From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox Understanding of God (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 2)

This summary will only focus on lecture 2 from Wednesday.

McCormack began by outlining the doctrine of God in the early church as it relates to the Trinity. The received view included firm commitments to impassibility and divine simplicity, which set the terms for the debate(s) on the Trinity. McCormack began with the patristic view of simplicity and then moved on to impassibility.

Divine simplicity basically means that God is without parts or composition and speaks to the way the divine attributes relate to the divine essence. Do the attributes really describe God’s essence or do they merely describe our experience of God? Do they describe the essence of God as a whole? Are the attributes mere synonyms? The answers the fathers gave to these questions impacted other areas of reflection.

McCormack argues that divine simplicity can be found as early as Philo in his interpretation of the Exod 3:14-15 (LXX). Ptolemy (2nd c.) also affirmed divine simplicity but distinguished between a first God who was simple and a second God who was complex. He did so because the first God could only act simply by way of a singular, non-complex activity. But causal activity in a world of matter is necessarily multiple. Therefore, in order to protect the simple God from complexity, a second and complex God is posited.

At this point, McCormack mentioned Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, OECS (Oxford, 2009). Radde-Gallwitz lays out two versions of divine simplicity: a radical apophaticism that arrives at simplicity by a series of negations (God ends up with no real qualities and is therefore inexpressible), and the Identity Thesis that links the divine names (attributes) to the divine essence. Eunomius took this too far when he argued that God’s essence is summed up as “ingenerate” and therefore had to argue that the Father and Son are not of the same essence. Radde-Gallwitz argues that Basil and Gregory offer a third way by moving beyond the negative statement of simplicity (not composite) and toward a positive statement through the use of propria which allows them to predicate names of God’s substance but not his essence. McCormack finds problems with such a distinction – is it merely linguistic or ontological? For McCormack, it seems it’s not really a third way but rather an embrace of the first two by means of the essence/substance distinction. The main problem is that we’re left with an unknowable God (not merely incomprehensible) where the names Father or Son cannot be said to be true of God. Simplicity functions as the last and final guardian of monadic unity.

Simplicity stands or falls with impassibility. This is not because impassibility is more basic, but because simplicity requires impassibility. The fathers didn’t deny all emotions of God but only those that were unworthy of him. McCormack went into some detail regarding Gavrilyuk’s, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, OECS (Oxford, 2006). McCormack used Athanasius’s view of the incarnation to show that Gavrilyuk is overstating his case. For Athanasius, the suffering of Christ was not predicated of the Word but of the human nature, which the Word contingently possessed. Prior to Athanasius such an ‘unqualified’ impassibility was the norm. McCormack concluded that where you find talk of God suffering according to human nature that it is not necessary this means a ‘qualified’ impassibility. It can also indicate that it’s compatible with an ‘unqualified’ view and it was this latter position that McCormack believes was dominate. [note: much more was said here and I’ve limited my summary for sake of space/time]

What was the influence of divine simplicity? It exercised a controlling influence that led to an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Is the Father alone simple or is simplicity shared in an undivided way among the three persons? Differentiating the persons but not the divine essence is problematic. As Ayres notes, pro-Nicene discussion of persons is austere. Radde-Gallwitz is closer to the truth when he says that Basil doesn’t really tell us what a hypostasis is (Behr also agrees). The problem remains. In terms of the creeds, they are rather minimalist. Therefore, there is wiggle-room on simplicity and impassibility. The primary teachings of creeds speak to the substantial unity of Father and Son. The Son is begotten, not made. Nothing is said with respect to the nature of begetting or procession, or that they are comprehensible or necessary. Nothing is said with respect to simplicity or impassibility, nor inseparable operations, and so forth.

McCormack concluded by noting that the early church moved from the oneness of God to the differentiation of the persons. This was inevitable based on the challenges and conditions in which they worked. However, the procedure of the NT writers move from Jesus to God.  In other words, to say that a human being belongs to the identity of the one God of Israel is to move from difference to a reaffirmation of the doctrine of oneness rather than the other way around. Yet, the real difficulty lies in the fact that the Trinity was so massively impacted by simplicity and impassibility. It’s not that these ideas are extra-biblical. Theologians from all ages use the philosophy of their time and are right to do so. What’s questionable is that the content of the concepts clash with strands of biblical teaching. They look alien to the thought-world of the biblical writers. The language of 1 Cor 2:8 (“crucified the Lord of glory”) can be brought into harmony with simplicity and impassibility. Yet, this happened for the early church only after they were awarded a supervisory role and after Chalcedonian christology developed.  To appeal to a specific understanding of the communication of attributes to preserve divine simplicity and impassibility appears to be a self-enclosed question-begging maneuver.

Readers may also be interested in McCormack’s essay, “Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy? Implications of Karl Barth’s Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility.” In Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, edited by James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White, 150-86. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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2 Responses to From the One God to the Trinity: The Creation of the Orthodox Understanding of God (McCormack Kantzer Lecture 2)

  1. Andy Rowell says:

    Thanks for this summary. Excellent. I listened to the lecture today. Here are my three tweets about it:

    In McCormack’s 2nd Kantzer lecture he criticizes divine simplicity and impassibility as unbiblical Greek developments.

    McCormack in 2nd Kantzer lecture asserts that God does not die (cease to exist) but experiences death in the human nature of Jesus Christ.

    McCormack argues as a Protestant (sola scriptura) he needn’t follow Rom. Catholic Lewis Ayres’s pro-Nicene theology beyond the creed itself.

  2. Andy Rowell says:

    Two more tweets:
    McCormack on Hegel: He was hetero-orthodox (e.g. resurrection) but that doesn’t make him heretical. He usefully disrupts.

    McCormack on Adolf von Harnack’s History of Dogma: It is not that Harnack was right but that Patristics scholars are saying what he said.

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