Idealism and Christian Theology: Concluding Thoughts and Table of Posts
April 24, 2017 — 15:48

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

Having finished commenting on every chapter of Idealism and Christian Theology, allow me here to offer some concluding thoughts on the book and its aims and scope.

First, some comments regarding scope. The title ‘idealism and Christian theology’ allows for a very wide scope. In the design of a volume like this, a judgment must be made about how broadly or narrowly the title is to be interpreted. Here, the title bears a relatively narrow interpretation in two respects, only one of which is explicit in the introduction. The explicit restriction of scope is that the volume considers only Berkeleian and Edwardsian idealisms and not, e.g., Kantian or post-Kantian idealisms (p. 3). The implicit restriction is that the Christian theology is confined exclusively to conservative/traditional Protestant theology.

By my count, three of the essays focus primarily on Berkeley and five focus primarily on Edwards. Of the three essays remaining, one (Wainwright) is primarily concerned with comparison and contrast between Berkeley and Edwards, and the other two (Wessling and Arcadi) focus on the theological consequences of idealism without engaging in significant exegesis of either Berkeley or Edwards (though Wessling connects his version of idealism with Edwards and Arcadi connects his with Berkeley).

While I’m tabulating things, here are some facts about the authors: four work primarily in philosophy, seven in theology. All eleven authors are male. Six of the seven theologians are affiliated with Christian institutions (colleges or seminaries), all of which have a conservative Protestant orientation. Three authors are affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary. By contrast, all four of the philosophers (and the one remaining theologian) are affiliated with secular universities. All of the Berkeley essays (and the one comparative essay) are by philosophers, while all of the Edwards essays are by theologians.

These facts are likely connected with a point of contrast between the Berkeley essays and the Edwards essays, which I have been noting as I go along: the Edwards essays pretty much universally pay careful attention to Edwards’ own theological commitments, and the way Edwards himself connects his idealism with his theology. The authors writing about Edwards generally seem sympathetic to Edwards’ theology, as well as his idealism. By contrast, Airaksinen is the only author to pay significant attention to Berkeley’s theological commitments. The other authors writing about Berkeley are generally concerned with how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with certain theological claims they (the authors) take to be important. This observation is not necessarily a criticism; it’s another choice about scope. The two questions (how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with his own theological commitments; how Berkeley’s idealism interacts with our theological commitments) are both perfectly legitimate, provided we distinguish them from one another. However, it is a little odd, and perhaps unfortunate, that all the Berkeley essays are on one side and all the Edwards essays on the other. This probably has to do with the disciplinary divide: the fact that all the Berkeley essays are by philosophers and all the Edwards essays are by theologians (with one comparative essay by a philosopher).

Second, some comments regarding the aims of the volume. In my introductory post, I wrote: “This post will be not so much a discussion of the book’s introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.” However, there turned out to be a degree of mismatch between my conception of the connection between idealism and Christian theology and the conception that animates this volume. My own account had primarily to do with a certain cluster of problems faced by the Christian idealist, which might be placed under the general heading ‘theology of the body.’ The body has significant importance to Christian theology, and idealism might be accused of running into Gnosticism by devaluing the body. To be sure, these sorts of issues do crop up in several places in the volume, and in some cases are addressed quite insightfully. (See especially the essays by Hamilton, Cortez, and Arcadi.) However, as the editors emphasize in the introduction (p. 3), this volume is more concerned with the value of idealism for constructive theological work than with the compatibility of idealism with basic points of orthodoxy. Of course, the orthodox theologian can use idealism constructively only if it is compatible with orthodoxy, and this is the reason that my question (the compatibility of idealism with ecumenical orthodoxy regarding the theology of the body) does come up in a number of places. But this is not the central focus.*

Finally, an overall evaluation. This volume must be understood as a defence of the harmony (not mere logical compatibility) of Berkeleian/Edwardsian idealism with traditional/conservative Protestant theology. Read in this way, all of the eleven essays are good, and at least six are excellent. The book is important and timely insofar as it stands at the intersection of two trends: the increasing seriousness with which idealism is taken in analytic philosophy, and the increasing engagement between analytic philosophy and theology. I, for one, think both of these trends are positive developments, and I therefore hope that this book will help to solidify both of them and also to begin a larger conversation about the relevance of metaphysical idealism to Christian theology.

Table of Posts

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


* Thanks to Joshua Farris for helpful correspondence on these points.

Arcadi on Idealism and the Eucharist
April 12, 2017 — 17:36

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 10 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealism and Participating in the Body of Christ” by James Arcadi. This article is very clearly written and handles both philosophy and theology well. However, I have some lingering concerns about the position defended.

Arcadi begins with an admirably clear account of the spectrum of Christian positions on the metaphysics of the Eucharist. (I note, in passing, that during the Reformation and the early modern period, this was one of the most divisive questions in Christian theology, and differences over this question were at least as important as difference in soteriology in distinguishing one Christian communion from another. Today, however, these disputes are mostly forgotten by ordinary Christians—including, to a large extent, even clergy—and receive very little emphasis from Christian theologians and philosophers.) Aracadi is specifically interested in views that affirm the corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist for these, one might suppose, are inconsistent with idealism. Corporeal presence theories take Christ to be present bodily in the Eucharistic elements, in contrast to symbolic theories or ‘spiritual’ presence theories. Arcadi helpfully uses the term ‘corporeal presence’ rather than the more common ‘real presence’ on account of the fact that some spiritual presence theologians might like to regard the spiritual presence of Christ as ‘real’. The question with which Arcadi is concerned is whether an idealist might claim that Christ is present in the consecrated elements in a bodily way.

In his discussion, Arcadi successfully avoids a few common pitfalls. First, he avoids the conflation of real presence with transubstantiation. As Arcadi clearly explains, transubstantiation is a specific theory of how Christ is bodily present in the consecrated elements, and this specific theory should be distinguished from the bare claim that Christ is (somehow) present bodily. Second, one might think that idealism is just obviously inconsistent with corporeal presence since idealism denies the reality of all things corporeal. This, however, is not so: idealism (at least the Berkeleian variety with which Arcadi is concerned) denies the existence of matter in a particular metaphysical sense of that term, but it nevertheless affirms the existence of bodies. The doctrine in question is a doctrine of corporeal (bodily) presence, not a doctrine of material presence, so it is not so obviously inconsistent with idealism. So the question is whether the idealist can affirm that Christ is somehow bodily present in the consecrated elements.

To answer this question, Arcadi considers three theories: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and impanation. Now, the doctrine of transubstantiation is standardly explicated in the jargon of Aristotelian metaphysics and this, one might suppose, makes it obviously inconsistent with idealism, a radically anti-Aristotelian metaphysical doctrine. (Indeed, this is precisely what I would have said prior to reading this article!) However, Arcadi argues that this is too quick, for transubstantiation can be formulated without this jargon. What the doctrine claims, at bottom, is that, when the elements are consecrated, the bread ceases to be present and the body of Christ begins to be present, although the sensible qualities of bread remain throughout, and the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent throughout. Consubstantiation is precisely the same, except that it holds that the bread continues to be present (201-2). Now these views, Arcadi argues, do turn out to be inconsistent with (Berkeleian) idealism. The reason is that a core principle of Berkeleian idealism is the refusal to distinguish the bread itself from its sensible qualities. Hence, for the Berkeleian, as long as the sensible qualities of bread are present, the bread is present, and as long as the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent, the body of Christ is absent (203-4).

According to the third view, impanation, Christ comes to bear to the bread a relation that is somehow similar or analogous to the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ, or Christ’s relation to his human body. Arcadi favors the latter approach, and argues that it is consistent with idealism: the bread (while remaining bread) comes to be the body of Christ in the sense that it comes to be related to Christ in the same way Christ’s human body is related to him. As indicated at 213n26, consistency with the Chalcedonian Definition appears to require that the relevant relation, on this picture, be a relation to Christ’s human soul. Arcadi takes the Berkeleian picture to hold that a given soul is embodied in a particular body just if it bears the right perceptual relation to the sensible qualities of that body (206-8). Clearly, there is no metaphysical difficulty in God’s bringing it about that Christ’s human soul bears this relation to the Eucharistic bread.

So far so good. However, as I said, I have some lingering concerns. First, one may worry that this is a Pyrrhic victory for the proponent of corporeal presence, for idealism would appear to undermine the distinction between corporeal presence views and merely symbolic views. Indeed, this will be particularly true if one holds (as I do) that on Berkeley’s view your body is the word in the language of nature that names you. On this view, that the bread means or refers to Christ (in the language of nature, and not merely by human institution) may be sufficient for it to count as Christ’s body, so there may be no ‘daylight’ between the mere symbolic view and Arcadi’s brand of impanation.

Now perhaps Aracadi’s story about the perceptual relation between Christ and the bread can help here. However, and this is my second concern, Arcadi does not spell out precisely what the perceptual relation between Christ’s human soul and the bread amounts to. If the analogy to our relation to our bodies holds, then one expects that Christ (according to the humanity) experiences pain when the worshipper chews the Eucharistic bread. This strikes me as … troubling. (Perhaps others will think this is not so bad: after all when Christ refers to the bread as his body broken for us, he is talking about his suffering on the cross. This issue merits further reflection, and I’m sure there is a large theological literature on it with which I am not familiar.)

These concerns notwithstanding, this is, as I have said, an excellent essay that handles both the philosophy and the theology with admirable clarity.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Crisp on Edwards on the Incarnation
April 6, 2017 — 6:03

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 8 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Jonathan Edwards, Idealism, and Christology” by Oliver Crisp. This is the second of the two previously published essays, having appeared in another edited volume in 2011.

The first part of the essay provides an admirably clear overview of Edwards’ distinctive metaphysical views, particularly as they relate to God and creation. Crisp then goes on to draw out some consequences for Christology and defend the orthodoxy of Edwards’ position.

Crisp enumerates 11 Edwardsian positions he takes to be relevant, but it seems to me that there are really just three that are of central relevance to the question of the Incarnation. Using slightly different terminology than Crisp (in order to sum things up more briefly), we may call these; immaterialism, stage theory, and occasionalism. Each of these doctrines is important primarily for what it denies, not for what it affirms. Immaterialism denies the existence of mind-independent extended substances; stage theory denies that created objects persist over time in any metaphysically significant sense; and occasionalism denies that created objects are ever efficient causes. In all three cases, Edwards, like most other proponents of these views, tries to soften the blow of these denials: immaterialism doesn’t deny that there are bodies, but merely denies that bodies are mind-independent material substrata; stage theory doesn’t deny that there is some relation between the apple this morning and the apple this afternoon which makes us call it ‘the same apple,’ it just denies that this relation is, in truth and strictness, identity; finally, occasionalism doesn’t deny that one event happens because of another, it merely says that, in the oomphy ‘anti-Humean’ sense God, and only God, is responsible for making the events happen in this order.

Each of these theories, Crisp suggests, might be thought to cause problems for the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. First and most obviously, Christian theology holds that the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on a body—in reality and not appearance only—and this might well be thought to conflict with immaterialism. Second, orthodox Christology holds that Christ became incarnate just once, in apparent conflict with stage theory which would have Christ bearing some relation to a series of human body-stages. Third and finally, the Third Council of Constantinople affirmed that Christ possessed a human will (faculty of willing) distinct from the divine will. Presumably the Council meant to affirm that Christ’s ordinary human actions were undertaken by ordinary human willing. But Edwards (unlike many other early modern occasionalists) makes no exception to his occasionalism for human minds/wills. Like Malebranche (the most extreme of occasionalists), he holds that when we will to move our arm God moves it for us. In what sense, then, can Christ’s actions be said to be undertaken pursuant to a human will?

Crisp’s answer to all three of these objections is fundamentally the same: the key point affirmed by the Chalcedonian Definition (in connection with Christ’s humanity) is that Christ is “perfect in humanity … consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects, except for sin” (quoted on p. 158). In other words, orthodox Christology is fundamentally committed to the claim that Christ became a human being like other human beings. It is not fundamentally committed to a particular metaphysical conception of human beings. Thus Edwards can say that Christ has a human body just like we do (which is to say, he was associated in a special way with certain divine ideas); that this body persists through time just like our bodies do (which is to say, it doesn’t really persist at all, but is preceded and succeeded by certain suitably related bodies); and that Christ undertakes voluntary actions in the body just like we do (which is to say, he wills certain actions and on the occasion of his willing God makes the actions occur).

This, I think, is all convincing. The real question becomes, can Edwards’ metaphysics make sense of all the things it needs to make sense of? But insofar as the challenge is to make sense of the ordinary case (and not the extraordinary case of the Incarnation), this is a question about the viability of his metaphysics, not a question of its theological orthodoxy. If Edwards can indeed make sense of the ordinary everyday cases, then he can do at least as well as the dualist in making sense of the Incarnation.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

Cortez on Edwards on the Resurrection
April 1, 2017 — 4:33

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Afterlife Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 7 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealism and the Resurrection” by Marc Cortez. Like the preceding article by Hamilton, this is an excellent piece of work directly addressed to the central issues of this volume. Cortez begins by noting that idealism, from the perspective of Christian theology, faces the problem of explaining the reality and importance of the body, and a particular example of this is the claim that there will be a bodily resurrection in the eschaton. In this respect, Cortez observes, Jonathan Edwards is a particularly interesting case since he is an idealist but also places a great deal of emphasis on the bodily nature of the afterlife. (This contrasts with Berkeley, who occasionally mentions bodily resurrection and says that his idealism is consistent with it, but can hardly be said to emphasize the importance of embodiment in the afterlife.) Unfortunately, Cortez observes, Edwards never directly brings his idealism and his eschatology together. The interpreter is therefore left to reconstruct Edwards’ thought on the matter and his reasons for (apparently) taking his idealism to be consistent with bodily resurrection.

Cortez argues that Edwards’ idealism is indeed consistent with bodily resurrection (since idealism does not deny the existence of bodies but rather reduces them to mental phenomena) but threatens to undermine the importance of bodily resurrection. According to Cortez, Edwards makes some progress to preserving the latter by taking the human being to be naturally both spiritual and bodily and arguing that bodily resurrection will allow both natures (spirit and body) to enjoy vision of God, in their different ways.* This is superior to the (disembodied) intermediate state in which the blessed enjoy only spiritual, and not bodily, vision of God. (Bodily vision of God is said to be ‘mediated’ and seems to be a matter of appreciating God’s bodily creation and thereby apprehending God’s greatness.) According to Cortez, this is sufficient to explain why, given that humans are mind-body composites, bodily resurrection is better for us than disembodied existence. However, it does not explain why God should create such mind-body composites at all.

It is not clear to me that this last point is a serious problem. A standard response in the tradition is to appeal to a principle of plenitude: God created some bodily natures, and some spiritual natures, and the ‘mixed’ human nature because it was better that creation as a whole should exhibit this kind of diversity. Especially when this is combined with Edwards claims, quoted by Cortez, that God’s bodily creation would be in vain without some created consciousness to appreciate its beauty (132), this seems like an adequate explanation. (At least, as adequate as any human explanation of God’s purposes could ever be!)

In any event, Cortez concludes (136-137) by suggesting that Edwards could endorse either of two strategies to strengthen his case for the importance of bodily resurrection: he could argue that the ‘mediate’ vision of God that requires embodiment somehow adds something of value which could not be had with ‘immediate’ spiritual vision alone, or he could argue that metaphysically necessary conditions for personal identity restrict how much ‘immediate’ vision one can have while remaining a distinct person. (The latter strategy is suggested by some of Edwards’ own remarks, though he does not apply them in the eschatological context.)

On the whole, this is an excellent essay and is recommended to anyone interested in the compatibility of idealism with Christian (or, more broadly, Abrahamic) eschatology, or in the unity of Edwards’ thought.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


* Note that the move Cortez makes here requires him to construe Edwards as a mind-body dualist in Hamilton’s sense.