“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, are inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.


Modern Metaphysics, Morphed

This article, an exercise in my preparation for PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy and theology geeks, and them alone.

How does the meaning of the term “metaphysics” change from the premodern to the modern period?

As good a place as any to begin is Book VIII chapter 6 of Augustine’s City of God, where Augustine rehearses:

  1. The priority of simple being over all non-simple being.
  2. Because (unlike body and soul) simple being is beyond degree(s of comparison), it is that by which any apprehension of beauty is judged. Hence simple being must be a or the “primary form” that exists in the mind.

Two quick notes about this summary rendition of things. First, Augustine here builds upon Aristotle’s work of prôtê philosophia (subsequently named The Metaphysics) which conceives of the unmoved mover (which, as “that which is most knowable in itself,” is the ultimate pedagogical destination of Aristotle’s entire programmic “order of learning” or hierarchy of sciences, beginning with the Organon) as pure, fully “actualized” being, pure energeia. No matter, no potency at all can be said to be in God. Hence, for the Stagirite theos is utterly simple (haplax). Second, it is instructive, as we juxtapose this way of thinking with modern thought, to remember Avicenna’s determination of simple being as necessary, and complex being as contingent. Although not all pre-modern thinkers—Plotinus and Averroes come to mind—agree with this characterization, it is still conveniently helpful to regard all material, spatio-temporal being as contingent, for the pre-modern mind.

Enter Descartes, who changes things at the most fundamental level possible. The short version of things is that metaphysics is now cast in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. But that dichotomy lies at the far end of a series of moves which change the course of intellectual history precisely in their details.

Those crucial “details” begin with a move which I will characterize as: grounding the sciences in the irreducibility of the individual subject. Descartes agrees with Aristotle on the importance of “that which is most known or knowable[*] in itself,” but for Descartes, who thinks he’s doubted everything that can be, can no longer regard this “thing” to be God. Further, it is still for him—as also for Aristotle—this recursivity or reflexivity which alone can ground scientia. What, then, is the locus of this reflexivity? No longer nous noeôs, it is now: subject and object. The latter grounds the former and the former grounds the world.

No longer, then, is science—as was the case from Aristotle through the Scholastics—an ordered system of intellectual disciplines, each of which depends upon the former epistemologically (or pedagogically), and upon the subsequent ontologically. Now, with the birth of the modern, they are considered to be (grounded in) a reflexive relationship between subject / observer and object / observed.

So, if “metaphysics” refers to that which is beyond the natural (which, for Descartes is collapsed with culture, the domain of human poiêsis and technê), the that which is beyond is the human subject, res cogitans.

True, Descartes believes in God and math, but these things are arrived at and secured only after he convinces himself that the subject, the cogito, exists. Plus, while the subject is known for Descartes, God and math are for him likely objects of mere belief. (They are moments of his “way out,” back out into the world, subsequent to his “movement inward,” which hits “rock bottom” at the point at which he cannot doubt the existence of his self.)

Finally, it must be said that this metaphysical shift which we see in Descartes is not the end of a development, but only the beginning: thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Bergson and Husserl build on this foundation, in their various and unique ways. Just one example would be Husserl’s redefinition of “absolute being” (also for Bergson) and “dependent being.” According to Dermot Moran,

Husserl maintains that consciousness cannot be thought away in such an experiment and hence must be understood as having “absolute being” whereas reality has to be understood as dependent being. In this section [§49] Husserl styles the world of pure consciousness as “immanent being” and as absolute. (Dermot Moran, “Foreward,” in Edmund Husserl, Ideas (… ), xxiii.

[*] in Greek these two participles are morphologically identical.



Platonic Forms (a feeble attempt)

What, for Plato, are the forms? Nothing could be more difficult than to answer this question: even Augustine, who certainly knew Plato much much better than I, dumurs in attempting to “nail” Plato “down:” after all, “he emulated … the well known practice of his master Socrates … of concealing his own knowledge of opinion.” (City of God VIII.4)

So, then, what follows is the best I can do in stammering toward some kind of sketchy impression of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

Many interpreters of Plato, including Aristotle, who followed the truth over his friend, take Platonic forms to be mental concepts. And, one can see a certain plausibility in this interpretation, especially based on the early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro, where the form of “piousness” is considered in the context of a discussion on genus and species, and in the Phaedo, where equal sticks and stones are said to be equal, due to the reality of some form of equality. In the former case it can be said that genus and species are, in fact, mental concepts, and in the latter case one can say that mathematical type entities seem to be mental concepts, as well.

So, is this the answer? For Plato, are the forms simply mental concepts?

Not quite, for beginning in the middle dialogues, including the Republic, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus, the Good seems to be a mysterious reality, in which the human soul participates. This is construed in diverse ways, but in each case the Good is transcendent and elusive while nonetheless characterized as a kind of desiridatum which the human minds strives for. In the Republic one thinks of the Good which lies above the divided line, and hence above the rational intellect simply speaking. Since the entire logic of the divided line proceeds on the basis of participation (with the lower realm of appearances “participating” in the upper realm of rationality), it makes sense to see rational nous, or indeed the whole soul or the whole person, as participating, striving to participate, in the good, into which it is “wooed” or even seduced.

Speaking of seduction, in the Symposium we encounter divine Diotima, for whom not only does the lover enjoy or delight in looking[1] upon the beloved. In addition to this, Diotima (according to Seth Bernardete in his commentary on the Symposium) completes Socrates’s life-long education, providing the third of his major breakthroughs or epiphanies (after the second sailing of the Phaedo and the Parmenidean realization, narrated in the first half of the Parmenides, that if the forms are knowable, they are knowable only by God), that all things participate in Beauty. On this scenario, the ultimate form is “Beauty” (there is room in Plato to argue that beauty is “convertible” with the Good), and all things participate in it, as illuminated reason is enabled to perceive.

Hence, a more plausible view, in opposition to form-as-mental-concept, is the view that Plato regards the Form(s) as participata, that in which all things—including the human mind—participate. For Plato, then, it is in the Form(s) that we live and move and have our being.

If ever there were an “extra-mental” reality, this is it.


[1] The Greek eidos is cognate with the verb for “to look,” also with the Latin video, whose first letter was originally a diagamma, yielding the Greek stem “id.”


Phenomenological Reduction: a Theological Refutation?

Note: this article is intended for philosophy and theology nerds, and them alone!

I am suspecting that “the phenomenological reduction” is not possible when it comes to eating (an apple, or the consecrated Body of Christ, for example). It seems to work for vision, but not for eating. If I “bracket” the existence of the apple (while eating it), then am I not also led inextricably to “bracket” the existence of the tongue, teeth, throat, and stomach which touches them? They are “like objects,” after all. (Or something like that.)

Aristotle may have known this in advance, as evidenced by his words in _De Anima_ II.9-11. There he says that touch (which subsumes taste & smell, such that, ultimately, there are only 3 senses) “proves the existence of the soul” because for it alone among the senses is the “third thing” (required for sensation to work) the actual human body. (He is here assuming that since the body cannot be the thing which does the experiencing, the only option left is to say that the soul is the thing that does the experiencing.)

Which means that the body cannot be bracketed while eating, period. Which means that the apple cannot be bracketed. Which means that the phenomenological reduction does not work with respect to eating.

Which means objects exists.

No wonder Christians (as opposed to Greeks, who privilege vision, & Jews, who privilege hearing) privilege eating (and hence touch).

Grateful to John Milbank & Catherine Pickstock for their emphasis on the sensation of touch (in their book on Thomas Aquinas, Truth In Aquinas).


“Second Sailing” as Proto-Phenomenology? Not quite.

Note: this post is intended only for philosophy & theology geeks!

In her chapter, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” Eva Brann helpfully illuminates what is going on in Plato’s “second sailing,” discussed in the Socratic dialogue of the same name. Just before Socrates shares his discovery of the second sailing with his interlocutors in the Phaedo, he pauses dramatically and reflects deeply within himself. Indeed, he seems to be signaling, what is at stake in this second sailing is “no trivial business:” he means to inquire into the very “cause of generation and destruction as a whole.”[1]

Socrates then proceeds to narrate an intellectual autobiography of sorts, emphasizing the unfruitfulness of his prior “inquiry into nature.” At first, he says, he would “give the most ordinary answers to explain generation and growth: a human being grows by eating and drinking and adding flesh.” Note that this explanation is merely physical, merely based on a kind of naïve visual observation with little attempt to inquire “behind” the surface level items of everyday experience. This is an “explanation” that functions at the level of “things bumping into each other,” the naïve, “physicalist” kind of explanation offered by the Presocratics of the Milesian School.

Brann continues to comment upon Socrates’ account of his intellectual development in the Phaedo by pointing out the importance of the young Plato’s self-narrated discovery of a claim put forward by Anaxagoras, that “Mind orders the world.” Despite the fact that Anaxagoras failed to apply this principle rigorously to his system, instead falling back upon the same superficial explanations of ancient physicalists such as Thales, this insight about mind would prove determinative for the young Socrates, according to his own account. For it was this inkling that allowed Socrates to move beyond merely physical explanations. His recourse? If one wise statement from a predecessor in the tradition—that is, if just one logos—could prove fruitful, why not search for others as well?

Socrates describes this “moving beyond” in terms of a “turning away,” a forsaking his prior method of “direct” naïve observation for what he calls a “second sailing.” A fresh attempt to regroup, to start over, to turn away (albeit provisionally) from what the eyes see, to an investigation of what speech has in common with what those eyes see.[2] After all, one thing that eyes can never see is the very thing that Socrates initially stated as his goal: “the cause of generation and destruction as a whole,” whatever that might turn out to be.

How similar is this move to the procedure(s) which, twenty-four and centuries later, Edmund Husserl advocates under the banner of “phenomenology?” The short answer: very similar, indeed … but more different than similar.

To see resemblance, however, one must first appreciate that the procedure which Socrates enacts in his “second sailing” is actually composed of two, smaller-scale moves: first, he turns away; then he searches for something by means of words, by means of logoi.

What is fascinating is that, Husserl’s phenomenological procedure, has advocated and spelled out in his Ideas I, also involves not one fundamental move, but two.

And as is the case with Plato, the first move is a kind of turning away. Husserl writes:

We put out of action the … natural standpoint, we place in brackets whatever includes respecting the nature of Being: this entire natural world therefore which is continually “there for us”….[3]

How similar is this move to (the first moment of) Socrates’ move? From the quotation immediately above (together with its context) we know that Husserl’s move involves a turning away from a certain kind of naïve, “natural” assumption: that the things which we see “really” exist. But what is Socrates turning away from?

I decided that I must be careful not to suffer the misfortune which happens to people who look at the sun and watch it during an eclipse. For some of them ruin their eyes unless they look at its image in water or something of the sort. I thought of that danger, and I was afraid my soul would be blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with any of my senses. So I thought I must have recourse to conceptions and examine in them the truth of realities.[4]

Now, from this quotation we see that what both Plato and Husserl turn away from is a kind of naïve trust which assumes that things are in reality the way they appear to us by way of our vision. In this regard, it seems to me that Plato & Husserl are, in their “turn away,” doing the same thing.

Further, in a kind of intermediate move—a move between the moves—Socrates follows Husserl in emphasizing the importance of images, images which both thinkers affirm and advocate as an object of our focus. Plato seems to endorse the consideration of “image[s] in the water; in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction / ephochê he thinks that “a new region of being,” that of consciousness, comes into view, and within this region the mind attends rigorously not just to memories but also to “fantasies,” that is to say, to images.

Let me quickly register one pointed difference, however, in the two “turnings away.” Husserl makes it explicit in Ideas Part I, §32 that in the phenomenological reduction, one turns away not just from a kind of naïve dependence upon what one perceives by way of vision, but also from any kind of “theory” about the world or the things in the world. The world which we acknowledge, if only for the purpose of “setting in brackets,” is a world “free from all theory.”[5] So what one does here is to suspend the existence of the world, a process which includes provisionally denying or ignoring any kind of metaphysical scientific claim. The rejected world is “just the world as my senses take it in.” It is this world which is provisionally suspended, or assumed not to exist.

Now, one the one hand, Socrates can be said to turn away from this same world of appearance, and to suspend, reject, ignore, deny the theories of the world which he had previously been assuming. So far, Plato’s move matches Husserl’s. However, one must also recognize that Plato’s rejection of theory quickly gives way to an new entertaining of them, in the form of logoi, or wise opinions passed down primarily from his predecessors in the tradition. Secondly, and more fundamental, Socrates does not say that he is suspending or doubting or turning away from “the existence” of anything at all. I’d argue, in fact, that it is impossible to regard Socrates as doing this. Such a move occurs only after Descartes in the tradition, since prior to him there is an “ontological assuredness” (Cornelius Castoriadis) which characterizes all premodern thinkers. For them the question is never “Does anything at all exist?” but only “how does reality exist?”.

The deepest point is this, it seems to me: that from which Socrates turns away is merely one theory of how things exist. Granted, it was the theory which he apparently had adopted, but by his day many rival theories were on the scene (Parmenidean monism, Pythagoreanism, etc.). That from which Husserl turns away (albeit provisionally), however, runs much deeper than any one of these ancient, inter-mural theories, one among which Socrates repudiates. The “natural attitude” seems to be universally assumed. Even Buddhist mystics and ancient Cynics assume the world to exist in the sense in which Husserl means. And yet, this is what Husserl calls into question.

Put it another way: Plato seeks “to inquire into the cause of generation and destruction as a whole;” he never calls that cause–which surely is (closely related to) being–into question. But this calling into question is the very thing that Husserl’s phenomenological epochê does do.

To conclude. In this sloppily-written short essay, I’ve noted some similarities & differences between Plato’s “second sailing” and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Let me state what, perhaps, is the most interesting similarity between the two moves: they both “pause and reflect deeply” within themselves. What Plato states briefly, though, and passes over quickly, Husserl, like his contemporary Henri Bergson, “stays with” and elongates. For these latter two phenomenologists, then, this move deep within turns out to be a much bigger deal.



[1] Eva Brann, “Introduction to the Phaedo,” in The Music of the Republic (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2011), 20.

2 Brann, “Introduction,” 22.

[3] Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. W.R. Boyce Gibson (New York: Routledge, 2012), 59 (Part I, §32).

[4] Plato, Phaedo, 99d-e, from the Perseus Digital Library, URL = http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D99e

[5] Husserl, Ideas, 60.


Hegel & Theology

What is the relationship between philosophy and theology? In a very real sense, the burning desire to answer this question for myself was one of my primary motivations for entering a PhD program in philosophy at a Catholic institution, studying under a renowned thinker who, sometimes I am tempted to think, is a theologian posing as a philosopher. To my mind such an academic posture is perfectly suited for our contemporary cultural moment in the West.

However before one can answer this question, one must first be as clear as possible on the meaning of the terms “philosophy” and “theology.” Here’s my stab at such requisite clarity. Theology is the rational interpretation and development of the content of revelation; philosophy is the ordered system of sciences, in both its Aristotelian and Hegelian incarnations, extending from the supreme principle of theos / Geist on the one hand, to the most propaeduetically incipient or elementary principle(s) of logic on the other. (Note: God / theos / Geist is a constitutent element for both ancient thought [Aristotle]  and (post)modern thought [Hegel].)

In the third part of his “system” entitled “The Philosophy of Geist,” Hegel writes:

In order to elucidate for ordinary thinking this unity of form and content present in the mind, the unity of manifestation and what is manifested, we can refer to the teaching of the Christian religion. Christianity says: God has revealed himself through Christ, his only begotten son. Ordinary thinking straightway interprets this statement to mean that Christ is only [ital. mine] the organ of this revelation, as if what is revealed in this manner were something other than the source of the revelation. But in truth this statement properly means that God has revealed that his nature consists in having a Son, i.e., in making a distinction within himself, making himself finite, but in his difference remaining in communion with himself, beholding and revealing himself in the Son, and that by this unity with the Son, by his being for himself in the other, he is absolute mind or spirit, so that the Son is not the mere organ of the revelation, but is himself the content of the revelation. (Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, tr. Wallace & Miller, 1971, §383)

Preliminary construal of the relationship between philosophy and theology (as defined above and to be developed later): they are symbiotically or reflexively related, such that each is the condition of possibility for the other.

That is, there neither is nor can be philosophy without theology, nor theology without philosophy.

(Note: this view, it seems to me right now, requires that we regard Aristotle as a recipient of revelation. Kinda crazy.)



MacIntyre on Nietzsche on Homer(ic characters)

On page 129 on of After Virtue (2nd ed.) MacIntyre writes:

Here again it is clear that Nietzsche had to mythologize the distant past in order to sustain his vision. What Nietzsche portrays is aristocratic self-assertion; what Homer [portrays are] the forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role. The self becomes what it is in heroic societies only through its role; it is a social creation, not an individual one. Hence when Nietzsche projects back on to the archaic past his own nineteenth-century individualism, he reveals that what looked like an historical inquiry was actually an inventive literary construction.

Good point. This does not necessary invalidate Nietzsche’s project, but it demands that here (as also with Heidegger on Aristotle) one be clear on the artistic nature of it.


Medieval Roots of Biblical Typology

Nerd alert: this post is intended for theology geeks only!

In so many ways I’m grateful for the education I received in my MDiv program at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, one qualm I have: WTS’ consistent presumption of a-historicity. That is, it tends to deny that its primary doctrinal emphases (most of which I am totally “down with”) are rooted in a particular history.

Case in point. In the biblical departments there was much (extremely valuable) emphasis on biblical typology.

For decades I’ve wondered, “Does this idea have any historical precedence in medieval thought?” Now I know that it does:

All the mysteries of Scripture treat of Christ with his Body…. This is the meaning of Augustine in his book on the City of God.

So writes Bonaventure in Hexaemeron XV,[1] thus indicating that for him, Augustine’s primary mode of exegesis is an example of a figura sacramental, and not of the allegorical or spiritual sense of Scripture (that is, the “four-fold sense”).

Basically Augustine is doing typological exegesis, and not “spiritual” exegesis, according to Bonaventure. Hence, we can say that Westminster’s emphasis on biblical typology almost certainly has a historical dependence on Augustine. The fact that at least one medieval author (Bonaventure) explicitly acknowledges Augustine as exegeting in a non-“allegorical” way makes this clear.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History of St. Bonaventure, tr. Zachary Hayes, O.F.M. (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1989), 10.


God: not (numerically) One

Geek alert: only theology & philosophy nerds should read this post. (It is a distillation of one swath of my study project for comprehensive exams.)

In Question 11 of the Prima Pars of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, he treats the question of the unity of God.

In this particular section of his “Treatise on God” (usually considered to be questions 2 – 26 of the Prima Pars), he makes statements which, “by good and necessary inference” allow the reader to conclude that God is not numerically one.

But to see this, one must first take a quick plunge into the way that the ancients thought about number, for upon this way of thinking, Thomas is wholly dependent.

Two quick points to make here: 1. that “one” is convertible with being; 2. that “the numerical one” is different from “the one that is convertible with being.”

First, that oneness is convertible with being. Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc. [By the way, an interesting corollary of this doctrine is that we can be sure that, in a meaningful sense, God is not angry. See this post.]

Because God is simple in this way, it is impossible that he exists “through another,” which is the medieval (and ancient) way of saying that he is uncaused. But if he is uncaused, then must be necessary. Right: God does not exist contingently, like material beings, but rather necessarily. (Note: Averroes believed that a) material beings, i.e., the celestial bodies, exist necessarily; b) that effects, like Plotinus’ Nous and the heavenly bodies, can exist necessarily. Thomas disagrees with him, agreeing with Avicenna that spatial extension is convertible with contingency.)

All of this means that God is what you might call “full being.” Or “Being itself.” Or “Being as Such” (as long as, by that last denomination, you don’t mean “Being in General:” shame on you, Francisco Suarez).

Now, if you like Thomas Aquinas then you also have to like Parmenides (at least in a qualified way). Thomas, like Plato & Aristotle before him, gives Parmenides a qualified “high five” for his insight that being must be one. If two things exist (Aristotle & Thomas would say, “… exist in the full and proper sense”), that is, then this necessarily implies “privation,” or what Parmenides calls “non-being” (if for no other reason than that “A” is not “B.”).

But … what do we (or does Parmenides) mean here by “one?” Thomas think, in Article 1 of Question 11, that he means “undividability.” That is, the one thing that exists cannot be “sliced and diced” such that you can chop A in half and get two A’s, two of the same thing. This is how being must needs be for Parmenides: undividible.

One more point. In this article Thomas also teaches (following Avicenna) that this kind of oneness is different from numerical oneness. The latter, he thinks, would imply an actual numeric infinity (off limits for him), and would “add something” to God in the same way that white “adds something” to the substance of Socrates.

Hence, for Thomas (and for me) God is one, but God is not numerically one.




Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.



Things Thomistic: Sacra Doctrina vs. Scientia Divina

In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, what is the difference between these two terms? The answer to this question, above all, is quite complicated.

First off, as Philipp Rosemann shows in his article “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” Thomas, in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, as well as in his de facto disavowal of the Sentences (that is, his abandonment of the Sentences as a way to do theology, which abandonment precipitated his development of a more distinctively Thomistic method which comes to expression in the Summa Theologiae) radically updates the accepted mode of doing theology to a much more scientific mode of inquiry. Indeed in his Sentences commentary, Thomas emphasizes the need for certainty in theological thought as well as that such thought be explicitly regarded as a “discipline,” the end of which is knowledge of scientia (Philipp Rosemann, “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” 60). These two emphases—certainty and disciplina—are distinctively Aristotelian notes which now come to mark Scholastic theology, thanks to Thomas.

In this sense, the transition which Thomas accomplishes on the heels of the Lombard may be regarded as Scientia Divina, as Rosemann shows. The stress is on “scientia” here. What kind of scientia is it? Answer: it is a divine science, a knowledge of divine things.

And yet, it is important to note that Thomas would also regard Aristotle’s own systematic thinking about God—the same kind of thinking which Aristotle displays in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, with its treatment of the cause of being, which cause Aristotle refers to as theos—as also satisfying the requirement of scientia divina. (In fact, Thomas would likely regard this as the paradigmatic form of such thinking!) Of note here is that the former—Thomas’ revision in light of the Sentences—explicitly traffics in the language and thematic motifs of revelation, while the latter—Arisotle’s theology in the Metaphysics—does not. Nevertheless, I argue that Thomas would regard both as “scientia divina.” It’s just that one relies on revelation, and one does not.

As opposed to Thomas’ notion of scientia divina, his conception of sacra doctrina seems to be different. At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, he asks if, besides philosophical studies (here Thomas is thinking of Aristotelian disciplines such as the Physics and the Ethics), any further teaching (Lat. doctrina) is required. Of course, he answers the question in the affirmative, ultimately emphasizing the importance of that which lies beyond reason:

It was necessary for human salvation that there should be a teaching revealed by God, besides the philosophical studies investigated by human reason. First, because humanity is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of reason. According to Isaiah 66:4, “eye has not seen, O God, without you, what things you have prepared fro those that love you.” But the end must first be known by people who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Therefore it was necessary for the well-being of humanity that certain truths that exceed human reason should be made known by divine revelation. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.1, as appearing in F.C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching, 32.)

Thomas, then, is arguing that a different kind of teaching, in addition to philosophical teaching, is necessary. What kind of teaching? Holy teaching: sacra doctrina.

To sum up, then. The main differences between scientia divina and sacra doctrina are:

  • the former highlights the notion of rigorous, scientific systematicity, whereas the latter does not have this emphatically in view.
  • The former may or may not rely on divine revelation, whereas the latter definitely does.
  • the latter refers to the activity of teaching (the kind of thing that happens in a classroom), where as the former not necessarily.
  • Lastly, since Aristotelian “theology” (as it appears for example in Bk. VI Lambda with the ocurrance of “theologia” at line 1026a 19 and the identification of this discipline as “first philosophy” in 1026a 31) does count as scientia divina for Thomas, one should remember that all separate substances (and not just God) fall into this category as well. In contrast to this, while sacra doctrina would of course take in within its purview the same “separated substances”—how often to the Scriptures speak of angels?—it would also treat other things in the world as well: mountains, rivers, bread, wine, land, offspring, etc. In this sense, then, sacra doctrina is much broader than scientia divina, which either brackets or “subalternates” the realm, for example, of the natural, and hence is much more specific.

Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinate dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.



[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.