Richard Muller on Ancient and Modern Definitions of “Person”

In none of these usages does the term persona have the connotation of emotional individuality or unique consciousness that clearly belongs to the term in contemporary usage.  It is quite certain that the trinitarian use of persona does not point to three wills, three emotionally unique beings, or, as several eighteenth-century authors influenced by Cartesianism argued, three centers of consciousness; such implication would be tritheistic.  It is equally certain that contemporary theological statements to the effect that the God of the Bible is a “personal” God point not to the Trinity, but to the oneness of the divine will in loving relation to creatures.  In other words, despite the variety of usages and implications we have noted, the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and Protestant scholastic definitions of the term persona are united in their distinction from colloquial modern usage.  In brief, the term has traditionally indicated an objective and distinct mode or manner of being, a subsistence or subsistent individual, not necessarily substantially separate from like personae.  Thus, in trinitarian usage, three personae subsist in the divine substantia or essentia (q.v.) without division and, in christological usage, one persona two distinct naturae, the divine and the human.  This can be said while nonetheless arguing one will in God and two in Christ- since will belongs properly to the essence of God and to the natures in Christ, and in neither case to persona as such.  Thus, in the language of the scholastics, persona indicates primarily an individuum (q.v.), and individual thing, or a suppositum (q.v.), a self-subsistent thing, and more specifically still, an intelligent self-subsistent thing.

~Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, p 226-227


Augustinian Metaphors in Athanasius’s Theology

As then the light from the Sun which illumines the world could never be supposed, by men of sound mind, to do so without the Sun, since the Sun’s light is united to the Sun by nature; and as, if the Light were to say: I have received from the Sun the power of illumining all things, and of giving growth and strength to them by the heat that is in me, no one will be mad enough to think that the mention of the Sun is meant to separate him from what is his nature, namely the light; so piety would have us perceive that the Divine Essence of the Word is united by nature to His own Father.

~ Illud Omnia, &c. 4

This is but one more counterexample to the “Western” and “essence” hypothesis that supposes all direct talk about the divine essence uniting the persons to be an Augustinian development.  Athanasius is using the same solar metaphor that will also appear in Gregory of Nyssa.

Orthodox Readings of Augustine Book Out

I attended the conference for no clear reason in particular.  Perhaps I wanted to become Orthodox.  Maybe it was just the fun of social Trinitarianism.  It might have only been the opportunity to wander the Big Apple with Joel Garver.

Whatever the reason for going, being a spectator at the event itself was instrumental in my becoming overwhelming Augustinian in theology proper.  It gave me the ingredients for future Trinitarian study, and it has perhaps contributed to some of the most fundamental aspects of my current theology.  I’m more Reformed and Augustinian now than ever before.

So it is definitely cool to see that the book is finally out. Now I can actually see David Hart’s lecture, since he didn’t get to actually give the real one.  I suspect it is nearly the same as the one he gave at Calvin College a little later.

Now, to be sure, the book will have defenders of anti-Augustinianism, including the Palamites.  I was told, however, that Bradshaw was the only “Truly Orthodox” presenter there.  So we’ll just have to see.  The general consensus, though, seemed to militate strongly against Palamism’s narrative of Augustine and the West.

Socrates’ Critique of Modernity

Marigold: Your work may conquer thoughts, but mine conquers nature.
: Why do you want to conquer nature? Why not befriend her instead?
: Her?
: Do not the poets tell us nature is our mother? Why would you want to conquer your mother? We conquer our enemies?
: Nature is not my mother, nor is it my enemy. It is simply matter, raw material to be improved…

Marigold: …The ancients feared nature and even worshiped it. We conquer it.
: Are there no alternatives to those two extremes? Must you either conquer something or else fear and worship it?
: What’s your alternative? What do you philosophers do with nature?
: We try to understand it and befriend it. For instance, where you speak of “the conquest of space” I should prefer to speak of “the befriending of space.” Though I should also prefer to speak of “the heavens” rather than “space.” …

Socrates: I think we premodern philosophers had a better relation with nature because we had a better answer to an even greater question, the question of the summum bonum, the greatest good, the most important thing in life. ..

Socrates: They all agreed that the most important thing in life was somehow to conform the human soul to objective reality. Your “conquest of nature” philosophy thinks the most important thin is to conform objective reality to the desires of the human soul.

from Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life pgs. 37-42

I think Socrates definitely scores some points on us here. He deconstructs modernity rather effectively, but he also deconstructs modern Reformed Theology in North America. Whether the Radical Orthodoxy folks are correct to blame nominalism, or whether Van Til, Schaeffer and Kuyper really did fall into postmodernism via their twist on Kant’s transcendentals, it seems undeniable to me that we have managed to become closer to the modern ontology of violence (as represented by “Marigold”) than the premodern understanding of harmony with nature.

How many times have you heard folks, with the best intentions, say that truth is based on authority? And how often do they mean by “authority,” power or strength? Do you think that this metaphor might be the reason we get so cranky and violent when we meet something different?

An illustration will make this evident.

For Van Til, when a nonbeliever grasps actual truth, he is said to be using borrowed capital. He is making off with something that is not his. This certainly seems like a bad thing.

Contrast this with C. S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters, the demons warn against the dangers of true science, for insofar as it brings a person closer to truth, it brings them closer to God. Even an unbeliever, when in the presence of truth, is closer to God than not. It is a reason for Christians to rejoice and for demons to be frustrated.

I wonder whether we haven’t also allowed sin and the Fall to become so normal that we forget it is a distortion. Yes there’s a violence in existence, but it isn’t existence as such, but rather existence marred by sin. Thus the truest truth goes beyond even our sin-world and on to the character of God.

Jewish Roots for the Trinity

Peter Escalante showed me this wonderful page on The Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism. There’s so much good stuff there, but I can recommend Michel Barnes’ on the Holy Spirit as a good place to get started (if you’ve got the time).

I’m not sure about all of these writers’ views of Scripture, but I think that they are right to criticize the assumption that there was only one Judaism and that it always had the same doctrine of God. I find the whole project of Old Testament Trinitarianism fascinating, especially coming from the academy.

The implications of all this on the early church is pretty huge too, and I’d like to go ahead and say once again that I no longer know anything.

Operations and Esse

You know, the only way that we even know that God is Trinity is because He sent his Son to die for us. The only way we can learn theology proper is to study Christology, which is a form of soteriology (and eschatology).

This is why the “Western” paradigm strikes me as superior. We confess that God is infinite, incomprehensible, and beyond being. Very few deny this (If they do we call them freaks and make wood-carvings with Aristotle leading them to the third circle of Hell).  However, we also confess that God can truly reveal Himself (which is to say the same thing as His essence since there is no difference between God and God-ness) to his creation and that he does precisely this in the act of redemption. God is love, and the greatest love possible is to die for someone else.

We know love because of what God did.

We know God because of Jesus.

One Power

In the Synodical letter from the Council of Constantinople, the bishops give a short summary of the catholic faith:

This is the faith which ought to be sufficient for you, for us, for all who wrest not the word of the true faith; for it is the ancient faith; it is the faith of our baptism; it is the faith that teaches us to believe in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. According to this faith there is one Godhead, Power and Substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; the dignity being equal, and the majesty being equal in three perfect hypostases, i.e. three perfect persons.

Godhead, Power, and Substance are all “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” This is as conservative as it gets.

Important for us moderns, however, is to note that the power is one. Often we think of the Father’s power or the Son’s power or the Holy Ghost’s power as if they were individual powers, but the pro-Nicene’s used power as a means of unity, and thus it is really but another name for the divine essence.

We confess the one Power of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

Grace a Divine Attribute

Richard Muller explains the Reformed orthodox doctrine of the gratia Dei as being a divine perfection:

Although by far the larger discussion of divine grace belongs to the soteriology of Reformed orthodoxy, the theologians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also consistently place the gratia Dei among the divine affections. Divine grace, as indicated both in the doctrine of the divine attributes and in the developing Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, is not merely the outward favor of God toward the elect, evident only in the post-lapsarian dispensation of salvation; rather is it one of the perfections of the divine nature. It is characteristic of God’s relations to the finite order, apart from sin, in the act of divine condescension to relate to finite creatures. Beyond this, it is a characteristic of the divine being itself, at the very foundation of God’s relationship with finite, temporal beings.

~PRRD vol. 3 pg. 570

Muller even adds a footnote which says:

There is, both in the orthodox Reformed doctrine of God and in the orthodox Reformed covenant theology of the seventeenth century, a consistent identification of grace as fundamental to all of God’s relationships with the world and especially with human beings, to the point of the consistent assertion that the covenant of nature or works is itself gracious.

Now this is probably a point where Muller doesn’t discuss the “discontinuity” in Reformed orthodoxy. There were at least some Reformed thinkers who would have disagreed, though Muller gives the mainstream position. With the development of the covenant of redemption and high Calvinism, one wonders how it could be the case that grace is the fundamental ground of God’s relationship with all men.

But that’s a much larger discussion.

Letham Against the Covenant of Redemption

In his The Holy Trinity, Robert Letham levels a brief criticism against the notion that Christ’s salvation was but a revelation of a covenant made between the Father and the Son and not their very shared nature. Writing against Warfield, Letham states:

By the same token, we point to the obedience of the incarnate Son in the economy of salvation, reflecting his eternal relation to the Father in loving submission, in identity of being and equality of status. The faithfulness of God also undercuts the suggestion made by Warfield—only a suggestion, for he does not pursue it—that certain aspects of the relationship between the Father and the Son in the history of salvation may have been due to a “covenant” between the persons of the Trinity by which the Son submitted himself temporarily to the Father, intending to abandon such submission upon the completion of our salvation. If this were so, the Son could not have revealed God to us.

~The Holy Trinity pg. 401

Barth levels a similar charge against Cocceius. The Covenant of Redemption construct, if allowed to remain an articulation of a new relationship that was somehow added to the natural relation between the Father and Son, does not reveal God to us in salvation.

But what could be clearer than that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God’s fullness? God is love, and the love of God was shown clearly in the giving of His Son to die for the life of the world.

My suggestion is that we follow Murray and others in defining covenant as not a product of the will, but rather as relationship itself. The Covenant of Redemption can be preserved by making it one reflection of the divine fellowship. God’s covenant is simply His own self-revelation finding its fulfillment in Christ. Covenant is God dwelling with man. It is Immanuel.

Jesus Christ is the covenant.


All of this talk about “simplicity” and “inseparable operations” can leave folks a little unsure as how to speak Biblically.  Surely the Bible presents the Son as doing things that the Father does not do, and just as surely, it must present the Spirit doing works that the Son does not do.  How can we reconcile this with our Trinitarian commitments?

Lewis Ayres offers up this explanation:

Closely linked to the doctrines of divine simplicity and inseparable operation is the practice of appropriation.  Appropriation is the practice of attributing to one divine person an attribute or action that is common to the Godhead and thus to all divine persons: because the persons work inseparably in the context of the divine simplicity we frequently speak about something as characteristic of a divine person although it is in fact equally true of all divine persons.  Appropriation is, for Pro-Nicenes, an important habit of Christian speech because it is central to Scripture’s own speech about the divine persons.  Appropriation is sometimes presented as an ‘Augustinian’ doctrine: in fact, Augustine’s clarity about the doctrine- which may be seen in Chapter 15- is simply the clearest statement of a common pro-Nicene principle.

~ Nicaea and Its Legacy pg. 297

We must also keep in mind the distinction between archetypal and ectypal phenomena.  What appears to us to be the work of a singular person, for it is occurring within our created world, involves all three persons in their infinity, however incomprehensible that may be.