Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Tugwell on St. Albert on negative theology

Negative theology is a crucial component of classical theism.  To a first approximation, the idea is that at least with respect to some aspects of the divine nature, we can say what God is not rather than what he is.  But again, that is only a first approximation, and a potentially misleading one at that.  In his long and substantive introduction to the spiritual theology of St. Albert the Great in Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, Fr. Simon Tugwell makes some important observations about the matter.  I want to call attention to four of them.

An obvious and uncontroversial example of negative theology would be the claim that God is uncaused.  To say that God is uncaused is, by itself, merely to say that he is not caused.  This assertion doesn’t strictly tell us what God is but what he is not.  Pretty simple.  Except that there is more to it than that, and my “by itself” qualifier is essential.  This brings me to the first point from Tugwell:

1. Negative theology is not a matter of God merely lacking something

Suppose your eight-year-old child has started piano lessons and seems to be doing reasonably well.  You mention to a friend that your child seems to be musical.  Suppose your friend responds, blandly and without a trace of irony: “That’s interesting.  I was watching this movie Amadeus last night.  Mozart was musical too.”  I’ve embellished Tugwell’s example a bit, but he observes that “we might… hesitate to say that Mozart was ‘musical’; the little boy next door may be musical, but Mozart—?  The word hardly begins to do justice to his talent” (p. 43).  

The point, of course, is not that Mozart is lacking musical ability, but rather that what he has is not properly conveyed by attributing to him the sort of thing a little boy has.  Saying that “Mozart was musical too” trivializes his ability.  Mozart is more than “musical” in the sense in which the boy is musical, not less.  Hence, Tugwell suggests, we might truly say that Mozart was not musical, insofar as what Mozart had was not limited to being “musical” in the way that a little boy might be musical.

To supplement Tugwell’s example, consider the famous lines from The Elephant Man: “I am not an animal!  I am a human being!”  In saying this, Joseph Merrick was not intending to contradict the Aristotelian definition of a human being as a rational animal, and he was certainly not claiming to be less than an animal.  Rather, he was saying that he was more than a mere animal.  You might think of the remark as a kind of “negative anthropology,” one we all deploy when we distinguish human beings from animals.  What we are saying is not that human beings lack animality, but rather that they cannot be reduced to mere animality.  

So, go back to the claim that God is uncaused.  When we refer to the cause of a thing, we are identifying something external to it that explains it or makes it intelligible, something that makes it the case that it exists or that it has some attribute.  But when classical theists say that God is uncaused, they are not saying that God lacks intelligibility or an explanation of his existence or attributes.  They are not denying the principle of sufficient reason.  Rather, they are saying that, unlike other things, the source of God’s intelligibility, what explains his existence and attributes, is not to be found in something external to him.  Rather, it is to be found within him, in his very nature.  Things need causes to the extent that they exhibit potentiality or composition.  God is purely actual or without potentiality, and absolutely simple rather than composite.  Hence he needs, and indeed can have, nothing outside him that could cause his existence and attributes.  

The claim that God is uncaused is, accordingly, not the claim that God has less intelligibility than things that have causes do, but rather that he has more intelligibility than these other things do.  His intelligibility is entirely intrinsic to him as something that is, as it were, “already” purely actual and thus has no need for some external agent to actualize him.  Other things have less intelligibility insofar as any explanation of their existence and attributes has, to some extent, to refer to something outside them.

In general, claims of negative theology are not mere negations.  They are not mere denials that God is this or that.  They tend to contain an affirmative implication as well, to the effect that there is something in God (intelligibility, for example), but without the limitations that that something exhibits when it is found in creatures.  

2. The metaphorical and mystical names of God

This leads naturally to a second point.  St. Albert notes that there are two sorts of negations that the negative theologian wants to make.  Suppose someone said that “God is a rock,” meaning that, like a rock, God is solid, stable, and a foundation on which other things might rest.  The negative theologian will point out that this way of speaking can only be metaphorical rather than literally true.  

But other claims about God are not metaphorical.  For example, when we say God is a cause, we are speaking literally.  But God’s mode of causality is nevertheless radically unlike that of creaturely causes.  For example, when bringing about effects, God does not work through corporeal organs, the way we do.  For the very existence of anything corporeal is precisely part of what he is causing.  Hence we have to deny that God’s causality is like the causality with which we are familiar in experience.  As Aquinas emphasizes, we have to say that there is in God, not the same causality that we see in the world around us, but rather something analogous to what we call causality in the world around us – where analogical attributions of this sort are not univocal but not metaphorical either.  

Albert gives as an example the attribution of fatherhood to God.  This is, for Albert, no mere metaphor.  At the same time, here too we are attributing to God something which, in its creaturely manifestations, has all sorts of limitations that cannot apply to God.  For example, human fathers produce their children by way of sexual reproduction and thus by way of corporeal organs, they are imperfect in their love and wisdom, and so on.  None of this is true of God.  So, for much of the content we associate with the term “father,” the negative theologian will deny that it applies to God.

These non-metaphorical attributions are labeled by Albert the “mystical” or “secret” names of God.  The idea is that when we call God a cause or a father, we are not speaking merely metaphorically, but that since the limitations associated with creaturely causes or fathers must be negated, the positive content of the attribution is thinned out in the extreme.  The nature of God’s causality and fatherhood are in this way largely secret or hidden to us.  We can affirm literally that God is a cause and that he is a father, but we can say far more about what this does not involve than what it does involve.  

There are, Albert says, three ways that these mystical names of God can be potentially misleading, so that the negative theologian insists on qualifying them:

[T]hey present as complex a reality which is of infinite simplicity; they present imperfectly what is absolutely perfect; and they sometimes present as an accident something which is really substance.  (Quoted at p. 77 of Tugwell)

Hence, creaturely causes are always composite.  In the case of a physical substance, this entails having corporeal parts, and with all creaturely causes it entails at the very least being a composite of act and potency.  But God is pure actuality and entirely simple or non-composite.  Creaturely causes are always in various ways limited or imperfect in their causal power.  God is not.  In a created thing, we can distinguish between the thing itself, its causal power, and the exercise of that causal power on some particular occasion.  In God, who is simple or non-composite, we cannot make such distinctions.  Hence much of the content we associate with the things of our experience that we call causes has to be negated in the case of God.

This does not entail that there is no positive content left over once the needed negations have been made, though classical theists disagree about the extent to which our knowledge of God is negative.  (I discuss this issue in the chapter on God’s nature in Five Proofs of the Existence of God.)  But even where the attribution of something God is not metaphorical, the negative theologian insists that its positive content will, given God’s pure actuality, simplicity, etc., inevitably be at least somewhat less than meets the eye.

I would add to what St. Albert and Tugwell have to say that if you think this somehow makes theology suspect, you should keep in mind that exactly the same thing occurs in physics, when the physicist describes something remote from ordinary experience.  For example, as philosopher of physics David Albert notes in his book Quantum Mechanics and Experience, the physicist’s notion of a superposition has very little positive content.  What the physics tells us about a quantum object in a superposition of states A and B, Albert says, is that it is not in A and it is not in B and it is not in both and it is not in neither, but rather in a superposition of A and B.  “And what that means (other than “none of the above”) we don’t know” so that “superposition” is “just a name for something we don’t understand” (p. 11).  

This is exactly what we should expect.  The human intellect’s natural home, as it were, is the world of ordinary physical objects, which are mixtures of actuality and potentiality.  But God is pure actuality devoid of potentiality.  And quantum mechanics, I would argue, studies that level of physical reality which is closest to (though not quite identical with) what the Aristotelian would call prime matter – the pure potentiality to take on form. The closer the intellect gets to either pure actuality or pure potentiality, the less its ordinary modes of description apply, and the more those modes of description have to be qualified by negations.

3. Negative theology can lead precisely toward scripture rather than away from it

Classical theists are sometimes accused of conceiving of God in a way that lets philosophical speculation trump scripture.  When one considers how deeply scripture permeates the thinking and writing of classical theists like Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, et al., the charge can be seen to be quite ridiculous.  But as Tugwell points out (see pp. 43 and 78-79), classical theism’s emphasis on the role of negative theology in a proper understanding of God often leads its advocates precisely toward an accent on scripture rather than away from it.

The reason is that one of the key themes of negative theology is the limitations that inevitably face the unaided human intellect in grasping the divine nature given, on the one hand, its creaturely and finite nature, and on the other hand, the infinity of God.  The human mind simply cannot, on its own, attain very much in the way of positive knowledge of the divine nature (though, again, exactly how much or little positive knowledge we have is a matter of dispute between classical theists).  Hence we must rely largely (or entirely, depending on the negative theologian in question) on God’s revelation to us in the Bible, rather than on anything philosophical speculation can yield.  

In this way, negative theology can lead precisely to an emphasis on scripture over philosophy as a source of knowledge of the divine nature.  Note that the point isn’t that it always leads in this direction or that it has to.  Moreover, even the scripture-oriented negative theologian will insist that scriptural descriptions of God must always be interpreted in a way that avoids the attribution to God of any creaturely limitations.  The point is rather that it is superficial to suppose that classical theism’s key philosophical commitments entail a downgrading of scripture.

4. Negative theology is a remedy against idolatry

Albert summarizes the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius as the thesis that God “is seen precisely in our ignorance of him” (quoted at p. 90).  It is only when we take seriously all the ways that God is not, how radically unlike created things he is, that we begin to get a glimpse of the divine nature.  Tugwell writes:

[This] might appear to make God painfully remote.  But if this is how it strikes us, we need to look carefully at our reaction.  There is a very proper way to make God remote from us, namely, the removing of our comfortable false gods, our idols.  Negative theology reminds us of just how many things are not God. The patron saint of a later and rather different kind of "mystical theology," St. John of the Cross, tears away at our domesticated deities with almost insolent ruthlessness.  If we feel that St. Albert is “taking away our God,” maybe our “God” was never really worth having anyway. (p. 92)

It is in light of these four points from Tugwell that we need to understand the criticisms Thomists sometimes raise against the thesis that “God is a person.”  Tugwell writes:

If certain particular ways of talking about God come to be taken as fully clear and satisfactory accounts of what God is like, our very clarity will do much to obscure our apprehension of him. The modern dogma, for instance, that “God is a person” can be given a perfectly serviceable sense, as long as we do not imagine that it tells us what God is in a way that we can understand.  If we omit the negative corrective, as most of the devotees of this slogan appear to do, then not only do we produce some rather bizarre theologies, not only do we cut ourselves off from many centuries of Christian tradition, but we also trap ourselves in assumptions about the Christian life that may actually make life rather miserable for us… [T]his is likely to conjure up all kinds of associations, which will in many cases be frequently disappointed. (p. 94)

Tugwell goes on to suggest that to say something like “God is truth” is no less correct than saying “God is a person,” but entails such a radically different way of conceiving of God that it helps to balance slogans like “God is a person” and to correct the crude anthropomorphisms we are liable fall into if we focus obsessively on that slogan.  

It is these crude anthropomorphisms that can lead to the spiritual misery and disappointment to which Tugwell refers.  We can start to think of God in a very worldly way, as if he were like a rich uncle or a conscientious bureaucrat, only smarter and stronger and invisible.  If an uncle doesn’t send us that check we desperately need or a local bureaucrat doesn’t get that pothole repaired, we start to doubt his good will or competence.  And if God doesn’t get us that job we prayed for, or heal that disease we’re suffering from, we start to doubt his good will or competence – if we are thinking of him in crudely anthropomorphic terms.  But God is not a mere doler-out of this-worldly goodies and favors, not because he is less than that, but because he is more than that.  His will for us is for a good that transcends these worldly goods, and if he does not give us what we want here and now it is only because he wants to give us something far greater in the hereafter.  And he knows – in a way we can’t, and precisely because he is not a mere cosmic uncle or bureaucrat – that denying us these worldly goods is itself sometimes precisely the best way to ensure that we attain that higher good.  

As I have explained many times – though some people seem willfully to refuse to get the point – when criticizing the thesis that “God is a person,” the Thomist is emphatically not saying that God is impersonal.  To think that is like thinking that Joseph Merrick was denying that he had the animal faculties of sensation, appetite, and locomotion when he said “I am not an animal.”  It is like thinking that we are denying that Mozart had musical ability when we object to the bland remark that “Mozart was musical too.”

No, Merrick was saying that he was more than a mere animal, not less.  Mozart was more than merely “musical” in the way that a little boy might be musical, not less.  And God is more than the sort of person with which we are familiar in ordinary experience, not less.  The slogan “God is a person” trivializes the intellect, will, and love that are in God, just as “Mozart was musical too” trivializes Mozart’s ability, and just as remarks like “Human beings are just animals” trivialize human beings.

As I have also said many times, the problem with the slogan “God is a person” is not the word “person” but the word “a.”  There are two main reasons why this word is problematic, one philosophical and one theological.  The philosophical reason is that the slogan suggests that God is a member of the genus person, in his own species alongside the species human person and the species angelic person.  And that cannot be right, because God is not in any genus at all.  If he were, then he would be composite – he would have a genus, and a differentia that marks his species out from other species in the genus – and thus would not be absolutely simple.  And if he’s not absolutely simple, then he would have potentiality in need of actualization, would require a cause of his own, and would not be unique or ultimate in principle, but at most contingently.  He would not be God, but merely one creature-like entity among others.

The problem, again, is not the word “person.”  After all, Thomists also often object to assertions like “God is a being.”  And the problem here, too, is not the word “being” but the word “a.”  God is not a being; rather, as Aquinas says, God is subsistent being itself.  A being” merely participates in being, whereas that which is subsistent being itself is that in which the various individual “beings” that there are all participate.  To call God “a being” thus trivializes his mode of existence.

Now, when Thomists make this point, no one ever accuses them of denying God’s existence.  No one says “If you deny that God is a being, you must be saying that he lacks being and is therefore unreal!”  Even critics of Thomism understand that that is in no way what the Thomist is saying.  Yet for some reason, when the Thomist objects, on the very same grounds, to the formulation “God is a person,” some critics immediately soil their pants and in high dudgeon accuse the Thomist of making God out to be something impersonal.  The Thomist is doing nothing of the kind.

The second reason the formulation “God is a person” is problematic is, again, theological.  No orthodox Christian can possibly maintain that the assertion “God is a person” is strictly correct.   And the reason is that God is a Trinity of Persons.  A person of the sort we are familiar with in everyday life is a substance.  Hence if you’ve got three persons of the ordinary sort – Mike, Carol, and their son Bobby, say – you’ve got three distinct substances.  But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not like that.  They are three Persons in one substance.  

Now, if you go around indignantly insisting on formulations like “God is a person” – a formulation which, as Brian Davies has pointed out, is of historically relatively recent vintage and foreign to the orthodox Christian tradition – then you are bound to raise in your listener’s mind questions like: “Oh, he’s a person, is he?  So exactly which of the three Persons you Christians always talk about is he?”  Naturally, the answer that suggests itself is that he is the Father, specifically.  But then it sounds like the Son and the Holy Spirit, being distinct from the Father, must not be God.  Or maybe the Father is God with a capital “G,” and the Son and the Holy Spirit are lower-case “g” gods.  Or maybe there are three Gods with a capital “G.”  But all of these suppositions are heretical.

You might respond: “But I don’t believe any of that!  That’s not what I mean when I say ‘God is a person’!”  Good, but in that case, you are going to have to very seriously qualify this misleading assertion that “God is a person.”  And when you qualify it in all the ways you will need to in order to avoid heresy, you are going to find that you agree with the Thomist after all.  In which case, why are you so attached to this misleading slogan?  It’s no good to answer: “Because I don’t want to reduce God to something impersonal,” because neither does the Thomist.  

Here, Tugwell would insist, is where negative theology can be especially helpful.  If you are attached to this slogan “God is a person,” carefully consider all the aspects of “persons” in the ordinary sense that you will have to negate in order to maintain orthodoxy and philosophical coherence.  You may find, at the end of the exercise, that you differ from the Thomist only verbally rather than substantively. 


  1. What do classical theists e.g. Boethius or Thomas, mean by ‘person’ and what, for that matter, do their modern critics e.g. Morris or Plantinga? I would think this the best place to start as I’d bet dollars to donuts neither would have the same understanding and most likely both ancients and moderns would disagree amongst themselves.

    The problem, again, is not the word “person.” After all, Thomists also often object to assertions like “God is a being.” And the problem here, too, is not the word “being” but the word “a.” God is not a being; rather, as Aquinas says, God is subsistent being itself. “A being” merely participates in being, whereas that which is subsistent being itself is that in which the various individual “beings” that there are all participate. To call God “a being” thus trivializes his mode of existence.

    Yes, unfortunately its oblique slogans such as this that makes other philosophers less than willing to engage with Thomism. In claiming God is not a being the Thomist is either outright wrong or using the term ‘being’ in a radically different way than the other philosopher. Of course it’s the latter but the Thomist is strangely unwilling to set out what he or she means by ‘being’ and preferably explain why this is the correct meaning. When a philosopher uses the term ‘being’ odds are they do not mean ‘something that participates in being’ (if that means stands in a participation relation to God) just something, whether it be contingent or necessary.

    (To give a comparison imagine a scholastic talking with a Lockean or a Spinozist and each party refusing to clarify or even explain what they mean by 'substance')

    1. Well Boethius’ definition of a person is “an individual substance of a rational nature”. Aquinas adopts this definition when he writes his treatise on the Holy Trinity in the Summa Theologiae. Of course, the problem immediately arises that to say “God is three persons”, given this definition, would be to say “God is three individual substances”. Naturally that will not work. By the end of the treatise, Aquinas essentially defines the persons of the Trinity as subsisting relations (who each wholly possess a rational nature). In the Trinity, the subsisting relation is identical to the substance insofar as it possesses everything that the substance possesses except for the particular relation that is particular to the Person.

      This seems to imply that there are a few things that are indispensable when defining personhood. Personhood must be predicated of a substance (something that subsists). That is, substances are persons, not accidents, parts, or aggregates. Furthermore, persons must be rational and volitional. Finally, persons must be related to subsistent being itself either as a contingent effect or as intrinsically related to itself as within the Trinity. Therefore, one could more specifically define “person” as “a rational and volitional subsisting relation who is necessarily related in some way (by origination, generation, procession, or effect) to subsistent being itself”.

      It is interesting to note that the only way we can be persons, given this new definition, is by being effects of the First Cause. This also preserves the Scholastic belief that humans are really related to God, but God is only conceptually related to us (and really related to Himself). This confirms what Dr. Feser is getting at when he says that God is more than personal. Essentially, since our relation to God is contingent, our personhood is also contingent and thus derivative. God’s personhood, on the other hand is intrinsic, perfect, and underived.

      I definitely think Dr. Feser’s audience would greatly benefit from a couple of blog posts on Scholastic theories of personhood and relations.

    2. Whats the point of all this when the argument from motion disproves the trinity?

    3. If God is not a person, then The Father cannot be a person either, because in that case The Father would be a member of the genus person. So, The Father is not a person, he is person.
      But The Son and the Holy Spirit would be person as well. Which means there cannot be three persons.

    4. es, unfortunately its oblique slogans such as this that makes other philosophers less than willing to engage with Thomism. In claiming God is not a being the Thomist is either outright wrong or using the term ‘being’ in a radically different way than the other philosopher.

      OA Police, I think the answer is that the Thomist IS using the word differently, but not radically differently: he is using "being" analogously, and not equivocally. The whole point here is that "analogy" lies in between univocal usage and equivocal usage; it allows the word used to capture something of the meaning as used in other circumstances, without having simply the SAME meaning. In saying "being" is predicated of God, Thomists intend to convey that something of the meaning applied to other beings is also predicated of God, but not in exactly the same sense. What meaning, exactly? Well, we cannot positively prescribe that meaning, exactly, because we cannot conceive God exactly: we are left to circumscribe the sense of the use of "being" for God with negations of the limitations that normally apply when we use "being": he is not contingent, he does not have being as creatures have being when alive and cease to have it when dead, he is is not "a" being of a certain species within a genus...

      Thomists, then, mean by "God is being" what is LEFT of "being" that remains when you deny all those limitations of "being" that apply to "being" as normally used. And if we could SAY exactly what that is, positively and precisely, we would not be the lesser beings we are, we would have to be like God to be able to conceive and to then express "what he is".

    5. The point of all of this is to elaborate on the meaning of the word “person” to help improve discussion and ensure people are not talking past each other.

      How does the argument from motion disprove the Trinity?

    6. What's the point of answering when you're just begging the question?

    7. @Scott Lynch--You write: In the Trinity, the subsisting relation is identical to the substance insofar as it possesses everything that the substance possesses except for the particular relation that is particular to the Person.

      And the exception is where it appears to crash. The subsisting relation has to be identical to the divine substance if said relation is God, but then the exception, by definition, cannot be God, for whatever is not the divine substance is a creature.

      What the persons have in common cannot be what makes them distinct. Thus, the principle of commonality is not identical with the principle of distinction. Each person of the Trinity is supposed to be God, which means they have the same essence. On simplicity, the divine essence cannot be divided/composed; hence the distinction must be in the relations. But that makes the relations either a creature of the divine essence (in which case the distinction is not in God but exterior to Him), or identical with divine essence. If the former, then the person is a creature. If the latter, then the distinction is merely nominal. If it is insisted that the distinction is real, then God is composite.

      Particularizing a relation that is "particular to the Person" doesn't minimize the problem. The "particular" is either the divine essence or it is not. Either way, it appears that such a construct cannot avoid logical inversions. (See the posts elsewhere on this blog beginning HERE.

    8. @Walter Van den Acker. That would be true if “person” was conceived in finite terms. However, personhood as applied to God is not considered as the relation of the finite and contingent to the finite and contingent (in a univocal sense, that is). Rather, as applied to God, personhood is conceived analogously as the infinite related to the infinite and “possessing” intellect and will (I am using the word “possess” loosely and not with the intention of rejecting Divine Simplicity). Since personhood is seen as analogous, I am not claiming that it is a finite substance or accident that could be placed in a genus. Does that help clarify my position?

    9. @Bill

      I have heard the objection from the Law of Transivity before, which is essentially what that thread and your comment amount to. I just want to assure you that the Scholastics were well aware of this objection in their day. I would highly recommend reading the Blog “Reading the Summa” along with Aquinas’ treatise on the Holy Trinity. I would also read the Stanford Encyclopedia article Medieval Theories of Relations for some great background. Finally, if you read the blog, I would be sure to read all of the comments in question 40 here:

      This essentially is a miniature debate on the Law of Transivity and it’s application to the Trinity.

      Part of the problem is that the infinite Divine Substance is not something that can readily be manipulated like an algebraic expression. Typically it is very easy to understand that if A = B and B = C, then A = C. However, what if you cannot even define A and B in the first place? In that case, it is not quite so obvious. We know that certain algebraic laws (like commutativity and associativity) do not hold for higher order algebras (like quaternions and octonions), so we should be very careful to not simply dismiss an idea because it is not readily expressible in modern formal logic.

      The basic and very summarized response would be that relation is looked at by Aquinas as essentially a sui generis that can be applied to substance in the case of God. If you will read the article on Medieval Theories of Relations, you will note that a relation has two aspects: that of “inhering” in a substance and that of “pointing to” a substance. Insofar as they “inhere”, the Divine relations are identical to the the Divine Substance (because they simply ARE the Divine Substance). Insofar as they “point to”, they are also the Divine Substance (because that what is doing the pointing), but they are distinct from each other insofar as they are in relative opposition to each other (pointing to each other). As Boethius says in his De Trinitate, it is the self related to the self. This is a great mystery because there is no analogue in all of creation. But the Scholastics are not denying logic, the Law of Transivity, Divine Simplicity, it Real Dustinctions among persons.

      Anyway, the point of my comment was not to get into a treatise on the Holy Trinity. Rather, it was to express the nuances one should consider when thinking of God and creatures as persons. Clearly, given these nuances, it is very wreckless to simply say God is a person (just like you and I are persons).

    10. @Scott Lynch

      "Since personhood is seen as analogous, I am not claiming that it is a finite substance or accident that could be placed in a genus."

      So, what you are in fact claiming is that the Father is not a person, instead he is Person (without the article).
      Now if we say that God is Being (instead of a being) this entails that there cannot be more than one Being. For the same reason, there cannot be more than one Person.

    11. @Walter Van den Acker

      There is a loose sense in which you could say “God is Person” insofar as God is personal. That is to say, the undivided substance of God is rational and relational (thus being personal). However, when you ask, “What is He related to?”, the answer is that he is related to the other persons of the Trinity. Therefore, a multiplicity of persons is required. Remember, for Aquinas, unity and simplicity do not contradict multiplicity, but rather divisibility. That is why we say the persons are not parts of the Trinity. Rather they are the relations of the whole substance of God as related to itself. How can this be? You would have to comprehend God’s essence to know. Scholastics would claim that it is impossible for a creature to comprehend God’s essence. That is why it is a mystery (along with the fact that reference to the Trinity is not required to explain creation from an a posteriori philosophical perspective and thus cannot be proven philosophically). However, if, per impossible, we could comprehend the Trinity, we would see that it is necessary and the Divine Substance could not be anything other than a Trinity.

    12. Scott

      It'z not merely a loose sense. There is no doubt that Dr Feser sees God as Person and not as a person.
      I am saying that, for the very same reasons, the Father cannot be a person either, because that would make the Father a member of the genus person. So, the Father would have to be Person (without the article). but the same holds for the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are also Person. Inbdeed, using Aquinas' vocabulary, one might say that the Father, the Son en the Holy Spirit are subsitent personhood themselvers, and three susistent personhoods makes no sense at all.

      Hence, a consistent application of Classical Theism should rule out the Trinity.

    13. @Walter Van den Acker

      I highly doubt Dr. Feser is claiming that God is Person in the sense that you are, because the sense you are using implies Sabellianism / Modalism. If you consider the two aspects of relation, “to inhere” and “to point towards” givenby Medieval / Aristotelian Theories of Relations, then you could say that God’s substance is super-personal (a subsistent personhood as you say). However, when considering what that subsisting relation points towards, it HAS to be something distinct from itself (otherwise it is a mere relation of reason). The something distinct is the opposing procession. The Father points to the Son by generating Him. The Son points to the Father by being begotten. The Father and Son point to the Holy Spirit by spirating him. The Holy Spirit points to the Father and Son by proceeding from them. These relations are grounded in the undivided nature of God (without God’s nature, there would be no relations), but they ARE real relations insofar as they really point to an opposing procession, which requires a distinction.

      (Sorry for using caps, I don’t know how to italicize words on this thing).

      By the way. We have had a few discussions before. Do you mind if I ask you what your philosophical and religious background is (if that isn’t too personal)? It might help me understand where you are coming from.

    14. @Scott Lynch

      Scott, thank you for your reply. I was gearing up for a long reply and am thankful that I scrolled down to read dguller's rebuttals in the comments section. His objections are the same as mine, so there's no need for me to repeat what has been said. I'll simply add a few thoughts.

      No matter what level of mathematics you're discussing, 1 + 1 = 2. Either the relations are the divine essence or they are not. There is no logical alternative. Calling God unique does not change the equation, and the problem is only amplified when your link asserts that Person and relative property signify the same reality but differ conceptually. Thus, the relations are mental constructs and are not real distinctions. To deny that is to embrace a contradiction.

      The Father is the originator of the Son?? This is of course a difference "in their mode of signification," which must be a fancy way of saying that this begetting is also a mental construct. Otherwise, the Son isn't God by definition (God cannot really be begotten).

      Calling it a great mystery doesn't answer the logical objections. If God is absolutely simple, three fully divine persons cannot be really distinct. Hence, the distinction must be creaturely which of course "ungods" the persons.

    15. Scott

      This is not a matter of personhood in one or another sense, it is a matter of exploring the distinction between a person, which according to Feser, God isn't and Person. If God isn't a person, then the Father cannot be a person either. There can be only one subsistent personhood.

      As for my background: I was born and raised a Catholic but became an atheist when I was twenty-something. But I prefer discussing on the basis of argument and not on tne basis of background.

      BTW, you can italize words like this:
      (no space)word(no space)

    16. Scott

      Semehing went wrong there.
      So you type "< i >" then type the word you want to italize and then close by typing "< /i >"

    17. @Bill

      Thank you for your response. I will make this my last response, since I feel like we are thread-jacking a little bit here. The thread was about personhood and negative theology after all and not about the Trinity. I will let you have the final word, however.

      I think the problem may be with your concept of what Divine Simplicity entails. It seems to me that when you say “1 + 1 = 2”, you are implying that Orthodox Trinitarian Christians deny this, as if we are saying “1 + 1 + 1 = 1”. This problem comes from two assumptions.

      The first problem is assuming that the Divine Essence and Relations can be easily translated to a symbolic algebraic formula. But how do you know that “1 + 1 + 1” is the appropriate algebraic way of treating of the Divine Relations? Is it not possible that a more appropriate algebraic expression could be “1 X 1 X 1 = 1”? Unless you fully comprehend the Divine Essence, you cannot know which expression is appropriate without Divine Revelation.

      The second problem comes from treating the Divine Substance like a finite substance. I think that when many people think of Divine Simplicity, they imagine in their mind a sort of Pythagorean Monad, which is as close as one can get to nothing without being nothing (because that is what is perceived to be left after taking away all finite attributes that can give rise to a mental image). But if we think of God as this kind of fundamental building block, then we will still be treating him like a finite substance. It is of note though that classical theists believe that God can produce a multiplicity of effects (all of creation) without himself being multiplied. Therefore, the concept of Subsistent Being is not a most basic substance but rather super-substantial.


    18. ...continued

      Now when regarding the distinctions of the persons, there are only two things that can make them distinct, their essence (or what-ness) or their relative opposition (pointing towards). What is the what-ness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? They are all three Pure Act, devoid of all potentiality, supreme intelligence, supremely simple, all the things determined by natural theology, etc. So their distinction cannot lie in the essence of what they are and hence they are all consubstantial. Rather, their distinction lies in their relative opposition which is provided by their procession from one another. The Son proceeds from the Father as his intellectual self-understanding (the Word) which given Divine Simplicity, simply is God. But given the nature of this super-substantial origin (the Father) from whence the Son proceeds, the procession is real and entails a real distinction. Additionally, because of the super-substantial nature of the origin of this procession, that which proceeds is not a part of a separate entity, but a really distinct (distinct by relation, not essence) yet consubstantial relation (consubstantial because the substance “grounds” the subsisting relation). Since it is consubstantial, it is thus necessary and not an actualization of a potency and therefore not a creature. Therefore the Divine Substance is still Pure Act and consequently utterly simple in essence. How this can be again is a mystery. In order to know the precise “mechanics” of the processions of the Godhead, we would have to comprehend the Godhead, which is impossible for any creature. But we should recall that The Principle of Sufficient Reason does not require that everything be intelligible to us but merely intelligible in itself.

      I think that part of the struggle with these concepts is trying to wrap your head around the idea of a subsisting relation, since all relations in creation are accidents, not a substance. Furthermore, relation as “pointing towards” is almost treated as a sui generis concept that again has no corollary in creation. In any case, that is why we require faith (because of the finite nature of our intellects). I certainly wouldn’t start an initial inquiry into Christianity by delving deep into Trinitarian theology!

      For further reading, I would recommend Boethius’ succinct (9 pages) De Trinitate which expounds upon how “...substance holds together unity, while relation brings number to the Trinity...”.

    19. @Scott Lynch

      Hello again, Scott. Thanks for getting back with me. You write:

      The first problem is assuming that the Divine Essence and Relations can be easily translated to a symbolic algebraic formula.

      My point in raising 1+1=2 is only to show that no system can show that 1+1=3. In other words, adding one and one will always yield two. Similarly, there are fundamental rules of rational thinking that cannot change if we want to keep things intelligible. If the Father, Son & Holy Ghost (FSH) are fully God and yet are really distinct from each other, then on pain of contradiction what makes them common cannot be what makes them distinct. If the relations are the essence and if the relations are also what makes them really distinct, then we have an automatic contradiction. Either the relations are the essence or they are not. I see nothing in you links which undermine those basic logical rules (or would cause me to set them aside for another system).

      I realize that Aquinas was brilliant and clearly saw these objections. I simply do not see how his explanations or the explanations of his apologists adequately refute them.

    20. @Scott Lynch continued...

      I also do not see myself treating the divine substance as a finite one. If God were composite, He would be finite. Since no composition exists in Him, then by definition, He is infinite. I do not see how any trinitarian explanation avoids composition. And if that means I’m treating God as a finite substance, it is only because I’m reacting to trinitarian definitions.

      You write that the distinction is in the relative opposition (pointing towards) which is provided by the “procession” of one person from another, but in one sense, judgment proceeds from justice and justice “points toward” judgment. That does not mean that there is a real distinction between the two. God is judgment and God is justice. We merely categorize them thusly due to our finite perceptions. Everything said of these processions and relations can be said of God’s attributes.

      Again, Aquinas understood all of this and attempted to show how the “relations” are different. I just don’t think he succeeded. I keep going back to 1+1—either/or.

    21. @ Walter Van den Acker

      I agree that we should argue based on the points made. It just helps me understand where you’re coming from which may help me understand your objections a little better.

      I think that when Dr. Feser says that God is more than personal, he means that the substantial aspects of his personhood are super-substantial. Remember, on the Trinitarian view, in addition to relation, things like existence, intellect, will, etc. are pre-requisites for personhood in the sense that a person is all of these things. And in that sense, the persons of the Trinity are super-personal (because these things are super-eminent in God).

      However, in the sense that each relation points towards another, there is a real multiplicity. That is what Boethius means in De Trinitate when he says, “...substance contains the unity, while relation multiplies the Trinity”. And remember, multiplicity is not repugnant to Divine Simplicity, only divisibility is.


    22. ...continued

      When we inquire into the nature (and consequently personhood) of God, we recall that God is a single, unified, thinking, willing, substance, and He is not just thinking and willing in the highest degree, but subsistent thought, subsistent will, etc. as well as the cause of all thought and will, etc. The true nature of this entity is mysterious because we cannot comprehend it; we can only derive a bare minimum of what He is by observing his effects (hence the via negativa).

      Now anything that can be said to understand and to love (as we say of God), can only be said so if it understands and loves some thing. In the case of God, He understands Himself. But because God the Father’s understanding of Himself is so perfect, there is nothing that He has that His Image does not except for being the origin of the procession (relationship) of understanding. That isn’t to say that somehow the Father is God’s existence and the Son is God’s intellect, for that would entail composition of parts. Rather, the Father is God’s essence considered as being a first principle and the Son is God’s essence considered as being understood by God. These are not parts of God because they are necessary. That is to say God’s essence cannot help but to perfectly understand and love Himself. The relations of the Trinity signify this necessary active life of the Divine Essence.

      Therefore, it is not the intellective and volitional aspects of personhood that form the distinctions. Rather, it is the subsisting relations that form the distinctions. Since these relations relate (point to) different aspects of the Divine Processions, there can be a multiplicity of subsistent relations (origination, generation, spiration, and procession). Since all of the relations substantially “inhere” in the same source (same intellect, will, etc.) they can be said to be consubstantial and thus be said to be super-personal.

      Since we are getting a little deep into Trinitarian theology, I will let you have the last word here.

      If you’d like to continue this discussion, it may be more appropriate to do so at:

    23. Scott

      Thank you for the discussion.

  2. Hey Edward,

    What are the advantages of adopting an existential interpretation of the First Way of Aquinas rather than the metaphysical interpretation proposed by people like David Twetten?

    It seems to me that Twetten's metaphysical reading leaves less holes in the argument from motion and also keeps it separate from the argument from contingency (something the existential approach to the first way requires to do in order to succeed).

  3. “[W]e have to say that there is in God, not the same causality that we see in the world around us, but rather something analogous to what we call causality in the world around us.”

    Is there a good analogy for understanding God's sort of causality? I believe Aristotle says the First Cause moves “as something that is beloved”—just as, I assume, a lovely statue might have effects on its viewers while remaining motionless itself. What does the Thomist say?

  4. Pope Francis declares death penalty inadmissible? This change has been added to the Catechism?

  5. "Aloysius draws very prettily too, but of course he's rather more modern."
    ~ Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited

  6. Prof. Feser, will you write a post on today's news coming from the Vatican?

    Sometimes it looks as if Pope Francis is trying his best to spread confusion regarding Catholic Doctrine...

    1. I found this in the Catholic Herald.

      "A dogmatic theologian, who asked not to be named, told the Catholic Herald that the Church’s traditional teaching – which states that the death penalty can be legitimate in some cases – “is irreformable dogma. To deny this or assert the contrary is formally heretical. Catholics remain obliged to believe and accept this doctrine with firm faith regardless of any changes to the Catechism.”

      The theologian said that, while the Pope’s term “inadmissible” was ambiguous – and thus not necessarily in contradiction with Church teaching – "

      Until he attaches penalties for support of the Death Penalty then dina fash.

    2. Guys, as you would expect, I'll be commenting on this very soon (you should see something within a day). So I'd ask you to hold your own comments on the subject at this blog in reserve for the moment. No further threadjacking, please!

  7. I would differ with this post on this: that this post emphasizes only one instance of a property being not correctly applied to God.
    “I am not an animal" describes a property that is insufficient in generality to apply completely to man. It is not applied to the whole of man as it where. However there are many other types of property confusion. For example we might say about an extinct and fossilized species that it has a skeleton, while we have no ambiguity about whether it has a skeleton and no ambiguity about what that skeleton looks like, we have very little idea about how that skeleton interacts with it's body. I would argue that we can have this kind of knowledge about God knowledge where we know what the property is in relation to God but not how it fits as a puzzle piece in God's makeup (if you'll excuse the crudity) "for the spirit scrutinizes even the deep things of God": 1 Corinthians.

  8. As I see it, the key points of difference between Thomists and so-called theistic personalists (a very broad category) are as follows:

    (i) Is the notion of "being" more fundamental than that of "person"? Theistic personalists would say no: persons are the most real things there are, and a thing is real only insofar as it resembles a person. (I'm thinking especially of the late John Macmurray here.) Of course, God is a big-P Personal Agent (or rather, Tri-Personal Agent), whereas each of us is a small-p personal agent who would cease to be if the "big-P" didn't will our continued existence.

    (ii) Does it make sense to speak of God as Pure Existence? Theistic personalists would say no: to say that Pure Existence exists is as nonsensical as saying that thinking thinks, that willing wills or that acting acts.

    (iii) Are subjectivity and agency equally fundamental? Thomists would say no: God is Pure Act, and there is nothing that it "feels like" to be God (unlike Nagel's bat). In God there are no passions, only actions. A theistic personalist would insist that there is something that it feels like to be God.

    (iv) Is the notion of a "self" irreducible? Theistic personalists would answer no: they regard God as the Supreme Self - in other words, not just as a verb (Be-ing) but as a noun. To identify God with an activity generates an infinite regress. For instance, if God is love, and He loves Himself, that would mean that Love loves love, which in turn loves love, and so on, ad infinitum. On a personalistic model, to say that God understands and loves Himself is to say that an Agent understands and loves an Agent. There is no circularity here.

    My two cents. By the way, Ed, what do you make of the latest change in the Catechism?

    "Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that 'the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person', and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

    See here:

    1. (i) Is the notion of "being" more fundamental than that of "person"? Theistic personalists would say no: persons are the most real things there are, and a thing is real only insofar as it resembles a person. (I'm thinking especially of the late John Macmurray here.) Of course, God is a big-P Personal Agent (or rather, Tri-Personal Agent), whereas each of us is a small-p personal agent who would cease to be if the "big-P" didn't will our continued existence.

      That’s an interesting metaphysical view point (might it be related to Fitchean idealism?) but I haven’t heard it much from the big names of Protestant philosophy of religion. Some individuals might have doctrinal objections but the main reason Plantinga, Craig, Moreland, Morris and co rejected divine simplicity is because they saw it as either being incoherent or have inadmissible consequences i.e. collapsing modal distinctions. I have yet to large-scale debate on the fundamentality of ‘person’ as an ontological category. I’m sympathetic to the idea that historically philosophers have failed to fully appreciate the explanatory importance of libertarian free choice though.

      (iii) Are subjectivity and agency equally fundamental? Thomists would say no: God is Pure Act, and there is nothing that it "feels like" to be God (unlike Nagel's bat). In God there are no passions, only actions. A theistic personalist would insist that there is something that it feels like to be God.

      Pure Act is a bit too specifically Thomist. God’s contingent beliefs are a problem for Divine Simplicity but if God can have de dicto and de re beliefs there doesn’t seem any additional difficulty in having de se ‘divine first-person’ ones either. God can still have apperception (indeed Thomists and others would say God’s knowledge of creation follows from divine apperception) without being acted up. One might query whether it makes any sense to talk of an atemporal mind but that’s an objection to divine timelessness, and so applicable to plenty of non-simplicity theists (‘theist personalists’).

      (iv) Is the notion of a "self" irreducible? Theistic personalists would answer no: they regard God as the Supreme Self - in other words, not just as a verb (Be-ing) but as a noun. To identify God with an activity generates an infinite regress. For instance, if God is love, and He loves Himself, that would mean that Love loves love, which in turn loves love, and so on, ad infinitum. On a personalistic model, to say that God understands and loves Himself is to say that an Agent understands and loves an Agent. There is no circularity here.

      Does simplicity identify God as an ‘activity’; understood in our terms, in anything more than a trivial linguistic sense. The only account of simplicity I know that explicitly identifies God with His creative activity and knowledge of Creation is that of Katherine Rogers.

    2. Sorry. Item (iv) should read: "Is the notion of a "self" irreducible? Theistic personalists would answer YES..." My mistake.

  9. Nicely explained I like the example of uncaused cause here. but things get a little tricky when we are trying to analyse God's 'goodness'.
    As Peter Geach says the adjectives ‘good’ and ‘bad’ function attributively. Nothing is simply good or bad, but instead is a good or bad instance of some kind or other. So if we want to find out whether some particular thing is good we look to find how things of that kind are supposed to be. But problem is God isn't an instance of any such familiar kind so he doesn't have any obligations of this sort.

    So in what sense God can be said to be good just as he is intelligible despite lacking a cause?

    1. Good is convertible with being. Things are good to the extent that they are. But God is being itself, so He is good simply, not with reference to anything else, just as water is wet simply, not wet with respect to something else. "Nothing is simply good or bad" is true for everything but God.

  10. Great post.

    However, I found a rare split infinitive from Prof. Feser!

    Good, but in that case, you are going to have to very seriously qualify this misleading assertion that “God is a person.”

  11. Very insightful points, but I just can’t help feeling very sad, that the cancerous proliferation of ‘the new theology’, and its influence, has had such a deleterious effect and far reaching influence, that work like this, that follows in the faithful tradition of Saint Thomas and Saint Albert, is pushed the side and not even properly understood, except in what has been relegated to almost a barely tolerated sub-culture of Tradition. I suppose, in a sense, there is something exciting, about the good guys being the rebels and the underdogs, but sadly, this isn’t Star Wars, and in real life, peoples faith is being eroded by the bankrupt Cintinental Tradition, that exemplifies ‘the dictatorship of relativism’, rather than strengthened by those with a genuine love of truth, following in the footsteps of Saint Thomas and Saint Albert.

  12. Still a big silence on the about it's dislike of personal God terminology. Creating straw men will not obviate the need for nappies.