Friday, 8 August 2008

Richard Muller on Zanchi's Doctrine of God

When discussing the problem of order among the attributes for the early reformed orthodox theologians, Richard A. Muller says Zanchi’s ordering

…presupposes the doctrine of Trinity and sees the attributes in terms of Triniatrian and Christological issues. Not only does Zanchi’s De tribus Elohim precede his De Natura Dei seu attributes in the order of his collected works, the form and pattern of argument in the De natura Dei assumes the doctrine of the Trinity as underlying the discussion both of the divine nature in general and of the attributes in particular; and there are continual references, throughout the work, to the way in which the various attributes must be understood in a Trinitarian context. Thus, Zanchi argues that he shown, in the former treaties, De tribus Elohim, who (quis) God is – Father, Son, and Spirit – he must next discuss what manner or sort (quails) of being God is; this, he argues, is the burden of the doctrine of the divine essence or nature and attributes. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III, pp. 162 f.)

It is not immediately obvious to me what Muller is getting at here, since he does not substantiate his claim further. But given the direction of this interpretation, we might aks, what would a Trinitarian and Christological ordering of the attributes imply for theological predication? Would, for instance, an attribute like omniscience be qualified by the Trinity? If so, what would that look like?

It seems to me that Muller’s statement that the attributes are to be seen against Trinitarian and Christological issues might be slightly overstated. What I think is the case is rather that Trinitarian and Christological issues are laboured on in light of the nature and specific attributes of God. There are certainly “references, throughout the work”, but not straightforwardly, “to the way in which the various attributes must be understood in a Trinitarian context” as Muller says.

E.g. when discussing divine infinity and immensity (De Natura Dei, IV) Zanchi brings in a longer discussion about the communicatio idiomatum. Now this discussion was brought in due to the debate between Lutherans and reformed on the relationship between the two natures of Christ. Especially the notion of ubiquity became important since the debate emanated from the previous debate on the manner of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Many Lutherans insisted that the divine presence or the attribute of ubiquity was communicated to the human nature of Christ and therefore the body and blood of Christ was present in the sacramental elements. Zanchi introduces a number of distinctions with regards to immensity, time and space and therefore makes it clear that in no relevant way was divine immensity communicated to the human nature so that Christ in his physical body was present everywhere.

Now this brief consideration indicates that Muller has overstated the treatment of the divine attributes in Zanchi. The order of analysis is not as clearly from Trinitarian/Christological to the divine nature. In the example given above the order is rather the opposite. But if this would be my only evidence it would have been a quite weak argument on my behalf. Let us therefore first come back to the basic the quis-qualis distinction. Zanchi says it is a matter of method at the outset of De Natura Dei:

We will postulate a true and methodical order of doctrine so that when we have satisfactory knowledge of who [quis] God is from Sacred Scripture – what belongs truly to God, who is eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit – we will treat how [quails] the nature or attributes as they are taught in Sacred Scripture.

Now this passage is something that at first hand could look like it is supporting Muller’s understanding but after a second reading we might come to understand that the method talked of here is not necessarily as integrated as Muller portrayed it. Zanchi is not saying that the divine attributes are to be understood in some qualified sense from the persons. Rather, the order of Scriptural knowledge should proceed from quis to quails since what really exists (in a Thomistic metaphysics) are the persons who all have the same simple Divine nature. The movement of the ratio docendi is from diversity of persons to unity in nature and not the other way around. Yet this movement does not in any straightforward way warrant the conclusion that the nature and attributes are to be seen through the diversity of persons since the unity is talking about what is common to all persons and the diversity what is peculiar to each person. Hence the ontological primacy of persons over nature seems to me one of the more important features of the relationship between De Tribus Elohim and De Natura Dei. Once that relationship is established, in a systematic context, we can safely proceed to talk about the nature or attributes, as Zanchi says.

This is saying something different from what Muller says it does. It is saying that Trinitarian considerations are not informing questions about the divine nature so that the attributes are directly qualified by the persons, rather the persons and their operations are “conditioned” by the simple and undivided nature. But in the order of doctrine we have to start with the three supposita since this is what God is.

One might posit a sort of Rahnerian style critique of the order of, say, the order of doctrine in the Summa Theologica, which puts Locus de Deo before Locus de Trinitate and thereby downplaying the radical nature of a Christian conception of God. In that way Zanchi is a better Rahnerian than a Thomist since he is inclined to put quis before quails. I am not sure that neither Aquinas nor Zanchi would have understood the dichotomy here since one could very well start elsewhere, in sacred doctrine, than (with principles of theology and then to) the nature of God. But what then of a true order of doctrine? The problem only becomes a problem if one assumes that the chronological presentation re-present the only true pattern for dogmatic exposition. Here is where I think the problem lies. Why should we assume that chronology must be identical with dogmatic content and emphasis? In the absence of any weightier reason than what Muller has produced, I am not sure that we should pay too much dogmatic attention to Zanchi’s initial remarks to De Natura Dei.


o1mnikent said...

I thought you might be interested in an electronic edition of Muller's Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 Vols.) available on the Logos Bible Software Pre-Publication page.

cosmicfreak said...

Thanks for the tip. If I had the money I would by them but I have already invested both time and money into paper, which, after all, for most part is superior to electronic books in my experience.