Monday, June 26, 2006

Augustine's Confusion of Nature, Attribute, and Person in the Godhead


He is called in respect to Himself both God, and great, and good, and just, and anything else of the kind; and just as to Him to be is the same as to be God, or to be great, or as to be good, so it is the same thing to Him to be as to be a person (De Trinitate 7:6:11, from Schaff's The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [1st series], pp. 111-12).

12 comments:

Photius said...

That is one of the most damaging quotes in De Trinitate. Was the great Augustine that confused on these issues? I'm afraid so.

Thomas said...

Do Augustine’s words here have to be understood as a confusion of person and essence? There is no shortage of evidence in de Trinitate that he grasped the basic distinction. And certainly his dependence upon Hilary of Poitiers is evidence of the same. Perhaps his point – I may have to issue a 'retraction' myself when I get the chance to read the quote in context – is that the persons are not accidental to the essence.

Aquinas seems to make the same point for that very reason:

“Now whatever has an accidental existence in creatures, when considered as transferred to God, has a substantial existence; for there is no accident in God; since all in Him is His essence. So, in so far as relation has an accidental existence in creatures, relation really existing in God has the existence of the divine essence in no way distinct therefrom. But in so far as relation implies respect to something else, no respect to the essence is signified, but rather to its opposite term.

Thus it is manifest that relation really existing in God is really the same as His essence and only differs in its mode of intelligibility; as in relation is meant that regard to its opposite which is not expressed in the name of essence. Thus it is clear that in God relation and essence do not differ from each other, but are one and the same.” (STh I, q. 28, a. 2 Benziger Bros. edition, 1947)

lexorandi2 said...

Augustine buys into the neo-Platonic idea of Divine simplicity so that all distinctions and attributes and even (apparently) personhood ultimately breakdown in relation to this simplicity. It is inherently a modalistic model.

Going by your quote, it seems that Aquinas is faithful to this Augustinian model in stating that "relation really existing in God has the existence of the divine essense IN NO WAY DISTINCT THEREFROM."

Thomas said...

Aquinas's notion of divine simplicity may be borrowed from Neo-Platonism but his actual presentation of the idea is accompanied by certain arguments that must be refuted if the attribute is to be falsified. He does not think, however, that divine simplicity contradicts the plurality of persons. This is because he views the persons as subsisting relations. In so far as they are relations (i.e. not: in so far as they HAVE relations), there is a real plurality. In so far as they are subsisting, they are formally and numerically the same, one in being.

If we reject absolute simplicity, how do we avoid compositeness in the divine being?

lexorandi2 said...

Forget the question on compositeness. A more basic question to ask is why the West insists on attempting to define Deity at all! (Especially when such definitions by their very nature are inextricably grounded in philosophy rather than revelation.)

Acolyte4236 said...

Thomas,

I agree that Augustine does make the distinction between person and nature, but I think he talks out of both sides of his mouth. Some of his committments are getting in the way of being consistent.

The dependence on Hilary would be significant and exculpatory if Hilary and Augustine meant the same thing at every significant point. I am not convinced that they do.

As for Aquinas, I have to ask, which is metaphysically "thicker" essence or relation? I think the answer to that question will show that Thomas has his order of theology backwards. You are quite right that Neoplatonic or not, Thomas' position has to be refuted on its own grounds. I think at the least a very strong case can be made out that his view is incompatible with key Christian doctrines.

Another question. Why must that which is signified by something else with respect to relation be the opposite of essence? Why opposite at all?

A rejection of ADS would only entail composition in God if God ad intra were being and at the level of Nous. But why think that? If God is hyperousia how can there be composition in that which transcends the categories of being in the first place? And why would plurality entail or imply composition? It would only do so if we take the plurality to be a "real" distinction, that is real in so far as that which is plural is separable. I don't know why those who deny ADS have to be married to such a metaphysical thesis.

Acolyte4236 said...

Thomas,

I agree that Augustine does make the distinction between person and nature, but I think he talks out of both sides of his mouth. Some of his committments are getting in the way of being consistent.

The dependence on Hilary would be significant and exculpatory if Hilary and Augustine meant the same thing at every significant point. I am not convinced that they do.

As for Aquinas, I have to ask, which is metaphysically "thicker" essence or relation? I think the answer to that question will show that Thomas has his order of theology backwards. You are quite right that Neoplatonic or not, Thomas' position has to be refuted on its own grounds. I think at the least a very strong case can be made out that his view is incompatible with key Christian doctrines.

Another question. Why must that which is signified by something else with respect to relation be the opposite of essence? Why opposite at all?

A rejection of ADS would only entail composition in God if God ad intra were being and at the level of Nous. But why think that? If God is hyperousia how can there be composition in that which transcends the categories of being in the first place? And why would plurality entail or imply composition? It would only do so if we take the plurality to be a "real" distinction, that is real in so far as that which is plural is separable. I don't know why those who deny ADS have to be married to such a metaphysical thesis.

Thomas said...

Dr. D - I find it difficult to forget the problem of compositeness.

As for the tendency to define the divine nature, I think St. Thomas is more than immune to this criticism. In fact, the treatise on divine simplicity in the Summa Theologiae is an apophatic exploration of the meaning of the unity of God. Thomas proceeds not by giving a quidditive definition of the nature of God but rather by denying to God all the various kinds of composition characteristic of creatures: corporeal composition, matter-form composition and esse-essence composition. The result is not a “definition” of God but rather the rejection of created modes of existence.

Thomas said...

Acolyte4236 - As I said in a previous comment, Aquinas's "definition" of divine simplicity is essentially negative. His approach to the divine nature is to hyperousia in the sense of being beyond created being. Simplicity in Aquinas is not a positive notion but rather a negation of an essential feature of created esse: composition.

PS. I do not know the meaning of the acronym ADS.

As for what is “thicker” in St. Thomas’s Trinitarian thought, i.e. the hypostases or the essence, I think the case can be made for a thoroughgoing personalism in his doctrine. That is the effect, I think, of his discovery of ‘subsistent relations’. See Gilles Emery, OP Trinity in Aquinas, p. 165-206.

Photius said...

If Aquinas's account is truly negative, then why the identity relation and the either/or between substance and accident? If it was truly apophatic he would deny the identity of predicates both individually and severally. Furthermore, why would one start predicating these things about a nature anyway?

I don't see how Aquinas' account is "personalism" when he first considers the ordo of essence, attributes, persons.

Photios

Thomas said...

Photius - Aquinas's treatment of the Trinity in the Summa Theologiae manifests a key interest in the notion of person. This is evident simply by the number of questions he dedicates to it. The order of his treatment (essence - persons) does not reflect a methodological preference for essence over person. Rather, his treatment is a synthesis of what he considers the equally ultimate aspects of one essence and tri-personality. The third part of the treatise on God, in which he considers God under the aspect of principle of creation, brings these two prior divisions of the treatise together demonstrating that Thomas's theological vision is one in which the whole mystery of God is taken into account. This method, which Gilles Emery, OP has called ‘redoublement’ can be traced back to the Cappadocians who first employed systematically the distinction and the necessary relation between the unity, on the one hand, and the plurality, on the other.

As for his treatment of divine simplicity, it is truly apophatic. Thomas takes composition to be a created mode of existence. Thus he systematically denies of the divine nature all manners of composition.

Photius said...

"Gilles Emery, OP has called ‘redoublement’ can be traced back to the Cappadocians who first employed systematically the distinction and the necessary relation between the unity, on the one hand, and the plurality, on the other."

A very superficial understanding. The Cappadocians do not know of such an ordo. Again, ordo theologiae does not present some kind of ontological priority, but a certain order in which questions are dealt with. All the heretics have the same ordo as Augustine. Gregory of Nyssa criticizes Eunomius for starting with "being instead of person."

"As for his treatment of divine simplicity, it is truly apophatic. Thomas takes composition to be a created mode of existence. Thus he systematically denies of the divine nature all manners of composition."

Yes, I understand. Dialectical opposition governs the understanding.

Lack of composition doesn't license one to turn simplicity into the Great Metaphysical (=) sign of Neoplatonism.

Thomas's gloss on person doesn't seem to work by my lights. Persons as tapestries of 'relations' does not seem to map onto the Nicene faith as to those Who are irrepeatabable and ablsolutely unique.

Photios