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Blaming the Greeks and Repeating the Past: A Liberal Methodology?

TCI collaborator Brad Littlejohn recently posted an essay pointing out how Bavinck can help modern theological conversations regarding the categories of “nature” and substance.”  In it, Mr. Littlejohn draws our attention to Peter Leithart’s reservations about these concepts.  And while Mr. Littlejohn does offer up many helpful ways in which Dr. Leithart’s thoughts can be harmonized with the classical tradition, there was at least one section of Dr. Leithart’s contribution that caught our attention:

Third, because God made things what they are and sustains them as what they are, the potentialities and limits of creatures are His to determine.  A doctrine of nature would be idolatrous if it teaches that natures place limits on what God might do to or with a thing.  ”The finite cannot contain the infinite” was an axiom of Greek philosophy.  But the incarnation says the opposite.  Theopoiesis says the opposite; we are made partakers of divine nature, Peter says. Because God created humans, He sets the limits of human capacity, and human nature is just as capacious as God wants it to be.

This comment invites some response, not so much because of the specific argument of Dr. Leithart’s post (though that could be questioned too), but rather because it is reflective of a much larger issue in theological discussion.  This is one of those strange places where older theological liberalism, postmodernity, and certain forms of 20th cent. Reformed theology overlap, resulting in a nearly identical methodology.  A result of this is that traditional statements of philosophy, theology, and anthropology are routinely dismissed as products of Greek philosophy or Hellenic thought, and for whatever reason, traditional Reformed dogmatics typically lead the list of such supposedly polluted statements.  In this instance, Dr. Leithart has indeed, wittingly or not, included one of the basic statements of Reformed theology– the famed finitum non capax infiniti— as an axiom of “Greek philosophy” contradicted by the biblical teaching of the incarnation.

This situation would be more alarming had Dr. Leithart indicated an awareness that he was critiquing the classic Reformed doctrine.  He does not, and instead limits his critique to what he takes to be Greek philosophy.  Thus our response here should not be wholly directed to Dr. Leithart.  We are more concerned with the larger methodology which could cause such a statement to be said in a rather casual manner, assumed to be uncontroversial.  In other words, we are concerned with the forest which stands in back of Dr. Leithart’s tree.  We will move from his specific example towards the more general and abstract problem of the method.  His was merely a relevant and timely example of a prevalent problem, a typical expression of a more basic flaw in contemporary theological dialog.  We also note especially that Dr. Leithart is representative of the conservative Reformed place at that academic theological table, and thus our criticisms here should be taken as constructive and in service of the larger goal of crafting an informed, sound, and persuasive conservative Reformed dialect in contemporary conversations.

Leading the list of shortcomings with Dr. Leithart’s critique here is that it never clearly articulates the actual problem with the classical statements apart from their supposed genealogy.  It also doesn’t actually prove the genealogy, and in this case, we’ll show that the non capax was not a carry-over from Greek philosophy.  Finally, the supposedly inadequate older theological expressions are exchanged, not for clearer and more dialectally sound expressions, but rather ambiguous homiletical statements.  So what exactly is the corrective to the old “Greek philosophy,” and what will its relationship be to traditional orthodoxy?

It’s clear that Dr. Leithart’s complaint is that the categories of “nature” and “substance” assume more than they ought.  He writes, “the potentialities and limits of creatures are God’s to determine.  A doctrine of nature would be idolatrous if it teaches that natures place limits on what God might do to or with a thing.”  Yes, if the philosophical concept of nature attempted to override the structure of God’s actual creation, it would be idolatrous.  It would also simply be incorrect as philosophy  Yet it is not obvious how the non capax makes this error.  Grammatically speaking, to say that “the finite is incapable of the infinite” is but another way of saying that the finite cannot comprehend or contain the infinite.  It is really only a restatement of what the terms “finite” and “infinite” mean.  “Infinite” is a negated “finite.”  It is not finite.  And thus the non capax is something of a tautology: the finite is not the infinite.  Or rather, the infinite is infinite.

To our knowledge, no Christian school of theology has ever maintained that the incarnation made God finite.  Indeed, the entire state of the question regarding the hypostatic union was how God could become man without losing His divine properties and attributes.  And with the partial exception of some Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox overstatements, no Christian school has actually maintained that Christ’s human nature became infinite, nor that believers actually become infinite, even in their mystical union with the infinite.  In all cases, the distinction between infinite and finite remains.

So what is the problem with the non capax exactly?  It seems to be that it just feels wrong.  It is overly exact in its philosophical goal, which raises the suspicion that it is actually a carry-over from Greek philosophy, one which is itself actually not compatible with Christian revelation.  This seems to be so, since Dr. Leithart quotes the non capax, not as an axiom of Reformed scholasticism, but rather as an actual axiom of Greek philosophy– “‘The finite cannot contain the infinite’ was an axiom of Greek philosophy.”  But is this true?  Was the expression “the finite cannot contain the infinite” an axiom of ancient Greek philosophy?

As of now, we have not been able to find the exact expression anywhere in the ancient Greek philosophers.  Keeping in mind the difficulty in proving a universal negative, we can still say this much: the ancient Greeks did not have an elaborate concept of infinity.  Had any of their philosophers stated the non capax or something similar to it, it would have most likely been a critique of the very notion of infinity.  This can be shown by the examples of Aristotle and Epircurus.  Aristotle believes that infinity only exists as a potentiality.[1]  He does not wish to speak positively or confidently about it at all, much less to exalt it over and against the mean limitations of the finite.  Epicurus, on the other hand, affirms a sort of infinity, but not in a way that would be agreeable to Christians.  For Epicurus, the finite and infinite exist on a continuum, with both the void and atoms themselves extending infinitely.[2]  Thus, for him, the universe was itself infinite.  In neither philosopher was there an extended attempt to preserve a distinction between creation and an eternal Creator.

This alone should be enough to show the folly of the overarching modern and postmodern allergy to “Greek philosophy.”  It is terribly inaccurate, an uninformed reaction against things thought to  appear to be overly philosophical within theology.  In point of fact, “the finite cannot contain the infinite” is not a commonplace of Greek metaphysics.  It is, rather, a recurring expression of classical Christian theology, to be found in the Fathers, medievals, and the Reformers.

When limited to its most basic categories, creation’s ability to contain the Creator, the non capax can be shown to appear in Theodoret of Cyrus.  Theodoret writes, “The Creator of the universe holds the whole creation in his hand, as I said; the creation is unable to contain him.”  To this he even adds a general statement of principle, “Therefore it is impossible for unequal parties to contain each other reciprocally.”[3]  Istvan Pasztori-Kupan notes that this work of Theodoret’s was not censored or destroyed as heretical, but was actually misidentified as a work of Cyril of Alexandria, not to be corrected until 1888.[4]

When we move beyond the non capax to its equivalent expression in Christological terms, the so-called extra-Calvinisticum, we see that the patristic witness broadens greatly.  Athanasius is quite explicit:

The Word was not hedged in by being present elsewhere as well.  When He moved His body He did not cease also to direct the universe by His Mind and might.  No.  The marvellous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself.[5]

That last sentence could very reasonably be interpreted as a variation of “the finite cannot contain the infinite.”

Edward David Willis surveys the Fathers who can be said to have affirmed the extra-Calvinisticum.  He concludes that Augustine, Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria all espouse the doctrine.[6]  He suggests that the name of the doctrine be changed to the extra-Catholicum or extra-Patristicum.[7]

Returning to the non capax, Thomas Aquinas becomes the major medieval source for the doctrine.  Thomas is especially helpful for this conversation because he explicitly critiques  Aristotle on infinity.  Aquinas writes:

All the ancient philosophers attribute infinitude to the first principle, as is said (Phys. iii), and with reason; for they considered that things flow forth infinitely from the first principle. But because some erred concerning the nature of the first principle, as a consequence they erred also concerning its infinity; forasmuch as they asserted that matter was the first principle; consequently they attributed to the first principle a material infinity to the effect that some infinite body was the first principle of things.[8]

This section of Thomas is especially noteworthy because he critiques Aristotle for misunderstanding “the nature of the first principle,” and he answers Aristotle with a quote from John of Damascus.  Thomas quotes John of Damascus elsewhere just prior to himself saying:

Now it is impossible for any creature to comprehend the Divine Essence, as was shown in the FP, Q12, AA1,4,7, seeing that the infinite is not comprehended by the finite. And hence it must be said that the soul of Christ nowise comprehends the Divine Essence.[9]

There we have the non capax fully expressed: “the infinite is not comprehended by the finite.”  And again, Thomas is not citing Greek philosophers for support of this concept, but is rather using this concept to critique ideas otherwise promoted by Greek philosophy.  He uses uniquely Christian theology to do so.

So we have shown the true genealogy of the finitum non capax infiniti.  It is not so much a carry-over of Greek philosophy into Christian dogmatics, as it is an answer to Greek philosophy by Christian dogmatics.  But what of the possibility that it overreaches, seeking to promote the categories of the fallen mind over those of the Bible?  This seems to be the biggest thrust of Dr. Leithart’s critique.  Is there anything to be said in this respect?

Here again, once the non capax is understood in its actual historic expression, the question is quickly dismissed.  Rather than seeking to promote the human mind as judge or inventor of all reality, the non capax was a way to express the limitation of the human mind’s abilities.  Richard Muller explains:

Epistemologically it [the non capax] signifies the limitation of the human mind, even the mind of Christ, in the knowledge of divine things. The Reformed thus insist not only that all human theology is theologia ectypa (q.v.) and not theologia archetypa (q.v.), but also that the theologia unionis (q.v.) which is known to Christ according to his humanity must be finite.[10]

Since “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite,” then it follows that the human mind cannot fully comprehend the divine nature.  In fact, since the distinction between finitude and infinity goes all the way down, the finite mind cannot comprehend any truth infinitely.  Thus the Reformed, again following Thomas, insisted that all human knowledge was but an analogy of the divine knowledge.  This is how the non capax is interpreted by Louis Berkhof:

Reformed theology holds that God can be known, but that it is impossible for man to have a knowledge of Him that is exhaustive and perfect in every way.  To have such a knowledge of God would be equivalent to comprehending Him, and this is entirely out of the question: “finitum non possit capere infinitum.” …true knowledge of God can be acquired only from the divine self-revelation, and only by the man who accepts this with childlike faith.[11]

In fact, Prof. Muller suggests that the non capax might just be Reformed theology’s best means of answering the challenges of modern philosophy.  It provides a way for man to know God truly, but not fall prey to Kantian critiques, as the divine revelation comes to the finite from the outside:

One of the neglected resources of the orthodox ontology (and of the related principles of orthodox epistemology) is the dictum finitum non capax infiniti (“the finite cannot grasp the infinite”). Older Reformed theology mediated long and hard on the inability of finite man to reach, to understand, and to have communion with an infinite God—and, as a result, many of the distinctions found in the orthodox system relate to the way in which this chasm is overcome by the acts of God in history. The distinction between the decree and its execution, the historical line of the covenant, and the revelation of God in Christ all describe the saving initiative of an infinite God grasping the finite. A sophisticated modern scholasticism can well afford to recognize the inability of fallen man to raise his level of perception beyond the phenomenal. This, indeed, is the problem underlying many of the philosophical arguments leveled against theology in our time. But recognizing this rift between noumenal and phenomenal, recognizing also that any claim on our part to rise beyond the world of perception would smack of Pelagianism, we can nevertheless refuse to fall into the trap of Brunner’s neo-orthodox approach where not only man but also God must oblige the great epistemological rift. For the infinite God who graciously grasps the finite, who comes to the finite creature with saving revelation of himself in Christ, has shattered the Kantian barrier from his side.[12]

Once again, we are left wondering what exactly the problem could be.  The non capax is neither a product of Greek philosophy, nor an attempt to limit the teachings of revelation to the predetermined categories of reason.  It is instead, the answer to both.

Now for the mere fact of the incarnation to be thought of as counter-evidence would suggest that the basis for the early church Christological definitions was unnecessary.  And we are quite sure that Dr. Leithart is not suggesting this.  Rather, he has allowed an overarching sentiment, an aversion to Greek philosophy and overly-exact systematic distinctions, to carry him off-track.  For as soon as he affirmed his commitment to Chalcedon in clear language, he would find himself immediately espousing the non capax as well.

But this brings us to the final problem.  The absence of clearly articulated dialectical theology leaves readers, particularly those unfamiliar with the history, with the impression that the incarnation does in fact contradict the distinction between the finite and the infinite, raising serious questions about traditional Christology and Chalcedonian categories.  And this is something that is not overly surprising in light of the method.  Herman Bavinck described this very same movement as it occurred in 18th and 19th century theology:

Particularly in modern theology, the dominant view is that, though the doctrine of the two natures fits Greek theology and the Greek church, for us it has lost all religious value; that it has irrevocably succumbed under the criticism of Socianianism and rationalism, and should therefore now be redefined in a totally new, religious-ethical direction.  The most significant representatives of this new Christology are Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl.[13]

Of course, Dr. Leithart does not materially agree with Kant, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl.  But he does in a way share their critique of traditional dogmatics.  He does not credit Socianism and rationalism, but he does nevertheless agree that classic Christian expressions are more “Greek” than Biblical.  Further, Dr. Bavinck also shows us that Lutheranism also had an unfortunate role to play in this development.

Specifically, the creation of humans in God’s image is a supposition and preparation for the incarnation of God.  Under the influence of a pantheistic doctrine of identity as well as In connection with the Lutheran [idea of] “communication of proper qualities,” modern theology has greatly abused this reality.  For the old rule “the finite is not capable of the infinite,” it is substituted “humans are capable of the divine nature.”  This new rule, though pointing to the kingship between God and humans, wiped out the distinction between the two and proceeded from the idea that the incarnation (humanization) was necessary for the perfecting of both.  This line of thought is prohibited by Christian theism.[14]

The fact that Dr. Bavinck credits Lutheranism with this unhappy theological contribution ought to further warn us of the dangers of certain postmodern theologies.  Popular postmodern writers like Jenson, Moltmann, and Pannenberg, when they are drawing from a Christian tradition, are usually drawing from this flawed Lutheran one.  The non capax was rejected precisely on the grounds of the incarnation, and it was suggested that the incarnation presents us with a new kind of man and a new kind of God.  Dr. Berkhof agrees that Lutheran and German academics promoted this doctrine which eventually worked itself out into what is known as kenoticism, or the idea that God “gave up” certain divine attributes and “entered into” the finite creation, being mediated and bound by it.[15]  Any contemporary critique of the non capax and traditional Christological nomenclature, especially a critique which uses much of the same argumentation as liberal and kenotic Christologies (rejection of Greek philosophy and appeals to the incarnation) will have to be especially clear as to how it is not a repetition of the older rejection of classic Christianity.  This ought to be a particularly high pastoral priority.

Kenoticism came under especially devastating critique in the early 20th century by B.B. Warfield.  In his essay called “The Humanitarian Christ” Dr. Warfield lays into Kenoticism with an sardonic pen.[16]  Dr. Warfield says that kenotic Christology gives us a “shrunken deity.”[17]  He asks:

For what kind of God is this that is God and not God alternately as He chooses, and lays off and on at will those specific qualities which make God the kind of being we call “God,” as a king might put off and on his crown, or as a leopard might wish to change his spots but cannot, or an Ethiopian his skin?[18]

Dr. Warfield writes that while full-blown Kenoticism was quickly on the decline in his day, “a disposition is discoverable in certain quarters to speak in Kenotic language while recoiling from the Kenotic name.”[19]  Dr. Warfield says that these later theologians attempt to “claim as a Christian heritage the essential features of the Kenotic Christology while declining to lay behind them the precise Kenotic explanation.”[20]  He goes on to list many familiar-sounding expressions– “The Godhead appears in Jesus always as humanly mediated…,” “God in becoming flesh has not at all ceased to be what He was; He has only become it ‘in another way…,”[21] and “God is most God when He ceases to be God– when He becomes man.”[22]

So all of these refrains, sounding so familiar to readers familiar with postmodern Christologies, have been used in the not-too distant past to critique traditional Christian dogmatics, most of them using the same grounds for the critique.  The difference is that old liberal theology was eventually consistent enough to fully reject the object of its critique.  What is it in these new critiques that can be said to prevent a similar movement away from traditional doctrine?

We believe that it is quite unlikely that postmodern academic theology has recovered a truly Biblical ontology.  It certainly has not returned to a medieval or patristic one, as has been demonstrated.  Rather, it seems more likely that postmodernity is still entangled in modernity.  This is as true for theology as it is for philosophy.  Most contemporary dogmatic theology is still struggling with the questions of the old liberalism.  It has not surpassed or avoided them.  Before we can agree to entertain the contemporary theological expressions, we need to see how they explicitly answers those questions.

We would, of course, invite the current academic theologians to leave that vain struggle altogether by returning to the best of the Reformation and irenic tradition.  But we would not want to suggest that systematic theology or philosophy is frozen or is a perfected artifact.  The pursuit of truth and wisdom is in a way always new in every generation, and old wisdom often must be articulated differently in different circumstances.  But one thing is constant: wisdom comes through ever more clarity, precision, and historical accuracy.  It cannot come from less.


[1] see book 3 of Physics, especially 3.6-8.  A more detailed discussion of Aristotle’s notion of infinity can be found in Jaakko Hinitikka, “Aristotelian Infinity” in The Philosophical Review Vol. 75, No. 2 (Apr., 1966), 197-218

[2] see Ivars Avotins “On Some Epicurean and Lucretian Arguments for the Infinity of the Universe” in The Classical Quarterly. New Series, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1983), 421-427

[3] On the Holy and Vivifying Trinity chapter 13

[4] Istvan Pasztori-Kupan Theodoret of Cyrus (Routledge, 2006) 109

[5] On the Incarnation 17

[6] Edward David Willis Calvin’s Catholic Christology (Brill, 1966) 45-66

[7] ibid 66

[8] Summa Theologica First Part, Q7, A1

[9] ibid Third Part, Q10, A1

[10] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 119

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1996) 30

[12] “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension” in JETS 28/2 (June 1985) 189

[13] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3 (Baker, 2006) 259

[14] ibid 277.  This historical fact ought to give neo-Scotist advocates of “incarnation anyway” great pause.  The assumption that the incarnation “adds” to God is one previously advocated by old theological liberalism and rejected by traditional Christianity.  In reverse direction, the fashionable idea that the Incarnation, rather than redeeming and securing original creation, instead innovates a sort of monophysite “supercreation” or “creation deluxe” proceeds from Gnostic assumptions, and therefore is also to be rejected.

[15] Berkhof, 327

[16] found in B.B. Warfield The Person and Work of Christ (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1950) 189-208

[17] Warfield, 193

[18] ibid 194

[19] ibid 195

[20] ibid

[21] ibid

[22] 197

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.