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Ask a Theologian

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, Feb 13, 2007.

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  1. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Note: This thread has been closed, but the discussion continues here. The new thread also contains an index to the discussions in this one, so have a look there to see if there's anything here to interest you.



    I thought I might post one of these threads. I’m a theologian of sorts, so you can ask me about theology.

    I should make it clear that there are basically two meanings of “theologian”. The first is someone who thinks or speculates about God etc and writes what they think. Such a person is actually religious and tries to describe God (or whatever) as they think he really is. It was in this sense that Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century theologian, commented that theologians pray truly and that, if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

    The second meaning of “theologian” is the academic sense and it basically means someone who studies theologians in the former sense. For example, my old tutor is an expert in Duns Scotus, which means he studies Scotus, writes about him, and tries to establish what he believed and why – exactly as a historical philosopher might study Plato or Descartes. But that doesn’t mean he actually agrees with Scotus on anything. Theology in this sense has considerable overlap with history, literary criticism, anthropology, and so on, especially since the people or groups under consideration could be contemporary as well as historical. Clearly you don’t need to have any religious faith at all to do this, any more than you have to be French to study Balzac. In fact I think that modern academic theologians probably divide roughly equally between those who are religious and those who are not. Perhaps there are more of the former than of the latter, but it would probably depend to a great extent on where you are.

    So I’m a theologian in the latter sense. I’m not religious and I don’t expect to become religious, at least not through studying theology.

    Credentials: I have a BA in Philosophy and Theology and an M Phil in Theology. I’m currently doing a PhD in Philosophy and am writing my thesis on Leibniz. I’m also trying to finish writing my sixth book. My books are all on church history, historical theology, and philosophy of religion. The one I’m on now is a biographical encyclopaedia of ancient and medieval Christian theologians. The research on that alone has been like doing another degree.

    So I’m fairly well versed in the history of Christianity, especially as it relates to the history of philosophy, and the development of doctrines and spiritual movements in the church. Since these days I’m technically a philosopher rather than a theologian, I’m also fairly up on philosophy of religion, which is when you apply philosophical methods to subjects raised by religion (such as the existence or nature of God, life after death, etc).

    I should also specify that I mostly know about Christianity. I don’t know much about other religions.

    So feel free to ask anything that relates to any of this. If I don’t know the answer I might at least know where you should go to find it...
     
  2. Fifty

    Fifty !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    Who had a bigger influence on Christian thought and why: Plato or Aristotle? I dunno anything really about ancient philosophy, but it seems like I've read conflicting answers to this question.
     
  3. QuoVadisNation

    QuoVadisNation keeping your angel alive

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    In a strictly Christian sense, is a God that tolerates all religions equally merely fictional?

    Also, exactly how important do you think the Ten Commandments are? I'm sure here you can apply "born again" logic, but I'm just wondering. Does a trespass of merely one commandment (let's say lying) sufficiently equate to denial of salvation? Then, would lying be tantamount to say.. murder?
     
  4. Stile

    Stile Chieftain

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    How would a non-religious theologian get paid? By authoring books in your case, I presume, but who writes the checks, I guess is what I'm getting at, as I doubt I would run into your books at Barnes and Noble.
     
  5. JonnyB

    JonnyB Workaholic

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    Is this mod approved? ;)

    Who the heck is Duns Scotus and why is he studied?
     
  6. GenMarshall

    GenMarshall Ghost Agent

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    How come I don't see you popin' into any religious threads around here in OT? ;)
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Definitely Plato, I'd say. The reason for this is that, in the first few centuries of Christianity, virtually all Christian theologians and philosophers were Platonists (of one kind or another) rather than Aristotelians. Justin Martyr, the first real post-New Testament theologian, famously said that he tried to be both a Platonist and a Christian, because he thought that there was such agreement between them. It's important to recognise that the "Platonism" which people like Justin, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and the rest of them subscribed to was Middle Platonism or Neoplatonism - developments of Plato's thought rather than Plato himself. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism were far more religious and mystical than Plato himself ever was, and as such it suited the Christians very well. The idea of the world as the creation of a God, and of a higher spiritual realm contrasting with a lower material one, appealed to them. They also took on the Platonic notion of the immortality of the soul. And the Platonic notion of a "world soul" suggested a way to argue for the divinity of Christ without compromising monotheism, and that was the origins of the later doctrine of the Trinity.

    By contrast, the church fathers mostly hated Aristotle (Tertullian said he looked forward to watching Aristotle burn on judgement day, while Gregory of Nyssa called him an evil genius). Aristotle's logic was influential in the christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries (Leontius of Byzantium used his ideas, for example) but that's not really very important. When Aristotle's works were rediscovered by western Europeans in the twelfth century, Aristotle became (eventually) an authority far greater than Plato, a position he held until the seventeenth century or even later in some parts. But this was an Aristotelianism that remained fundamentally Neoplatonic at heart. Thomas Aquinas may have quoted Aristotle far more than he did Plato, but his basic worldview was more Platonic.

    I'm not sure what you mean. All Christians would agree, in some sense, that God "tolerates" all religions, given that they think (a) that God exists, and (b) other religions exist. So God must tolerate them. But if you mean the stronger claim that God approves of other religions, or works through them, or can be found in them, or something like that, then certainly there are many Christians who think that, just as there are a fair few who don't. I suspect that the former probably outnumber the latter overall.

    I don't think the Ten Commandments are important at all. But of course Christians normally think they are. Most Christians believe that salvation has got nothing to do with whether you keep the commandments, or avoid sinning, because everyone sins and God saves people himself through his own grace. Now some Christians have disagreed with that. The most famous was Pelagius, who argued in the early fifth century that everyone is perfectly capable of doing what is right if they put their minds to it, and therefore everyone must do so. On that view, if you sin (after baptism) then you really do wreck your chances of salvation. But Pelagius was condemned for heresy, and the church instead opted for Augustine's rather more hopeful view that everyone sins, and there's nothing we can do about that, but fortunately God can save us all the same.

    As for whether different sins are equal in weight, I think it has been usual to distinguish between the moral and the theological weight of a sin. For example, morally speaking, murder is worse than lying. But theologically, they both represent rebellions against God, and are equal in weight. Anselm of Canterbury argued that any sin, even the tiniest, is infinitely serious, because it is a rejection of the infinite goodness of God. But he wouldn't have concluded from that that they are all morally indistinguishable. I'm not sure that any mainstream theologian has ever said that, although I wouldn't be surprised if some loony fringe Calvinists have done so.

    Same way as any other academic, of course - by teaching at a university or something similar. I'm just a student, and furthermore have spread myself too thinly in an academic sense by failing to specialise enough, so I might have trouble getting into such a happy position!

    [EDIT] By the way, I don't know about Barnes and Noble, but I've certainly seen my books in Borders...

    Of course!

    An important theologian and philosopher from the thirteenth century. And he's studied for the same reason that anyone studies anything - curiosity and the search for knowledge.

    I used to all the time, but I stopped because (a) it took up far too much time, and (b) I got thoroughly sick of arguing with people who knew so little about it (not to suggest that this applied to everyone in OT, of course, but there was a depressingly large number). It seems that religion is one of those subjects that everyone feels qualified to sound off about no matter how little they actually know about it. In fact this is why I never normally come into OT at all because I don't want to get sidetracked by that sort of thing.
     
  8. Heretic_Cata

    Heretic_Cata We're gonna live forever

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    Just like politics in OT.
    It's good to see you around. This will be an intresting thread. :)

    I am intrested in the idea of the Purgatory.
    From what i've heard it isn't mentioned anywhere in the Bible, yet it made it's way deep into Catholicism.

    So, who started this idea ?
    And was it even vaguely related to christianity ? I mean was it like the Trinity: it's not in the Bible but it was cool enough to add to the religion.
     
  9. Fifty

    Fifty !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    Thanks for the info, Plotinus. I think the source of my confusion was that while I had read (in Russell actually) that Plato dominated Christian thought, I had also read that Aquinas spends a ton of time on Aristotle, so the point on Aquinas was especially helpful.

    Speaking of Russell and Aquinas, Russell remarks in his History of Philosophy:

    How do you feel about that quote? Is Russell being too harsh, or are his views accurate in light of what you know and how you feel about Aquinas?
     
  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    It's not in the Bible, although one of the books of the Apocrypha (I think 2 Maccabees, but I may be wrong) mentions the practice of praying for the dead, which would seem to support the notion that the dead need prayers, ie, they are somewhere like purgatory.

    Basically, and briefly, Platonists believed in an immortal soul that survives the death of the body. Jews (at least, many of them) believed in a resurrection of the dead at the end of time. The Christians combined these two beliefs and thought that your soul survives your death, at which point it goes somewhere where it gets a sort of foretaste of what will happen to it after judgement (heaven or hell). Then, at judgement, your soul is reunited with your body, and God judges you, after which you go off to your eternal fate. So in orthdox Christianity, heaven and hell alike are temporary states, a kind of provisional afterlife to get you used to what will happen after judgement. This is what we find in Augustine, for example.

    The doctrine of purgatory developed from this. Some theologians believed that there would be no eternal punishment after death (Origen is most associated with this, though Gregory of Nyssa was more explicit about it), so not only hell but the place of punishment after judgement are temporary. This is because, on this view, punishment is inflicted to improve the person being punished - it is remedial in nature - so it cannot last for ever or that would remove the point. Those who disagreed with this (which, following Augustine, was everyone) still retained Augustine's notion that the state of the soul immediately following death is temporary and provisional. So the notion developed of (a) an unpleasant state after death, which purifies the soul; and (b) (the crucial difference from Origenism) this state is distinct from the punishment inflicted on those destined for damnation. The idea was that although Christ's death is sufficient to save you, your soul is still stained by your sins, and the stain needs to be blotted out in a lengthy and rather unpleasant process.

    However, I don't know how, precisely, the doctrine came about, or who the main figures were in its development. I'll try looking it up and get back to you...

    [EDIT] A quick look reveals that it was in around the ninth century that what we think of as the doctrine of purgatory took recognisable shape. An important figure in this was Walafrid Strabo (809-49). Here's an account of him:



    I think that, like practically everything Russell says in his History of Western Philosophy, it's wildly unfair and misleading, and he knows it!

    Put it like this: Russell's own greatest work was the Principia Mathematica, in which he sought to provide the logical basis for the truth of claims such as "2+2=4". No doubt Russell never doubted that 2+2=4, but he aimed to show why it is true, that is, what mathematical statements actually mean. So it's a bit rich of him to accuse Aquinas of being unphilosophical simply because he did basically the same thing for religion. Of course Aquinas never doubted that God exists, but that doesn't invalidate his desire to show how we can be certain that God exists, any more than Russell's belief in the truths of mathematics invalidates his desire to show why they are true.

    Or, to use another example, Descartes doubted that the physical world exists (or at least, the narrator of the First Meditation doubts it). He then goes on to show how, in fact, we can be certain that the physical world does exist, and his arguments for this form the basis of the rest of his metaphysics and epistemology. Of course Descartes himself never really doubted the existence of the external world; it was just a tool, a sort of philosophical game, to produce the arguments. Does this therefore not really count as philosophy, simply because Descartes knew what he was trying to prove?

    In other words, Russell's conception of philosophy in that passage is far too narrow. Sometimes, philosophy is about "following wherever the argument may lead". But sometimes it's also about trying to establish the rational foundations for things we already believe. In fact, that's what it is an awful lot of the time. Of course we may conclude, after reviewing the arguments, that there is no rational foundation for many of the things we believe, as Hume argued. I don't see that we can criticise Aquinas simply because he thought there was a rational basis for what he believed.

    Besides all this, Russell also overlooks the fact that an awful lot of Aquinas' philosophy wasn't about "the Catholic faith" at all. His writings on the nature of substance, for example, and the principle of substantial differentiation, have got nothing to do with theology - although of course both he and his later followers would use these views to express their theological beliefs. His writings on ethics also don't have much to do with theology, although he used a basically Aristotelian ethical framework to set out his understanding of the relationship between God and man.
     
  11. GenMarshall

    GenMarshall Ghost Agent

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    I feel your pain on this and more likely my general feeling when I try to explain Catholicism to thoes who ask about it. More oftenly it leads to arguments and whatnot (I know I am not alone since AlCosta feels the same about it).
     
  12. GenMarshall

    GenMarshall Ghost Agent

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    Actualy, its in the Bible, technicly the Catholic (And Orthodox Bible). But they are found in the Deuterocanonical books in Second Maccabees (Which Protestants consider an Apocrypha book). Though this is part of my strife when dealing with people who have not looked in the Catholic Bible, but insteed look at the Protestant Bibles which do not contain the Deuterocanonical books.
     
  13. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Well, as I say, the doctrine of purgatory itself is not in 2 Maccabees, just the idea of praying for the dead. That may imply something like purgatory but it's certainly not the full doctrine. I certainly don't think that that verse is, historically speaking, the basis for the doctrine, although no doubt after the doctrine developed it was used to support it. Bear in mind that the deuterocanonical books were often regarded with a certain degree of suspicion throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, which is one reason the Protestants later rejected them completely.
     
  14. Heretic_Cata

    Heretic_Cata We're gonna live forever

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    Thank you for your response. :)

    I always found Augustin's writings quite peacefull and nice.

    Origen was probably a masochist tho. :crazyeye:

    That Walafrid dude seems quite controversial. :hmm:
    It's strange that this whole idea of purgatory was so "popular" for them, even tho it has such a shakey foundation.
    I was expecting a "They believe in purgatory because Saint X came up with the idea; catholics follow him and the orthodox don't." In which case it wouldn've been so strange ...
     
  15. El_Machinae

    El_Machinae Colour vision since 2018 Retired Moderator

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    When you examine the New Testament, do you separate the 'message' into (say) five different disconnected sources (The author of Mark, the author of Luke, Paul's writings, John's writings, others) and have trouble seeing why people assume that the NT is an integrated whole?
     
  16. The Last Conformist

    The Last Conformist Irresistibly Attractive

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    A question not so much for a theologian as for Plotinus - have you studied the various High/Late medieval popular heresies, ie. Catharism, Husitism, and so on?

    Another heresy question: Cohn (The Pursuit of the Millennium) spends a chapter detailing the sect of the Free Spirit, whereas Lambert (Medieval Heresy) basically relegates the whole movement to the minds of overimaginative inquisitors. Whaddya say about this?
     
  17. thetrooper

    thetrooper Schweinhund

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    With such a 'luggage' I'm surprised you dropped out of the Cumulative PM-based History Quiz! Any chance of seeing you there again?

    :)

    Edit: I see that you're writing your thesis on Leibniz. How educated are you in mathematics?
     
  18. Bill3000

    Bill3000 OOOH NOOOOOOO! Supporter

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    Cool. I just recently found out that a relative of mine has a degree in Theology.

    What's your opinion on Divine Command Theory, and other similar metaethical theories based on the relationship between God and morality?

    How beneficial do you think Theology is to a religion?

    Heck, how beneficial do you think it would be to study Theology as an atheist?
     
  19. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Origen was a strange man, even if it's not true that he castrated himself. But it's easy to forget how thoroughly peculiar the pre-Constantine church fathers really were.

    It's not normally that simple. As you're no doubt aware, a rumbling controversy in history is the one between a "great man" approach, where history is understood as the results of deeds by great individuals such as Napoleon who make a big mark, and a "structuralist" approach, where individuals are seen as virtually passive, doing what they do because they are buffeted by unseen social forces in a sort of historical Brownian motion. You get the same thing in the history of ideas. To what extent can we identify "great men" who come up with new ideas and "influence" those who follow? And to what extent are people like that really just reflecting the common spirit of their time? Of course the answer is a bit of both. It's especially complicated in theology, because these figures usually - to some degree - represent communities. Augustine was a bishop, Pelagius a spiritual director, and so on. The faith as these people understand it is determined, to some degree, by the churches of which they were a part. There's a very complex interplay going on there. Moreover, it's usually not enough to say that people believe something because X said it. Why would they believe him?

    Certainly the New Testament is made up of very different strands, even more than the ones you mention. For example, scholars can examine an individual Gospel, such as Matthew's, and identify different sources, all with their own biases or viewpoints, in addition to the viewpoint of the author himself who combines and edits them as he sees fit. It's an unbelievably complex field. But I don't have trouble seeing why people assume that the New Testament is an integrated whole, and that's for several reasons. First, most people simply assume that it is an integrated whole; the very fact that it is called "The New Testament" gives it a sort of unity. Second, there have been nearly twenty centuries of commentary and interpretation to paper over the cracks and present an understanding of the New Testament according to which it has a single message. For example, Paul says that salvation comes through faith, not works. James says it comes through works, not faith. The Council of Trent explains that faith is sufficient for salvation but works are necessary: faith alone saves, but if that faith is unaccompanied by works, it is not true faith. Therefore there is no contradiction between Paul and James, no matter how it may appear on the surface. Christians today have centuries of this sort of thing to draw on, to such an extent that they don't even realise they're doing it. No-one ever reads something like the New Testament without bringing expectations and other baggage to it.

    Yes, informally.

    Not much, because I know virtually nothing about them! I do know a little about Amaury of Bene, who is apparently associated with them. But I will say that these late medieval heresies are enormously complicated and tendentious. It is very hard to establish precisely what people believed and how many of them there were, in large part due to the (by then) venerable practice of accusing anyone suspected of heresy with every other heresy you could think of. Thus, people could be branded with one heresy when in fact they espoused a completely different one. It becomes even harder when there are genuine similarities. For example, was Henry of Lausanne a follower of Peter de Bruis, or was he independent? Did they preach exactly the same doctrines, or did simple-minded proponents of orthodoxy simply confuse them because they were a bit similar? It's almost impossible to find out.

    Maybe - I've never officially dropped out, just never have time to give it the attention it deserves.

    Very badly! Fortunately I'm looking at his epistemology. Apart from Leibniz' reprehensible tendency to illustrate his views with examples drawn from geometry, this keeps me fairly safe from the yucky mathematical stuff.

    If you mean the claim that the definition of a good act is that it is commanded by God, then I think this is a very feeble theory, for reasons that were first stated by Plato. As he famously argued in the Euthyphro, if God commands that you do X, then God must have a reason for commanding it. Otherwise he would just be an arbitrary tyrant. So why would God command it? Surely because it is the right thing to do. So its rightness is independent of God's command.

    Leibniz repeated this argument frequently, and appealed in particular to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which states that whatever is true must be true for a reason. And this applies above all to God: God does what he does for a reason. If he didn't then he would be a sort of berserk random maniac. So if God gives us commands, there are reasons why he gives the commands he does; it's not enough to say that he simply commands what he wills, because why would he will that and not the opposite? God doesn't act by whim.

    I think this basic view is completely right.

    It's worth pointing out that various Christian thinkers have offered theories of rightness and wrongness that don't appeal to God. Kant is the obvious example: he thought that the nature of right and wrong could be established rationally without needing to mention God. Of course he thought that God commands what is right and forbids what is wrong, but that is not part of the definition of what right and wrong actually are.

    I think it can only do religious people good to understand the roots, sources, and history of what they believe. Of course many religious people think this is somehow dangerous. That's not a mindset I have any sympathy with at all.

    As beneficial as studying any other humanities subject, I suppose. In other words, it's unlikely to be of much practical benefit, but it deepens your understanding of the world and of history. Of course it can also make you a very boring person if you're not careful. But that's true of anything!
     
  20. Yeeek

    Yeeek Seizing The Day

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    In your opinion, are religions doomed to disapear in the future or will always be part of mankind?
     
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