Tag Archives: analytic philosophy

The Power of Love: Interlude: James Cone & the Church Fathers


white heart

To keep up with this series, please read the first two posts: part 1: James Cone’s Relational Theology and part 2: Gendering Black Theology and Black Power

This is the first of two interludes (excluding one postlude). While I hope these interludes are helpful, they are probably going to be less organized and the other soon to be 3 other posts.

For many contemporary proponents of historic Christian orthodoxy, liberation theology is looked upon as something that is disconnected from the Nicene-Chalcedonian faith. Indeed, the point of departure of LT since it is a relational theology, is not tradition or the creeds, but the contemporary experience of oppressed people groups. The point of this post is not to apologize for this position, or that the Liberationist view passes some orthodoxy test. My objective here is to contend that the divide between “orthodoxy” and Liberation theology is not as neat as theologians make it out to be.

Which Trinity?

First, let me point you into the direction of recent conversations I found helpful on the Trinity: Fr. Aiden Kimel’s Can analytic philosophers be saved? and Can analytic philosophers fix the doctirne of the Trinity? and Dale Tuggy’s responses: against despising analytic theologians and more on despising analytic theologians.

To sum up these readings, this is a classic example of Tertullian’s question, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Shall we do theology by studying the worship practices of the early Church, their hymns and formulas, and the creeds? Or shall we do theology by talking with speculative philosophical thought? One side argues, if Christians start with philosophy, they will eventually over-stress the working of the economic Trinity, or how God reveals God’s self to us, leaving very little room for mystery or awe when it comes to worship. The other side argue that Jesus is the Revelation from God, and we need to know exactly who we are in relationship with (the Triune God) before knowing how to properly worship.

As a lifelong fanboy of the Trinity, I have a few questions for both sides, like for the Immanent Trinity side, if we can’t speak of God other than some great mystery, what was the purpose of the Church Fathers’ metaphysical claims about God? For the social Trinitarian side, given the fact of God’s self-sufficiency is assumed in Scripture, what is it that can stop us from being arrogant and having ownership of the deity?

Is Liberation necessarily ANTI- Nicene?

James Cone has made a few comments about the Church fathers, and granted, he has praised theologians such as Athanasius for taking a stand against Arian heretics. Given his Methodist Protestant background, Cone is less enthusiastic about the creeds and Church Fathers. In God of The Oppressed, Cone asserts,

“The Nicene Fathers showed little interest in the Christological significance of Jesus’ deeds for the humiliated, because most of the discussion took place in the social context of the Church’s position as the favored religion of the Roman State. Therefore, it became easy to redefine Jesus as the divinizer (the modern counterpart is “spiritualizer”) of humanity. When this happens Christology is removed from history, and salvation becomes only peripherally related to this world. “

Because Cone appropriates some of Juergen Moltmann’s theology, it seems that Cone would fit neatly in the category of a “social Trinitarian,” much like an analytic theologian. Some of the intellectual descendents of James Cone have come to similar conclusions about the Church Fathers and Mothers. Kelly Brown Douglas, a Womanist Theologian in The Black Christ, contended,

“Finally, there are aspects of the Nicene/Chalcedonian formulation that appear inconsistent with Jesus as he was portrayed in the Gospels. For instance, this formulation establishes that Jesus is Christ by focusing on God’s act of becoming incarnate in him. In so doing, it diminishes the significance of Jesus’ actions on earth.”

– The Black Christ, page 112.

It seems as if there is not room for the Nicene/Chalcedonian formulas to be used as normative theological resources by black theologians. On one hand Kelly Brown Douglas as an Episcopalien knows the Nicene Creed backwards and forward. Yet, Brown Douglas, as a relational theologian, writes about a Christ who relates to black women and who is made accessible in his ministry to the least of these. Rings of social Trinitarianism, for sure!

Ah! But not so fast, analytic theologians, just you feel safe in assuming that Cone’s project is on your side! In A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone does commend analytic philosophy for keeping theologians in check,

“The rise of analytic philosophy, with its investigation of the relationship between language and truth, has caused many theological nightmares as religionists have sought to defend the validity of theological speech. Religionists can be thankful to the philosophy of language for subjecting theological speech to the analytical test. Even though we [black theologians] insist that truth is determined only by an oppressed community asserting its existence in an oppressive world, and not by an ‘uncommitted’ philosopher of language applying an ‘objective’ test, the logic of analytic philosophy does make us more sensitive in our use of language and forces us to subject our own language to tests devised by the community itself. Every community must ask, How do we know that our claims about God are valid?”

Chapter 3, page 42.

For Cone, oppressed community’s have inherent religious practices “a sense of the presence of God, a feeling of awe” (page 61) while ideas such as “the death-of-God” arise out the the communities that hold the powerful majority’s (white) perspective (page 66). For Cone, analytic philosophy used as a tool for liberation is only useful to the extent it aids in the elimination of the concrete realities that the oppressed who struggle to survive everyday (page 88). Like the Immanent Trinitarians, Cone shares an overriding concern for the concrete, the daily religious practices of the marginated to be more precise.

The Trinity and Liberation?

When I first started reading Patristic theology, I was pleasantly surprised by the words of persons like Gregory the Great, and their exegesis of parables, and their concern for the poor. I eventually settled with choosing Clement of Alexandria was my favorite, and I continue to learn about his probably influence on the Cappodocian theologians, who did have abolitionist leanings. That being said, I have a generous reading of the Apostles’ Creed when it says, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell.” I understand that the “suffering under Pontius Pilate” to include the ministry of Jesus, and his preaching the Gospel as a way of peaceably resisting the violence of the Roman Empire. The fact is that the Church Fathers and Mothers taught on Jesus’ ministry as an entrance into the divine life of Trinity because the early church controversies were theocentric and Christological in nature, whereas today, contemporary churches split over anthropological controversies like sexuality and worship styles. So when it comes to this so-called “barrier” between Ancient Christianity and modern Christianity, I just don’t buy into it so easily.