Review: Orthodoxy and Esotericism (Kelley)

My friend James Kelley gave me a complimentary copy.kelley

It is common parlance to say, “We should apply our faith to culture.”  In such slogans the words “faith” and “culture” are never defined and always used in the most abstract categories.   Kelley does us a service by bringing an advanced level of Patristic theology to such wide-ranging topics as history and esoterism.  One can go a step further: Kelley’s insights regarding (Joseph Farrell’s usage) of Sts Maximus the Confessor and Athanasius can provide us a useful compass in witnessing to those trapped in the occult.  I don’t know if Kelley himself holds that view, but it is something that came to my mind.

Ordo Theologiae

The first part deals with rather esoteric thinkers like Paul Virilio, Joseph P. Farrell, and Phillip Sherrard.  Special interest goes to Farrell.  

Here is the problem: In order for the Plotinian one to account for creation, it must already contain within himself all plurality.  Therefore, epistemology and ontology had to proceed by dialectics.  We know something by defining it by its opposite.

How was the Church to respond to this?  The best way was by simply breaking its back.  Kelley shows this by examining Athanasius’s response to Arius and Maximus’s response to monotheletism.  

For Athanasius there are three primary categories that should not be confused: nature, will, and person (Kelley 35).  The person of the Father generates the Son according to essence (since the hypostasis of the Father is the font of essence).  Creation, by contrast, is according to the will.  This leads later fathers (such as Basil) to identify three categories:

(1) Who is doing it?

(2) What is it they are doing? (energies)

(3) What are they? (essence)

The key point, however, is that Person, Nature, and Energy are not to be identified, or we have something like Plotinianism or Arianism.  

Maximus is even more interesting:  the human will cannot be passive nor defined by its contrary, the divine will.  That would mean because the divine nature/will is good, then the human nature must be evil (41). If we define something by its opposite, then we are also saying that said something (God) needs its opposite.  

I must stop the analysis at this point.  But know that the section on Joseph Farrell is a crash course in advanced theology.

Esoteric Studies

Kelley places the Nation of Islam’s cosmogony within the earlier Gnostic myths (89).  He has a fascinating section on Jim Jones.  It almost reads like a novel or a news article.  His larger point is that in these cults (NOI, Scientology, etc) there is a dialectic of a “life-force creating (or self-creating) within a primordial darkness.”

His chapter on Anaximander’s apeiron is worth the price of the book.  But what makes it interesting is Kelley’s tying Anaximander’s apeiron with Tillich’s Ungrund and Barth’s unknowable God.  The problem:  How can this “god” have any contact with creation?  Anaximander gives us a dialectically unstable answer:  this apeiron already contains within it the coincidence of opposites.

Conclusions and Analysis

Like all of Kelley’s works, this cannot help but be interesting.  How often do you read a theology book and you ask yourself, “I can’t wait to turn the page to see what happens next”?  But normally that level of excitement is for fluff.  This it most certainly is not.  Some chapters are very advanced theology, while others, like the one on Paul Virilio, are probably out of my league.

My only quibble is he set up a great dismantling of Karl Barth’s theology and then didn’t do it.  I understand that could be for space reasons.  Is Barth’s Unknowable God the same as Anaximander’s apeiron?  Maybe.  If they are, then one has at his fingertips a very destructive critique.

Aside from that, this book is most highly recommended.

Note: I received this as a complimentary copy and was under no obligation to post a positive review.

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Confessions of a theological hitman

A certain CREC minister one time documented some of his theological changes, most of them for the better.  I’ve done so about myself a few times on here, but I decided to tie some strings together.  I encourage you to read his piece, since that will save me some writing.  His early development mirrors mine in many ways.  S.W’s piece is thoughtful.  I have a few questions on some of his specifics, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the difficulties that many of us in seminary faced–difficulties that are concurrent with many of these changes–is the inevitable glut of ideas.  Compounded with that  is that seminaries which are denominationally- or quasi-denominationally affiliated are inadequately prepared to deal with these various theological currents.  If your goal is to churn out “preacher boys,” then many cross-currents of scholarship will drown you.

The Federal Vision controversy was raging when I was in seminary, and I confess I did not always make wise choices.  Federal Visionism itself didn’t really make too much of a connection with me, at least not confessionally and ecclesiologically.  What some FV writers did, however, was weaken the confessional moorings, from which I drifted and began reading outside my tradition.

On one hand that’s healthy.  We shouldn’t seek theological inbreeding.   The problem I faced was that no one was capable of guiding me through these issues.  Once I was jaded enough, combined with a lot of real grievances from said seminary (which I won’t go in here, but they do deal with objective, financial realities), it wasn’t hard to seek out so-called “Christological alternatives to Calvinism.”

Many Eastern Orthodox apologists were saying that we should do all our theology around “Christology.”  Translation: the ancient Christological creeds, if interpreted consistently, will lead one away from Calvinism.    I’ll deal with that claim later.

And so for the next few years I read through–cover to cover–about ten volumes of the Schaff Church Fathers series, as well as most of their leading interpreters.  One of the problems, though, was I was unaware of the high, magisterial Protestant tradition.  Of course I had read Calvin.  Three times, actually.  All the way through, even.  I was not familiar with the second- and third generation Protestant Scholastics, however.

I suspect most of us aren’t familiar with them, and how could we be?  The average Evangelical publisher won’t touch these writers.   Banner of Truth, specifically, won’t deal with the uncomfortable aspects of Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Scottish Covenanters.

Taking the Scholastics Seriously

When I was reading through a lot of Orthodox sources, an argument I kept seeing was that all Western traditions hold to the Thomistic doctrine of absolute divine simplicity, which reduces to absurdity; therefore, Protestantism is philosophically absurd.  The problem, though, is that I started to see several things:   a) some fathers held to a similar thesis (Nazianzus, Athanasius), b) some Reformed writers might have held to that thesis, but there wasn’t enough evidence either way to convict them, and c) the Reformed writers who did hold to that thesis had very good reasons for doing so (archetypal/ectypal).  Further, the Essence/energies distinction entailed its own set of problems, and it is not always clear that many early Eastern fathers even held to that distinction.

The doctrine of authority was always looming in the background.   Anchorites have several sharp arguments against sola scriptura.  I bought in to some of those arguments, but I had done so without reading the Protestant Scholastic responses to them.   Once I began to see that a) many Protestant Scholastics could not be seen as breaking with the medieval tradition on the canon, and b) the archetypal/ectypal distinction when applied to epistemology, leading to Scripture as the principum cognoscendi, I was then able to embrace sola scriptura with integrity.

Corollary of the above point:  how many convertskii have read Richard Muller?  Once I read Richard Muller I realized that much of what I had been parroting was wrong.

The Institutional Problem Reasserted

It is my personal belief that Richard Muller’s four-volume Reformed and Post Reformation Dogmatics will go down as one of the game changers in Reformed historiography.  Unfortunately, most remain unaware.  Baker books should issue this set in singular volumes, better allowing seminaries to use volume one as an introduction to Reformed theology course.  First year seminarians, even the better read ones, are woefully unprepared.

Publishers need to seek out translators and get Muller’s sources into English post-haste.   There is no excuse for Rutherford and Gillespie not being mainstreamed in the Reformed world.  I can read and translate Latin, for what it’s worth.  I just don’t have the time and others are better capable.

One of the reasons these works remain untranslated I suspect, is that they also entail certain conclusions about God, salvation, God’s law, and ecclesiology, conclusions which would likely cast judgment on some publishing houses.  I say no more.

Questions on Phyletism

Technically speaking, phyletism is the heresy that a church should be formed along ethnic lines.  Yeah, that sounds bad.  But when you get down to both (a) the history behind it and (b) modern chanters of phyletism, you will see that (a) the anti-phyletists were pimping their congregations and (b) the most phyletist churches today are in the loudest denouncers of anti-phyletism.

(1) Did Turkokratia sell the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the highest bidder, yes or no?
(2) Would that not mean that the EP bishops would have to come up with income to secure their spots?
(3) Would not this income have come from the taxed laymen in the Balkans?
(4) When the Bulgarians kicked out the foreign Phanariot bishops (many of whom were ranking Freemasons), did this not mean that the Phanar could no longer pay off their Turkish and Jewish creditors?

Answering yes to any of the above questions gives the lie to the “phyletist” charge.  Some more questions:

(5) To so-called phyletists today actually forbid different ethnicities from joining? (No)

Bourgeois Orthodox will point out that the Council of 1872 that condemned “phyletism” was a valid council.  Yeah, what of it?  You see, since I am not Eastern Orthodox I can easily say that said council is “wrong” because (1)-(4).

 

On Orthodox Bridge’s Recent Switch

Since this blog is less polemical as my other ones, I try not to attack other traditions.  And this post isn’t an “attack.”  It is a critical observation, though.  A very critical one.

As readers know from past experience, I was very harsh with the old website Orthodox Bridge.  They deserved it.  They deserved it because they advertised their site as a “bridge” for Reformed and Orthodox to meet and understand each other’s tradition.

What actually happened was that Reformed were supposed to comment on how ignorant they were of EO and start getting a conversion story ready.  When I started pointing out that the High Reformed Theology never believed what they said it believed, they got mad

But still, the site had a wide readership but not a wide interaction.  If you go back and read the old posts (or better, don’t; just look at the number of comments) you will find a common theme.  Where I am allowed to comment, the comments will range from 50-300 (and most of them aren’t even by me, since I was usually outnumbered 10:1.   By the end of those conversations I would be “banned” or blocked.

And then the next 5 posts would have about 8 comments total.  I was the only reason that site was remotely interesting.

Now Ancient Faith is hosting that site.  I’m not sure if that is a good or bad move.  Mind you, at the end of the day I don’t really care. The good news for the site is that Ancient Faith is a top-notch media outlet and it will get more viewers.  And admittedly, the new look is aesthetically pleasing.

The problem is that the site is aimed to bridge the gap for Reformed readers.  How many Reformed readers go to Ancient Faith?  Well, a few certainly do.  But how many Reformed readers who are sympathetic to both Geneva and where Orthodox come from and wouldn’t mind clearing up some straw men?   Very few.

But they were never welcome in the first place.

 

 

The Varieties of Orthodox Internetskii

Don’t worry.  This post isn’t attacking Orthodox.  I am simply commenting on the varieties of Orthodox internet forums.  I’ll admit that some of my desingations are arbitrary, though that really can’t be helped.  I still think it is accurate. If you are converting or aligning yourself, this should prove handy:

American Monasticism.  These are the spiritual disciples of Fr Seraphim Rose and Platina Monastery.  There is a strong connection to “Old Russia” and the brothers at St Herman’s Monastery do a good job in getting decent works printed.  Somewhat limited in the academic realm.  If you want to see what 19th century Russia looks like in America, then these are your guys.  VERY strong on Eschatology.

Academic Orthodoxy.  Mostly represented by St Vladimir’s Seminary.  They aren’t afraid to ask critical questions of Tradition and History.   They produce good scholarship but won’t always be welcomed in other Orthodox camps.

Neo-Patristic Synthesis.  Some overlap with the above Academics but with a few provisos.  They aren’t quite as favorable to Bulgakov and Ware and Louth.  Often designated as “Neo-Palamites.”  Occasionally produce good scholarship.

Traditional Orthodoxy (Canonical).   Admittedly, this is a Facebook group.  A blend of the first and third groups but without their strengths.  They won’t let facts or history get in the way of how they see tradition.