Monday, February 25, 2008

Word and Spirit: Yves Congar’s Account of Church and Eucharist – Part 2

Word and Spirit in Trinity and Christology

It falls outside the scope of this study to give anything like a comprehensive account of Congar’s doctrine of the Trinity. This is especially true because, in the third volume of I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Congar spends a great deal of time discussing the development of the doctrine and dealing with the most important historical figures of both the Greek and the Latin churches. His study is organized by thinking about the filioque, and this point bears directly on the question of the relation between Word and Spirit.

Congar undertakes an orientating treatment of the relation between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity in the opening pages of I Believe in the Holy Spirit volume three. Although Congar accepts Rahner’s Grundaxiom that the economic Trinity simply ‘is’ the immanent Trinity, Congar is a little hesitant concerning Rahner’s umgekehrt - vice versa.[1] Congar isn’t quite ready to affirm that the immanent Trinity simply ‘is’ the economic Trinity for two reasons: first, because the theological tradition affirms (against Arianism as Congar locates it) that God would be Trinity even without the presence of creation, and; second, because even though God is truly revealed, God is not completely revealed. As he puts it, “The economic trinity thus reveals the immanent Trinity – but does it reveal it entirely? There is always a limit to this revelation.”[2]

That God is known truly if not completely is the result of God’s self-communication in the divine economy, or more technically, “the ‘divine missions’ of the Word and the Spirit are the processions of those Persons.”[3] It is precisely this logic that introduces the question of the filioque since it is founded on the Scriptural affirmation that the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of Christ.’ While Congar affirms the importance of the filioque in Western trinitarian theology, he is also sensitive to the ecumenical difficulties that it has produced. At the heart of Congar’s analysis is his conviction that East and West finally have different ways of distinguishing between the divine persons; the East relying on the distinction between begetting or generation and ekporeusis, and the West operating with a much greater awareness of the “consubstantiality within the Trinity” such that all is shared except the various inter-‘personal’ relations.[4] Congar is finally in favor of the suppression of the filioque, provided that the East recognize that it is not heretical,[5] with the hope of calling a new ecumenical council to hash out an agreement on how to speak of the relation of the eternal processions of Word (Son) and Spirit.[6]

Although Congar is willing to suppress the filioque in the interest of furthering ecumenical understanding between East and West, it is not the case that he sees no relation between Word and Spirit. Indeed, Congar himself confesses that perhaps the fundamental conclusion to be drawn from his work on the Holy Spirit is that there should be “no Christology without pneumatology and no pneumatology without Christology.”[7] The goal of the present study makes it necessary to take up the first half of this affirmation and explore the role that Congar envisions for the Holy Spirit in Christology.

Congar is well aware of the trend toward ‘Spirit Christology’[8] developing around him and he does not simply want to discount its gains. But, Congar does interpret Spirit Christology in a very specific way.
This type of Christology in no sense contradicts the classical Christology that has been developed since Chalcedon. What it in fact does is to develop certain important aspects…which have not been sufficiently developed in the classical Christology based on the incarnate Word.[9]
Because he is concerned with the doctrine of the church as a whole extended temporally and geographically, and not with the particular theology of any one author, Congar is able to interpret Spirit Christology as a much-needed corrective. Precisely how Congar integrates Spirit and ‘classical’ Christology is of particular interest.

“Jesus is Son on several accounts,” Congar states.[10] First, he is the Son in terms of the incarnation, that is, his birth. This is where Congar locates the hypostatic union as the ontological reality of the Word of God incarnate. But, there are also two successive moments in which Jesus became the Son of God in a unique way in the economy of salvation, namely, at his baptism and at his resurrection. In these events the “virtus or effectiveness of the Spirit in Jesus was actuated in a new way.”[11] This position avoids adoptionism, according to Congar, because Jesus is ontologically or hypostatically the Son of God on the basis of the incarnation. This ontological reality is, at these later points, simply being realized in a new way for us and our salvation. Indeed, the individual’s salvation is “conformed to this model.”[12] Christians are God’s children on the basis of creation and predestination, which is actualized in baptism and resurrection.


  1. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:13.

  2. Ibid, 16.

  3. Ibid, 12.

  4. Ibid, 202. The notion of inter-‘personal’ relations is mine. It refers to the relations between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and has no more to do with the mundane sense of the term ‘interpersonal’ than does speaking of ‘persons’ within the Trinity imply that each hypostasis is to be understood as an individual loci of consciousness.

  5. Ibid, 206.

  6. Ibid, 214.

  7. Congar, Word and Spirit, 1.

  8. Cf. Congar, Holy Spirit, 165n1. Congar offers Heribert Mühlen, P. J. Rosato and others as examples of this sort of Christology. Protestant examples would include Paul Tillich in his Systematic Theology (three volumes, University of Chicago Press, 1951-63) and, in a different way, Jürgen Moltmann in his The Way of Jesus Christ (Fortress Press, 1993).

  9. Congar, Holy Spirit, 3:165.

  10. Ibid, 170.

  11. Ibid, 171.

  12. Ibid, 170.

14 comments:

Luke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WTM said...

Hi Luke,

No point in this section. This series is just a paper I wrote broken up into postable bits. So, this section is just laying groundwork.

Luke said...

Travis,

I understand the character of the post. But there is something I am thinking about and I would like to know your opinion. It has to do with what you call “the ontological reality of the Word of God”. What do you understand by “ontological”? Do you understand by that a reality as such independent from human consciousness?

Besides, it seems that is a more original relationship between the word and God –a relationship between the Word and God a part of any human regard, en l'air-, than the baptism and resurrection. In this sense, how would you describe these two latter events? As “Accidental”, perhaps? By using this language, do you support the categories of scholastic theology?

WTM said...

I'm simply trying to describe what Congar is doing in this section, and language like "the ontological reality of the Word of God" came naturally in that context.

I think that for Congar, everything that the Son is ontologically is joined to everything that humanity is ontologically by means of the hypostatic union, such that Jesus Christ ontologically is God on the basis of the incarnation. However, he also seems to think that this needs to be unfolded and actualized in different ways in Jesus' human life.

As for me personally, this is neither the time nor the place to develop my own Christology. :-) It is worth noting, however, that Congar was trained in the neo-Thomistic synthesis of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so scholasticism is in his theological blood.

Luke said...

Travis,

“Ontological” or “hypostatical” are terms fully indebted to a theology of the substance (“hypokeimenon”, “ousía”, “substantia”, etc.). But I am here with our Jüngel against such a conception. In the end, if God is a “substantia”, no matter how we disguise it, then as a “simpliciter” and “unique” reality, perhaps an ontological one, he has to be “ineffabile”. Yes, what is simply what it is and does not need anything outside it to exist, is not suitable to be explained in words. What can be communicated is what exists in relationship to other realities; what is not ontological but relational.

WTM said...

I don't think we need to pit "ontological" against "relational". All that ontology tries to do is to figure out what sort of thing something is. Such enterprises can become much to large and totalizing, but I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with these kinds of questions.

It seems to me that, logically speaking, a thing can't be in relation without also being a thing. Contemporary science (field theory, quantum theory, etc) make much of what might be called "onto-relations," that is, the idea that relations are embedded into a thing's existence and help to determine its being. I take this to imply that thing-ness and relation are two integrated aspects of any single given reality. In other words, something is a certain kind of thing existing in a matrix of relations.

Now, this makes a lot of sense with reference to God, for God is a thing with internal relations (Trinity). This isn't to say that we can simply take what we know about the created order and apply it to God, but here we find suggestive resonances.

As to God's knowability, God is not noable insofar as God is distinct from the created order. But, God is not distinct but has entered into the created order in the incarnation, thus establishing the sort of relationship necessary for us to know God. This is not to say that we know God exhaustively, but it is to say that we know God truly, and at the same time that God remains beyond our knowledge.

In any case, that's a sketch of how I would be inclined to handle things.

Luke said...

Travis,

I agree on what you say: for something to establish relationships before something has to exist. Reality is higher than possibility, in the sense that without previous reality possibilities wouldn’t exist. I agree with you also on what you say about contemporary sciences. But I would make the precision that the sense in which they use the word “ontological” is totally different from the sense for scholastic philosophy. Meanwhile scientists hardly mean more than physical conditions or quimical properties, scholastic philosophers mean the “subsantia” or the “esse” or the “actus esse”. In any case, what these last mean is not anything suitable to be perceived by senses, but by the intellect (perhaps Shane could say something about that).

Are these adequate categories for a correct speech about God? If we do so, we are equating God’s being to things being. Thomism understands God like that (under the huge influence of Greek thought). I am of another opinion.

You say we know something about God, but we also know God lies beyond our knowledge. But let me puzzle you: if you know what lies beyond your knowledge: how do you know it? Is still beyond your knowledge, supposed you know that?

WTM said...

First, let me point you to my post on Theology the knowledge of God, which is still indicative of my thought although I have moved along that trajectory in new ways since then.

For my money, terms like essence and substance should be as low-level as possible. They are not necessarily tied to some semi-Platonic notion of a foundational "thing" existing apart from that with which we interact.

Any human language about God is insufficient to speak about God, but God's self-revelation has placed upon us the burden of speaking about God. To do so faithfully means to take our bearings from that self-revelation and to try to make all our other language and conceptions correspond to it as much as possible.

Faith believes that we know God truly in Jesus Christ. But, it is also clear - on the basis of God's self-revelation in Jesus - that the totality of God is something far beyond the ability of the created order to display. It doesn't seem like a problem to me to say that we know God truly but not exhaustively - in fact, this is how we know any personal being. For instance, I think that I know my wife truly, but she can still surprise me. God is like that. Now, it is conceivable that a personal being can surprise you in such a way that you wonder if you knew them truly. However, what we see in God's self-revelation convinces us that God is faithful and concerned with our benefit, so that we can trust that any surprise that might come down the pike is for our own good.

So, we know God truly, but precisely in knowing God truly we also know that we do not know God exhaustively.

Luke said...

I will take a look on the post. I like what you say that knowing God is like knowing a person (don't you reckon a tension here between personalism and thomism-aristotelism, at least in its orthodox version?).

Concerning language and its insufficiencies to speak about God, I am tempted to agree with you... But Jüngel makes me hesitate...

Luke said...

Travis,

I have read the post. I think the general view is correct, although some comments are also sound. The first part where you draw how sciences work is similar to the position I defended some years ago, although my position was inspired in phenomenology. Now, after a great influence of Popper, I think the question is different.

Concerning our matter, I want to focus on your conclusions. It is too much complicated as you put it: our language is not capable to express God, but God managed it to make our language work in an anti-natural way so he can be expressed “per analogiam”. Too complicated, in my opinion. If one thing distinguishes Jesus from other religion leaders is his simplicity towards God.

WTM said...

I'm not trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and God, but to make sense of the notion that one cannot simply read Jesus' divinity off of his humanity. In other words, although Jesus is fully God and fully human being, it is the human being bit that we interact with outside the work of the Holy Spirit. In yet other words, though Jesus Christ is God's unveiling, it is an unveiling that proceeds precisely by veiling.

Complicated, yes. But one must expect some such complications when God becomes a human being. ;-)

Luke said...

Travis,

I do not pretend to presume that theology is an easy speech. But I pretend to call into question that some categories do not help to understand the faith, but rather petrify it into secular formulas that hide what they want to discover. This is the case, to my view, of the ancient scholasticism and, in general, of the classical theology.

I would like to make some general considerations on our fruitful “dialogos” in the most authentic platonic sense.

The dialectic between veil and unveil: this is an interesting question where legions of mystics love to rely (and this does not help too much for a cogent debate). Its most recent origin is to be found in Heidegger “forgetfulness of Being” or “oblivion of Being”. Its ancestral origin is to be found in the poem of Parmenides. To my view the pertinent questions about it are: A) Why Being is hidden? B) Why, at the present time, we realize Being is hidden and try to regain it? Why are we supposed to be different from Kant or Hegel, for instance? C) What is to be understood by Being? [My friends Jesuits tell me that the only one who escaped to the forgetfulness of Being was Thomas Aquinas, although only 50 years after his death, and because of Suárez, the oblivion was definitively consummated. I am completely sure that a suarist would deny that]. In my opinion it is a mistake to equal Being and God and to try to transpose the heideggerian speech about the first to the latter. But, if you do so, it would be interesting you respond to the questions upon (if you think they are sound). Now, why it is a mistake to equal Being and God? Because the question of Being is settled without God and the transit from what is without God to God can by no means be done by a transitive argument.

I can not make a sufficient idea of your opinion about Jesus with only these few lines.

WTM said...

Luke,

I greatly appreciate your engagement, but I can't help but feel that we are talking past each other and not really understanding each other.

It seems to me that you are rightly on the watch to prevent simple predication of any human concept to God. I am totally on board with that. My use of the terms for which you have given very helpful background information is not deeply philosophical; I tend to use whatever terms come to hand in an effort to express what I think needs expressing. My sense is that many of the church fathers functioned in the same way, although scholastics both earlier and later do not.

The point about Jesus is simply an attempt to answer this question: If Jesus was God, why didn't people recognize it the second they saw him? The reason, I'm suggesting, is that the human nature truly reveals the divine nature but does so in an entirely human mode such that we cannot simply equate the two. For instance, and to put things quite crudely, the fact that Jesus defecated tells us nothing about God except that God became a human being capable of such things. Knowledge of God cannot be gained through Jesus' humanity unless the Holy Spirit gets involved.

Luke said...

I agree on what you say. Perhaps when you finish the posts on Congar, we can make a sum up of all the points we have been talking.