Monday, July 21, 2008

Angels on Pinheads

Although it does not seem that the scholastics ever actually asked how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, still it must be admitted that they do at times discuss questions which seem, at least from this distance, just as trite and ridiculous. Take, for instance, St Bonaventure's In IV Sententiarum Dist. VIII. Pars II. Art. I Q. II ob. 7-8, where someone in Bonaventure's class is worrying about the fact that in the words of consecration--"This is the cup of my blood"--the principle thing referred to, the Precious Blood, is, horror of horrors, declined rather than in the nominative case, that is, crooked obliquo rather than straight recto! I have to admit it's hard to see why anyone would think this is a legitimate problem, or why Bonaventure would deem it worthy of response. It should at least be recalled that Bonaventure's Sentences commentary is a revised record of actual classroom lectures, and that even silly questions might come up and be discussed in a classroom setting which an academic professional would not today include in his published work.

At the same time the present question is extremely interesting in a number of other respects. For one, it sheds light on the present-day "pro multis" controversy. Just a few objections after the frivolous declension ones, it is asked why the words of consecration are "pro vobis et pro multis", for you and for many, and not "pro omnibus," for all, given that the blood of Christ was in fact shed for all. Bonaventure replies that by "pro vobis" Christ meant the Apostles to whom he was speaking, and by extension the Jews, and that by "pro multis" he meant the gentiles; or, similarly, by "for you" Christ meant the priests, the ministers of the sacrament he was instituting, and by "for many" he meant those to whom the priests were to minister. So that "for you and for many" in fact means the same thing as "for all". In the body of the question Bonaventure ventures the opinion that the *exact words* of the Roman canon are not *absolutely necessary* for confecting the sacrament--for one thing they are not the words found in the New Testament--and that so long as the sense remains identical the words might vary without changing the sacrament's form: forma in illis verbis omnibus salvatur, et modica variatio verbi, salvo sensu, formam non mutat. So thanks to St Bonaventure we can dispense with that canard of today's Traditionalists.

In any case, the "for you and for all" translation in today's English mass was approved specifically by Rome. In this same Responsio St B also deals with the question of *why* the form of confection differs from any of the formularies found in scripture, and his response is simply that the Roman Church has declared that this is the form. He affirms Roman primacy--based of course on its founding by Peter and Paul the princes of the Apostles--in explicit and strong terms, as well as the priority of the unwritten Tradition handed down by the Apostles over the authority of Scripture, at greater length than I care to quote and translate.

So here we have an excellent demonstration of the awesomeness of the scholastic method. Right next to merely absurd grammatical quibbles and scruples--just making sure we leave no stone left unturned, thank you--we have an exposition and defense of some of the central doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, with immediate applicability to controversies very much alive today within that Church. Did I mention that St Bonaventure is great?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

...where someone in Bonaventure's class is worrying about the fact that in the words of consecration--"This is the cup of my blood"--the principle thing referred to, the Precious Blood, is, horror of horrors, declined rather than in the nominative case, that is, crooked obliquo rather than straight recto!

Actually, this strikes me more as a-retentativeness; the same kind you'd actually find even in legal work.

Thus, it's not necessarily obsessing with questions concerning "How many angels can be accomodated on the head of a pin?" but rather as that on the meaning of 'is'.

Michael said...

Anonymous,

in this case the matter was not concerning the meaning of the words but the fittingness of the word's being declined.

However, the meaning of "is" does occupy a very great and respectable body of scholastic literature.

Lee Faber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Faber said...

that's right...is=esse=essentia

Anonymous said...

If the scholastics devoted themselves largely to such questions as:

1. How many angels can be accomodated on the head of a pin?

2. The Meaning of 'is'

Are there any actual practical applications to scholastic study as opposed to dealing with such things in the abstract?

Lee Faber said...

well, do recall my earlier post:

http://lyfaber.blogspot.com/2008/05/hilarious-quodlibetal-questions.html

But on a serious note, there is plenty in the vast body that comprises "scholasticism" of a practical nature, such as investigations of the will and its ability to sin, or what and how conscience is and works.

Anonymous said...

"THIS BLOG READING LEVEL IS: GENIUS"

A 'GENIUS' Scholastics blog?

Isn't that a contradiction in terms? ;^)