parkinson’s), which make a mockery of Aristotelian ideas of building character and dying in a virtuous old age…

“Metaphysical mismatches are metaphysically necessary, in the first instance, a function of what things are and not what anyone does. Yet, it is God Who decided to include such mismatches in the world as we have it. We may ask: whatever for?”

Where Boyd argues that these mismatches (and thus all suffering) are a function of the misuse of creaturely freedom (demonic if not human), Adams argues for a kind of suffering that isn’t reducible to such misused freedom but which is instead the inevitable consequence of the limitations built into our finite, created existence per se.

(Picture here.)