Persons or Subsistences? Trinity In Theological Perspective

Persons or Subsistences? Trinity In Theological Perspective

The Confession (1677/89) states the doctrine of the Trinity as follows:

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him. (2.3)

With a great deal of intention, the Confession employs the term “subsistence,” a noticeable change from the language used by the Westminster Confession, which instead reads, “In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance…” (2.3, Emphasis added) Explaining this significant change in language, Dr. James Renihan states: 

More significantly, when introducing Trinitarian terminology, the text changes the WCF/Savoy language from persons to subsistences. Richard Muller has composed a lengthy article on the Latin term persona and its perceived liabilities in the history of Trinitarian discussion, asserting that subsistentia came to be a preferred term by some theologians, such as John Calvin.[1]

The term subsistence tends to avoid the confusion caused by the word person which, in addition to its historical obscurities, has of late taken on a unique psychological connotation binding the term to human features, e.g. reason, will, conscience, etc. As a result, modern social trinitarianism and tritheism tend to distinguish the persons along the lines of distinct centers of consciousness or distinct wills.

Kyle Claunch notes this in relation to the subordinationism of Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem. He writes, “they are making a conscious and informed choice to conceive of will as a property of person rather than essence. This model of a three-willed Trinity then provides the basis for the conviction that structures of authority and submission actually serve as one of the means of differentiating the divine persons.”[2] It appears the modernist assumptions behind the term person have led to a conception of trinitarian relations as distinct intellectual beings—since they each consists of substantially different things, e.g. minds, wills, consciousness, etc.

Conversely, Cornelius Van Til arrives at the awkward language of, to paraphrase, “God the one person in three persons.” He writes, “Over against all other beings, that is, over against created beings, we must therefore hold that God’s being presents an absolute numerical identity.”[3] This is true as far as it goes. But Van Til misses out on some important language and distinctions, concluding, “[God] is one person.” He goes on to correctly note, “When we say that we believe in a personal God, we do not merely mean that we believe in a God to whom the adjective ‘personality’ may be attached. God is not an essence that has personality; he is absolute personality.”

Van Til obscures the manner of distinction between essence and subsistences by identifying essence and subsistences as a numerically single person. He is correct to say that “personality” is not something that God has, but something that God just is. However, he is incorrect to imply the elimination of personal properties by declaring the numerical singularity of personality in God. That God is one essence subsisting in three distinct modes or relations seems to be a consideration lost on Van Til, though seemingly implied in other areas of his work. While the essence and subsistences are substantially identical, there are yet personal properties distinguishing each Person one from another. Such a consideration would prevent the Van Tillian from collapsing the three Persons into one persona.

Renihan helpfully provides the missing piece in much of these contemporary discussions when he writes, “In his Marrow of Sacred Divinity, William Ames uses [subsistence] in these two ways. Prefixed to the front of the book is a brief glossary of terms. It defines subsistence as ‘the manner of being.’”[4] (Emphasis added) Francis Turretin likewise states:

Thus the singular numerical essence is communicated to the three persons not as a species to individuals or a second substance to the first (because it is singular and undivided), nor as a whole to its parts (since it is infinite and impartible); but as a singular nature to its own act of being (suppositis) in which it takes on various modes of subsisting. Hence it is evident: (1) that the divine essence is principally distinguished from the persons in having communicability, while the persons are distinguished by an incommunicable property; (2) that it differs from other singular natures in this—that while they can be communicated to only one self-existent being (supposito) and are terminated on only one subsistence (because they are finite), the former (because infinite) can admit of more than one.[5] (Emphasis added)

Hence, the language of the Confession, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided…” (2.3) In other words, Father, Son, and Spirit just are the one divine essence. As the Athanasian Creed points out, “Thus the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.” The one and undivided essence subsists in three ways distinguished by personal properties—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Each of these relations are explained by way of origination: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. As the Confession likewise states, “the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son…”

The Athanasian Creed states, “The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone. The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone. The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; he proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Further, the Nicene Creed also says of the Son, “We believe… in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made…” And regarding the Spirit, the same creed says, “He proceeds from the Father and the Son…”

Resources:

[1] James Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: Baptist Symbolics, Vol. II, (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2022), Kindle Edition, Loc. 2260-2265.

[2] Kyle Claunch, “God Is the Head of Christ,” in One God in Three Persons, ed. Bruce A. Ware; John Starke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Crossway. Kindle Edition), 88-89.

[3] Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2007), 364.

[4] Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader, Loc. 2259.

[5] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992), 282.

Does Scripture Teach Divine Simplicity?

Does Scripture Teach Divine Simplicity?

The short answer? Yes. Absolutely.

The question is not whether Scripture actually uses the word “simplicity,” nor whether or not Scripture articulates the doctrine of divine simplicity as the Second London Baptist Confession (2.1) does. The question is whether or not the concept of divine simplicity is necessarily contained within the text. And to this question we are able to answer with a clear affirmation.

Some have claimed that either Scripture does not teach simplicity or that it does not teach the simplicity found through church history, from Augustine to the post-Reformed Puritans. Concerning this latter claim, the simplicity in question has been derogatorily labeled “hard simplicity,” or, “hyper simplicity,” in favor of a looser simplicity admitting of a distinction between God’s “simple” essence and the several properties or attributes that accrue to and describe that essence. Of course, the response offered to such “soft simplicity,” is that the divine essence would itself require properties distinguishing it for those other properties or attributes not identical to it. In other words, the essence would require some kind of composition in order for it to be distinguishable from the attributes.

In any event, the purpose of this article is to survey a few texts which appear to require divine simplicity, the strong kind. These texts require a necessary God, who does not depend on anything more basic than Himself to be Himself. All that is in God is God.

All Things Are Through Him (Romans 11:36)

Scripture nowhere uses the term “simplicity” in relation to God. However, the concept is most certainly present and is necessarily inferred from several passages. In Romans 11:36, Paul writes, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” This is a concluding statement that follows from a string of Old Testament citations in vv. 34-35, each of which were intended to emphasize the incomprehensibility of God stated in v. 33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” Verse 34 asks, “For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?” A statement influenced by Isaiah 40 and Job 36. Observe also v. 35, “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?” Man can neither comprehend nor add to God.

In v. 36, this distills into Paul’s conclusion that all things are “of Him and through Him and to Him…”[1] There are three prepositions used. The first is ἐκ which insinuates that all things with an origin find their origin “of” or “from” God. The second is διά, “through” or “by,” and indicates efficient causality. God is the Agent that has not only created but acts upon every patient through sustaining, disposing, and governing all of them. The third is εἰς and denotes final causality.

All things are “to” Him, that is, He is the goal and end (telos) of all things. But if all things are of Him, through Him, and to Him the inference that God cannot be the sum of His parts is apparently necessary. If God is the cause of all things, it follows that He is uncaused. But if God is uncaused, then He cannot be explained by that which is more basic than Himself, e.g., by parts. As James Dolezal writes, “If God should be composed of parts, then these parts would be before Him in being, even if not in time, and He would be rightly conceived of as existing from them or of them.”[2] John Gill sees Romans 11:36 as a statement of efficient causality and comprehensive providence.[3] John Calvin concludes, “The import of what is said is—That the whole order of nature would be strangely subverted, were not God, who is the beginning of all things, the end also.”[4] If all things are from Him, God must be “without body, parts, or passions,” to use the language of 2LBCF 2.1.

God Is One (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Another more principial text to marshaled in service of divine simplicity would be Deuteronomy 6:4, the doctrinal confession of national Israel. It reads, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” Naturally, the question becomes, “One what?” In this case, we are immediately brought to the question of being. What kind of being are we dealing with when we speak of this LORD that is one? In the strictest sense, no contingent creature can claim to be one.

Even the most basic creature is a constituent set of properties and components. But maybe the term for “one” isn’t being used in a strict sense. Perhaps it is only being used to distinguish the true God from other gods. It, no doubt, is purposed to such an end. But one wonders how the shema might distinguish the true God from false gods if, like the false gods, the true God also was a constituent set of properties or components. Instead of wood or stone, His constituent parts would be higher, more heavenly, and more unimaginable. But parts nonetheless. In other words, if the shema does not imply a simplicity of essential unity, the God it mentions is merely a greater creature, no more divine than a holy angel.

By Him Are All Things (Hebrews 2:10)

In Hebrews 2:10, a similar statement to that of Romans 11:36 appears, “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” It is for or because of God that all things are. But if God was the sum of His parts, one would either need to deny the accuracy of Hebrews 2:10, or they would need to affirm the absurdity of God’s own self-causation. If all things are of God, then certainly those parts making God to be God, which themselves are not God, would also be of God.

Conclusion

It is not that Scripture uses the term “simplicity.” Nor is it that Scripture employs the philosophical terminology later used by Christians to expound upon this doctrine. Rather, the later philosophical language was brought into the service of articulating a core and necessary biblical truth. God is one. All things are through Him. He is through nothing other than Himself. God is not explained by a set of properties more basic than Himself. He is not who He is because of this or that attribute. He is. (Ex. 3:14) Simplicity, the hard kind, is nothing but the Bible consistently interpreted with regard to God and who Scripture has revealed Him to be.

Resources

[1] Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans – Galatians, vol. 11, (Grand Rapids: Zonderva, 2008), 181.

[2] James Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 49.

[3] John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition on the Entire Bible-Book of Romans, (Graceworks Multimedia, Kindle Edition), Loc. 7181.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, (Ravenio Books, Kindle Edition), 406.

Classical Theism Takes On Divine Temporality

Classical Theism Takes On Divine Temporality

This article is an excerpt adaptation from a paper titled, “Divine Simplicity: Non-Composition, Necessity, & Divine Timelessness”.

The notion of divine temporality is an increasingly popular attempt to reconcile the temporality of creation with the necessary and eternal Creator. With the decline of classical metaphysics in the West, theologians and philosophers are left, once more, with trying to reconcile two inescapable realities: being and becoming. One way to do this is by assigning an eternal ontology to time itself, locating it as a co-eternal reality with God or otherwise placing it within God as a non-essential and eternal reality allowing possible succession in, but not essential to, the divine essence, e.g., intrinsic and extrinsic succession.

On the other hand, the doctrine of divine simplicity should be related to the classical understanding of divine eternality, or divine timelessness. Richard Muller defines aeternitas as follows, “By this attribute, the scholastics understand the existence and continuance (duratio) of God without beginning or end and apart from all succession and change.”[1] He goes on to qualify, “Eternity therefore transcends not only limited time but also infinite temporal succession, namely, time itself.” This is relevant to contemporary theories of divine temporality for the following reasons.

Conversing with Ryan Mullins & the Oxford School

Describing the Oxford school of divine temporality, Ryan Mullins states, “There are several ways to articulate an absolute theory of time, but one of the main underlying beliefs on the Oxford school is that time can exist without change. Time is the dimension of possible change.”[2] Further clarifying the Oxford school, Mullins adds, “time is a necessary concomitant of God’s being.”[3] According to Mullins, the Oxford school holds that, “Upon creating the universe [God] brings about intrinsic and extrinsic change in His life.

His present life then consists of a one-to-one correspondence with the cosmic present of the universe.”[4] But even granting the Oxford school’s absolute theory of time, one may just as well argue that if time is a concomitant of God’s being, representing a dimension of possible change, God would then be an admixture of act and potency. For He would have the potential to change from one state to another. This appears to be a clear denial of immutability—a doctrine that not only suggests God does not change but also that He cannot change.

There is one other problem. Given the doctrine of divine simplicity as discussed above, if God is an admixture of act and potency, contingency follows. At minimum, there would be act, i.e., God’s “to be” or esse, in addition to the potencies limiting that act.[5] Furthermore, this would result in a real distinction between God’s essence and His esse or existence. In this case, God would depend on that which is more basic than Himself to be what He is. He would be a composite object and, as such, not the first cause. Mullins may want to reply that any partition relevant to God wouldn’t necessarily take place within the divine essence.

Along these lines, he writes, “God is immutable in that His essential divine nature cannot change, but He can undergo non-essential intrinsic and extrinsic changes like becoming the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of humanity.”[6] But one might wonder what, exactly, distinguishes God’s essence from other things in God that might change intrinsically or extrinsically. What is that which can change intrinsically or extrinsically to God in relation to the divine essence? And if both the divine essence and that which is not the divine essence constitute God, then there would need to be some properties inherent within the divine essence sufficient to distinguish it from that which does change in God. Mullins, after all, says God “is capable of undergoing change.” The result is that the divine essence would constitute in virtue of properties more basic than itself—properties needed to sufficiently distinguish it from other things in God.

If this is the case, the divine essence would not be immutable since, conceivably, it could change given the subtraction of one or more of said properties. Of course, the retort may be that this would not happen. But that is very different from saying this could not happen. For one might imagine such an essence without one or more of its distinguishing characteristics. To use the possible world semantics popular within analytical thought: There is a possible world in which one or more of those properties do not inhere within the divine essence. Hence, the divine essence would be changeable, not unchangeable.

Mullins, and presumably the Oxford school, seem to accept an Aristotelian notion of eternal time as a concomitant of motion. H. D. Gardeil writes:

Aristotle remarks that eternal things, things which are always, are not in time, since their existence is not affected by time and cannot be measured by it… But in another sense Aristotle also attributes eternity to motion. There has always been motion, he believes, and always will be. Thus the world itself is eternal.[7]

In other words, while there are eternal things outside or transcendent of time, nevertheless, for Aristotle, motion is also eternal and thus requires an eternal duration. The Oxford school is similar in that it requires the eternality of time and motion in a certain sense. Yet, in an advance beyond Aristotle, the Oxford school locates both time and motion in God whereas Aristotle conceived of a static deity. Distinguishing Aristotle’s metaphysics from the more nuanced medieval Christian synthesis, Gardeil continues:

Eternity, in its complete meaning, presupposes utter immobility and changelessness, or, in the succinctness of Boethius, the totally simultaneous possession of one’s entire life. When so understood, eternity is only in God, who alone is the substantially Eternal; of Him alone is it true to say that eternity is an essential attribute, that essence and life are one.[8]

Mullins, on the other hand, suggests a potential in God for mutation, “Since God exists necessarily and is capable of undergoing change, time exists necessarily.”[9] Aristotle saw both mutation and temporality as features of contingency. For this reason, he removed both from God who, in his estimation, must be necessary. But Mullins places both mutation and time squarely in God and, as a result, apparently contradicts his own stated belief that God is necessary.[10] For a necessary being to be necessary, it cannot be contingent; that is, it cannot be dependent upon that which is more basic than itself to be what it is, e.g., act, potency, essence, esse, etc.

Contingency & Creatio Ex Nihilo

In his book Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, Steven Duby writes, “God’s eternity is shorthand for his being without beginning or end and having fullness of life without that fullness being acquired or lost through temporal succession.”[11] To the contrary, Mullins states, “All divine temporalists hold that God has succession in His life subsequent to the act of creation, but some differences arise with regard to God’s life prior to creation.”[12] Granting the acquisition of succession at creation, this would entail an actualization of some potency “concomitant of God’s being.”

Not only does actualization of potency denote partition and thus contingency for reasons given above, but an actualized potency requires the acquisition of being that was not before in act. While Mullins maintains creatio ex nihilo in terms, one might wonder whether it may be reasonably retained in the Oxford school. If an actualization of some potential in God is requisite to His creative work, it would appear not that creation was made from nothing, but that it was made through some acquisition of being the Creator did not possess beforehand, i.e., succession, by which creation came to be. In other words, there would be two causes and explanations for creation rather than one. One of those causes would be God, and one of those causes would be temporality inasmuch as the latter explains God’s ability to create. Furthermore, to the extent temporality explains God’s ability to create, temporality—not God—is the first cause of the universe.

A startling thought to be sure.

Resources

[1]  Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Terms, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 18.

[2] R. T. Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” Journal of Analytic Theology, Vol. 2, 2014, 165.

[3] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 166.

[4] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 167.

[5] Bernard Wuellner, S. J., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2012), 42.

[6] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 165.

[7] H. D. Gardeil, Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas: Cosmology, Vol. 2, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009), 127-28. 

[8] Gardeil, Introduction to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 129.

[9] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 165.

[10] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 169.

[11] Steven Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022), 31.

[12] Mullins, “Doing Hard Time: Is God the Prisoner of the Oldest Dimension?,” 164.

Limitation of Act by Potency

Limitation of Act by Potency

The following article is an engagement paper originally submitted to IRBS in fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. James Dolezal’s Foundations of Philosophical Theology class.

Contemporary Thomistic studies largely assumes the origins for Thomas’s doctrine “limitation of act by potency” is to be properly and neatly located in Aristotle’s corpus. According to W. Norris Clarke, however, such an assumption is misguided on account of needful language nevertheless absent from Aristotle’s own body of work. If indeed Thomas received limitation of act by potency from Aristotle, one would expect to find such a doctrine in Aristotle’s own words. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that very little substantial change actually took place from the time of the pre-Socratics to the time of Aristotle in the relevant areas according to Clarke.

Norris Clarke’s Brief Observation Concerning Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Assumption

Republished by contemporary scholars, such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, is the common assumption that Thomas received Aristotle’s conception of limitation of act by potency. Yet, to the contrary, Clarke asserts the following, “it is noteworthy that, despite the categorical assertion of Father Garrigou-Lagrange in the above quotation, neither here nor anywhere else in his numerous writings on this doctrine does he ever quote or refer to any precise text where Aristotle himself affirms the limiting role of potency with regard to act.”[1] Contrary to the common assumption mentioned above, the doctrine of limitation of act by potency does not appear in Aristotle. In point of fact, the post-Socratic philosophers appear to conceive of act as limited by its very nature, whilst potency is that which is infinite, or unlimited.

Speaking to Thomas’ own work, Clarke writes, “What is even more decisive, to my mind—and surprising, though I have never seen it reported anywhere—is the fact that throughout the entire extent of St. Thomas’s own commentaries on Aristotle, not excepting that on Book IX of Metaphysics, which deals exclusively with act and potency, there is not a single mention of potency as limiting act nor is there any occurrence of the classic formulas expressing the limitation principle which abound in his independent works.”[2] In other words, though the language of act and potency as categories find a comfortable seat in the Aristotelian corpus, the particular conception of act and potency wherein potency serves as the limiting principle of act is virtually non-existent in spite of Garrigou-Lagrange’s own thesis that, “Aristotle already taught this doctrine.”

Finitude and Infinitude in Anaximander

According to Clarke, “The term infinite (apeiron) first appears in Greek philosophy with the Pre-Socratic Anaximander, who identified it with the primal principle of all things: (1) The Non-Limited is the original material of existing things; further, the source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, according to necessity… (3) This [the Non-Limited] is immortal and indestructible.”[3] Already, the careful reader may catch the identification of the material with the infinite (apeiron). This would appear to imply a like identification of what would eventually come to be known as the “principle of potency” with infinity (since matter must receive form as potency to act).

If it is the case that matter, and thus potency, just are “the infinite,” then conversely, act would necessarily entail limitation. This is why Clarke goes on to say, “[The problem] ‘What is the first principle out of which all things are formed?’ gradually led them—if not Anaximander, at least his successors—to identify the infinite with the indeterminate, formless substratum or raw material of the universe, the primeval chaos of matter in itself, as yet unperfected by the limit of form.”[4] The indeterminate is unlimited because, according to the mind of Anaximander, to determine something is to place limitations upon it. That which is infinite cannot be determined, and that which cannot be determined cannot be perfect. Clark continues, “According to this conception the infinity is identified with the formless, the indeterminate, the unintelligible—in a word, with matter and multiplicity, the principles and imperfection—whereas the finite or limited is identified with the fully formed, the determinate, and there the intelligible—in a word, with number, form, and idea, the principles of perfection.”[5] The infinite, so it is thought, is mutually opposed to perfection, completion, etc.

Plato

Plato further develops upon the pre-Socratics by conceiving of what are now termed act and potency as “principles” termed “the limit” and “the unlimited.” Clarke observes the relationship of these two principles in Plato as follows, “According to the Platonic metaphysics, all realities below the supreme idea of the Good (or the One) are a ‘mixture’ of two opposing principles, the limit and the unlimited, which reappear with analogical similarity on all the levels of reality from the world of ideas to the half-real world of sensible things.”[6] Thus, the limit and the unlimited “exist” idealistically and phenomenally, that is, in the world of forms and in the world of “sensible things.” Plato, then, moves the classico-philosophical world toward a more nuanced doctrine of what would eventually come to be known as act and potency. Nevertheless—and this is no surprise, but worth mentioning—the limitation of act by potency doesn’t appear in Plato’s work.

Plato goes on to identify the indeterminate with the “material cause,” or “pure matter.” Clarke observes, “The principle of illumination, on the other hand, is identified with the formlessness and indeterminacy of pure matter and multiplicity as such, and therefore with ‘otherness’ or non-being, as the source of unintelligibility and imperfection.” For Plato, “pure matter” does not appear to serve any sort of limiting purpose at all. To the contrary, that which is indeterminate apparently cannot limit since that which is indeterminate must be infinite, and thus limitless. Therefore, for both the pre-Socratics and Socrates’s greatest student, potency seems to be the least likely candidate in terms of finding a principle of limitation and thus individuation.

Aristotle

Aristotle continues the trend. For this reason, Aristotle cannot rightly be thought of as the progenitor of the Thomistic doctrine of limitation of act by potency. Characterizing Aristotle’s understanding, Clarke points out that, “No complete substance, therefore, can exist as actually infinite. The terms are mutually exclusive. For the perfect, which is but a synonym for the complete or finished, is precisely that which had an end, and the end, he says, is a limit.”[8] Being, then, cannot have an infinite “to be.” For that which is infinite cannot be circumscribed to the parameters of “being” since, if such were the case, the infinite would be determined—a sure and certain absurdity in the eyes of Aristotle.

Summing up his view, Clark recapitulates Aristotle’s own summary, “Nature flees from the infinite, for the infinite is unending or imperfect, and nature ever seeks an end.”[9] Following in the footsteps of Anaximander and Plato, Aristotle does not view what is now called “potency” as a limiting principle. For Aristotle, formless matter (potency) is infinite and thus diametrically opposed to limitation. Nevertheless, according to Clarke, Thomas is still able to appropriate Aristotle along with a major qualification. He writes, “St. Thomas takes over intact this perspective into his own system. But he adds to it another dimension, so to speak, in which the relations are reversed and matter also appears as limiting form.”[10] Whereas Aristotle and his predecessors view matter/potency as the infinite, boundless, and thus, unlimited, Thomas makes matter/potency the “limiting form.”

Further developing his observation of Thomas’s conception, Clarke continues by saying, “Whatever is capable of change of any kind—and only that—must have within it in addition to its present act a principle of potency, or capacity to receive a further act… Act, on the other hand, is always identified with the fully complete, the actually present. Pure act, therefore, is simply a correlative of the immutable, i.e., of pure actualized form, complete in all that is proper to is and incorruptible.”[11] Potency is capacity—a want or lack within a thing—which nevertheless represents what that thing could be. Potency, then, is the limiting principle. Act, contrary to the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle, is identified with that which is complete or perfect. The only question remaining is, What bridges the gap between Aristotle and Thomas? Is there some other source which may have helped Thomas develop this doctrine of limitation of act by potency?

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus would introduce and apply the metaphysics of the “One” in the baffling equation of infinity and limitation. The “One” would virtually function as a synonym for God, “a synonym for infinite: uncircumscribed (agerigraphos).”[12] Not of little importance, Clarke notes, “The first Christian texts calling God infinite do not appear till the fourth century, and precisely in those circles which are known to have been influenced by Neoplatonism.”[13] 

Neoplatonism casts the discussion of infinite and limited in terms of a higher metaphysic that looks above the formal object of the natural sciences, i.e. the material world. God, the infinite, now stands over and above the created essences, such that, “the old Platonic order or limited, intelligible essences, composed of form as perfecting limit imposed on the infinity of sensible or ‘intelligible’ matter, is still preserved. But their relation to the supreme One by emanation introduces a new dimension of function of the limiting principle, that of limiting what is above it as well as what is below it.”[14] Clarke clarifies thereafter, saying, “In this perspective all the intelligible essences below the One now appear as limited and hence imperfect participations of this supremely perfect and absolutely simple first principle, which somehow embraces within itself the perfection of all the lower determinate essences but is none of them in particular.”[15]

Therefore, with Neoplatonism came the philosophical precursors to a doctrine of limitation of act by potency to an extent not seen in Aristotle or those who came before him. If the “One” is infinite, and if all things below it are finite or limited, yet are by virtue of their imitation or participation in the “One,” that which is (act) is necessarily limited by that which is not but could possibly be (potency).

Concluding with Thomas Aquinas

In light of the above, Thomas reaches his monumental conclusion, “Act is not limited except by reception in a distinct potency.”[16] Such a conclusion, of course, while perhaps influenced negatively by Aristotle and his predecessors, is positively developed in light of the preceding, and more relatively recent, Neoplatonism. Act just is and is limited only by potency. But we must observe with Clarke that this language, however influenced by both Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, is actually neither properly so called. As Clarke puts it, “The final result of the fusion of the two theories into a single coherent synthesis can thus properly be called neither Aristotelianism nor Neoplatonism. It is something decisively new, which can only be styled, ‘Thomism.’”[17]

The pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle identified what amounts to act with determinacy and finitude. For them, “act” was mutually exclusive to “potency,” as limitation is mutually exclusive to infinity. Neoplatonism, however, saw the “One” as the infinite, created essences being limited and finite. This new relation paved the way for understanding the finite and the infinite in a more coherent way. Thomas understood God to be the infinite, or pure act, creation being composed of act limited by potency.

Resources:

[1] Clarke, Norris W., Explorations In Metaphysics, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 67.

[2] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 68.

[3] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[4] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[5] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics,70.

[6] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[7] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[8] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[9] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[10] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[11] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 74.

[12] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[13] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[14] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76. Emphasis added.

[15] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76-77.

[16] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 80.

[17] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 81.

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

With the contemporary skeptical approach to natural theology has come an influx of Trinitarian and Christological errors. Why is this? Probably because a rejection of the natural truths God reveals about Himself through nature will inevitably lead to a rejection of those same truths even as they come through Scripture—or at least there will be a drastic reinterpretation of them. Immutability, simplicity, self-existence—all three may be known about God through natural revelation. This is what Thomas demonstrates in his Summa Theologiae, and it is what was understood to be the case in the first generation Reformers onward (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes, Book I).

What happens when the data of natural revelation falls by the wayside? The same data perfectly and perspicuously presented in the Scriptures is interpreted on the supposition of some other metaphysical or epistemological standard (admittedly or not). This other standard is what fills the vacuum left by the first principles given through nature. We are then left with the problem of biblicism. But with biblicism, one is not allowed to carry a natural understanding of God into the interpretive task in any measure. Scripture becomes the soul witness to immutability, simplicity, and self-existence. This is not in itself a problem, since Scripture ought to be received because it is from God—the highest Authority. But when the individual Bible-reader rejects the testimony of nature, Scripture becomes a wax nose formable to whatever philosophy he uncritically and unwittingly imbibes.

When Turretin says that natural theology functions as “a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures,”[1] he means that man, as imago Dei, possesses a natural intellect providentially direct by God to appropriate Scriptural data. God’s Scriptural appeal is made to rational creatures. And when, by grace, a rational creature is made to accept and trust in the truth of Scripture, his rational appetites are not extinguished but improved. 

Biblicism rejects the reality of the light of reason before and after regeneration. It’s not that the biblicist doesn’t use the light of reason; it’s that he uses it unacknowledged. And rather than critically examine his own philosophical assumptions using the light of reason, keeping the good ones while exiling the bad ones, he refuses to acknowledge he has any philosophical assumptions at all even though he does. This unexamined life then leads to an always-shifting understanding of biblical meaning. 

If a person’s philosophical assumptions change, so will their interpretational approach to Scripture. Just observe the historical-causal connection between the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the church’s interpretational method before and after that period of time. Or, if you like, look at the theological changes that took place from the pre-modern era into the modern era. If philosophical assumptions are never given a voice, they’ll always be changing. A person can only consciously hold their position in place if they are conscious of it.

There is no approaching Scripture as a tabula rasa (blank slate), even after regeneration. A person is going to approach Scripture with some kind of a philosophical precommitment. Classical theism offers a transparent, commonsensical philosophy. Simply put, the light of nature prepares for the introduction of the light of Scripture. The light of nature informs our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture turns us back to nature so that we can understand it to a greater and more perfect extent. And thus, the classical theist may employ natural theology in service to specially revealed theology derived from the Scriptures. Those who reject classical theism cannot see how natural theology may be used in service to supernatural theology.

As a result, they not only remain happily ignorant of the sophisticated expression of the faith, found in the terminology of the creeds and confessions, they actively combat it. It is one thing to remain in ignorance, it is quite another to be confronted with further truths and react by recalcitrantly rejecting those truths. While one may permissibly be ignorant of the more articulate expression of the Christian faith, they do not have permission to reject that articulate expression of the Christian faith should it be true.

Resources:

[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

Philosophy & Preambles of Faith

Philosophy & Preambles of Faith

The following article is an engagement paper originally submitted to IRBS in fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. James Dolezal’s Foundations of Philosophical Theology class.

The distinction between the preambles of faith and the articles of faith refer to that which may be demonstrated through reason and that which is apprehended by faith, respectively. Furthermore, it might even be said that the preambles of faith and the articles of faith respect two distinct formal objects of two distinct sciences—philosophy and theology.

Philosophy, as a science, has as its formal object metaphysics, or being qua being, which is principle to and presupposed by any science considering being under a certain specification, e.g. the natural sciences. Whereas the science of theology regards God and all things in relation to God, philosophy facilitates the study of preambulatory ontology allowing the theologian to properly conceive of God and things as they relate to Him.

In sum, therefore, the preambles of faith are those things which may be apprehended through reason, given through general revelation. While the articles of faith are those things which must be apprehended by faith in the subject, given by special revelation. Articles of faith, strictly speaking, cannot be demonstrated through sensory observation of the natural world, nor can they be deduced through reason. They must be revealed by God through Scripture, which is the source of redemptive knowledge. The preambles of faith are revealed in nature and may be known by reason, yet they are also presupposed and thus revealed in Scripture. These preambles of faith are sometimes called “mixed articles” since they are revealed in both nature and Scripture, while articles of faith are sometimes called “pure articles” because they must be received by faith from Scripture alone as their source.

Philosophy, then, is assigned to inquiry concerning the preambles of faith. And theology is assigned to inquiry concerning the articles of faith revealed through Scripture. The former is a lower science that cannot attain to the latter, higher science of theology apart from special revelation and faith in the subject. While it is true this lower science of philosophy can attain to a natural theology, the use of the term “theology” used above and throughout this article regards the science whose formal object is the articles of faith communicated through special revelation alone.

Engaging Preambles of Faith & Articles of Faith

According to John Wippel, Thomas Aquinas makes this same distinction in his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, “Thomas uses the terms ‘preamble’ and ‘preambulatory’ in somewhat different but related senses, that is, to refer to other sciences as preparatory sciences (in scientiis praembulis) for metaphysics, and to refer to the many praembula required to reach knowledge of divine things. But common to all of these usages is the notion that a preamble is something that is in some way presupposed for something else.”[1] Preambles, as in “preambles of faith,” are presupposed by the articles of faith, as nature is presupposed by grace (since grace does not obliterate, but is given for nature’s improvement; cf. Rom. 8:18-30). An example might be the incarnation of Christ. The incarnation of Christ is not a doctrine revealed and thus known through nature but only through Scripture. Nevertheless, the incarnation assumes nature in that the Son took to Himself the fullness of a human nature—a true body and a reasonable soul.[2] The grace of the gospel, though known only by a faith informed by special revelation, presupposes nature because nature is the very object upon which that grace terminates. Without nature, there would be nothing for grace to redeem.

Though something of the relationship between preambles of faith and articles of faith can be seen above, there is more to observe. Wippel states, “As regards preambles of faith, here Thomas has indicated that they are certain truths that faith presupposes and that philosophy demonstrates… there can be no doubt that Thomas Aquinas holds that natural reason can demonstrate such preambles of faith, beginning with the existence of God.”[3] Wippel finds (12) preambles of faith in the work of Thomas Aquinas, though he leaves room for an extension of that number upon further considerations. These preambula include God’s existence, that God is one, that God is infinite, and that God is a creative principle. Admittedly, Wippel did not discuss divine providence in his total because he addresses it elsewhere, though it should be included as well.[4] That the existence of God is made a preamble in the thought of Thomas is undeniable, and most certainly seems necessary upon the hypothesis of the constitution of the natural world.

That God may be demonstratively known through what has been made has drawn some criticism because of the difficulty of such a task. However, it is important to understand that Thomas did not hang the entire weight of divine knowability on a person’s aptitude to demonstrate God’s existence. While articles of faith are sourced by Scripture and not accessible through nature, preambles of faith are often sourced by both nature and Scripture. Wippel expresses Thomas’ thought well, “Since natural knowledge of God will be acquired only late in life, and since our entire lives should be guided throughout by our knowledge of God, it is necessary that those truths that are naturally knowable about God should be held by faith from the beginning of our lives insofar as they are presupposed for faith and are not yet known naturally by us.”[5] In other words, the preambles of faith, while demonstrable through nature (leading to natural knowledge) can also be apprehended by faith since the articles of faith presuppose them. For example, a person may not have proven God’s existence through the argument from motion, but he has come to believe the first statement in Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1).” Therefore, those who are unable to prove God’s existence through nature, e.g. young children, invalids, those with lower aptitude, etc., may apprehend God’s existence by faith (per accidens) even though it falls among the preambula rather than the articles of faith per se.

Something must now be said concerning the practical relationship between preambles of faith and articles of faith as the former is used to inform our understanding of the latter and vice versa. While demonstration of preambles is not necessary to one’s personal faith, since all the preambles requisite to faith are presupposed by the articles of faith, e.g. the Trinity (an article of faith) presupposes the existence of God, it (demonstration) can be profitable in the development of a person’s understanding of God and also in the defense of the articles of faith from faulty philosophical objections. Wippel writes, “if someone succeeds in demonstrating [God’s existence], one will have deepened one’s understanding of God and will have advanced in the pursuit of wisdom; but such a person will not in any way have reached scientific knowledge of the article of faith itself.”[6] It is fitting one should work through the proofs because it benefits the knower. However, no matter how sound the proof is, it will never attain redemptive knowledge of God. Demonstration of God leading to a natural knowledge of God will not yield knowledge of that which must be apprehended by faith. That God is one in three, the incarnation, penal substitutionary atonement, etc., must be received by faith from Scripture. Only then is the “scientific knowledge of the article of faith itself” reached.

This brings us to the question of foundations. Are preambles of faith foundational to articles of faith?

If they are, in what sense must such a dynamic be understood? Quoting Thomas, Wippel notes, “But among those things that are to be considered about God in himself, one must put before everything else as the necessary foundation for the entire work the consideration by which it is demonstrated that God exists. Without this, every consideration about divine things is necessarily undermined.”[7] In terms of the individual, we have seen that Thomas does not believe he must necessarily begin with a demonstration of the preambles in his own thinking. In fact, as Thomas admits, this is a difficult task and if anyone does succeed at it, it will be later in life. Yet, in terms of a “work” on theology, such as the Summa Theologiae or the Summa contra Gentiles, where the task becomes systematization, the preambles must come first. Without the existence of God, there is no further elaboration upon the doctrine of the Trinity. Apart from the existence of God, the incarnation of the Son of God means very little if anything at all. In this sense, therefore, the preambles of the faith are preparatory to the articles of faith (in scientiis praembulis) and thus may be referred to as “foundational.”[8] However, as Wippel made clear elsewhere, demonstration of the preambles are by no means necessary to the redemption of the individual. While it is prudent to demonstrate God’s existence, such demonstration is by no means a condition lying between the sinner and the gates of glory.

Conclusion

According to Wippel, then, Thomas distinguished between the preambles of faith and the articles of faith. The preambles of faith may be known by the light of reason, and demonstrated through what has been made. The articles of faith may be known only by the light of special revelation, the source of which is the Holy Scriptures. The articles of faith are not demonstrable by reason, but lie beyond that which reason may attain by itself. However, the preambles of faith are related to the articles of faith in that the articles of faith presuppose the preambles. Since this is the case, the preambles of faith can help us better understand the articles of faith. The unity of the Godhead (a preamble of faith), for example, is not only helpful but necessary in an orthodox conception of the Holy Trinity, i.e. one God subsisting in three subsistences or relations—Father, Son, and Spirit. To understand something of metaphysics is incredibly useful in distinguishing Person and nature. These are natural concepts not exclusively revealed through Scripture. Yet, they are helpful in understanding that which is exclusively revealed through Scripture—the incarnate Son of God.

Resources:

[1] Wippel, John F., The Science of Being as Being, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 199.

[2] The Baptist Catechism, Q. 25.

[3] Wippel, The Science of Being as Being, 198.

[4] Ibid., 220.

[5] Ibid., 202.

[6] Ibid., 203.

[7] Ibid., 212.

[8] Ibid., 199.