Friday, June 25, 2004

The Ontological Argument for God's Existence: A Discussion With Philosophy Grad Student Patrick

By Dave Armstrong (6-25-04)

Patrick is a Catholic graduate student in philosophy. He wrote to me, asking if I would like to discuss the Ontological Argument, which is one of the classic theistic arguments (for God's existence), first developed by St. Anselm. He was replying to my section of my paper (most of it was a compilation of philosophers' writing): "The Ontological Argument for God's Existence: 'A concept greater than which first meets the eye'". His words will be in blue. When portions of my earlier paper are cited, they will be indented.

Readers who want to understand and follow this discussion are strongly urged to read the original paper, or at least sections I and VII, which are Alvin Plantinga's argument, and my own amateur version, which is largely an apologist's additional commentary on, and "elaboration" (if I may call it that without presumption) of Plantinga's far more nuanced and solid statement. I will read both those sections right now to refresh my memory. I can barely keep up with this highly abstract and philosophically technical discussion myself, and told Patrick in an e-mail that he would "kick my butt" if we were to discuss this. But I always love a challenge, and make no pretense to having philosophical training beyond what I actually have (some eight classes and much informal acquaintance with various types of philosophy). I am here to learn as much as teach, with this one. Thanks to Patrick for being willing to discuss this fascinating topic.

* * * * *

June 18, 2004

A Reply to Armstrong on the Ontological Argument

I’m a regular reader of your excellent website; I find your writings on apologetics to be, as a rule, very well done. I have learned a lot from them myself, and I have recommended your work to many other people.


Thanks very much for your kind words, and the plugs! I appreciate it.

For some reason, I hadn’t read your work in philosophical theology until recently, though, and when I read your discussion of the ontological argument (henceforth, “OA”), I discovered some weaknesses that I wanted to bring to your attention.

Cool! I hope to learn a lot from you. This is the subject to do that, because it has traditionally not been one of my favorite theistic arguments. I'm very fond of the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments.

It seems to me that the most important oversight in your treatment of the OA is that you don’t take cognizance of the fact that arguments are powerful: they can teach you new things, but they can also make you stupider.

Interesting way to put it. I shall like to see how you "unpack" this.

It’s pretty obvious how an argument can teach you something. So leave that aside. Here’s how an argument can make you stupider. You look at the premises, and find that you believe them all to be true: indeed, you would (for the moment) claim that you know them to be true. You look at the argument’s structure, and find that it is deductively valid. But now you think really hard about the conclusion and find that you are unwilling to believe it. You reject the conclusion. But you’re not an illogical person: you recognize that the argument is valid, so you grant that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Since you grant that the argument is valid, but you deny that the conclusion is true, you must reject one of the premises, even though initially you believed them all. So you pick the one(s) to go, and you now believe less than you started out believing.

There are lots of unproven or inadequately established premises of arguments. I can readily see that. In fact, I would say that the self-evident nature of premises is perhaps the most difficult part of the process of logical argumentation.

Well, what if you’re wrong in your denial of the conclusion? What if the conclusion is true, and what if the premise you have now come to reject is also true? In that case, you started out the process knowing more than you ended up knowing. You started out with a piece of knowledge that you now have lost.

How to get to any knowledge in the first place is the fascinating thing. I love that intersection between logic and epistemology.

Now, let’s bring that point to bear on the OA. We will cover a lot of ground on this point, but remember that in the long run, we’re going to be coming back to whether the OA can make you stupider.

Before we get into that, I would say that the last thing I would ever say about OA is that it makes one "stupider." One is enriched by even following the logical steps involved. It's a real brain teaser. Even if it doesn't totally succeed (and I agree with Alvin Plantinga that it ultimately doesn't, in terms of proving God's existence -- I don't think any one argument does that), it is good and fun to ponder he logic involved and the deeper implications of it. That's what I got, anyway, out of studying it what little I did, in putting together my paper.

Take a nice simple version of the argument. The complicated one you discuss in your paper doesn’t actually say anything more than is said in the following:
1. God is possible.
2. Therefore, God exists.
I suppose so. But there are many logically sound steps in-between these which make OA a far more serious philosophical argument than this simplistic presentation would suggest at first glance (wouldn't you agree?).

Let’s interpret the first premise carefully, since there’s a lot packed in there. Let’s start with the meaning of “possible.” There is some controversy about the best way to approach this issue. Putting it very roughly: some people think that an object is possible because it exists in at least one possible world. (I will usually refer to “possible worlds” as p-worlds, for short.) Others think that an object exists in at least one p-world because it is possible. I believe the latter—I am a non-reductivist about modality (as is Plantinga).

The relationship between "existence" and "possibility" in both these scenarios is unclear to me. In my philosophical naivete, and in layman's terms, I would say that something is possible if it is rationally conceivable without an immediate contradiction or absurdity resulting (or not logically impossible). In other words, if it is intelligibly thinkable and not contrary to logic itself. Whether it in fact exists is (in my thinking) a separate question. I doubt that I used the right terms, but if you understand what I mean by this, is it a decent, defensible opinion to have?

http://biblicalcatholicism.com/


This dispute between the non-reductivists and their foes, the (you guessed it) reductivists, is not relevant to our discussion here. I mention it only to note that the dispute exists. For our purposes, we need to take note of the following: whatever the order of explanation, if an object possibly exists, then it exists in at least one possible world. To say that “X is possible” is to say, then, that “X exists in at least one p-world.”

Again, I am reluctant to link the word "exist" with "possible." For me (again, in layman's terms), existence is tied up with actuality, not mere possibility.

(As an aside—you wrote that Plantinga asked the atheist to grant only that God is possible in some p-world. That’s not right. To say that God is possible is to say that God exists in some p-world. But p-worlds are not actual; they’re just possible. That’s why they’re called p-worlds. So Plantinga is still not asking the atheist to grant that God actually exists anywhere.)

Yes, I understand that. I would prefer to say that "God possibly exists in actuality" rather than "God exists is p-world 473." I always want to tie such speculation in with actuality.

Here we must make a vital distinction between metaphysical and epistemic possibility. I might ask you “is there life in outer space?” And you might answer, “I don’t know: it’s possible.” That answer is not about metaphysical possibility. You are not saying “there is some possible world where there is life in outer space.” What you are saying, rather, is “For all I know, there could (actually) be life out there.” You don’t know the actual answer—it’s an open question to you—but it seems like it could be so. This is epistemic possibility, and it has nothing to do with the ontological argument.

Okay. It looks like I confused that. I was, then, discussing epistemic possibility.

Take another example: I ask, a day after the big game, “Did the Pistons win Game Five?” You say, “Well, I had to shut it off in the third quarter, so I don’t know. They were behind by five when I turned it off, but they were on a run—I’d say it’s quite possible that they won.” That’s epistemic possibility, again. You aren’t speculating about how things could possibly be. You’re speculating about how things really are, in a case where you don’t know. Take this kind of possibility and chuck it aside. It will only confuse us, and it’s not related at all to the OA.

I'm not sure one can totally separate it at every level from OA. I like the way Charles Hartshorne described St. Anselm's argument:
One way to put Anselm's contention is this:
A. "Divinity exists" is, though not without difficulty, or without severe qualifications, conceivable by the human mind;

B. "Divinity does not exist" is strictly inconceivable (in a more than verbal sense) by any mind, being either self-contradictory or meaningless.
Thus the usual symmetry between the conceivability of existence and that of nonexistence is here upset in favor of existence. Taking this as the Anselmian position, refutation must consist in showing either that divine existence and divine nonexistence are alike conceivable, or that divine existence is inconceivable. These two ways of upsetting the asserted asymmetry, though obviously incompatible, are very commonly confused, and this is one of several defects which disfigure this prolonged controversy . . .

. . . His nonexistence must be unknowable absolutely. For, one who knows cannot know nonentity only, he must know something positive . . . divine nonexistence is unknowable absolutely, whether by divine or nondivine cognition. By contrast, divine existence is conceivably knowable, both by God Himself and also by any nondivine cognition able to connect effects with their universal Cause (not to mention able to understand the Ontological Proof). I conclude that the asymmetry to which Anselm points is quite real, and that on this main issue he is essentially correct, and his critics essentially mistaken. It is true, like it or not, that divinity, differing in this from all ordinary properties, cannot be conceived (relative to possible knowledge) unless as existent.
The kind of possibility that we’re interested in has to do with how things could be, and how things have to be. For example, could 2+2=5? No—it’s impossible. Could Ringo Starr have been a guitarist instead of a drummer? Sure—that’s possible. (Not epistemically possible: we agree that in fact, Ringo is a drummer. ) Could Ringo have been a dung beetle? Umm—that’s a tougher question. I doubt it. I think any human being is essentially a human being. (Meaning that if Ringo—or any of us humans—exist at all, we must exist as humans.) But I admit to not being absolutely sure about this. Here, then, I don’t know the answer. But we’re still talking about metaphysical possibility: we agree that Ringo, in fact, is not a dung beetle, but, rather, a Beatle. What we wonder is whether he could have been a dung beetle. And we might ask that very same question this way: “is there a possible world where Ringo is a dung beetle?” We might not know the answer. Similarly, we could ask about the above mathematical example this way: “is there a possible world where 2+2=5?” Here, we do know the answer: no.

One very helpful way to think about metaphysical possibility is to ask “could God bring it about that…?” So, is it metaphysically possible that 2+2=5? No—even God can’t make it the case that 2+2=5. But is it metaphysically possible that Ringo is a guitarist? Of course! God could easily have brought it about that Ringo became a guitarist instead of a drummer. Is it metaphysically possible that Ringo be a dung beetle? Here, again, I think not. God can obviously make dung beetles, but it’s not clear that he could have made a world where Ringo—that very person—was a dung beetle. (Kafkaesque imaginary scenarios don’t help here. What we imagine in the Metamorphosis is Gregor Samsa taking on the bodily appearance of a bug, not a p-world where he is just a regular old bug, born of bug parents, with a bug’s consciousness, and so forth).

We must also avoid getting hung up on so-called “accidental necessity,” according to which things that have already happened are now necessary even though it used to be that they could have gone otherwise. One might think it is accidentally necessary that I am a father, since now even God cannot make it the case that I never had children. That’s all true, but it’s irrelevant to the kind of modality that we’re concerned with. Even though God cannot now make it the case that, in fact, I never had children, it is still metaphysically possible that I never had children. That is, there are p-worlds where I never had children. There have to be such p-worlds, for there are, presumably, lots of p-words where I don’t exist at all. God didn’t have to create me in the first place: nothing about me is metaphysically necessary. (Note that even if I am essentially a human being, as I said perhaps Ringo is, that doesn’t mean that it is metaphysically necessary that I am a human being. If it were metaphysically necessary that I am a human being, then it would be metaphysically necessary that I exist, for I cannot be a human being if I do not exist. However, if I am essentially a human being, then it is necessary only that if I exist, then I am a human being. And this is a very different thing.)


Alright. That makes sense. Of course, God's unique properties, by definition, are the key and essence of OA and why it succeeds at all.

So I hope there’s some clarity now about the kind of metaphysical possibility we’re interested in. Now, we must next turn to the question of what’s a p-world? This, too, is a disputed question. David Lewis—a reductivist, for what it’s worth—believed that p-worlds are real, concrete universes like ours, only spatio-temporally isolated from ours. They’re not like the other worlds in the Narnia stories, which you can travel to by magic. They’re also not like the worlds in the alternate universe hypotheses in contemporary physics. They’re completely “apart” from ours. Lewis’s view is not widely accepted.

It doesn't strike me as very plausible or likely.

Plantinga’s view is rather different. To Plantinga, a p-world is a maximal consistent proposition. It’s a complete way things could have been, described down to its smallest detail.

I like this much better because it resonates with the notion of Providence (and possible Plantinga borrowed from that notion a bit?). I know that is not strictly philosophical, but then I am not speaking strictly from a philosophical perspective, so I can say it! :-)

So there’s a p-world where I’m wearing a different color shirt than I am, in fact, wearing, but where everything else is exactly like it is in the actual world. However, that world isn’t really a world like ours, it is really just a complete, maximal description of a world—a world that does not actually exist (and never will). You might do well to think of p-worlds as thoughts in the mind of God: they are ways he could have created things, if he had chosen to. There is no p-world where 2+2=5, because even God could not make a world where that was true. But there are p-worlds where I do not exist, and where I am president of the US, and perhaps even where I am a gallant talking mouse. There is a p-world for every way things could possibly have gone.

Yes, I agree. This also is similar to the theological concept of God's middle knowledge, or scientia media (I am a Molinist, and accept this, insofar as I understand it).

Since I exist only contingently, I exist only in some of these p-worlds. There are lots of ways things could have gone such that I never have come to exist. My grandfather could easily have been killed in WWII, for example. Or humans could have never been created. Or God could have chosen not to create anything at all. And so forth. If, however, something exists necessarily, then there is no possible way things could have gone such that it not exist. If God is a necessary being, then it is not possible for God not to exist.

Yes, but the trick, of course, is convincing the atheist that:
1) There is such a thing that we know as "God."

and

2) This "God" is a self-existent, necessarily-existing Being.
And if it’s not possible for God not to exist, then there is no possible world where he fails to exist. Things just couldn’t have gone that way. (Note, then, that thinking of p-worlds as “ways God could have made things go” is slightly misleading, since God doesn’t create Himself, yet he exists in all p-worlds. But God couldn’t have made things go such that he doesn’t exist: His own existence lies beyond his will, and is necessarily included in every possible way things go. This is just a minor complication which can, for the most part, be ignored. Incidentally, at this point, I am invoking God as a heuristic device: it doesn’t beg the question against the atheist to say “it’s helpful to think of p-worlds as ways God could have made things go.” The atheist can ponder that mental picture to learn something about the nature of possible worlds, even without for one moment pretending there’s anything to this whole “God” thing.)

Yes. Though in my experience (including dealing with more than one atheist philosopher or philosophy major / grad student) they are quite predisposed against doing even that. They are every bit as dogmatic (I think, irrationally so) as they claim theists are about our beliefs that God does exist, and what He is like.

OK, so remember, from a few pages back, that we’re trying to get straight on the first premise of the simple OA. That premise is “God is possible.” We should be OK now with “possible.” The premise, then, is claiming simply that there is a p-world where God exists: in at least one way things could possibly have gone, God is there.

But what does it mean to say “God is possible”? God is that being than which greater cannot be conceived. Part of what it is to be God is to be a necessary being. Imagine a really great being, loving, powerful, knowledgeable—but a being that could be killed. That might be a really great being to have as a friend. But it’s not God. (Here, of course, complications having to do with the Incarnation are left aside.) This is a conceptual matter. By “God,” I just mean, in part, a necessary being. So to say that God is possible is, in part, to say that it is possible for a necessary being to exist.


Okay, I follow you. That was what I had in mind in my argument.

Again, there’s nothing question-begging about this. I am not saying that God exists: I am simply clarifying my terms. The OA is an argument that purports to prove that something exists: namely, God. Well, what is this “God” the argument is trying to establish the existence of? Simply the greatest conceivable being. That’s what the OA seeks to prove the existence of. Perhaps there are other, competing notions of God out there. But that’s a sociological issue. Who cares if there are other notions of God out there? I’ve got a notion in hand here—greatest conceivable being—and I think it’s a pretty important notion. If such a thing could be shown to exist, that would be A Big Deal. So that’s the notion I’m using. I’m not saying such a thing exists, at this point. First, I simply say—here’s the notion I’m working with. Next, I simply say—that kind of thing is possible. Nothing dubious about any of this. (Of course, some might object that it is not possible, or that we couldn’t hope to know if it is possible: but those are not objections to the use of the notion. They’re objections to the soundness of the argument, or the knowability of its premise.)

I don't think OA proves God's existence, so I want to make it clear what I think it accomplishes. I agree with Plantinga that it shows that theism is equally as rational and plausible as atheism. I think that about several of the best theistic arguments, considered individually. It is the cumulative evidence and plausibility of all taken together which I feel makes theism practically compelling, if not logically so, in strict terms. This has been my opinion for many years now, and I haven't changed much in that regard.

So what premise one tells us is that there is a possible world where a necessary being exists. What does that mean? What it is to be necessary is to exist in all possible worlds. So, in that possible world where God exists, it is the case that God exists in all possible worlds. In that world, God not only exists, but exists necessarily—in that world, it is not possible for God to fail to exist.

But what is possible does not vary from world to world. Things are either possible or not possible. Similarly, what is necessary does not vary from world to world. Things are either necessary or not necessary. This is a vital point, and you seem to waffle a little bit on it, apparently endorsing the notion that possible worlds are not “accessible” from one another.


I think whatever confusion here arises from my use of the concept of epistemic possibility and the distinction between "contingently possible in actuality" and "logically possible in p-worlds," etc. I know I am probably not using the terms with precision (I'm very conscious of that, especially in dealing with a trained philosophical mind such as yours), but hopefully you can follow what my reasoning is, whether I am expressing it poorly or not. I am very much the empiricist and always want to talk about actual realities, and this is why I never liked OA nearly as much as the more empirical arguments.

But if you deny accessibility, then the OA simply fails. Fortunately, there is no good reason to deny accessibility, and every reason to believe in it. It just seems obvious that if X is possible, then it really is possible no matter what. One way to conceptualize metaphysical possibility, as I said above, is by asking, “could God bring it about that…” But obviously, God’s power does not change from world to world. Even if he hadn’t created angels—even in a p-world where angels do not exist at all—angels are still possible. God could have created them. (As an interesting aside: when great scholastics like Suarez talk about possibility and necessity, they don’t talk about p-worlds. Rather, they talk about what God could do by the “absolute power.” I tend to think they were getting at just this point.) Possibility and necessity are invariable across worlds.

If you are talking about logical possibility, yes. I agree.

So, premise one tells us that in one possible world, God exists—and exists necessarily. But if he exists necessarily in that world, that means he exists in all possible worlds. But guess what—the actual world is one of the possible worlds. And that means God exists in the actual world. (The “actual world” is, just like any other p-world, a maximal consistent proposition: it happens to correctly describe every single detail in the universe. So the actual world is not the universe—it’s a complete and true description of it. But part of the description is “God exists,” and the description is true. So from knowing that God exists in the actual world, we can infer that God exists.)

But how do we absolutely know that He exists, using only philosophy and not revelation? :-) I don't think it is possible -- not by philosophy alone. I do think, however, that we can achieve practical certainty by virtue of other kinds of knowledge, including supernatural.

So if premise one is true, it is not possible that God not exist. That means the argument is valid. Is premise one true? Yes, I think so.

Okay.

But now we come back to the point with which I opened this section: my criticism of your account of the OA. If someone is deeply committed to atheism, he might simply say that because he knows that God does not in fact exist, he can learn from the OA that God is not possible.

And I would immediately ask him (being the Socratic in method that I am), "how do you know that God does not in fact exist?" And in trying to prove that "knowledge" he would run into all kinds of absurdities and inadequate claims that make it very difficult for him to be dogmatic about his atheism, and to claim that it is more rational and plausible than theism.

Look, that’s a very simple argument to make. The OA proves that if God is possible, then he exists. But if one denies the conclusion: if one claims that God does not exist, then one has to conclude that God is not possible.

But they have to show us why they reject the conclusion in the first place, and how the logic of OA fails. They need to show us, particularly, why the premise is false. Methinks that would be quite difficult to do.

That might be what you “learn” from the OA, for you might approach it this way: “of course God is possible: who could hope to prove he’s impossible? I’m not saying anything about what could possibly be the case: I’m just saying that in fact God does not exist. In the actual world, there’s no such thing as God.” If that’s your approach, then your first encounter with the OA will force you to either (1) change your mind about God’s actual existence, or (2) change your mind about God’s existence being possible. If you pick (1), that’s great. You’ve learned something—something vitally important. If, however, you pick (2), them you’ve just given up a piece of knowledge. You’ve become dumber.

Yes, but not (i.e., #2) because of OA; because of illogical and non-coherent atheist reasoning.

But, to be fair, many people find the argument from evil pretty impressive. They might think that the argument from evil shows that God does not exist.

I think it is the strongest argument against Christianity, and have believed this for a long time also.

The argument from evil, incidentally, doesn’t show that God is impossible, for it relies on the premise that evil exists. But it is a merely contingent truth that evil exists: in a world without evil, you could not run the argument from evil. So a person in this position might endorse exactly the line of thought I mentioned last paragraph—and it wouldn’t exactly be unreasonable dogmatism. It would just reflect on the force of the argument from evil. At any rate, all of this is to say that there are indeed grounds available to the atheist to deny the sheer possibility of God’s existence.

Yes; I think they fail, but I agree that there are halfway-reasonable grounds, at least prima facie. I don't think all atheists think the way they do because they are terrible people, utterly illogical, or because they are consciously rebelling against God. I do think sin affects reasoning in profound ways, however, as a general rule of thumb.

This leads me to a brief discussion of another area where I think you make a mistake. You appear to conflate conceivability, imaginability and possibility, and I think this conflation leads you to some trouble.

Yes, because I was not being technically precise in my use of those terms. I trusted that my meaning would be more clear in context, but that doesn't cut it for trained minds, because they will always note the imprecision of terminology.

You write, for example, that theists should be willing to grant that a world without God is possible. But to grant this is to fall into disaster. If there is a p-world without God, then God is impossible: this is simply the reverse of the OA. Theists absolutely cannot grant that there are any p-worlds without God.

I disagree, because, again, I am almost always concentrating on actual worlds. There is a possible actual world, such that God (the necessary being) does not exist. That is conceivable by a theist without for a moment being accepted as true. One can argue this for the sake of argument, without adopting it, just like any other proposition. I don't think this is a disaster at all; it is simply how reasoning works.

If we disallow all contrary propositions as even possible or conceivable under all conceivable circumstances, it seems to me that we make it very difficult to engage in the reasoning process. And we in fact do the same thing we often accuse the atheists of: we conclude that a state of affairs is absolutely impossible. We can't blame them for concluding this about God and then turn around and refuse to allow any conceivable possibility of an atheist universe. So yes, a theist and a Christian, by definition, and in one obvious sense, cannot deny that God exists, but they can step out of their own views for a second and conceive of an atheist world. If not, then we cannot (it seems to me) fully conceive of an atheist's argument, and we should not expect them to conceive of ours. We would and should, then, simply stop talking with them, as it would be literally meaningless and incomprehensible.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that when atheists talk about a world without God, they are just making meaningless noises.

That's right. But that is a far lesser "methodological concession" than the above.

Let me reproduce a bit of your paper here, so that I can reply in a little detail:
(anti-A2) No such thing as God exists, and no such thing can possibly exist in any possible, imaginable, conceivable universe.

Now, if that is true, then why is the topic of God and theism so prominent in philosophy? If indeed theism were as silly and foolish as belief in fairy tales, leprechauns, unicorns, mermaids, centaurs, or other fanciful, absurd mythologies, why does the question continue to occupy great minds (both in favor of theism, and opposed to it?). One doesn't devote any time to sheer nonsense: Alice-in-Wonderland worlds or linguistic gibberish, such as:

$#%&^%&^%foolishness#$#@#&^&()*&_(^GH%^<><>FD786IVbunkUVR(&VB^$E)+=??"FT _-_-_-_-V*TOUV&^RCV%&)*---hooey----}}{}|||||||(&^$%#@!)(@j@u@n@k@+-+-!:-)x:;\

No one (with three brain cells) seriously considers as any possibility that the earth is flat, or that the moon is made of green cheese. If the notion of God is in that kind of immediately dismissible category, then it is quite strange that rational, thoughtful, intelligent people devote so much time and energy to it. Therefore, the rational person must (given all these considerations) grant the bare possibility of God in another possible world, and this is all that premise A of the argument requires.
But your concerns here do not follow from (anti-A2). The atheist can easily grant that there are imaginable universes that include God: that we can talk meaningfully about things divine. (Not every atheist is a positivist!) But imaginability does not entail possibility. We can tell ourselves all kinds of stories without thinking them possibly true. I could write a science fiction story in which the cosmology is that the universe sprang into existence all by itself. That’s not just nonsense on the order of the string of letters and symbols in the quotation from your paper. But it is, nevertheless, impossible. Indeed, anyone who wishes to endorse a cosmological argument in any form must claim that it is impossible. If it’s possible that the universe simply have sprung into existence out of nothing, or that it be self-caused, then the cosmological argument simply cannot be successful.

I was (I think it is clear in context) putting the stress on "conceivable" and "imaginable" and, as you noted earlier, confusing those notions with "possibility." I was dealing mainly with the sort of atheist I have often dealt with, who think of God and Christianity in just these terms: as the intellectual equivalents of Santa Claus or the moon made of green cheese. Granted, that is not dealing strictly with OA, but it is dealing with certain widespread predispositions and prejudices.

Here’s another example where impossibility doesn’t equal nonsense. “Goldbach’s Conjecture” (going by memory here—I might have this wrong) is that every even number is the sum of two primes. Now, this conjecture, if true, is necessarily true. And, if it is false, it is necessarily false. At present, the Conjecture remains a conjecture—it has neither been proved nor disproved. But mathematicians are, I believe, working on it. Let us pretend that the Conjecture is, in fact, false. So the claim that “every even number is the sum of two primes” is necessarily false. But it is not nonsense. It makes perfect sense. It’s just not true. Indeed, genuine nonsense, of the kind in your random string of letters and symbols above, does not even bear a truth value: it makes no claim at all, and can be neither true nor false. The very fact that an atheist will assign a truth value—“necessarily false”—to the claim that “God exists,” shows that the atheist denies that claim is sheer nonsense.

Okay, but many seem to almost approach that negative view.

Now, as I alluded to just above, there are positivists (or, at least, there were positivists) who would claim that “God exists” is sheer nonsense.

Well, then those are the types I have too often run across.

And they would be disgusted at the proliferation of internet discussion groups about God, since all such talk is entirely meaningless.

The ones I have met often say that and then proceed to talk about it: an irony I have always richly appreciated. :-)

But that positivist position is wildly implausible. (Not to mention self-defeating: the “verifiability criterion of meaning,” according to which sentences are meaningful only if they can be empirically verified, is not itself empirically verifiable, and, thus either false or nonsensical. But leave that aside.)

I totally agree.

But most contemporary atheists have, I think, moved past the phase of trying to say that God-talk is all just nonsense, and have come to the phase where they think it is just all false.

That's an improvement. A good sign!

But once you arrive at a point where the claim is simply that theism is necessarily false, then the philosophical discussion of theism begins to make sense. There are theists out there who contend, with astounding rigor of argumentation, that their position is indeed philosophically defensible. The cosmological and ontological arguments (among others) have been with us for a long time. In addition to this, more recent work in religious epistemology has gone far towards undermining the claim of atheists to have the “default” position, or the atheist contention that belief in God is simply unjustifiable by means other than argument, or what have you.

That's the truly exciting stuff. Some of what I have read of Alston is along those lines (I met him briefly, once).

So there is a longstanding tradition of careful theistic argumentation which atheists, when they bother to try to defend their position, have to take into account: they can see that theism is not in the same “immediately dismissible” category as the claim that the moon is made of green cheese, or that the earth is flat.

Good for them.

Further, though, people do take some pains to convince certain people that the earth is round: they take pains to teach children this fact. Children, of course, would make the obvious assumption that the earth is flat, if the question were put to them. They have to be taught to ignore the way things appear, and think instead of a much bigger picture. Similarly, we might take pains to instruct people in a remote tribe who assume themselves to be living on a flat surface. These folks, by accident of birth, have never been instructed in the truth about the earth’s shape, and we might see fit to try to teach them. The kind of people we wouldn’t try to teach would be educated Americans who know all the evidence, but construct bizarre conspiracy theories to try to explain that evidence away. However, atheists might see certain educated Americans who were raised in the backwards tribes of the Bible belt as just in need of instruction about the non-existence of God as they would see the folks raised in remote tribes are in need of instruction about the roundness of the earth. That is, they might pity their theistic upbringing, and try to bring some light to the benighted.

Yes.

So even if the atheist thinks that belief in God is epistemically on par with belief in leprechauns, he might take some pains to help some poor idiot see that God does not exist—especially since believers in God, unlike believers in leprechauns—actually still exert considerable (and pernicious, from the perspective of many atheists) political pull in our culture.

Some few lower themselves to such a pitiable state in order to enlighten us "dark ages" types.

So in saying that God’s existence is impossible, the atheist does not commit himself to saying that the claim “God exists” is nonsense; nor does he commit himself to saying that believers in God are not to be bothered with at all. He might grant that believers have interesting (though, ultimately, not compelling) philosophical support for their view. Or, he might deny that, but nevertheless want to try to convince theists of the error of their ways either out of pity, or out of something like a politicized desire to keep down the number of theists.

I think this is good to understand. Thanks.

I think that having said what I’ve now said, I’ve come to the end of my comments on your discussion of the ontological argument. Initially, this paper was about twice as long, because it began with a long discussion about what counts as a “proof.” You seemed to agree with Plantinga’s view—I think that view is false. Perhaps at some point I will send along that bit, if you’re interested, and we can chat about it.

I hope we will continue this on the blog. One round is certainly not enough for such a rich, challenging subject. Plantinga contended only that OA makes theism as rational as atheism; he did not claim that it proved God's existence. This is very much my own position. If you are of the opinion that Plantinga thinks OA proved God's existence, to my knowledge that is not his claim. But chances are you know more about it than I do.

Thanks for the opportunity to write, and my best wishes for the success of your ministry.

Thank you! It was my great pleasure, indeed, to interact with you. I hope we continue, and best wishes for your philosophical studies. I am excited to see any solid Christian enter the philosophical field. The more the merrier . . .

Monday, June 21, 2004

Martin Luther Refutes Zwingli and Other Deniers of the Real Presence

From my book, The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Sophia Institute Press: 2004)


. . . [Martin Luther] believed in the Real Presence, although he denied transubstantiation and rejected the Sacrifice of the Mass. Luther (according to his nominalistic, anti-Scholastic leanings) didn’t want to speculate about metaphysics and how the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ. He simply believed in the miracles of the literal presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood “alongside” the bread and wine (consubstantiation). In this respect, his position was similar to the Eastern Orthodox one.

It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills. Before I would drink mere wine with the Enthusiasts, I would rather have pure blood with the Pope.

(Early 1520s; in Althaus, 376; LW, 37, 317)

The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, our heart, our body.

(in Althaus, 398; LW, 37, 71 ff.)

Protestantism’s founders vary in their interpretation of this verse and in their Eucharistic theology. John Calvin’s “mystical” view of the Eucharist is complex and not quickly summarized or refuted. Ulrich Zwingli (the Protestant “Reformer” of Zurich) held to a symbolic view, on the other hand, which seems to have prevailed among many evangelical Protestants today. We shall concentrate on the exegetical and logical weakness of Zwingli’s arguments in this chapter. He wrote about this passage:

In the words: “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” the body which is put to death for us. Therefore the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be . . . “This is my body,” means, “The bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 225)

Yet Martin Luther refutes this line of thinking, using the very same scriptures:

[T]his word of Luke and Paul is clearer than sunlight and more overpowering than thunder. First, no one can deny that he speaks of the cup, since he says, “This is the cup.” Secondly, he calls it the cup of the new testament. This is overwhelming, for it could not be a new testament by means and on account of wine alone.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 217)

http://biblicalcatholicism.com/


In that same work, Luther makes a fascinating argument that a purely symbolic Eucharist turns the sacrament into a futile work of man rather than a grace and blessing from God:

He thinks one does not see that out of the word of Christ he makes a pure commandment and law which accomplishes nothing more than to tell and bid us to remember and acknowledge him. Furthermore, he makes this acknowledgment nothing else than a work that we do, while we receive nothing else than bread and wine.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 206)

Martin Luther rebukes the symbolic view of the Eucharist, held by most evangelicals today:

[S]ince we are confronted by God’s words, “This is my body” – distinct, clear, common, definite words, which certainly are no trope, either in Scripture or in any language – we must embrace them with faith . . . not as hairsplitting sophistry dictates but as God says them for us, we must repeat these words after him and hold to them.

(Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; in Althaus, 390)

[John 6]

Zwingli offers us an example of early Protestant “symbolist” reasoning:

There can be no doubt that only the spirit can give life to the soul. For how could the physical flesh either nourish or give life to the soul?

. . . with his own words Christ teaches us that everything which he says concerning the eating of flesh or bread has to be understood in terms of believing . . . . this passage tells us that the carnal eating of Christ’s flesh and blood profiteth nothing, and you have introduced such a carnal eating into the sacrament . . .

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 206-207, 210-211)

Martin Luther, however, expounded the text otherwise. Preaching on John 6, he stated:

All right! There we have it! This is clear, plain, and unconcealed: “I am speaking of My flesh and blood.”

. . . There we have the flat statement which cannot be interpreted in any other way than that there is no life, but death alone, apart from His flesh and blood if these are neglected or despised. How is it possible to distort this text? . . . You must note these words and this text with the utmost diligence . . . It can neither speciously be interpreted nor avoided and evaded.

(Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW, 23, 133-135)

Luther’s eucharistic theology was not identical to Catholic theology, but it was far closer than to the symbolic view. To reiterate: he thought that Jesus’ Body and Blood were present “alongside” the bread and wine (consubstantiation) after consecration. So Jesus was really there, but the bread and wine were there, too (whereas in Catholic theology, they cease to remain bread and wine after consecration).

1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

This verse again allows us to observe in a nutshell, traditional Protestant controversies in their own ranks. Catholics interpret it in a literal way, but Protestants differ amongst themselves. Zwingli special pleads in his interpretation of the passage:

[W]hen you offer thanks with the cup and the bread, eating and drinking together, you signify thereby that you are one body and one bread, namely, the body which is the Church of Christ, . . .

(On the Lord’s Supper, 1526; in Bromiley, 237)

But Martin Luther again ably refutes this specious interpretation, and offers us a unique insight into a Protestant exegete who had every motivation to disagree with the Catholic Church’s interpretation, but in the end was forced by the text to accept its straightforward meaning:

I confess that if Karlstadt, or anyone else, could have convinced me five years ago that only bread and wine were in the sacrament he would have done me a great service. At that time I suffered such severe conflicts and inner strife and torment that I would gladly have been delivered from them. I realized that at this point I could best resist the papacy . . . But I am a captive and cannot free myself. The text is too powerfully present, and will not allow itself to be torn from its meaning by mere verbiage.

(Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit, 1524; LW, 68)

For Luther, the passage is quite compelling:

Even if we had no other passage than this we could sufficiently strengthen all consciences and sufficiently overcome all adversaries . . .

. . . He could not have spoken more clearly and strongly . . .

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 177, 181)

Luther thinks the realist, concrete, non-symbolic nature of the verse is obvious, to the point where he seems to be aggravated (the three-time repetition of “it is”) that others can’t see what is so clear:

. . . The bread which is broken or distributed piece by piece is the participation in the body of Christ. It is, it is, it is, he says, the participation in the body of Christ. Wherein does the participation in the body of Christ consist? It cannot be anything else than that as each takes a part of the broken bread he takes therewith the body of Christ . . .

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 178)
1 Corinthians 11:27-30: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

Again, many Protestants today have lost the sacramental outlook of Martin Luther (and to a lesser extent, even of John Calvin). Baptist apologist James White provides a contemporary version of Zwinglian symbolism:

Participation in the Supper is meant to be a memorial (not a sacrifice) of the death of Christ, not the carefree and impious party it had become at Corinth.

(White, 175)

Martin Luther would have a great problem with such reasoning, and in refuting it, he closely approximates what a Catholic response would be. He argues that it is pointless for St. Paul to speak of “sin” here (“profaning” in the text) if Jesus “is not present in the eating of the bread” and that “the nature and character of the sentence requires” this “clear” interpretation. Luther sums up his exegetical argument:

It is not sound reasoning arbitrarily to associate the sin which St. Paul attributes to eating with remembrance of Christ, of which Paul does not speak. For he does not say, “Who unworthily holds the Lord in remembrance,” but “Who unworthily eats and drinks.”

(Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments, 1525; LW, 40, 183-184)

I prefer what is often called the “superstition” of Martin Luther, St. Augustine, and the Fathers of the Church, as it seems to be far and away the most natural reading of all these texts. Augustine wrote:

[I]t is the Body of the Lord and the Blood of the Lord even in those to whom the Apostle said: "whoever eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself.”

(Baptism, 5, 8, 9; in Jurgens, III, 68)

The eucharistic “Catholic verses” are some of the most important in the entire Catholic exegetical and apologetic “arsenal.” It can be shown (and I think I have done so) that Protestants are trying to skirt around the edges of them, special plead, eisegete (reading their own prior biases into texts) and improperly denying the straightforward literal reading. This is odd, given the usual Protestant acknowledgment that Scripture is to be interpreted literally unless there are clear indications in the text otherwise.

These passages are so compelling that they played a crucial role in producing a near-unanimous patristic viewpoint of acceptance of the real presence in the Eucharist. Several major Protestant Church historians and experts on history of Christian doctrine note this (for example, Otto W. Heick, Williston Walker, Philip Schaff, Jaroslav Pelikan, Carl Volz). The historical facts cannot be denied. They are unarguable. As just one representative statement, I cite J.N.D. Kelly, perhaps the most-cited patristics scholar:

One could multiply texts like these which show Augustine taking for granted the traditional identification of the elements with the sacred body and blood. There can be no doubt that he shared the realism held by almost all of his contemporaries and predecessors.

(Kelly, 447)


Catholics need not be shy in defending transubstantiation or the real presence. The biblical evidence is very strong, and so is the history of the beliefs of the early Christians on this score. We have nothing to fear, and we can decisively win this battle of “competing eucharistic theologies” on the field of Scripture and history alike.

SOURCES

Althaus, Paul, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Bromiley, G.W., editor and translator, Zwingli and Bullinger, (The Library of Christian Classics series), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.

Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, three volumes, 1979.

Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines, San Francisco: Harper & Row, revised edition of 1978.

Luther, Martin, Luther's Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

White, James R., The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Reply to Joel Garver and Kevin Johnson on Calvin's Eucharistic Theology Compared to St. Cyril of Jerusalem's and the Church Fathers in General

Dr. Garver's words will be in blue; Kevin Johnson's in red:

I would like to particularly thank Joel for replying (though also Kevin, of course); I know he must be a very busy man (like all academics) and could find many better things to do, so I appreciate it, and I again express my great admiration for his fine work.

Well, I also still think you're pretty much talking right past what Kevin is saying and what much of recent scholarship has indicated.

Perhaps so, but if so, I will have to be shown this by rational argumentation, with documentation (as I have tried to do). As for recent scholarship, I would be delighted to learn what it holds. I have neither the time nor money to follow all of that (even less now, after having started a part-time job that requires my services seven days a week), but if someone such as yourself can summarize it for me or send me to some links which do, I am all ears. Please teach us.

As you indicate, the fundamental question here is not whether Calvin rejected the late medieval doctrine that he identified with "transubstantiation" because, of course, he did. The question is [a] whether that late medieval doctrine was identical with that of Cyril and a number of the early Fathers when understood in their own immediate contexts and

I think (based on what I know, be it a little or a lot) that the ("Roman") Catholic doctrine is far closer to St. Cyril's doctrine than Calvin's is. Development is a given. The terminology and Aristotelian philosophical sophistication (as well as the theology itself) developed, but the essential components remain the same: however one calls it, this view entails a transformation of the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. Cyril clearly teaches this; so does the Catholic Church. Calvin does not. One can quibble about words all day long, but this is the bottom line.

[b] whether, when properly contextualized, Calvin coincides with Cyril in important ways that separate them both from the late medieval context.

Okay; well, again, teach us; show us where we have gone astray. I've done my work. Now, if my argument is to be overthrown I need to be shown by you or someone else at what point it went off: how it took anything out of context or (inadvertently, as it was surely not deliberate) misrepresented anything or drew wrong conclusions, etc. This can't be done by simply making general statements. it has to be argued properly . . . Surely as a philosopher, you understand this. Whether you have time to do so yourself is something else, but you must agree that what I have produced will take a bit of work and time to overthrow.

On the question of the presence of Christ himself in the eucharist, when the Reformers speak of "transubstantiation" and reject it, they are speaking of a particular theory of Christ's presence, cashed out in terms of substance and accidents, as those categories were communicated to them in the context of later medieval ontologies, which were either nominalistic or a kind thomism knocked out of shape by nominalism.

http://biblicalcatholicism.com/


Perhaps so, but that doesn't give them the excuse to co-opt transformational views like that of St. Cyril and make out that they were not so. This is as much about development of doctrine I think, than about eucharistic theology per se.

Earlier medieval and patristic notions of "substance" and how those were contextualized in the eucharist—seen not just as elements and words, but also as an action of the assembled Body of Christ and teleologically directed toward reception by the faithful—would not have necessarily been objectioned to by Calvin, had he a better grasp on them.

Good. I certainly agree that he (just like Luther) had a jaded view of Scholasticism due to the corruptions of that school of thought by nominalism. But he was sharp enough not to have made the wild statements that he made about Catholic teaching.

His own eucharistic views, I submit, are attempting to approach those patristic views, such as Cyril's, though somewhat metaphysically handicapped by his own philosophical context. Indeed, depending on one's ontology of "substance"—particularly after a century of revisionist thomism, renewed study of Christian neoplatonism, and so on—then Calvin's own views might be termed "transubstantiation" (though, given the complexion of that term in his day, Calvin would likely turn over in his grave at the suggestion).

I need to be shown this. My extensive discussions on his eucharistic theology with Josh and Alastair on this blog were extremely interesting and (I think) fruitful, but I was not convinced at all that Calvin's view can be defended as even internally coherent, let alone consistent with the broad views of the Fathers.

Nothing you've said strikes against this in the least since you've neglected to explain what each of the historical figures actually meant within their own particular contexts and with their own assumptions about ontology and the like.

This is untrue, and (with all due respect) you must not have read my paper very closely, because I was making my argument in part by virtue of citing historians of doctrine, who made exactly these kinds of interpretations. Philip Schaff, e.g., wrote:
In general, this period, . . . was already very strongly inclined toward the doctrine of transubstantiation, and toward the Greek and Roman sacrifice of the mass, . . .
He says that "the kind and mode of this presence are not yet particularly defined" and classifies Fathers in different categories, but gives transubstantiation a strong place. Then when he gets to Cyril he writes (emphasis added):
With the act of consecration a change accordingly takes place in the elements, whereby they become vehicles and organs of the life of Christ, although by no means necessarily changed into another substance. To denote this change very strong expressions are used, like metabolhv, metabavllein, metabavllesqai, metastoiceiou'sqai, metapoiei'sqai, mutatio, translatio, transfiguratio, transformatio; illustrated by the miraculous transformation of water into wine, the assimilation of food, and the pervasive power of leaven. Cyril of Jerusalem goes farther in this direction than any of the fathers . . . In support of this change Cyril refers at one time to the wedding feast at Cana, which indicates, the Roman theory of change of substance . . .
Schaff also cites Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, and Ambrose as proponents of the transformationist view, and states that the last two "come nearest to the later dogma of transubstantiation."

Furthermore, I cited J.N.D. Kelly along these lines. He described Cyril as the "pioneer of the conversion doctrine," and states that "In the fifth century conversionist views were taken for granted by Alexandrians and Antiochenes alike." Kelly is one of the leading experts on patristic doctrine. If you disagree with his conclusions or that of Schaff, then by all means make an argument and show how they are wrong. But in any event, I have made the argument by citing them in agreement. As they are Protestants, they cannot be accused of a Roman bias. This is my usual methodology, because I am always anticipating the Protestant response. I cite almost all Protestant scholars, so I can undercut the objection of bias and the "party line," etc.

The question of Christ's presence is also distinct from that of the eucaharist as sacrifice, but Reformed theologians were willing to speak of a eucharistic sacrifice and even to admit that it was propitiatory (sometimes citing what they took to be Lombard and Aquinas' understanding of that, in accordance with the Fathers). But they rejected what they understood the Roman church to be teaching on the subject as having departed both from Scripture and tradition

Well, they were wrong! They are not in accord with Tradition on this point. Schaff demonstrated that, and much more could be brought to the table, demonstrating it.

and, even in the midst of retrieving the tradition, they shied away from the traditional language because they perceived it as having been corrupted.

That's fine. But whatever language is used, there are bottom line issues here:
1. Are the bread and wine literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ?

2. Can God do such a miracle, or is this not possible because Jesus is at the right hand of the Father?

3. Is it proper to adore the consecrated host, given #1 (from which it would seem to straightforwardly follow)?

4. Is the Mass a making present of the one-time historical sacrifice of Christ on Calvary?

5. What do the Fathers believe about these things, and what does Calvin believe?
My answers are: #1-4: yes; #5: Calvin greatly differs from the Fathers, because, by and large, they held to the same position on #1-4 as I presently am.

I think it would be best to isolate out the question of adoring Christ in the eucharist from the wider discussion, for several reasons.

First, one could very well hold to some version of transubstantiation and reject the kinds of fetishized treatments of the eucharistic elements to which Calvin is objecting, because one might worry about pushing the eucharist apart from the action of the assembly and from the faithful receiving it.


If He is really there, He is really there! I don't know how else to say it. I don't see how one thing can be separated from the other. Jesus is either present or not. If He is, He can and should be worshiped. If He is not, then He shouldn't be (not in terms of attention upon the Host). You can't have it both ways. If there is no worship permitted, then obviously Jesus isn't there and the Real Presence is denied.

Second, "adoring Christ in the eucharist" to which the Father attest is not necessarily identical with "adoring the consecrated host". After all, we know the adoration of Christ in the eucharist in the Fathers didn't involve kneeling during the consecration, the kinds of reservation that arose later, and certainly not "eucharistic adoration" as that is practiced in later medieval period onwards.

Posture is far less important than the internal attitude and action of worship. Worship of God, by nature (like idolatry) is an internal action of the will and the spirit which can be expressed in many ways. So whether the fathers knelt or not does not decide this question one way or another. Most Catholics in most countries (and most Orthodox) do not kneel, but that doesn't mean that they believe any less in the Real, Substantial Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. They are worshiping by standing.

First, I want to thank you for a response that obviously took some work to research and put together.

You're most welcome. And thank you, as always, for your gracious, gentlemanly dialogical approach.

I intend to reply more fully at another time,

I hope you do. I am still awaiting such a long reply concerning sola Scriptura after many many weeks. :-) Don't you think it would be more worth your time putting the effort into our dialogues than yours with Dr. White? I sure think so. I have observed your several very long replies to him. My hope is that you will put that kind of energy into replies about topics like the present one, and sola Scriptura.

but I do have a couple of observations as well as a question or two immediately for you.

Okay, shoot! But please do not forget to make some longer answer later. I am taking time to answer your questions; I look forward to you returning the favor vis-a-vis my long post.

First, I hope you will note that the primary link between Calvin and Cyril is in regards to the Real Presence. No one is claiming that their views are practically identical in all respects (and I don't think you made that claim either).

Sure, but that is a notoriously nebulous term, used in all kinds of ways. I sought to demonstrate that when it is applied to Cyril, it meant something highly akin to transubstantiation -- which you in tern made out to be a late medieval invention (or corruption). Secondly, David Willis, whom you cited in agreement, expressly tied in the notion of transubstantiation and Real Presence, stating that Calvin rejected the former. But since Cyril seems to have accepted it in a less developed form, it is relevant to discuss it. All these things are tied in together. Overall, Calvin's view was not all that similar to Cyril's from what I can see. I'm not convinced at all. If I am wrong about that, then show me. State your case, and document, as I have done.

Second, classic Protestants use the term Real Presence to speak to the What of what is present in the sacrament, in other words, it speaks of Christ being present in the sacrament. Calvin's view, like that of the other magisterial Reformers (save Zwingli) is that Christ was present in accordance with his nature as defined by Chalcedon--both man and God really present in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Yes, but like I said, these are a bunch of high-sounding words. We don't really know what is meant by them unless we dig deeper and examine exactly what both Calvin and the Fathers believed. The fact that they adored Jesus in the consecrated host and regarded the Mass as a sacrifice indicates quite a bit about their eucharistic theology. What they believed, Calvin regarded as the grossest abomination, idolatry, sacrilege, etc. This is what I demonstrated, I think, in my post: the disconnect between Calvin and the Fathers on this one. I don't see that this is rocket science. I think it is all rather obvious and I don't understand how Reformed think differently. Hopefully, you can at least help me understand how that can be, as I am truly puzzled. As in most of these discussions, we won't persuade each other away from our positions, but we can at least reach a much better mutual understanding and achieve some constructive discussion.

What is not treated with this issue generally by Protestants is the question of the sacrifice of the Mass and the nature of that sacrifice. While I will grant you that it is perhaps difficult to conceive (especially from the side of Roman Catholicism) that we can speak of the Real Presence without speaking of the sacrifice of Christ, much of Protestantism is all about making the proper distinctions to emphasize certain truths over others depending on what is in question. I hope that is understandable.

Yes, but it needs much further discussion. I think the crux of the discussion comes down to whether Protestantism or Catholicism more closely reflects patristic thought. If the appeal wasn't made to the Fathers, there wouldn't be nearly the amount of controversy. But because they are brought in, now we have a factual matter that can be ascertained by recourse to the fathers' writings and scholarly summaries of their views (such as that of Schaff or Kelly or Pelikan, etc.).

So, for the moment, I will be side-stepping your comments on the nature of how the Fathers viewed the sacrifice of the Mass. I am hopeful you will agree that it has developed over the centuries, though we might disagree as to the degree to which it developed.

Absolutely. All doctrines develop. It's a given.

At any rate, I would just ask you to remember the original comments of my blog entry were to point to a highly specialized and technical journal article that did not treat the whole of the matter.

Fair enough. Nevertheless, you made statements about the supposed late origins of transubstantiation which (I submit) are not consistent with the facts of the matter, as ascertained through historical analysis.

Here I will let you in behind the curtain for a moment. I'm honestly not sure I've completely grappled with the idea of the Fathers' view (and the overall Catholic view) of the sacrifice of the Mass. There are issues I see regarding the Incarnation and how it relates to the Real Presence that I have not fully worked out, that bear more research and discussion, as well as a lot more reading. So, I don't feel fully prepared to comment on that aspect of your post.

That's fine. I respect that. Kudos to you for wanting to study the issue more.

Regarding Cyril, I do have a couple of questions. You quoted Cyril as follows:
Moreover, the things which are hung up at idol festivals, either meat or bread, or other such things polluted by the invocation of the unclean spirits, are reckoned in the pomp of the devil. For as the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ, so in like manner such meats belonging to the pomp of Satan, though in their own nature simple, become profane by the invocation of the evil spirit. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Five Catechetical Lectures to the Newly Baptized, First Lecture on the Mysteries, 19.7)
1. Given the nature of the parallel between what is sacrificed to Satan and the Eucharist, are you prepared to argue that Cyril here is saying that the meat sacrificed to idols is changed in the same manner as the bread and wine (i.e. that it changes substance and ceases to exist)?

I don't think the analogy requires that. The category of "profane" is a spiritual or subjective one. That gets into Pauline discussions of "meat sacrificed to idols" and so forth. No one would argue that it ceases to be meat. But it is meat unfit for Christians because of the implications of how it is used. Cyril is not speaking in those terms regarding the Eucharist. There he uses unbridled realism and literalism (just as St. Paul himself does).

2. If not, what necessitates my taking this quote to mean the elements are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ?

One interprets it in conjunction with other statements from Cyril, just as cross-referencing is used in Scripture study. And just read other statements from the very same work, which I have provided. it's quite clear what he means, just as Calvin is pretty clear when all his statements on a given subject are taken into account.

3. Isn't it clear that Cyril here, by invoking the parallel to meat sacrificed to evil spirits being profaned is not speaking of a change in the substantial nature of the elements as much as he is their sacred use? To argue otherwise means you must recognize a change of substance in the meat otherwise there is no reason for the parallel.

You have to interpret it in light of his other statements. I don't think your analysis of the analogy itself holds. It is a partial comparison. Likewise, I have made an analogy to transubstantiation (in my first book) of water being ice, or steam, or liquid (an accidental as opposed to a substantive or essential change). That was not an absolutely exact analogy, but it is still an analogy (or parallel), in that what changed is reversed: accidents change rather than substance. I believe that is Cyril's meaning here. It was not intended as a comprehensive analogy. Otherwise, he contradicts himself in the same work, and you have to explain what he meant by the other statements that I cited. You don't resolve your difficulty by making this argument, because you still have the other texts to deal with, and presumably, Cyril was self-consistent, or sought to be, anyway.

4. How would you defend the idea that your look at Cyril is something other than anachronistic for nowhere (and here Schaff agrees with me, though he states his case not as strong) is it necessary for us to see the essential elements of transubstantiation in Cyril, especially given the above passage in reference to pagan sacrifices?

You have merely taken one passage and made out that it contradicts this interpretation. I don't think it does, and I have explained why. My view involves no anachronism because it is based on documented statements and interpretations by Protestant scholars (cited again above) who have no stake in making out that Cyril believed something that (prima facie if nothing else) looks more "Catholic" than "Protestant." I wasn't the one who claimed that he went further in this regard than any other Father. That was Schaff.

I wasn't the one who called him the "pioneer of the conversion doctrine," or who opined, "In the fifth century conversionist views were taken for granted by Alexandrians and Antiochenes alike." That was J.N.D. Kelly (not a Catholic, that I know of). If
my view is anachronistic, then so is theirs. Or do you somehow separate their opinions from mine simply because I am a Catholic and they are not (even though on this point we are greatly in agreement)?

It's just the historical facts of the matter . . . the notion of conversion of the elements is the essence of transubstantiation, and many fathers (including Cyril) clearly believed this. What is anachronistic is the incessant reading back into the Fathers Protestant views. This is most often dome with regard to
sola Scriptura, but also in this area and many others, and never more than with St. Augustine.

Then in your comments at your blog post, you wrote:

If you can show me how Cyril is definitively teaching the elements of transubstantiation (I do not think it is even necessary to bother with needing to see the technical language) in the quote I put in the blog entry, then I think you would have a case. But, until that one is explained we should view the other bare quotes on the subject with some suspicion.

I've done that by giving several quotations and citing experts on patristic theology. Your methodology here is backwards. You don't seize on one statement that looks like it might read "Protestant" and then ignore other relevant statements and become suspicious of them because they don't fit into your assumed interpretation of one. This is a circular argument.

You need to interpret all the statements in harmony, just as you would when you approach the Bible. You interpret the less clear in light of the more clear. That is, unless you want to assume that Cyril and other fathers were characterized by internal inconsistency. That strikes me as a more "liberal" attitude towards patristics, and lacking a proper charity and sympathetic "identification" with the subject under consideration (Cyril). I think, therefore, that you are far more guilty of the very thing you accuse us of (anachronism and selective citation).

I gave several citations and have now given my explanation of the "problem" that you raised. You have simply stated your position and then adopted a stance of "suspicion" towards the quotes that don't seem to fit into your view (and then used the tired recourse to "out of context").


"Pontificator" [Fr. Alvin Kimel] hit the nail on the head in another comment on your blog:
I do not interpret Cyril as teaching transubstantiation, as explicated by Thomas Aquinas, just as I do not interpret Ignatius of Antioch as teaching the homoousion. There is such a thing as development of doctrine. We should not expect to find a scholastic precision in the early Fathers on a matter that was never seriously disputed.
You wrote, in turn, on his blog:

I guess what I don’t understand is why Roman Catholics will grant that the Orthodox view is legitimate even though it can’t really be spoken of with the same categories in mind, yet a high Protestant view like Calvin’s is simply something other than catholic.

That's easy: the Orthodox view incorporates the essential notions of transformation and literal presence of Jesus' body and blood, and allows adoration, and the notion of sacrifice. Calvin;'s position (especially when closely scrutinized) denies all three of these things. Therefore it is neither in accord with Tradition nor catholic. It is a novel innovation and a corruption of previous received eucharistic doctrine.

I also don’t buy this unanimity in the Fathers concerning this issue.

It's about as unanimous as any doctrine gets, in its main outlines.

More research is required, but both Augustine and Ratramnus (and, though disputed, Cyril) viewed this issue of a change in the elements differently than what is currently being held up as the standard of orthodoxy.

There is no essential difference between Augustine's view and the Catholic one, because for Augustine, "sign" and reality can be one and the same. They need not be dichotomized, as in so much of Protestant thought.

It is more than just a matter of avoiding special terms put forth by the scholastics in the High Middle Ages and there is a fair level of diversity on these issues which I have not seen addressed by those towing ‘the party line’.

I addressed whatever diversity there truly was by citing Schaff, who stated that there was such diversity in some respects. But the transformation view was still the most prominent one, and it was held by Cyril. Therefore, it is wrongheaded to claim that Calvin's view closely approached Cyril's (even if you want to restrict that to the issue of the "real presence" -- however you define that -- alone). If Cyril would be regarded as a blasphemous, sacrilegious idolater by Calvin (assuming the latter applies his indignation consistently), then how can it be said that Calvin's view is so close to Cyril's? He is just one more ignorant idolater, just like all of us hopeless "papists."

Thanks for the discussion. I await any reply from either of you with great eagerness.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Old Testament and Jewish Conceptions of the Messiah

I have laid out in great detail biblical passages which I believe to be related to the notion of the Messiah - as fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord, in my papers:
"Jesus is God: Biblical Proofs"
"The Holy Trinity: Biblical Proofs" 
Yet however clear these biblical indications might seem to the Christian (blessed with the hindsight to now "see" clearly what the prophecies meant), it is true that they were not nearly so obvious or even very plain at all to the hearers at the time, and virtually all followers of God/YHWH prior to Jesus Christ, the New Testament and the Christian era.
Way back in 1982, when I was an evangelical Protestant highly interested in Judaism (an interest I retain today, as a Catholic), I did a study of the Jews and their attitudes towards Jesus, and also their own notion of what the Messiah was to be like; what he would do, etc. I utilized many Jewish primary sources. I was particularly interested in what they thought about the Messiah prior to Christ (so that Jewish-Christian polemics and controversies would not be a factor), and which Old Testament passages they regarded as messianic, and how they specifically interpreted them.

I will proceed now to recount some of the fascinating results I found in my studies, with regard to the above factors (unfortunately I didn't record many individual page numbers of citations, but passages in quotes are direct quotes; the rest is a paraphrase of the author's conclusions). All sources are Jewish unless otherwise noted:



1) The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Gershom Scholem, New York: Schocken Books, 1971:

Historically, there were two types of messianism: restorative and utopian. Restorative messianism became more prominent within Judaism with the rise of the rational philosophies of the Middle Ages, of which the chief proponent was Maimonides (d. 1204). But the Middle Ages also gave rise to Jewish mysticism, as taught in the Kabbalah and Zohar. Utopian messianism was prominent there. After the Enlightenment, rational utopianism prevailed and was secularized to form the notion of the inevitability of progress, but this development was largely restricted to the more "liberal" facets of Judaism.

http://biblicalcatholicism.com/


"In the 19th century, apocalypticism seemed finally liquidated, and possessed, at least for the Jewish rationalists, no urgency or force whatever. For them it had become meaningless, empty nonsense."
Maimonides sought to minimize apocalypticism, miracles, and other signs. The Messiah must prove his identity not by miracles, but by historical success. The messianic age is a public event and has nothing to do with salvation of individuals. He doesn't recognize a causal relationship between the coming of the Messiah and human conduct. He did hold that Zech 9:9 and Is 11:1-5 were messianic.
The Apocalyptists, on the other hand, read messianic and Last Days connotations into a great number of passages, while their opponents denied same. Many passages, like Isaiah 53, are interpreted by one group to refer to the Messiah, and by the other as predictions regarding the destiny of the entire Jewish people. The rationalists stood in the forefront of the theological defenses mounted against the Church. This motive was a major factor in explaining their prominence.

"The more biblical exegesis could reduce the purely Messianic element, the better it was for the defenses of the Jewish position. But the apocalyptists were not in the least interested in apologetics . . . they are not concerned with fortifying the frontiers. This is no doubt why the statements of the apocalyptists often appear freer and more genuine than those of their opponents who often enough must take into account the diplomatic necessities of anti-christian polemics. In rare individuals the two tendencies come together."

"The most important codifications of the Messianic idea in later Judaism are the writings of Isaac Abravanel (c. 1500) and The Victory of Israel, by the Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague (1599). The authors endeavor to embrace the legacy of ideas as a whole which have been transmitted in such contradictory traditions. They richly avail themselves of the apocalyptic traditions."


2) The Messianic Idea in Israel, Joseph Klausner, New York: Macmillan: 1955 (orig. 1921):

"The elements of the belief in the Messiah were continually changing under the influence of historical events. In times of national freedom, the worldwide universalistic hope was the basic element, but in times of trouble and distress the nationalistic element was stressed much more."

The figure of Moses was the forerunner and first example of the Messiah. Moses delivered Israel from bondage, from its material troubles, political servitude, and also its spiritual ignorance and bondage. He was also a prophet and lawgiver. The Judges were "messiahs" of a sort, but lacked the spiritual-ethical characteristics of Moses. Samuel, the last judge, had the spiritual characteristics but not the political. Saul did not qualify as a Messiah-type. David was the true prototype. He had great political talents, heroism, courage, and spirituality, like Moses (Hos 3:5). In the Talmud. it is written that the Messiah would be David, or at least have his name.

Hosea develops the messianic theme. "Birth pangs of the Messiah" is derived from Hos 13:13, as well as Is 13:8. Hosea mentions a personal Messiah, "David their king" (3:5; cf. Jer 30:9), earthly bliss (14:5-7) spiritual bliss (2:19-20), and changes in nature (2:18). Klausner says that most scholars (even liberal ones) regard Is 9:6 and 11:1-5 as messianic. Is 2:2-4 is regarded as the quintessential prophecy of the Kingdom. Klausner, however, interprets the "servant" passages (Is 40:1-9, 42:1-7, 50:4-9, 52:13-15, 53:1-12) as referring to Israel, which collectively suffers for mankind and becomes the redeemer of the world. He regards Zech 9:9-10 as a messianic passage.

"The Jewish Messiah, no matter how noble and how spiritual, is nevertheless a human being, a king of flesh and blood."

Around the 2nd century A.D. evolved a doctrine of two Messiahs: Messiah ben David and Messiah ben Joseph. The latter was primarily a warrior who would eventually be slain in battle. Psalm 2:7-8 is regarded as messianic in Sukkah 52a. In the same passage the death of Messiah ben Joseph is mentioned matter-of-factly. Messiah ben Joseph would fight and defeat Gog and Magog. After he was killed, Messiah ben David could become the sole king of the earth.

"This inner contradiction between the political and the spiritual Messiah was inherent in the Jewish conception of the Messiah from the earliest times. But as long as the political tendency dominated, this contradiction was not readily apparent. Thus it came about that Rabbi Akiba could join himself to a Messiah (Bar-Kochba) who was distinguished for no spiritual qualities whatever. Only after the political hope of redemption by war had been dashed by historical events themselves - only then was the contradiction felt with full force. Then the spiritual and religio-ethical tendency in the messianic faith inevitably gained the upper hand."


3) The Messiah Idea in Jewish History, Julius H. Greenstone, Philadelphia: Jewish Pub. Society, 1906:

Most Jews regard belief in the Messiah as a dogma of Judaism, even though the conception and nature of the dogma varies widely. Greenstone regards Is 7:14, 9:5, and 11:1-5 as messianic passages.
"The immediate success of Christianity can be accounted for only when we consider the intense messianic hope that existed among the Jewish people during the period of Roman supremacy."

Rabbi Akiba taught that the Messiah occupied a throne next to God and was rebuked by R. Jose the Galilean (Hagigah 14a; Sanhedrin 38b).

Zohar means literally "splendor" (derived from Daniel 12:3). It is a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch. In many Jewish communities, study of the Talmud was superseded by that of the Zohar, since it was regarded as a direct revelation from God and spiritually equal to the Bible. Modern scholars are convinced that the primary author was Moses de Leon of Spain (1250-1305). The influence of the Zohar was still strong in the 18th century.

"There are various references in the Zohar to the idea of a suffering Messiah. The Messiah takes upon himself all the maladies destined for Israel. In this manner, the Messiah constitutes himself the sin-offering, which can no longer be brought by Israel, since the Temple is destroyed."

"The pre-existence of the Messiah is assumed, and his almost Divine character repeatedly emphasized. He is suffering for the sins of his people, and helps them carry the burden of punishment."

Hasidism was formed as a new sect by Israel Baal-shem (1698-1759) as a reaction to Talmudic study methods. Modern Hasidic Jews are firm believers in the sanctity of the Zohar, in the powers of the Kabbalah, and in the influence exerted by their Zaddikim (wonder-working Rabbis) over the destinies of men. The aim of its founders was to free followers from excessive intellectualism, and to encourage prayer and religious emotion and sentiment.


4) A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel, Abba Hillel Silver, New York: Macmillan, 1927:

Isaac Abravanel (1447-1508) wrote three books about messianism. Onee was about Daniel, one about Talmudic passages, and the other dealing with all the messianic prophecies in Scripture. These are the most complete and thorough works of their kind in the whole field of Jewish adventism. Abravanel regarded Daniel 7:13 as messianic, and held that Daniel was a true prophet, unlike most Jews.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (Sanhedrin 98a) said that if Israel was found deserving, the Messiah would come swiftly (Dan 7:13), if they were not, then he would come upon a donkey (Zech 9:9):

"If they will be righteous, [the Messiah will come] on the clouds of heaven, if they will not be righteous [he will come] as a poor man riding upon an ass."

Speculations on the time of Messiah's coming were based on numerical figures in Daniel, supposed initiatory historical events, paralleles of time in Scripture, numerical value of letters and astrology.


5) The Messiah Texts, Raphael Patai, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979:

Concerning the suffering servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 52, 53, Patai writes:

"The Aggada, the Talmudic legend, unhesitatingly identifies him with the Messiah, and understands especially the descriptions of his sufferings as referring to Messiah ben Joseph."

Patai considers Daniel 9:24-27 messianic, including the death of the Messiah:

"It is quite probable that the concept of the suffering Messiah, fully developed in the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Zohar, has its origin in the biblical prophecies about the suffering servant."

Patai also lists Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-12, Daniel 7:13-14, and Zech 9:9-10 as messianic passages.
"Ever since Ezekiel, 'Son of Man' has been a designation signifying special nearness to God of the person so called."

"Others applied to him the name of God."

"R. Shim'on ben Jaqish explained: 'And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water' (Gen 1:2) - this is the spirit of King Messiah, as it is written, 'And the spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.' (Is 11:2)." (Gen Rab. 2:4)

"You find that at the beginning of the creation of the world King Messiah was born." (Pes. Rab. ed. Friedmann, p.152b)

Some rabbis named the Messiah, "The Leprous of the House of Study," based on Isaiah 53:4 (B. Sanhedrin 98b).

R. Jose the Galilean names the Messiah "Peace," based on Is 9:6 (Pereq Shalom, p. 101). He also mentions Is 52:7, concerning the messenger of peace.

"R. Nahman said to R. Yitzhaq: 'Have you perhaps heard when Bar Nifle (Son of the Clouds) will come?" (B. Sanhedrin 96b-97a).

"'Anani' (He of the clouds) is King Messiah." (Targum to 1 Chr 3:24)
"King Messiah will come with the clouds of heaven." (Pirqe Mashiah BhM 3:70)
"God will liberate Messiah ben David and make him ride on a cloud." (Midrash fragment, ed. Mamorstein, REJ 52 {1906}, p. 184).
The rabbis believed in a seven-year tribulation (B. Sanhedrin 97a).

"The Holy One began to tell him (the Messiah) the conditions (of his mission), and said to him, 'Their sins will force you into an iron yoke, and they will render you like unto this calf whose eyes have grown dim, and they will choke your spirit with the yoke, and because of their sins your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth. Do you accept this?' He said, 'with gladness I accept it, so that not a single one of Israel should perish, even the dead who have died from the days of Adam until now. This is what I want.' " (Pes. Rab. pp. 161a-b)

"You have suffered because of the sins of our children, and cruel punishments have come upon you . . . you were put to ridicule and held in contempt by the nations of the world because of Israel . . . All this because of the sins of our children . . . great sufferings have come upon you on their account. And (God) says to him, 'Be you the judge over these peoples, and do to them whatever your soul wishes . . . all of them will die from the breath of your lips.' " (Pes. Rab. ch. 36)

"Elijah . . . says to him: 'Endure the sufferings and the sentence of your Master who makes you suffer because of the sin of Israel.' And thus it is written: 'He was wounded because of our transgressions.' . . . (Is 53:5) - until the time when the end comes." (Mid. Konen, BhM, 2:29)

"As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and sacrifices removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world." (Zohar 2:212a)

"In the second year of King Ahazia, Elijah was hidden, and he will not be seen again until King Messiah comes. And then he will be seen but will be hidden a second time, and seen again only when Gog and Magog come." (Seder 'Olam Rabba, ch. 17)

Patai: "When the death of the Messiah became an established tenet in Talmudic times, this was felt to be irreconcilable with the belief in the Messiah as the Redeemer who would usher in the blissful millennium of the Messianic age. The dilemma was solved by splitting the person of the Messiah in two . . . "

The development of the two-Messiah doctrine also had to do with a messianic parallel to Moses, who died before entering the Promised Land.

Referring to Zech 12:10-12, "R. Dosa says: '(They will mourn) over the Messiah who will be slain.' " (B. Suk. 52a; also Y. Suk. 55b)

"A man shall arise from my seed; like unto the sun of righteousness, walking with the sons of man in meekness, and no sin shall be found in him. And he shall pour upon you the spirit of grace, and you shall walk in his commandments . . . a rod of righteousness to the nations, to judge and save all that call upon the Lord." (Testament of Judah, 24)


6) The Doctrine of the Messiah in Medieval Jewish Literature, Joseph Sarachek, New York: Hermon Press, 1932:

"In order not to expose themselves to criticism, many Jewish exegetes waived their own messianic explanations and expounded the texts as allusions to the past."

Solomon ben Isaac, or Rashi (b. 1040) was the most celebrated figure in the rabbinical schools of France in the last half of the 11th century. He is regarded as the greatest Jewish commentator on the Bible and the Talmud. Rashi applied Psalm 2 to David instead of the Messiah, but he believed Daniel 7:13-14 was messianic. The "anointed one" in Daniel 9:26 was Agrippa. Gen 49:10 (Shiloh) is was messianic, as are Zech 9:9 and Isaiah 11. He attributes Is 9:6 to Hezekiah and Is 53 to all Israel. The "anointed" in Daniel 9:25 was Cyrus.

Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, 1092-1167) was one of the greatest Jewish scholars. He considered Gen 49:10 messianic, and also Zech 13, but he refers Zech 9:9 to Maccabean times. Is 7:14 refers only to Isaiah's son. Zech 12:10 concerns Messiah ben Joseph, and Zech 13:7 refers to the world war in his time. The "messenger" in Mal 3:1 is Messiah ben Joseph. The "son of man" in Dan 7:13 is Israel. The "anointed prince" in Dan 9:25 is Nehemiah. The "son" in Ps 2:7,12 referred to Israel.

Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508; originally from Spain) wrote more about the Messiah than any other Jew before him. He followed the Talmud and the Midrash in his messianic interpretations. The following verses are messianic: Gen 49:10, Is 11:1-5, Is 61, Micah 5:2, Zech 9:9, chs. 12-13, Malachi 3:1. Is 9:6 applied to Hezekiah. Is 53 referred to the nation of Israel, as did the "son of man" of Daniel 7:13. The "anointed" of Dan 9:25 is not the Messiah.


* * * * *

NOTE: Now we move on to a Christian source:

7) Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg (1802-1869; an orthodox Lutheran and eminent theologian), tr. by T. Meyer, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 4 vols., 1854-1858):

Micah 5:2: acknowledged by the Jews as messianic at all times with perfect unanimity. This is indicated in Mt 2:4-6 and Jn 7:41-42. But they explained the "eternity" in terms of the idea of the Messiah, his name, or his descent from the ancient, royal line of David. After the death of Jesus, the rabbis stated that Bethlehem referred not to birthplace, but merely to ancestry from David. This was unheard-of before Christianity arose. Many Jews claimed that Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Isaiah 9:1-2: Some Jews believed that the Messiah would appear in Galilee. E.g., the Zoahr: "King Messiah will reveal himself in the land of Galilee."

Isaiah 9:6-7: The Jews (expectedly) say that the names refer to God, not to the child. But many held it to be a messianic passage: e.g., the commentary on Genesis known as Brehith Rabbah (Gen 41:44), Rabbi Jose Galilaeus in the book Ekha Rabbati. Ben Sira mentions Wonderful, Counselor, and Prince of Peace as names of the Messiah. Later Jews sought to attribute the passage to Hezekiah.

Isaiah 11:1-5: The messianic interpretation is the most ancient one. It is found in the Targum of Jonathan, and was defended especially by Jarchi, Abravanel, and Kimchi. The word "shoot" or "sprout" is used in other passages which are messianic beyond doubt. In verse 4, he slays the wicked with his breath, a thing which is elsewhere said of God only (cf. Ps 33:6, Hos 6:5). In general, doing by the mere word is a characteristic of omnipotence.

Isaiah 42:1-7: The Chaldean Paraphrast understood the Servant to be the Messiah, as did Kimchi and Abravanel; the latter said of the non-messianic interpretation, "all these expositors were struck with blindness." Simeon's reference at Lk 2:32 indicates that this was the common Jewish viewpoint at the time of Christ. The non-messianic defenders can only agree negatively; they don't agree on who the passage is talking about. In Is 49:5-6 the Servant is contrasted with Israel and thus can't possibly be equated with Israel. David called himself the servant of God ten times in 2 Samuel 7. The prophets are called servants of God in 2 Kings 13:3 and Jer 26:5. In Is 42:6, the Servant is a covenant to the people (Israel), thereby ruling out the possibility that "he" is Israel.

Isaiah 49:1-9: Verses 4 and 7 foretell the rejection of the Messiah. Many Jews here equate the Servant with collective Israel - an impossibility in light of verses 5, 6, and 8.

Isaiah 50:4-11: Verse 4 indicates that the Servant is speaking ("sustain the weary"). Verses 10 and 11 state that one's destiny is contingent upon acceptance or denial of the Servant - the Messiah. Verses 6 and 7 indicate the suffering and rejection by the people of the Messiah. Finally, the Servant appears as the judge of his rejectors.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12: "Shoot" and "root" in verse 2 connect this passage with other messianic descriptions elsewhere. 53:5 ("peace") is similar to the messianic Micah 5:5: "this one will be our peace." The phrase "cut off" (v. 8) occurs also in the arguably messianic Dan 9:26.

"There cannot be any doubt that the messianic interpretation was pretty generally received in earlier times by the Jews. This is admitted even by those later interpreters who pervert the prophecy, e.g., Ibn-ezra, Jarchi, Abravanel and Nahmanides."

The whole translation of the Chaldean Paraphrast, Jonathan, refers to prophecy to Messiah. He paraphrases the very first clause: "behold, My Servant Messiah shall prosper." The Midrash Tanchuma states: "This is the King Messiah who is high and lifted up, and very exalted, more exalted than Abraham, elevated above Moses, higher than the ministering angels."

There is a remarkable passage in the very old book Pesikta, cited in the treatise Abkath Rokhel, and reprinted in Hulsii Theologia Judaica, where this passage occurs, p. 309:
    "When God created the world, He stretched out His hand under the throne of His glory, and brought forth the soul of the Messiah. He said to him: 'Will you heal and redeem My sons after 6000 years?' He answered him, 'I will.' Then God said to him: 'Will you then also bear the punishment in order to blot out their sins, as it is written, "But he bore our diseases" ' (53:4). And he answered Him; 'I will joyfully bear them.' " (cf. Zohar, 2:212a)
Rabbi Moses Haddarshan states: "Immediately the Messiah, out of love, took upon himself all those plagues and sufferings, as it is written in Isaiah 53, 'He was abused and oppressed.' " In the Rabboth, a commentary, 53:5 is quoted, and referred to the sufferings of the Messiah. In the Midrash Tillim, an allegorical commentary on the Psalms, printed at Venice in 1546, it is said at Psalms 2:7: "The things of King Messiah are announced in the prophets, e.g., in the passage Is 52:13 and 42:1, in the Hagiographa, e.g., Ps 60 and Dan 7:13."

Rabbi Alschech, in Hulsii Theologia Judaica, pp. 321 ff., comments:
    "Upon the testimony of tradition, our old rabbis have unanimously admitted that king Messiah is here the subject of discourse. We, in harmony with them, conclude that king David, i.e., the Messiah, must be considered as the subject of this prophecy - a view which is indeed quite obvious."
Comparatively few Jews (i.e., those who didn't take the "servant-as-Israel" view) believed that the passage referred to a person other than the Messiah. Tha kabbalistic Jews still largely held to the messianic interpretation of the passage. The Messiah is called "servant" in Zech 3:8 - a passage which is unanimously regarded as messianic, and also in Ezek 34:23-24. As for the collective interpretation: not one sure analogous instance can be cited in favor of a personification carried on through a whole section, without the slightest intimation that it is not a single individual who is referred to.

In 53:3 the subject is called a man. In 53:11-12 a "soul" is ascribed to him. "Grave" and "death" seemingly imply a singular subject. In the passages where Israel is called "Servant," all uncertainty is prevented by the presence of the names of Jacob and Israel (Is 41:8-9, 44:1-2,21, 45:4, 48:20) and the plural is used alongside the singular (Is 42:24-25, 48:20-21, 43:10-14). Several factors in the passage rule out a collective. The Servant voluntarily bears sufferings (vss. 10,12) and he suffers quietly and patiently (v. 7).


Daniel 7:13-14: In other passages it is always the Lord who appears with, or upon the clouds of heaven (Is 19:1, Ps 18:10, 97:2, Nahum 1:3). The word for "serve" is never used in any other sense than that of divine worship (whether paid to God or a false deity). See Dan 3:12,14,17-18,28 and Ezra 7:19. For "everlasting dominion," a common feature of the announcement of the Messiah, see Ps 72:5,7,17, 89:37-38, Is 9:6. The Jews were almost unanimous in agreeing that the passage is messianic. The Messiah was called :man of the clouds," a title which is espoused by the Talmud. Abravanel said: "The expositors explain these words, 'like a son of man,' as referring to the King Messiah." Jesus called himself "son of man" 55 times, not counting parallels.

Zechariah 9:9-10: The messianic interpretation prevailed among the Jews. For parallels, see Ps 72:8 and Micah 5:9.

Zechariah 12:10-12: "They will look on me whom they have pierced." Connection with Joel 2:28; se also Mt 24:30 and Rev 1:7. Some Jews sought to give "pierced" a figurative meaning, i.e., "grieved." This was the view of the Septuagint also. Similar interpretation was given to Zech 13:3, where it seems even more unlikely. Elsewhere, the verb daquar is never figurative; it is always literal: Num 25:8, Jud 9:54, 1 Sam 31:4, 1 Chr 10:4, Is 13:15, Jer 37:10, 51:4, Lam 4:9. The parallel verse Zech 13:7, with its mention of the sword, gives good reason to interpret the verse literally. The Palestinian Talmud and also the Babylonian Talmud interpret the verse messianically, as do Ibn-ezra and Abravanel. Many Jews attributed the passage to Messiah ben Joseph. The Jews eventually changed the divine "Me" to "him," even though "Me" is found in the oldest, the best, and the largest number of manuscripts.

Malachi 3:1: The allusion to Is 40:3-5 is undeniable. Ibn-ezra thought the messenger was the Messiah. Kimchi said it was an angel (see Ex 23:30), Jarchi, the angel of death. The early Christians unanimously thought it was John the Baptist. The same messenger referred to here is called Elijah in Mal 4:5. Jesus fulfilled the other two parts of the prophecy, i.e., going to the Temple and bringing in the New Covenant. God is obviously referred to in the divine "Me" and the clause "His Temple." The divinity of the Messiah is logically deduced from the passage.


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Postscript: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), a convert to Christianity from Judaism, in his Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (2 vols., 1883), cited 456 passages in the Old Testament which Jewish commentators had interpreted as messianic (vol. II, pp. 710-743).


Compiled by Dave Armstrong on 19 February 2000, from 1982 research.

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