Mathematical Theology and Dialectic

I had my first full week of teaching this past week. After over six months of pandemic restrictions of various degrees, it was invigorating to see several classrooms full of eager faces, albeit masked and socially distant faces. Our family continues the same hybrid model of classroom and at-home education which now, strangely enough, has become almost the norm under COVID-19. As classical Christian educators, we continue with an ancient method of learning that has been baptized and re-contextualized in the light of divine revelation. It is the relationship between these two terms, classical and Christian, which I propose as my topic for this year’s back to school post.

The first term “classical” denotes a threefold method or model of learning as taught by the ancient Greeks and transmitted by the Romans forward into our own time. The first stage of learning in this model is grammar and it involves the collection of facts, the memorization of distinct things. The second stage is called dialectic and it organizes those things into an integrated whole and establishes the relationship of the parts to one another. The 3rd and final stage of the classical Trivium is called rhetoric. It is at this stage that a student adds emotion and conviction to his or her body of knowledge and defends it against competing ideas or downright falsehoods.

The second term “Christian” denotes more than just our faith. It is the specific way which the church incorporates the classical methods of pagan philosophy. You may remember how the Lord through the Prophet Moses instructed His people to plunder the gold and silver of their Egyptian oppressors (Exodus 3:19-22). The gold that once outfitted pagan temples became the very same substance that adorned the temple of the one, true and living God. But the gold also represented the ancient learning from any pagan culture which can be baptized in the service of ultimate truth, the revelation of the Three Persons in One God.

While the Egyptian gold can benefit both the physical temple and the spiritual mind, it all depends on how it is used. For the same gold that adorned Solomon’s temple was first refashioned by fallen Israel into the very idols they were trying to flee. The same thing happens with the intellectual gold of the Egyptians (and by extension the Greeks and Romans): pagan philosophy in the form of dialectic, which the Church has appropriated in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Dialectic, which is the second stage of the classical method inherited from Greek philosophy, is particularly dangerous when not properly baptized and appropriated. One of my spiritual fathers defined philosophical dialectic as, “… the art and science of defining a thing by opposing it to something else.” (God, History and Dialectic, Vol. I by Joseph P. Farrell, 2008). It is precisely when dialectic is used to oppose rather than relate ideas that it is most destructive, especially when those ideas concern Divinity.

In the time of St. Basil the Great of Cappadocia (AD 330-379), the heresy of the Neoplatonist Eunomius sought to make the essence of God intelligible by defining it as simple and opposing it to the multiplicity of divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Eunomius then reorganized the Divine Persons into his own artificial order of first, second, and third gods. He rather pridefully concluded, “I know God as well as He knows Himself.” St. Basil unravels his hubris with an introduction to true mathematical theology:

In delivering the formula of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, our Lord did not connect the gift with number.  He did not say “into First, Second, and Third,” nor yet “into one, two, and three, but He gave us the boon of the knowledge of the faith which leads to salvation, by means of holy names.  So that what saves us is our faith.  Number has been devised as a symbol indicative of the quantity of objects.  But these men, who bring ruin on themselves from every possible source, have turned even the capacity for counting against the faith.  Nothing else undergoes any change in consequence of the addition of number, and yet these men in the case of the divine nature pay reverence to number, lest they should exceed the limits of the honour due to the Paraclete.  But, O wisest sirs, let the unapproachable be altogether above and beyond number, as the ancient reverence of the Hebrews wrote the unutterable name of God in peculiar characters, thus endeavouring to set forth its infinite excellence.  Count, if you must; but you must not by counting do damage to the faith.  Either let the ineffable be honoured by silence; or let holy things be counted consistently with true religion.  There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost.  We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods.

(On the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great, Chapter 18)

May He Who Is before all eternity, who became man for us and our salvation enable us in this new school year to know Him personally and not just through the ignorant arithmetic of knowledge falsely called. And may He teach us to discern when definition by opposition erodes meaning and leads us away from and not toward a deeper meaning of the Truth. Kalli Dynami! Good strength in all of your academic and spiritual pursuits.

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