Friday, February 29, 2008

Thomas and Trinitarian Terminology

In a comment to the last post, Mr Robinson says:

I don't think I claimed the subordinating relation was one of concrete particular to abstract generality. It strikes me as odd to think that the scholastics in general thought of the divine ousia as an abstract object, let alone Augustine. Of course, you might want to look at what Aquinas has to say about the relation of the persons to the essence. One swallow does not make a spring.

I have several issues with this. 1) "The scholastics in general" and "one swallow does not make a spring" seems to indicate that Mr Robinson thinks that Scotus is in a serious minority on this issue. Unfortunately 2) having denied my representation of his view, Mr Robinson doesn't clarify what that view is, so it's unclear exactly what Scotus is in the minority on. 3) He directs me to "look at what Aquinas has to say about the relation of the persons to the essence." At what, exactly? I have to guess which text and which opinion of Aquinas' he takes issue with. I admit I don't know which he means. Presumably it has to do with his view that "the scholastics in general thought of the divine ousia as an abstract object" (I'm leaving Augustine out of this for now. Not enough time to get into that).

Of course it's pretty difficult to talk of what "the scholastics in general" thought about a difficult theological issue. When one reads a lot of them one notices that they tend to frequently disagree. What is clear, however, is that none of them "thought of the divine ousia as an abstract object". I hate to have to point this out, but they thought and wrote in Latin, and the slippery transfer between technical Greek words and technical Latin words among people who only spoke one or the other is a prime cause of misunderstanding. We shouldn't say anything about what Latin theologians thought about "the divine ousia" without being extremely careful to say just what we mean by "ousia" in Latin terms.

Thomas does so in a text in which he's discussing the relation of the persons to the essence, Summa theologiae, prima pars, Q.29 A.2, Utrum persona sit idem quod hypostasis, subsistentia et essentia. Thomas carefully distinguishes between a number of terms which might be used in place of it "ousia".

Substantia dicitur duplicter. Uno modo dicitur substantia quidditas rei, quam significat definitio, secundum quod dicimus quod definitio significat substantiam rei: quam quidem substantiam Graeci "usiam" vocant, quod nos essentiam dicere possumus. --Alio modo dicitur substantia subiectum vel suppositum quod subsistit in genere substantiae. Et hoc quidem, communiter accipiendo, nominari potest et nomine significante intentionem: et sic dicitur suppositum. Nominatur etiam tribus nominibus significantibus rem, quae quidem sunt res naturae, subsistentia et hypostasis, secundum triplicem considerationem substantiae sid dictae . . . hypostasis, apud Graecos, ex propria significatione nominis habet quod significet quodcumque individuum substantiae . . . Sed quia nomen substantiae, quod secundum proprietatem significationis respondet hypostasi, aequivocatur apud nos, cum quandoque significet essentiam, quandoque hypostasim; ne possit esse erroris occasio, maluerunt pro hypostasi transferre subsistentiam, quam substantiam.

Thomas does, therefore, conceive of "ousia" as "abstract" (I will not admit the phrase "an abstract object" unless what this means is clarified), if by "ousia" we mean the essence in the sense of quod quid erat esse, what is signified by the definition. But of course a definition is an abstraction! Is signifies what God is but not who God is, i.e. it points out what it means to be God but not any specific divine hypostasis. But this is no way implies that the divine essence or nature is conceived of as some "abstract object" somehow existing above or prior to any of the divine persons. Rather, a divine person simply is this subsistent supposit of the divine nature, the "who" (or, if you like the "this") whose "what" is defined by the essence. When we speak of the divine nature or essence we're speaking of God without speaking of any given person--but this does not imply that Thomas thinks the essence is any thing other than the persons. He certainly doesn't.


Michael said...

To relate this post to the last one: for Thomas "essence" is an abstraction in the sense that we conceive of the divine nature as abstracted from the divine persons; this is most certainly not to imply that the divine esse which is identical with the essentia and one and the same for all three persons is an abstract object. What is abstract is our concept, not God's being.

Ocham said...

Don't forget Thomas Q3 A3.

Ocham said...

PS unrelated to this, but related to previous discussion of Scotus, here

is a link in my blog to two pieces just published in the Logic Museum. One is by Simon of Faversham, who is supposed to have brought Modistic teaching to Oxford, and therefore to Scotus. Scotus (or at least an author supposed to be Scotus) also discusses the question of whether Caesar is dead.

Michael said...


very interesting text by Simon. Thank you!

CrimsonCatholic said...

And by the way, it's not just St. Thomas who operates this way.

Canon VII of the Second Council of Constantinople says:
"If anyone, when speaking about the two natures, does not confess a belief in our one lord Jesus Christ, understood in both his divinity and his humanity, so as by this to signify a difference of natures of which an ineffable union has been made without confusion, in which neither the nature of the Word was changed into the nature of human flesh, nor was the nature of human flesh changed into that of the Word (each remained what it was by nature, even after the union, as this had been made in respect of subsistence); and if anyone understands the two natures in the mystery of Christ in the sense of a division into parts, or if he expresses his belief in the plural natures in the same lord Jesus Christ, God the Word made flesh, but does not consider the difference of those natures, of which he is composed, to be only in the onlooker's mind, a difference which is not compromised by the union (for he is one from both and the two exist through the one) but uses the plurality to suggest that each nature is possessed separately and has a subsistence of its own: let him be anathema."

It's the same concept, and incidentally, it is the same way the Cappadocians use the ousia/hypostasis distinction. Granted, the Cappadocian epistemology is different (and a bit more primitive) than Scholastic Aristotelianism, but the distinction serves the same conceptual function in both approaches. It practically goes without saying that this is the same approach of Pope St. Leo the Great is his Tomus. If the criticism strikes home against St. Thomas, then it strikes home against the Cappadocians and even the ecumenical councils just as hard. That leads me to suspect that one would have to not understand St. Thomas and how his doctrine connects to these concepts (and possibly not even how those concepts are used in the East) in order to make this criticism.

Generally, attention should be given to the common errors pointed out in this post. The Schoolmen were not so foolish as to confuse real ontological distinctions with real logical distinctions and grammatical distinctions, but the same can't always be said of people who interpret the scholastics, and that includes some people who ought to know better.

For example, don't get me started on people who confuse the logical distinction between the categorematic and syncategorematic use of the term "infinity" with a real ontological distinction. That's a common hobby horse to ride for people who wish to attribute "modern science" to an innovation over the scholastics. But that's another subject. I only mention it to reinforce that one needs to know these distinctions up and down before drawing conclusions if one wants to avoid error.