Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reply to the Maverick Philosopher

Dr Vallicella has honored me by responding to my last post at his blog, here:

Here is most of the reply that I posted there:

According to him: You write that God is a nature, and that this nature is thrice instantiated in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. But the reader may notice that I never wrote any such thing. It is clear that Dr Vallicella taken the word “nature” in the wrong sense, and read “instantiation” into it when this is doctrinallly inappropriate. Again, he writes, Your talk of instantiation suggests that God is a multiply instantiable entity whose instances are F, S, HG.

But I very much wish to deny this. It is central to monotheism that there is only one instance of the divine nature, and so whatever the multiplication of persons in God may be taken to mean, it cannot mean that there is more than one instance of God or individual God, which as he rightly points out compromises monotheism. As St Bonaventure says (In Sent. I.2.1): “It is impossible for there to be several gods, and if the meaning of the word ‘God’ is correctly received it is not only impossible but even unintelligible.”

So his use of “nature” to mean “multiply instantiable entity” suggests that the divine nature is a universal which is individuated in three instances. But the divine nature is not a universal, apt to be applied to or predicated of many, but a “form” which is singular by necessity. Theologians explain this necessity because of God’s simplicity (in order for a universal to be multiply instantiated it has to enter into composition with some individuating factors, but the divine nature is neither composible nor composed), God’s infinity (the divine nature is without limitation, but every case of instantiation involves a delimitation of one instance from all others), and so forth. Duns Scotus writes (in Reportatio I-A 2.3.3), “Whatever is of itself just a ‘this’ cannot possibly be multiplied, but whatever exists in the divine that is of one sort, is just of itself ‘this’ [i.e. is individual per se]”.

Every orthodox theologian, therefore, denies that in the Trinitarian productions – the generation of the Son by the Father or the spiration of the Holy Ghost by the Father and the Son – God produces another God, precisely because the divine nature cannot be multiplied. Again, Scotus (Reportatio I-A 5.1.1): “The essence neither procreates nor is procreated, and all the arguments that I find why it does not generate really come down to this. If this thing generates, then it procreates a real thing distinct from this essence. For no real thing generates itself. Therefore, it procreates some real thing that is not in the divine nature, because intrinsically there is no diversity there . . .”

If the divine nature were multiplied, there would be a plurality of Gods, and so a plurality of divine existences, operations, etc. But it’s intrinsic to the doctrine of the Trinity that the being or existence of the Father and the Son is one being. The operation whereby God creates the world is one operation, equally belonging to all three persons, not three cooperative activites. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are not one God because they are each a (different) instance of the divine nature, but because they are each the same instance of the divine nature. Scotus once more (Reportato I-A 4.2): God is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost “by a singularity which is shared, by which ‘this God’ is common to all three. And a singularity or haecceity similar to this is not to be found in creatures, because in creatures nothing is a ‘this’ except by the ultimate haecceity, which is completely incapable of being shared.”

That is, for creatures a supposit or hypostasis is only distinguished from another one of the same nature by the multiplication of the nature through an individuating difference. “Humanity” is not a singular individual nature by itself, but only by an additional instantiating factor. But “deity” is a singular individual nature by itself.

This is why the divine persons are said to be distinguished from one another only by their relations of origin. The Son has the very same deity that the Father has, which means he shares every single attribute belonging to the Father, except Paternity. In begetting the Father communicates his numerically identical essence and existence to the Son, and fails to communicate only his ingeneracy, the fact that he is unbegotten. St Bonaventure writes (In Sent. Whatever the Son has, he has either freom himself or from another; but he has deity, and not from himself, for then he would be unbegotten, therefore he has it from another.”

So there is no individuting factor in the three divine Persons except their relations of origin, and these relations are within the single divine nature or essence rather than multiplications of it. Paternity and Filiation are ways in which the one God is related to himself. The divine persons as distinct from one another have only relative subsistence, as opposed to the absolute subsistence of the divine nature. Again, this is contrast to the state of things we’re familiar with, in which for there to be many human persons there have to be many humanities. St Bonaventure once more (In Sent. “Father and Son and Holy Ghost are united in this name ‘God’, not from diverse causes [of individuality] but by reason of one deity or essence. [In contrast] there is a union of diverse causes, for example, when Peter and John are united in ‘man’, but by reason of diverse instances of humanity, because the humanity of Peter is one thing while that of John is another. . . . but Father and Son and Holy Spirit are united in one deity or essence but are distinct by reason of the plurality of persons.”

Any nature except the divine nature is a “multiply instantiable entity”, not individual through itself, and so the multiplication of hypostases, persons, or supposits requires the multiplication of the nature through some individuating factor in addition to the essence, whereby John’s humanity is specifically identical to but numerically distinct from Peter’s humanity. But, as I said before, the divine nature is necessarily individual through itself, and so in the multiplication of supposits in God the nature “deity” remains numerically as well as specifically identical, and the supposits or person are only distinct through their constituting relations.


Anthony said...

Of course if you treat God as a Really Special being among other beings and keep hammering away at the problem like that it will come out looking like mush. But if you faithfully apply the (Western medieval) doctrine of divine simplicity to the problem it sure looks consistent to me. I was disappointed by Dr. Vallicella's dismissive response.

Michael Sullivan said...

I was too, Anthony.

onus probandi said...

What I appreciated most about your subsequent comments at his site were your efforts at trying to maintain an irenic tone.

The Maverick Philosopher is one that I myself periodically frequent. I still remember the days when polite debate was a distinguishing feature of his site, especially in the days of a certain "Crimson" whose combined eloquence and thought-provoking engagement concerning many of the topics then proved a great experience for me personally.

I suspect that perhaps his intolerance of your comments the day before was more the product of a bad day perhaps than the very merits of your case.

Is there any chance that the two of you could somehow reconcile your apparent differences such that the both of you may continue a discussion on what seems to me a great subject that warrants continued exploration -- especially in light of both parties' theological differences?

Lee Faber said...

Dude, you couldn't read a ms. to save your life. you're not a medievalist, I'm a medievalist! I'm afraid you may be a philosopher.

Michael Sullivan said...

Is there any chance that the two of you could somehow reconcile your apparent differences such that the both of you may continue a discussion[?]


that's not really up to me. I was very willing to continue a discussion, but he made it clear that he didn't think it would be worthwhile. He didn't explain why, and so I can only speculate - did he get personally offended at my tone, or my claim that he misunderstood or misrepresented some key terms? Does he just think I am idiot and not worth his time? Is he unwilling to make the attempt to formulate his own points within the traditional terminology, or to see what extent his formulation of the issue is consistent with the traditional claims? Was he annoyed at my scholastic citations? I just don't know.

What really irked me was when he said to Lukas Novak, Unlike Sullivan, you have addressed the problem of the logical coherence of the Trinity doctrine, when I was making the very same points that Novak was making, among others. This in particular makes me think that he got irritated at the beginning of my post and didn't read any further, not carefully, anyway.

I noticed that yesterday someone else make a comment to the effect that he needed to make an attempt to understand the doctrine as it is actually understood by its adherents, not as he thinks it should be understood. This comment was deleted by this morning. It's an important point, though. In his later comments in the same thread he refers again to the Cartwright lecture he had linked to in an earlier post; he seems to use Cartwright's formulation of the "problem" as his default way to approach the subject.

But Cartwright has serious problems in presenting the doctrine as understood in Latin theology, just as Dr Vallicella apparently does. In that lecture, for instance, he writes: The heretical conclusion [tritheism] follows, by the general principle that if every A is a B then there cannot be fewer B's than A's. This principle, I claim, is evident to the natural light of reason. Thus, if every cat is an animal, there cannot be fewer animals than cats; if every senator from Massachusetts is a Democrat, there cannot be fewer Democrats than senators from Massachusetts. Just so, if every Divine Person is a God, there cannot be fewer Gods than Divine Persons.

Cartwright's main interlocutor for understanding the doctrine is the Wittgensteinian Catholic philosopher Peter Geach - not a theologian, and not working within traditional categories and terminology. I.e., not presenting or explaining the doctrine as actually understood by the Church. All too common, of course, for Catholic thinkers today. But it should be obvious to anyone who knows better that the above excerpt shows a radical lack of understanding the way Latin theology understands the relation of the Persons to the Divine Nature. And when at the end Cartwright states, We have come no farther than the Cappadocian Fathers. Either we divide the substance, or we confound the Persons, all this tells me is that he isn't familiar with any orthodox attempt to grapple with Trinitarian doctrine in between the Cappadocians and the Wittgensteinians. No wonder he's confused.

Michael Sullivan said...


I never claimed to be a medievalist! That was his label. However if I keep on my present course I probably run the risk of being denied the title of medievalist by real medievalists like yourself and denied that of philosopher by philosophers like Dr Vallicella.

onus probandi said...

I did admit to observing Maverick getting very personal (and, indeed, even needlessly offensive to the point of insult) in his remarkably rude responses to you; which is all the more reason I found your attempts at maintaining an irenic tone in spite of all his hostility to you all the more commendable.

It's just I would hate to see what could ultimately become a great discussion prematurely terminated simply because one interlocutor happens to behave so unreasonably intolerant of the other's opinion.

You may want to try (and, admittedly, this may challenge your charity especially in light of the prevailing circumstances) to provide him with more elaborate explanation specifically from his point of reference since it would appear as if he is looking from an entirely different (and even modern) perspective as opposed to the traditional one.

It is a symptom frequently exhibited in the Modern mindset.

Ironically, I find myself also suspectible to same given that I am a product of the age.

Good luck!

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) said...

>I noticed that yesterday someone else make a comment to the effect that he needed to make an attempt to understand the doctrine as it is actually understood by its adherents, not as he thinks it should be understood. This comment was deleted by this morning.

I reply: That was me. Wow, who knew this guy was so thin skinned? For the record what little of his blog I've read I've enjoyed. I loved his logical take down of some of the pretentious claptrap peddled these days by so called new atheists.

I'm surprised by his behavior. But I forgive him.

Michael Sullivan said...


I too have enjoyed his blog for years, despite not agreeing with everything whatsoever.

Anyway I'm about to respond to him again.

Paul Hamilton said...

Michael, where would you suggest a person start if they wanted a book or article that distinguished the medieval vs. the contemporary ways of addressing the Trinity?

Michael Sullivan said...

Paul, I'm afraid I can't give you much of an answer. Not being a theologian, I haven't made much of an effort to survey the field of contemporary trinitarian theology. I'm familiar to a certain extent with the twentieth-century neo-scholastic manuals, but these are more like the medievals than like whatever contemporary theologians are doing today. My acquaintance with medieval trinitarianism comes almost completely from reading the primary sources, so while there are probably good comparative surveys out there, I can't point you to them. Sorry this is so unhelpful.

Paul Hamilton said...

Michael, that's okay. Thanks anyway.