Friday, June 12, 2020

Medieval scholars and the worth of a book




Medieval commentators were often unable to consider any idea they found in a book to be incorrect.  Rather than judge sources the medieval scholars tried to harmonize otherwise disparate sources. 1

For a medieval commentator books were few and hand copied.  There were really manuscripts, not books. 

Books were very expensive in the middle ages.  They had to be copied by hand. It was a labor intensive process.  Obviously there was no printing press.

Even after the invention of the first printing press, books were still expensive.  Each page of the book had to be engraved or cold type had to be designed, carved in lead and then cases of cold type fonts created.  Each page was type set, letter by letter using cold type, and each page was pressed page by page.  It was still a very labor intensive process.

With the invention of offset lithography, printing from light sensitized, chemically treated plates on a more modern printing press with drums and ink rollers, books became cheaper.  The worth of a book fell.

In our times books are almost free.  Many books can be bought for a third of the price of a printed copy, if one buys an electronic copy, an .epub or a .mobi or an .acsm file.  Many books can be found for free as one of these file forms or as .pdfs or .djvu files.  Books are almost worthless, literally free.

The explosion of online sources, besides books, means that information is also nearly free.  If you cannot afford your own computer, you can use one in a local public library and store your files on the Cloud.

For instance, the commentary on Plato's Timeaus by Chalcidius, a medieval scholar were, let’s say, imaginative.  He could not conceive of a book, which was worthless or which lied.  It was so hard to come by a book, he felt that he must harmonize any information he found in any book.  Perhaps the idea of propaganda or panegyric had not occurred to him.

We now face two dilemmas.  Either like Chalcidius we strive to harmonize disparate sources, being unable to believe that something is false or is merely propaganda and so end up hopelessly confused or misled.  Or since we face so many choices for sources, we decide only to read sources which agree with our pre-established ideas.  Everyone else is a liar, but my favorite pundit tells the truth.

There should, though, be a third alternative.  We should judge whatever we read by what we already believe, but remain open to reassess and change beliefs which we hold, but which we discover are false.

For many years I have taught this idea to students in my “Foundations for Theology” course.  I draw upon a book by David K. Clark called To know and love God. 2

Clark puts forward an idea taken from Alvin Plantinga, a Reformed Christian philosopher.  Plantinga’s version of Reformed Epistemology says that everyone begins with presuppositions which are unproven and assumed.  Christians have as much right as anyone to hold their presuppositions without having to prove them.  Atheists do the same.

But Clark is not content with Plantinga’s view (nor am I), which would be what philosophers call fideism.  A fideist believes “just because.”  Since Plantinga believes that there can be no certain principles or presuppositions, he believes that he has the right to choose those he likes.

Clark rightly is nervous about this conclusion.  What if what I choose to believe is false?  If I hold those beliefs in such a way as to be unfalsifiable, how could I know whether they were true or false?

Clark opts for what he calls “Soft Foundationalism.” He agrees with Plantinga that we must begin with some presuppositions when we think. We cannot do otherwise.  This in itself is not wrong.  What would be wrong, however, would be not to consider attacks against what we believe.  If we are wrong, we need to be open to seeing that we are wrong and how we are wrong and then to see how to reestablish what we believe on sure grounds. 3

Say that in my Christian theology I assume as true several principles or presuppositions: God is a theistic, creator God, Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible is God’s word.  Clark says that I am permitted to start with these presuppositions.  This is what I know.  My Christian, Evangelical theology is built on these presuppositions.

But what should I do when an atheist denies that God exists?  Clark would say that now comes the time to engage in a kind apologetics.  I must demonstrate or prove that God exists.  This can be done and has been done by many Christian apologists through the ages.  I could draw on Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways or I could draw on Norman Geisler’s Christian Apologetics book.  In any case what I may not do is simply say, “God exists.  It’s what I believe. We’re done.”  That  would be fideism. 4

When a Muslim tells me that the Qu’ran is God’s word, not the Bible. I must demonstrate why I believe the Bible to be God’s word.  I must demonstrate that the Bible is trustworthy. I could use a bibliographic test to show that it is the most carefully copied of all ancient books and the one with the most manuscript copies.  I can use an external test and show how many times archeology has proven the biblical account to be true.  What I may not do is simply assert again, more loudly and more forcefully: “The Bible is true. I believe it. That settles it.” 5

The mistake here is to think that the intensity of my belief or depth of my commitment to a presupposition or “truth,” makes that presupposition true.  We confuse our trust in a source with whether the thing we trust in is true. The sincerity of intensity of our trust does not make something true.  Jesus is LORD not because we believe it intensely, but because, well, Jesus is LORD! Jesus would not be any less “LORD” if I ceased to believe in him.  The intensity of my belief in this fact doesn’t make it true.  It shows rather that I am committed to that truth which is true apart from me and my commitment.

We have a right to our presuppositions whether theological or literary, political or sociological.  What we don’t have the right to do is simply to rule some source out of court, beyond the bounds of our discussion, because we don’t like it.  We can’t just decide we won’t listen to someone because they are from a different political party or a different religious group.  We must demonstrate the truth of our presuppositions and not retreat into fideism.

We are unlikely to be like Chalcidius and and other medieval scholars. We won't try to harmonize all the sources we have.  There are too many.

Just two days ago a graduating student from our seminary asked me whether I had read all the books on (only) two sets of bookshelves in my office in the seminary.  (I have eight more sets of bookshelves in my office at home, not to forget the couple hundred books on Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions or BlueFire Reader or CBD Reader or Nook or Kobo reader or OverDrive or Libby or...) I said, “I have read something from most of them and some of them completely.”

Our struggle now is to know what to read, what to believe.  Overwhelmed with such a huge number of sources we can’t hope to harmonize disparate sources as Chalcidius and other medievals tried.  More likely we tend to stop reading many or most sources and rely only on a few or one source we agree with.

Postmoderns will say there is no truth only interpretation. Chalcidius and Platonic scholars were on the opposite end of the spectrum.  There was only truth (very Platonic) and any book must contain some truth or simply be true. Why else would anyone spend the time to copy it by hand.

I disagree with both views: either that no interpretation is true or that all books are true.  Postmoderns have their own truths: racial equality, equality of the sexes, democracy, etc.  They use skeptical, literary techniques to try to show that there is no objective truth.  They may be right that our current interpretation may be false, but have they really excised the idea of truth? How else do they mean to convince us to agree with their views?

We must hold our presuppositions in one sense both firmly and loosely.  We should not give them up lightly, but we must also be willing to be shown to be wrong.  If I am wrong, then I need to regroup and reground my views.

Falling back on a form of fideism: “My view is right!” is not sufficient.  The only thing such a strategy does is to show that one is either too weak to defend one’s view or to afraid to try.

So, here are two very different ages: Chalcidius and the Platonic medieval scholars with too few sources and our PostPostModern, internet age with too many sources. The problem, however, remains the same: discretion. We must remain committed to our Christian worldview, but we must also consider attacks on our world-views and presuppositions and answer them.

Notes

1. I thought the comment came about medieval scholars being unable to throw a book away and therefore having to harmonize disparate sources from CS Lewis and was about Chalcidius.  Lewis was a scholar of medieval literature.  He wrote a book called the Discarded Image in which he lays out Chalcidius’ interpretation of the Timaeus and his very free commentary.  However, I couldn't find this comment in the Discarded Image. CS Lewis, the Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Perhaps now Lewis is better known to be a Christian apologist.

I am grateful to Marjorie Mead from the Wade Center at Wheaton College for enlisting the help of scholar, Jerry Root, to help me to clarify that it was a comment from Lewis, but it wasn't Chalcidius per se of whom he spoke. I appreciate Jerry's kindness to search and find two sources in Lewis.

Jerry Root wrote in response: “I found the very idea but it is not in connection with Chalcidius per se. If you look at the essay “Imagination and Thought” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, you will find the concept that those in the Middle Ages, with limited, and often contradictory sources, sought to reconcile all the sources trusting that the authorities that produced the books spoke truth. Consequently, the medieval scholar’s task—believing that no truth contradicts another—required the craft of reconciling. In the first edition of the book it can be found on pp. 44-45 (or paragraphs 7-9). You will also find some similar ideas in the essay “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” Also in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, pp. 37-38). So, the concept is: 1. to be found in these references; 2. It is not associated with Chalcidius per se; 3. Lewis, certainly did not endorse the practice. He writes of it as an indicative (what was done for the particular reasons noted) but makes of it no imperative (because it was done, therefore the practice ought to be emulated).”

There is a chapter about Chalcidius in CS Lewis. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: University Press, 1964, 49-60.

2. David K. Clark, To know and love God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.

3. For another critique of Plantinga’s epistemology see the video series by William Lane Craig Belief in God as Properly Basic - Part I (and more) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AINrvqr-Is or see his lecture on Religious Epistemology https://www.bethinking.org/truth/religious-epistemology 

4. For Aquinas’ Five ways see Summa Theologica Pt I Article 3 Whether God exists? https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm or Norman Geisler. Christian apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013 chapter 15 Theism.

5. See Craig Bloomberg’s article “The reliability of the New Testament” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/reliability-new-testament/ 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Virtual Presence

One of Cezanne's paintings of Mount St Victoire

I have finished the lectures on the course “Foundations for Theology” on Saturday May 30th that I had planned to give for the Master of Theology students at Zaporozhye Bible Seminary in Zaporozhye, Ukraine.  I taught two hours M-Th last week (0900-1100 CET) and three hours F & Sat (0900-1200) virtually using Zoom video conferencing.  It was a total of 12 clock hours or 14 class hours (50”).  There were also some days of an extra hour of questions and answers.

The students must read now about 400 pages (a lot of articles and one book).  They must keep a notebook about the various required readings (4 pp. or 1000 words) and write a Response Paper on the one book (of two) that they choose (4 pp. or 1000 words).  They must also write a 6 pp. or 1500 word Research Paper on a topic they have chosen.

At some point in mid to late July or early August they must turn in these assignments and I must grade them.  They will be in type written Russian, which I can read.

I have taught this course three times now at or for ZBS.  (I also just finished teaching it at Tyndale this semester, the second half all online.) The PowerPoints for the lectures, which have been translated from English to Russian, have been improved each time, eliminating mistakes and poor translations of specific theological or philosophical terms.  It is challenging for interpreters and translators to deal with philosophical English.  I’m glad, though, that gradually these PowerPoints are being improved. Perhaps I can teach this course at ZBS one more time before I retire (and maybe once after I “retire”).  My translator this time, Vadim Biriukov, the Dean of Students at ZBS, was excellent.  My former Tyndale students, Nadiya Tykhovod and Alyona Gurskaya Leewestein, as well as a ZBS translator, Nadiya Gnilitskaya, have been a great help through the years at translating the PowerPoints and interpreting for me.

This time as I was working on various things: correcting and revising the syllabus and PowerPoints, I realized that Google Translate has come a long way.  I don’t think I thought of using it in 2012 when I first started to teach at Zaporozhye.  I am able now to drop about 2000 words or so into Google Translate and the translation is passable and easily improved or corrected.

When I was doing my MA and PhD in Leuven, Belgium (1995-2000) I knew a person who became the head of the Royal Translation Institute in Brussels.  She told me that they used “mechanical translators” (programs) to do translation and that they were 60% accurate and saved the human translator hours of work.  I know they used ABBYY Lingvo software at ZBS at one point.  Now Google Translate seems a great option, since it is free and relatively correct.  The disadvantage is that my Russian becomes even more passive.

All in all though the class times were good.  I still have some trouble with using Zoom while showing my PowerPoints. I can’t really see the students and it’s hard to know what they are understanding.  Using the “hand raising” function and the Chat they could ask questions but I had a hard time being slowed down. I work from notes, not a full manuscript.  I have to compose the sentences in my head as I teach from the notes (and this time the PowerPoints were in Russian while I am speaking in English).  When I am interrupted I lose my place and become frustrated.

I can watch people’s faces in the classroom.  I can see their eyes glaze. Then I can stop and rephrase or tell a story to illustrate a point.  Sometimes people ask “irrelevant” questions. Something seems pertinent to them, but they aren’t following my explanations.  It is “free association.”  It’s easier to adjust when we are all in the same room.

Perhaps you remember the Big Bang Theory episode where Sheldon decides that he is safer in bed than among people. So, he creates a “virtual presence,” a motorized “body” with monitor showing his face and allowing him to talk and interact with people.  It’s an irritant to his roommate and friends.  Then in a restaurant he runs into Steve Wozniak, an Apple founder.  He wants a signature, but can’t get it “virtually.” He quickly leaves his bedroom and travels to see Wozniak.  In this instance a virtual presence just wouldn’t do.

I am so happy that I am married and that my wife loves me (despite my irritating habits and foibles).  A “virtual presence” is not sufficient for loving relationships.

We love our students here in the Netherlands at Tyndale and in Zaporozhye at the Zaporozhye Bible Seminary, but virtual presence just doesn’t cut it.  We were created to hug one another.  We were created to hear sine waves for voices not square waves.  We were designed to see colors in a greater range than a monitor can manage, even greater than HD flat screens.

Both Tyndale and Zaporozhye are seminaries.  Here in the Netherlands when someone thinks of a seminary they think of a Roman Catholic training schools for priests.  Protestants in the Netherlands started universities.

However seminary is still the best word.  Seminary means a hot house or a green house.  We are training people in a different sort of environment than a university.  At a university if you don’t show up for class, your grade suffers. This is true also at Tyndale, but when a student doesn’t show up everyone suffers because the discussion is weaker, poorer for fewer people.  

In both seminaries we worship and pray together. We aren’t churches. We don’t have church official leaders.  We are separate, but we are a community in a way that a university class is not.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, fathers and mothers and children in Christ.  Our goals are not merely intellectual, but practical.  We want our graduates to be well-rounded people with a complete set of ministry skills. We are a “higher professional education” school like a polytechnical college or a dental school, not a university. Our students are being prepared for ministry, not merely given a set of skills to find a job.  We also disciple them while they are in our seminary.  Their spiritual growth is also important to us, perhaps as important as any skills they learn. 

I studied some of the writings of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, when I was studying in Leuven, Belgium for my MA in philosophy.  Merleau-Ponty eschewed the rise of impersonal technology over more human interaction.  Merleau-Ponty advocated the sort of vision and interaction a painter, like Cezanne, had with the objects he painted. Perhaps Merleau-Ponty went too far, but he spoke of Cezanne seeing the mountain (Mount St. Victoire, which he painted dozens of times) and the mountain seeing the painter and drawing or painting through his hands.  

I don’t think Merleau-Ponty means to support the idea of panentheism, that we are part of nature and nature is a part of us, a sort of complex pantheism.  Rather he is speaking against a sort of technological viewing that loses sight of human interaction. He may have been right.  Turning people into “populations” and men into “fighting units” allowed two world wars to start in Europe.  Seeing armed forces as numbers of tanks, planes and ships meant that it was easier to forget the number of men who were in each of those vessels being destroyed.

Merleau-Ponty was not speaking against technology per se.  He was speaking against a way of seeing that was dehumanizing, which also denuded nature.  He was speaking against a way of looking at nature which turned it into something to be used (and abused).  

Merleau-Ponty asks us to see the wonder of nature as if we were children.  The earth is not merely so much dirt to be moved and so many diamonds or so much gold to be extracted.  It is a milieu in which we live, move and have our being.  

The world has been prepared for us.  The world receives us. It is not a neutral entity which we should manipulate.

In the movie “Avatar” Jake Sully in his avatar body tries to speak to the goddess, Eywa, or world soul of the planet, Pandora.  Jake asks Eywa to look into the memories of a recently deceased friend and see what sort of world the “sky people,” the humans come to Pandora, had left behind, what they had done to their planet.  “There is no green there.  They will destroy this place just as they destroyed their own world.”
I am not advocating the panentheism of the film.  However, Jake Sully’s comments are too true.  We have viewed the earth as a resource to be plundered.  Strip mines scar our lands.  

Also we see other people as “assets” or “human resources.” I remember once some years ago reacting very viscerally to the idea that I was a “human resource.” I understand what those well-intended business people meant by the term.  However, I am not a “human resource.” I am a person created in God’s image with an eternal destiny.  Particularly in ministry and missions we are people who have been called by God into specific positions and functions.  We are not merely employees helping to increase the bottom line. Whether I am “productive” or whether I am senile, God loves me and his image in me doesn’t go away.

Merleau-Ponty wants us to consider this world we are in as a place which has been made for us. As Christians we agree. God created the world and then the pinnacle of creation was humankind, man and woman.  God created the world and the diversity of life, flora and fauna, for the sake of humankind.  

Many, who are atheists or secularists, will eschew this view.  People like Peter Singer excoriate it.  “the life of a newborn [human] is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

However, Merleau-Ponty saw things differently.  We must give up “technological sight.” We must see the world as Cezanne did, full of wonder and ever changing, fascinating and in a sense magical.  Most of all we should see that the world was given to us and for us and we are given to the world and for the world.

Merleau-Ponty tries to explain this idea using the phrase, “The Flesh of the World.”  I don’t believe he means the world is alive in the sense which medieval philosophers thought.  He is not arguing for hylozoism, the idea that everything is alive.  Rather he is emphasizing that the world is in a way like a womb, which is there for our nurturing, and like the family and community we are born into. We don’t ask for it, but it is there and it receives us.

In my lectures for the course, “Foundations for Theology,” covering David K. Clark’s book, To know and love God, Clark speaks of what the true church is: a community. The New Testament Greek word is koinonia. The church is meant to be a community gathered.

Sometimes we are, most of the week we are, actually the community scattered.  We don’t see each other sometimes for the rest of the week. But when we gather on Sunday it is more than just singing hymns or worship songs, saying a liturgy or praying prayers, it is a family, a community gathering.

Gathering virtually just doesn’t satisfy me.  Sorry, this is how I feel.  Our ministers are doing a wonderful job providing a worship service each week.  They have also been providing prayer times for those interested three mornings a week and three evenings a week.

I think of those who have no spouse and have been stuck working from home.  Most of the time I have been so busy learning new technology and spending extra time preparing for classes that I have been disconnected from those folks.

Our ministers in our local church here have gone the extra mile to arrange to have members deliver flowers or send cards or do online Bible study or theology sessions.  It is wonderful.  They are wonderful. But for me, sorry, virtual church is still unsatisfying.  Our ministers are amazing. They are doing the best that can be done.  They are going far beyond the call of duty.

We were meant, however, to see each other, to hear each other, to be able to hug and shake hands.  I’m not saying we should defy sound medical advice to avoid contagion.  I’m saying this temporary quarantine is not what God meant for us.  

It is a result of the Fall into sin.  We still live in a sin ridden world.  Things are not, even on good days, as they were meant to be.

Adam and Eve caused a lot of damage.  The earth, which had been prepared for them, was given over to a curse to work against them. Death and disease became our normal.

One day, though, our “quarantine” will end.  One day our savior Jesus will return and he will recreate the New Heavens and the New Earth.  We will not be disembodied spirits then, but rather we shall continue to be embodied individuals who are then all that we were meant to be.

Then we will never again treat others as a means to an end, but all as ends in themselves. Then we will no longer view people as “human resources” or the world as a “renewable resource,” but as our family and as our home

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Epistemic Realism and the Hypostatic Union


How does epistemic realism help us understand the hypostatic union?

A frustrated student asked me this question in my Foundations for Theology class.  I had just finished lecturing through the twelfth chapter of David K. Clark’s book To know and love God.  That chapter is entitled “Theological Language and Spiritual Life.”  We had covered chapter eleven the previous week.  It is entitled “Reality, Truth and Language.”  Both chapters explore the implications of the postmodern attack on the ability of language to say anything about the external world and particularly about God and other such entities.
My students find my class, “Foundations for theology,” difficult.  Many come from Concrete-Relational cultures.  Concrete-Relational cultures are those where, rather than thinking in terms of concepts or abstractions, people think in terms of things out in the world, real live, hard body things, stuff.  When asked to think in an abstract way, what Westerners would call a logical way, some people from Concrete-Relational cultures become very confused and a few eventually become frustrated and even angry.[1]  My words seem to go around in circles and say nothing at all.
Epistemic realism is a term which means that we can indeed know something about the external world.  Generally speaking this is sometimes called “naive” realism, because it is what we normally assume: what I see is what is there.  Not too much thought can show that to be a, well, naive view.  For instance, I am color blind (red-green, the most common sort among men). I never see what is “there.”  This is an old philosophical question: What is a “primary” quality and what is a “secondary” quality?  Mass is a primary quality. Color is a secondary quality.  The reason is that color is perceived differently while mass is a constant regardless of the perceiver.
While I keep emphasizing to my students that we must be committed to epistemic realism, my students wonder why I am asking this question at all.  Philosophers like Immanuel Kant, however, committed themselves to epistemic nonrealism or a form of agnosticism.  By “Pure Reason” we cannot know anything about the self, God, the world, etc., about the noumena or things-in-themselves, as Kant called them.  Using “Practical Reason” Kant was able to show that “God”, the “world” and the “self” existed as “postulates of Practical Reason.”  He had found the moral law within.  “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe... : the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, 5:161–2)
Kant founded his knowledge of God, the world and the self upon these “autonomous” principles.  He found them “within” himself, within his own consciousness. He claims that he did not learn the moral law from divine revelation (or his Pietist Lutheran parents or his early education at a Pietist school).  Still his “moral law” or Categorical Imperative (the command everyone must follow) is: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Fundamentals of a metaphysic of morals, 4:421) It is a form of the Golden Rule (though he gives no credit for learning this to his Lutheran upbringing and education).
In any event, even if Kant can ground the moral law within his autonomous consciousness, he cannot tell us anything about the independent world which we assume exists around us.  This may seem awfully subtle or even abstruse. However, if Kant is right, we know nothing about the world, God, the self and any other number of things.  We do not know the “Thing-in-itself” (Ding-an-sich). If Kant is right, anything we say about God is only our construction from Practical Reason.  For Kant there is Pure Reason which is actual knowledge. Practical Reason is a lesser level of knowledge, if we dare call it knowledge.
Kant believes that he has found the moral law within himself, within his own consciousness.  He also reasons that he has found that he exists for a purpose which is to perfect himself.  He sees the gap between what he ought to be and what he is.  He falls short of his own Categorical Imperative.  Since Kant realizes that this project cannot finished in this life time, by Practical Reason (according to this “moral” approach) he reasons that we must be eternal and heaven must exist.  However, again both of these concepts: God, the self, the world, other persons, heaven, etc. are bare “postulates of Practical Reason.”[2] There is no real knowledge claim attached.
So, if Kant and John Hick, who followed his view, are right, we actually know nothing about God at all. We also don’t know anything about ourselves (Is there a self?), the world, heaven, or eternal life.  If Kant’s agnosticism is correct, then we cannot make any assertions about God, who God is or what God does. We also cannot make any judgments about which religion might be true or what theological doctrines might be correct.
If Kant’s agnosticism is correct, we cannot know that God is a hypostatic union.  If epistemic realism does not hold, then there is no point in speaking about a hypostatic union at all.
If those who have attacked theological (and any) language are correct, our words are merely metaphors and do not describe any reality.  For this reason, Ludwig Wittgenstein put forward the idea of “language games.” Theology would be only one language game among others.  Engineers know what “SAE” means.[3] Theologians generally do not.  Theologians know what they mean by the hypostatic union, but engineers probably don’t care.
If those, such as Sallie McFague, who have attacked theological language are right, our theological discussions, doctrines and debates are just an internal debate between theologians talking about things which either do not exist or at least we can’t say whether they do or don’t.[4] If the Correspondence Theory of Truth, which is a form of epistemic realism, is not true, then there is no correlation between our thoughts and reality outside the mind.  If the Postmodern attack on theological language is correct, then there is nothing happening other than an intermural discussion between theologians. We can’t say in that case whether the words mean anything at all in terms of “reality,” though they mean something to theologians.
So, what does epistemic realism have to do with the hypostatic union? If our thoughts do not have some relationship to reality and further if our words do not describe or refer to things in the extramental world, to things outside the mind or outside of language, theology including the discussion of the hypostatic union is pointless.
But what is the hypostatic union, and if we grant epistemic realism and some sort of language in which our words refer to real objects in the world, and what does it mean for my students?  I also explain to the students that we are committed to metaphysical realism.  This is a short hand formula, which David K. Clark, the author of To know and love God, which is our textbook, has devised.  Metaphysical realism means that there is an existing world full of things and persons, which do not depend on my perception to exist. This would mean, for instance, that God exists and has certain characteristics whether I knew of him at all.  If epistemic realism is true, if I can know something (not everything, but something) truly about the world and beings outside my consciousness, then I could learn something about God in a variety of ways.
I could learn about God from what he has created.  This is normally called Natural Revelation.  The Apostle Paul in Romans 1:19, 20 says the we can see God’s characteristics: his power, wisdom, creativity, and other attributes by looking at the beauty of creation.  This is normally called the teleological argument for the existence of God.  The purpose in the universe reflects the Creator. 
Actually, this was the one argument for the existence of God that Immanuel Kant actually liked (or at seems to point to).  Kant had realized that he had this eternal project of self-perfection.  He did not know how he would manage to reach this goal.  However, in the “starry skies above” he found what he called Purposivity (or Purposiveness, Zweckmaßigkeit).[5]  The universe cooperated with humankind to work towards this moral self-perfection. (It seems like an awfully self-centered view of the universe that it existed mainly to help him!)  At least Kant was right about one point: the universe reflects the Creator.
If God exists independently of our perception and independently of us otherwise, if he is an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient being, then he could choose to communicate with us. This is normally called Special Revelation.  God could give us information about himself and ourselves.  Through such a Divine Revelation God could make his attributes, his characteristics, things about himself known.
The hypostatic union, though, goes far beyond what the scriptures say per se.  The hypostatic union is a doctrine, a teaching, related to the nature of God as revealed in the Bible.  God reveals himself in the Bible as a Trinity, a Triunity of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Of course, the word Trinity is not in the Bible. However, the idea that God is three persons in one substance (consubstantial) is a very old teaching of the Christian church.  God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each of these persons share one substance or essence.  So, the union is clear enough.  Hypostatic comes from the Greek word hypostasis.
Hypostasis means a person.  Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus was “the exact representation of his being (hypostasis).  Another word which was used during the controversies about the nature of the Son of God and how he related to the Father (and eventually how the Holy Spirit related to the other two) was prosopon (or person, face).  The three members of the Trinity are separate persons. However, they share one essence (ousia, substance or essence). In a way we cannot quite explain, we know that we must affirm that there are three separate, distinct members of the Godhead, the Trinity.  At the same time, we must affirm that the Godhead is unified.  The three persons exist in one essence (ousia). They are consubstantial or to use the Greek term, ὁμοουσιος (homoousios).  This term was of great importance and Athanasius used it against Arius who held Christ was “like” (ὁμιοουσιος, homioousios) the Father, not equal to the Father.  The difference one iota makes (one lower case i).
But what does this have to do with epistemic realism?  Once again, I repeat that if we cannot know anything outside of our consciousness, if we cannot know something truly about extramental entities, then this discussion is just an exercise in some sort of Wittgensteinian “language game.”  It is a headache for first year theology students and nothing more, a seemingly inextricable puzzle.
When I was researching for my doctoral dissertation I ran across a debate about how many members of the Godhead there were and a whole firestorm of angry exchange over that question.  I was studying the philosophy of a Russian religious philosopher named Nikolai Onufievich Losskii.  Losskii (or Lossky as he is known in English translation) was the father of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky. V.N. Lossky was a well-known Russian Orthodox theologian in the early 20th century.  Vladimir Lossky was asked by the Russsian Patriarch in exile, Sergei, who was in Sremski Karlovci, Yugoslavia at the time, to evaluate the theology of another Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov.
It may help to know that these Russian Orthodox thinkers and others were allowed to leave Russia after the Communists took control.  In 1922 two boatloads of Russian Orthodox intellectuals left Russia. Some settled in Paris. Others settled in Berlin. Nicholas O. Lossky settled in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he was given a residence visa and a salary by Thomas Masaryck, who was the President of Czechoslovakia.  Vladimir Nicholaevich Lossky settled in Paris along with Bulgakov and others.
When Vladimir N. Lossky evaluated Bulgakov’s theological conceptions, he noted one conception, which he considered unorthodox or heretical.  Vladimir Lossky had not intended to say that all Bulgakov said and wrote was heretical, but this one conception particularly. 
Bulgakov, like other Russian Orthodox thinkers, had accepted the view that there was an Eternal Feminine, Sophia.  Sophia was variously interpreted by Russian thinkers of the day.  Sophia was earlier popularized by Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov.  Many of the Russian thinkers of the Silver Age of Russian Religious Philosophy drew heavily from Solovyov and his constructions.
Solovyov was a thinker who combined many seemingly disparate elements. As with many Russian thinkers he privileged intuition or direct perception.  His views on Sophia or the Eternal Feminine were a result of three different appearances by Sophia to him.  He worked Sophia into his philosophy using her as a binding element.
Sophiology, as the movement became known, was quite a novel development in the philosophical world.  For some Russian thinkers Sophia was the world soul, similar to Plato’s view.  For others she was the Virgin Mary.  For some she be//came so important that they saw her as a metaphysical bridge between the world and the Godhead.
This idea became so important that some decided Sophia (Greek feminine noun ending in -a) was the ousia (feminine noun ending in -a), the essence, of the Godhead.  Perhaps it might have been thought only odd and heterodox, except that Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox priest and a follower of Solovyov, went so far as to call Sophia a “fourth hypostasis of the Godhead.”[6]  There has been much debate about whether Florensky actually said this or what he really meant.  However, that was too far for orthodox Orthodox theologians.
Bulgakov was a follower of Florensky.  He accepted this view of Sophia as the ousia of the Godhead.  In trying to explain the metaphysical bridge between the Godhead and the world, he held Sophia to be that bridge. As he tried to explain his view he called it “panentheism.”[7]
Panentheism could be translated as “All is in God.”  This is a subtle form of pantheism.  It is not a new view. In Plato’s dialogue the Timaeus this view is mentioned.[8]  Aristotle too seems to have advocated panentheism.  In the 20th century Alfred Lord North Whitehead advocated a kind of panentheism, as did Charles Hartshorne.
Having been asked to evaulate Bulgakov’s ideas, Vladimir N. Lossky judged the conception of Sophia as ousia and panentheism to be incorrect, heretical.  Vladimir Lossky reported his findings to Patriarch Sergei, who promptly excommunicated Bulgakov.  This was not, however, what Vladimir Lossky’s intended.
A firestorm developed among the Russian emigre community in Paris.  A disputation, a formal theological debate, between Bulgakov and Vladimir Lossky was organized.  However, it quickly became clear at that debate that there was no way Vladimir Lossky could defend himself.  The evening ended with some supporters of these thinkers in fisticuffs and disorder.
Nicholas O. Lossky came to the defense of his son, philosophically speaking.  NO Lossky considered himself a defender of the “purest form of theism.”[9] He tried using his philosophical learning and thinking to show that his son, Vladimir, was correct to judge Serge Bulgakov’s panentheism as inadequate.
Bulgakov and other Russian Sophiologists hoped to use Sophia as a means of bridging the gap between the world and God. Some felt that theism, the idea of a separate Creator God, who is distinct from the creation, left a gap between the Godhead and the creation.  Sophia as the ousia or essence of the Godhead and at the same time as the world soul or central agent of the world organic whole could serve as this metaphysical bridge between the Godhead and the world.
However, the Son of God, Jesus Christ already bridges the gap between humanity and Godhead.[10] He is the metaphysical bridge.  From the Eastern Orthodox view the Son of God brought true humanity back to earthly humanity.[11]  Adam and Eve through their disobedience had spoiled human nature.  They had lost the true image of humanity.  Jesus brought with him from the Godhead the true humanity which he always had.  It was not a case of bringing humanity into the Godhead, but of restoring true humanity to humankind on earth.
The Eastern Orthodox also have another theological doctrine to explain how humanity is restored to the image of God in humankind.  They make a distinction between the image and the likeness of God in humankind as noted in Genesis 1:26, 27. “Let us make man in our image and our likeness.” While the image of God, for some rationality among other characteristics is retained, the likeness of God is not.[12]  Through the process of deification or theosis humankind can become more like God.[13]  Athanasius wrote: “God became man, in order that man should become god.” Humans become “gods” with a lower-case g. In other words, they take part in God’s “energies” so that the likeness of God is restored in them.  They do not become God or join the Godhead in a metaphysical way, but they become more “godlike.” Just what that means is still rather unclear. 
In any event there are ways to explain how humanity is taken up into the Godhead (how a metaphysical bridge is effected in the Son of God) and how the likeness of God is restored in humanity, without a recourse to Sophia or Sophiology.  The Russian Orthodox church has not condemned Sophiology.  It has not labeled it as heretical (at least not in general strokes).  It has decided that it is theologoumena, heterodox teaching which one may or may not believe.[14]  It is neither required (Cataphatic (positive or accepted) theology) nor is it deemed unacceptable.  It is held as possible, but not proven.
What does any of this have to do with epistemic realism?  If we cannot know anything about extramental entities, then the whole argument is wasted breath.  If we cannot say anything about anything in the extramental world, but only utter linguistic constructions which do not refer to any things in the extramental world, then again it might be an interesting sort of theological and philosophical game, but it has no bearing on us.
But since we can know something truly about the world, God, the self, heaven, etc. (epistemic realism) and our language does refer to things-in-themselves (the Correspondence Theory of Truth), we can say something meaningful about God’s nature.[15]  We can even argue about the hypostatic union and follow the debate of the early church on the issue.



[1] Sam Chan. Evangelism in a skeptical world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. See chapter seven.

[2] “To this end, Kant introduces the idea of a “postulate,” defined as “a theoretical proposition, though one not demonstrable as such, insofar as it is attached inseparably to an a priori unconditionally valid practical law” (5:122). “These postulates are those of immortality, of freedom considered positively (as the causality of a being insofar as it belongs to the intelligible world), and of the existence of God” (5:132).[19] The law to which they “attach” is, of course, the moral law. It enjoins us to act for the sake of duty, with no assurances that anything will follow from this for our own happiness or that of others. [20]” Garrath Williams, "Kant's Account of Reason", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/kant-reason/>.

 [3] “SAE stands for the Society of Automotive Engineers. The SAE was founded in 1905 by Andrew Ricker and Henry Ford. At the outset, its sole aim was to provide an umbrella organization for the scattered automotive engineers who usually worked alone in various parts of the country. SAE’s role soon expanded and became an important resource for the auto industry so that engineering and technology developments could be shared.” Marc Stern “What Does SAE Stand for in Motor Oil?,” November 18, 2015. When applied to a wrench SAE relates to the close tolerance of the jaws of the wrench, i.e. that they fit US automotive industry standards. Accessed 14 May 2020 https://www.yourmechanic.com/article/what-does-sae-stand-for-in-motor-oil 
[4] David K. Clark. To know and love God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003, 407-410.
[5] “Fourth, Kant concludes the Critique of the Power of Judgment with a long appendix arguing that reflecting judgment supports morality by leading us to think about the final end of nature, which we can only understand in moral terms, and that conversely morality reinforces a teleological conception of nature. Once it is granted on theoretical grounds that we must understand certain parts of nature (organisms) teleologically, although only as a regulative principle of reflecting judgment, Kant says we may go further and regard the whole of nature as a teleological system (5:380–381). But we can regard the whole of nature as a teleological system only by employing the idea of God, again only regulatively [as postulates PAG], as its intelligent designer. This would be to attribute what Kant calls external purposiveness to nature – that is, to attribute purposes to God in creating nature (5:425). What, then, is God’s final end in creating nature? According to Kant, the final end of nature must be human beings, but only as moral beings (5:435, 444–445). This is because only human beings use reason to set and pursue ends, using the rest of nature as means to their ends (5:426–427). Moreover, Kant claims that human happiness cannot be the final end of nature, because as we have seen he holds that happiness is not unconditionally valuable (5:430–431). Rather, human life has value not because of what we passively enjoy, but only because of what we actively do (5:434). We can be fully active and autonomous, however, only by acting morally, which implies that God created the world so that human beings could exercise moral autonomy. Since we also need happiness, this too may be admitted as a conditioned and consequent end, so that reflecting judgment eventually leads us to the highest good (5:436). But reflection on conditions of the possibility of the highest good leads again to Kant’s moral argument for belief in God’s existence (he now omits immortality), which in turn reinforces the teleological perspective on nature with which reflecting judgment began.” Rohlf, Michael, "Immanuel Kant", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/kant/>.
Citations from Guyer, P., (ed.), 2000, Critique of the Power of Judgment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Or see Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Revised, edited and introduced Nicholas Walker. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, 2007, 208ff.

[6] Philip A. Gottschalk. Between fideism and dogmatic rationalism: the Place of Nicholas O. Lossky in the Legacy of Silver Age Russian Religious Philosophy. Leuven, Belgium. 2004 Unpublished dissertation, 200, 201 footnote 32. ‘Lossky himself recognized that Bulgakov had explicitly rejected the accusation that he had by his view of Sophia advocated a “fourth hypostasis” in the Godhead. Lossky said it was a “deduction, which he [Bulgakov] never intended to make.” Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy, p. 232. However, Bulgakov’s attempt to find a nuance by using the term ipostasnost instead of ipostas did not really help his case. His basic panentheistic world-view was repugnant to orthodox Russian Orthodox theologians. See Zenkovsky, History of Russian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 905.”

[7] Gottschalk. Between fideism and dogmatic rationalism. 205 foonote 80. See Lossky, History of Russian Philosophy, p. 232 where Lossky reports that “Replying to the Metropolitan Sergius’s [sic] criticism, Father S. Bulgakov said in his report to the Metropolitan Eulogius: ‘I solemnly declare that as an Orthodox priest I profess all the true dogmas of Orthodoxy. My sophiology has nothing to do with the actual content of those dogmas, but merely with their theological interpretation. It is my personal theological belief to which I have never ascribed the significance of a generally binding church dogma’ (51 f.).” See also Bulgakov, Sergij, Pravoslavlje: Pregled Učenia pravoslavne crkve [Orthodoxy: A Survey of the Doctrines of the Orthodox Church] Prev. s ruskog Ljiljana Jovanovic, Novi Sad, YU: Književna Zajednica Novog Sada, 1991, pp. 216, 262 Also available in English as Bulgakov, Serge The Orthodox Church, Dobbs Ferry, NY, USA: American Review of Eastern Orthodoxy, n.d. (reprint 1935) Bulgakov uses the distinction between affirmed doctrines of the church versus those which are tolerated, but not condemned or affirmed, i.e. theologoumena, of apocatastasis.Э
However, John Meyendorff would seem to beg to differ. “The fact that the Logos assumed human nature as such implied the universal validity of redemption but not the apokatastasis or universal salvation, a doctrine which in 553 was formally condemned as Origenistic.” John Meyendorff. Excerpts from Byzantine theology: historical and doctrinal themes. 111 Accessed 14 May 2020 https://www.abbaziagreca.it/en/documents/collection/byzantine_theology.pdf

[8] John Culp. "Panentheism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed 14 May 2020  <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/panentheism/>.

[9] Gottschalk. Between fideism and dogmatic rationalism. 224 translating Lossky’s article “On the Creation of the World by God” Путь (Put' [The Way]), no. 54, 1937, pp. 3-22.

[10] Gottschalk. Between fideism and dogmatic rationalism. 298 “At this point Lossky’s acceptance and reformulation of the Russian Sophiology seems suspect. Why should we look at the world as a living being, a zoon (ζωον)? Can we not account for our togetherness, our “relativity”, without assuming a world soul? Is it not enough to posit a “metalogical, suprarational principle” or theistic God who sustains the universe? Does one need Sophia as an additional bridge between the Godhead and the world when one already has Christ?, as Father Copleston asks.87” citing Copleston, Frederick C., Russian Religious Philosophy: Selected aspects. South Bend, IN: Search Press/ University of Notre Dame, 1988, 98.
[11] For further explanation about the “theandric vision of humanity” see the following: Roger E. Olson. The story of Christian theology. Downers Grove, IL: IV Academic, 1999, 296-301 On Maximus the Confessor, and John Meyendorff. Excerpts from Byzantine theology: historical trends and doctrinal themes.  102-104 “the Incarnation implies that the bond between God and man, which has been expressed in the Biblical concept of ‘image and likeness,’ is unbreakable. The restoration of creation is a ‘new creation,’ but it does not establish a new pattern, so far as man is concerned; it reinstates man in his original divine glory among creatures and in his original responsibility for the world. It reaffirms that man is truly man when he participates in the life of God; that he is not autonomous either in relation to God nor in relation to the world; that true human life can never be ‘secular.’” Accessed 15 May 2020 https://www.abbaziagreca.it/en/documents/collection/byzantine_theology.pdf and see “The Symbol of Faith – Man” The Orthodox Church in America. “According to Orthodox doctrine, human being and life is never completed and finished in its development and growth because it is made in the image and according to the likeness of God. God’s being and life are inexhaustible and boundless. As the Divine Archetype has no limits to His divinity, so the human image has no limits to its humanity, to what it can become by the grace of its Creator. Human nature, therefore, is created by God to grow and develop through participation in the nature of God for all eternity. Man is made to become ever more Godlike forever, even in the Kingdom of God at the end of this age, when Christ will come again in glory to raise the dead and give life to those who love Him.” Accessed 15 May 2020 https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/the-symbol-of-faith/man

[12] For a Roman Catholic view of this concept see Robert L. Saucy, “Theology of human nature” in JP Moreland & David M. Ciocchi (eds). Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015, 23 (See footnote 14 for further information).

[13] For one Russian view see, for example, Lossky, N (icholas) O(nufrievich) and John S. Marshall, Value and Existence, Part One translated from Russian by Sergei S. Vinokooroff, London: Geo. Allen & Unwin, 1935, p. 93.

[14] “Theologoumenon” Merriam-Webster.com Accessed 14 May 2020 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theologoumenon

[15] Clark. To know and love God. 354.