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. 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.” 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. 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. 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). 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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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. He is the metaphysical bridge. From the Eastern Orthodox view the Son of God brought true humanity back to earthly humanity. 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. Through the process of deification or theosis humankind can become more like God. 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. 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. We can even argue about the hypostatic union and follow the debate of the early church on the issue.
 Sam Chan. Evangelism in a skeptical world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018. See chapter seven.
 “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). 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. ” 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/>.
 “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
 David K. Clark. To know and love God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003, 407-410.
 “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.
 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.”
 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
 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/>.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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).
 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.
 “Theologoumenon” Merriam-Webster.com Accessed 14 May 2020 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theologoumenon
 Clark. To know and love God. 354.