Friday, June 28, 2013

Section 25: The Ontological Question of Theological Language

The Self-Donation of God, chapter 8:

"Modern theology (beginning with Schleiermacher, whom we will discuss below) has generally been uncomfortable with these categories of thought. This has been the case for several reasons. One objection comes from the Liberal Protestant historian of dogma Adolf von Harnack. Harnack derided the Church Fathers for their use of philosophical categories taken from Platonism, Stoicism and Aristotelianism. He viewed this as being the essentially downfall of Christianity. The intellectualizing tendency which use of these philosophical traditions represent, degraded Christianity into abstract philosophically belief system from its pristine origin as a religion of the heart. In essence, then, for Harnack, true Christianity is tied up with ethical uprightness ("brotherhood of man" and "fatherhood of God") and the interior experience of the divine that does not need theological abstractions such as the Incarnation or the Trinity.
Regarding Harnack's treatment of the Church Fathers, much research has shown that his thesis is not accurate. The newer scholarship has demonstrated that as a result of theological debates and Church-usage, much of the Greek philosophical terminology that the Church Fathers borrowed was significantly redefined. In fact, sometimes the terminology was modified quite radically in light of the newness present in the biblical teaching. In this vein, Luther in some of his later writings spoke similarly of the "new language" (nova lingua) of faith. In speaking of the nova lingua, the Reformer noted that words take on new meaning through events of revelation. Quiddities like "divinity" and "humanity" are mutually exclusive in normal (or philosophical) language, but when we come to discuss the Incarnation they are not.
Adding to this point historically, the patristic scholar Robert Wilkenson, has also noted that the Church was in fact instrumental in developing its own unique grammar for dealing with Christological and Trinitarian realities. Ultimately, such language (and the ontological presuppositions that came with it) developed in debates because interaction with the biblical texts. Such debates were of course influenced by Greek philosophical presuppositions, but as the discussions progressed many of these presuppositions were greatly changed by interaction with the biblical material or even eliminated."

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